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In 1929, Hollywood was undergoing its most convulsive change, junking the silent movies that had made it a world-dominant industry and making the chaotic transition to talking pictures. That May, at its very first awards ceremony, the brand-new Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences handed out two Best Picture prizes: one to Wings for “Production,” the other to Sunrise for “Unique and Artistic Achievement.” (Rough translation: Best Movie and Best Film.) Both Wings and Sunrise were “silent” — with full symphonic scores played in theaters, but no spoken dialogue — and that was the last time a non-talking picture won or was even nominated for the top Oscar. (Sorry, Charlie Chaplin: the Academy ignored your City Lights and Modern Times.) So this Sunday night, when The Artist wins Best Picture, it will mark a milestone few could have imagined: recognition, in 2012, of a movie that “speaks” in the mime language that Hollywood discarded more than 80 years ago.
That is just one of the unique distinctions attending this romantic comedy about a silent-movie idol (Jean Dujardin) and the ingenue (Bérénice Bejo) destined for stardom in the new “talkies.” In the 83 previous Oscar ceremonies, the top prize has always gone to films made by people familiar to the Academy voters. Even indie or exotic titles had big names behind them. The low-budget, TV-spawned Marty, the winner in 1956, was produced by Burt Lancaster, one of the industry’s biggest stars. The Last Emperor (1988), with its part-Mandarin dialogue track, costarred Peter O’Toole and was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, both previous Oscar nominees. Another winner with lots of foreign lingo, Slumdog Millionaire (2009), was directed by Danny Boyle, who had worked with many American stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio. But it’s safe to say that virtually no Academy member residing in Southern California knew The Artist‘s leading players, Dujardin and Bejo, or its writer-director, Michel Hazanavicius.
(MORE: See Mary Corliss’s review of The Artist)
The Artist is also, in a way, a film without a country. Shot in Los Angeles, but dreamed up and produced by Frenchmen, it was ineligible either for any foreign-language film award (since the actors are mouthing English) or for the American Film Institute’s honor roll of the 10 best “American” movies. (The AFI gave it a special award.) But let’s call it a French film, because it is. Well, no movie financed outside the familiar Anglo-American axis has ever won. Only two French movies have been nominated for Best Picture — Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Costa-Gavras’s Z — and they were both serioso treatments of war and political upheaval. Even at home, where Hazanavicius had some success with his OSS 117 retro-comedies, was considered, if he was considered at all, a lightweight with a clever, very local sense of humor.
(MORE: Michel Hazanavicius’ movie-mad OSS 117 films)
Finally, The Artist, for all its acclaim from critics’s groups and Hollywood guilds — and for all the tub-thumping skills of its distributor, Harvey Weinstein — has not connected with the mass of American moviegoers. They have approached it, if at all, like homework for the Oscar final exam. (No film without at least some scenes in color has won Best Picture since Billy Wilder’s The Apartment in 1961.) The Artist has earned less than $30 million at the North American box office and has never finished in the top 10 of any weekend’s winners. Except for The Hurt Locker, which earned just $17 million in its full domestic run, this would be the least-seen Best Picture winner in Academy history. Which is why you can predict that Sunday’s Oscar show will suffer a severe ratings slump; people tune in to see if hit movies will win big awards, and most of this year’s contenders were box-office minnows.
(SEE: Jean Dujardin shows TIME his best impressions)
To recap: the Oscar for Best Picture will go to a silent, black-and-white foreign movie that stars obscure French people, was written and directed by a guy with no auteur acclaim or éclat, was produced by a Frenchman (Thomas Lanzmann) and has been largely ignored by the U.S. public. You could say that the Academy is going to reward The Artist because the movie is a love letter to the American movie industry; its ingenious flattery seduced the voters. Yet it has enchanted virtually everyone who has seen it, including actual moviegoers. The film blithely recaptures not just the techniques of antique Hollywood but the careless rapture of old movies — their ability, without seeming to try too hard, to mesmerize an audience. The Artist is no museum piece; it is an easy effusion of cinematic joy. And, as the Academy will finally ratify on Sunday, the year’s best picture.
(MORE: See The Artist atop TIME’s 10 Best Movies of 2011)
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