It's Not Just 'The Artist': An Oscar Race Dominated by the Sound of Silence (Analysis)

The French silent film isn't the only 2011 nominee that's largely wordless.
The Weinstein Co./UPI/Newscom

This year, for the first time in 83 years, the best picture Oscar will almost certainly go to a silent movie, The Artist. That is, by this point in the season, already common knowledge. What is not, however, is the fact that there are a number of other films and performances nominated which are also largely silent. That's highly unusual, if only because the Academy, in the sound era, has almost always rewarded showy films and performances, which tend to feature lots of dialogue. If there is any meaning that can be read into this trend -- or aberration -- I don't know what it is, but I do think it's worth noting.

In the best picture category, The Artist is joined by The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's meditation on the meaning of life. Not more than a handful of words are spoken over the course of the epic. It begins with a lengthy, wordless sequence that shows the universe taking form, later dinosaurs interacting with each other and humans of the 1950s and the present or future struggling to endure the trials and tribulations of life on earth.

In the best actor category, The Artist's leading man Jean Dujardin -- whose only line of dialogue comes at the very end of the film, when his character successfully transitions from a career in silent movies to one in talkies -- is joined by veteran Gary Oldman, who received the first Oscar nomination of his career for his portrayal of George Smiley, a Cold War-era British spy, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Smiley, a taciturn man whose life and career depend on his ability to keep his mouth shut about the things he sees and hears, conveys pages of dialogue not through words but rather through the most subtle of gestures, from a slight twitch to a wayward glance.

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The best actress race is actually the most representative of this year's trend: no fewer than three of its five nominees spend the vast majority of their performances in complete silence, each for very different reasons. Glenn Close's title character in Albert Nobbs -- who happens to have been modeled after and dresses like the ultimate silent star, Charlie Chaplin -- knows that she must not draw any attention to herself if she is to preserve the lie that she has been living for years. Viola Davis' maid in The Help speaks only to the young white babies that she cares for and the black women who share her profession, but knows that her thoughts are unwelcome amongst the white adults to whom she caters in the 1960's south. And Rooney Mara's eponymous character at the center of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lives almost completely inside her own head, having been trauamatized by various acts of abuse and taken refuge -- and control -- within the world of the Internet, which she navigates with much more confidence and ease than the real world around her.

The best supporting actor race boasts two more quiet types. Jonah Hill's stats geek in Moneyball speaks only when called upon to do so, and even then only with great reluctance. And Max von Sydow's "renter" in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close speaks literally not at all (he instead jots down his thoughts on a notepad that he keeps with him at all times), having been trauamatized by events during his childhood (not unlike his grandson, whom he helps to rebound and become more functional than he was ever able to be).

Finally, in the best supporting actress race, we come to The Artist's Berenice Bejo, who, unlike Dujardin, speaks not even a word in the film. Hers is, to me, an equally good if not superior performance. She is given less to do but makes the very most of every scene, including and especially the one in which her characters caresses herself through Dujardin's character's empty suit, unaware that he is watching her. She possesses an expressive face and lithe body of a sort that has rarely been seen on screen since cinema's silent era came to an end.

Her performance, and these others, makes a part of me wish it never did.