Formidable! Big Oscar Wins for The Artist and Lady Meryl

In the most retro ceremony ever, 10 of the 18 awards for which live-action feature films were eligible went to a pair of tributes to silent pictures

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Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images

Uggie the dog from Best Picture winner The Artist poses with cast members in the press room at the 84th annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, 2012

Imagine that a couple of guys got together to dream up the least likely movie in the 21st century. It would be a silent film, in black and white, made in Hollywood by a French writer-director with two stars few Americans had heard of. Director Michel Hazanavicius may have had this conversation two years ago with his producer Thomas Langmann, thinking of a film about a silent-movie star, George Valentin. On Sunday night, their impossible dream reached fruition when their film The Artist conquered the 84th annual Academy Awards with five Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Score and Art Direction. “If George Valentin could speak,” a giddy Jean Dujardin, the Best Actor winner, told the swells in the audience, “he’d say …” And here he shouted, “Merci! Formidable! Merci beaucoup! Thank you very much!”

In the most retro Oscar ceremony ever — a smooth show, with 63-year-old host Billy Crystal cracking jokes about his grandparents, the prostate medicine Flomax and the two 82-year-old stars (Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow) who were up for Best Supporting Actor — 10 of the 18 awards for which live-action feature films were eligible went to a pair of tributes to silent pictures. Matching The Artist‘s quintet were five statuettes for Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s billet-doux to pioneer French magician-moviemaker George Méliès. Dominating the early evening with awards for Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Visual Effects, Hugo tied The Aviator for the top Oscar haul of any Scorsese film. (The Departed, which won Best Picture and Director, earned just four.)

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Of the prizes left for old-fashioned talking pictures, only The Iron Lady won more than one award: for Makeup and, miracle of miracles, for Best Actress, given to Meryl Streep. Twenty-nine years and 14 nominations after her last Oscar, for Sophie’s Choice, the Academy’s most glamorous runner-up finally got to walk onstage a winner again. She provided the night’s one big upset; Streep had been expected to lose to The Help‘s Viola Davis. Thrilled and flummoxed, she said with a laugh, “I really understand I’ll never be up here again,” before gazing into the audience and adding, “I see my life before my eyes — my old friends, my new friends.” She recalled “the sheer joy we have shared making movies together.” Her speech was among the show’s emotional highlights. One of the others was Octavia Spencer’s joyous, tearful acceptance of the Supporting Actress award for The Help, which triggered the evening’s first standing ovation.

If Streep had a fellow wallflower at the Oscar prom, it would be Woody Allen, who cast Streep in one of her first films, Manhattan, and has been, like her, an Oscar nominee in five consecutive decades. Allen won two Academy Awards his first time out (for Annie Hall in 1978), but only one more among his 18 nominations until Sunday night, when his Midnight in Paris took Best Original Screenplay. (Averse to awards, or maybe just to acceptance speeches, Allen was AWOL from the proceedings.) The other writing Oscar, Best Adapted Screenplay, went to Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for The Descendants, once the favorite for Best Picture and Best Actor (George Clooney).

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Often boasting that its show is seen by a billion people around the world, the Academy made this one of its most international shows yet, favoring winners from New Zealand (Bret McKenzie, composer of Best Song “Man or Muppet,” for The Muppets), Ireland (Terry George for Best Live-Action Short The Shore), Italy (the husband-and-wife art-director duo of Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo for Hugo) and Canada (Plummer). The dapper octogenarian, who won for his role as a dying gay father in Beginners, held the statuette and purred, “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?”

The Best Foreign Language Film award went to the Iranian drama A Separation, whose director, Asghar Farhadi, made a plea for peace between the citizens, if not the politicians, of his nation and the U.S. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, co-winner of Best Documentary Short, for Saving Face, about Pakistani women seeking plastic surgery after acid attacks, dedicated her prize to “all the women in Pakistan working for change. Don’t give up on your dreams.” The biggest international star — zillion-CD-selling Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman — was just offstage, playing in the Oscar superband fronted by Hans Zimmer.

Sony Pictures Classics has the American distribution rights to A Separation, but the indie-studio champ on Sunday night was the Weinstein Co.’s Grand Poobah, Harvey Weinstein. A Svengali of Oscar campaigning, Weinstein had last year’s Best Picture and Actor (The King’s Speech and its star Colin Firth), then trumped that with a clean sweep of this year’s juiciest awards: Best Picture, Director and Actor for The Artist and Best Actress for The Iron Lady (and just because he could, Best Documentary Feature, the unabashedly inspirational high school–football movie Undefeated). Harvey godfathered so many Oscars on Sunday that he probably won’t kill The Iron Lady makeup men who forgot to mention him in their acceptance speeches. Other neglected thank-yous: McKenzie to Muppets star, co-writer and balladeer Jason Segel, whose hopeful face the camera kept cutting to; and Ludovic Bourse, Best Original Score winner for The Artist, to the late composer Bernard Herrmann. (Bourse liberally swiped from Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.)

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Then again, the team that made The Artist must be blurry from this dream it has lived. Beginning with the film’s world premiere at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, where Dujardin also took a Best Actor award, The Artist‘s success grew and then exploded, and what was once chimerical became inevitable. Three months of accolades, from its first Best Picture selection by the New York Film Critics Circle on Nov. 29 through the Golden Globes and the U.K. BAFTAs, reached their apogee with this weekend’s unprecedented trifecta: the French Césars on Friday, the U.S. Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday and Sunday night’s Oscars. When the film’s creators — along with Uggie, the scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier — stepped onstage to accept the final award, it was the realization of a fantasy that couldn’t be more formidable.

List of 84th Academy Award winners:

Best Picture: The Artist

Actor: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Actress: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, The Help

Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Foreign Language Film: A Separation, Iran

Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants

Original Screenplay: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Animated Feature Film: Rango

Art Direction: Hugo

Cinematography: Hugo

Sound Mixing: Hugo

Sound Editing: Hugo

Original Score: The Artist

Original Song: “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets

Costume Design: The Artist

Documentary Feature: Undefeated

Documentary Short: Saving Face

Film Editing: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Makeup: The Iron Lady

Animated Short Film: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Live-Action Short Film: The Shore

Visual Effects: Hugo

Oscar winners previously presented this season:

Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award: Oprah Winfrey

Honorary Award: James Earl Jones

Honorary Award: Dick Smith

Gordon E. Sawyer Award: Douglas Trumbull

Award of Merit: ARRI cameras

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