Paying homage to early film pays off for Oscar favourite ‘The Artist’

Paying homage to early film pays off for Oscar favourite ‘The Artist’
(L-R) A scene from ‘The Artist’ (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, FILE)/ Berenice Bejo, left, and Jean Dujardin pose backstage at the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012 in L.A. (AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
by: Sheri Block

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If “The Artist” wins best picture at the Oscars Sunday night it will be the first time a silent film has won since “Wings” took home the top honour at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.

“It would be kind of like, say 80 years from now, if physical books had vanished and everything was digital that suddenly a book that was printed became the book of the year,” says David Spaner, a Vancouver-based film critic.

So how, eight decades after silent films were replaced by “the talkies,” did a silent, black and white film capture the hearts of Hollywood and become the front-runner for this weekend’s awards show?

“It’s a very, very well done film,” says Spaner of the Michel Hazanavicius-directed movie that stars Jean Dujardin as a silent film star whose career is sidelined by the introduction of the talkies and up-and-comer Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo.

But even though “The Artist” hearkens back to a bygone era with its 1920s-inspired wardrobe, musical score and dance numbers, Spaner says it’s actually quite a contemporary movie.

“It’s really about a huge, technological shift that took place. In 1927, when ‘The Jazz Singer’ came in, suddenly audiences were very excited by the new talkie technology so studios overnight killed the silent pictures.”

Spaner, whose new book “Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film,” examines the history of studio filmmaking, says audiences didn’t get any say in the shift.

“It’s not like the public was polled on whether or not they preferred vinyl and the same with silent pictures -- there were a lot of people who actually liked silent pictures.”

Richard Crouse, Canada AM movie critic, is not surprised that “The Artist” has been so lauded by the Academy with 10 Oscar nominations and swept the awards circuit thus far.

“I think it has struck a chord with people in Hollywood and actors because it’s a tribute to old school Hollywood. It’s got the glamour of the movies, which has long since departed, and a real sort of golden age of Hollywood sort of spirit to it.”

Crouse says this homage to early filmmaking is also seen in “Hugo,” the Martin Scorsese-directed flick about a young boy living in a Paris train station that highlights the career of film great George Méliès.

“Hollywood likes to turn the camera back on itself and in movies like ‘Hugo’ and ‘The Artist’ this year, certainly they’ve done it, and beautifully. Both films, they’re very different, but both films are very evocative of a certain time and place,” says Crouse.

Even though Crouse doesn’t think “The Artist” is necessarily the best film of the year, he believes the Academy -- and audiences -- may be tiring of the big budget, special effects movies.

“I think they’re looking for more intimate movies, smaller things that are a little different and ‘The Artist’ certainly qualifies in all those things.”

So will this mean a shift to even more silent films?

Crouse doesn’t think so.

“I don’t think this is going to kick off a renaissance in silent German expressionism, social realist films or anything,” says Crouse with a laugh. “I think this can be taken for what it is. An interesting experiment that happened to hit a chord with certain people and do really well at awards time.”



About SheriSheri Block has been covering entertainment for since 2008. In addition to covering Will and Kate’s Royal Wedding in London, Sheri’s highlights have included going on tour with “Canadian Idol,” being a stand-in on “Canada’s Next Top Model” and meeting Colin Farrell at the Toronto International Film Festival.Follow her on Twitter!


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