It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold. Here’s an extra bar for the morning after.
Ben Sears is a lifelong Indianapolis resident, husband and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on Obsessiveviewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.
When you hear Oscar pundits put the Academy on trial for its affinity for Hollywood stories, The Artist should be labeled as Exhibit A. The voting body may not always name these films as Best Picture — just ask La La Land — but they are certainly weighed slightly heavier than their fellow contenders and it remains as part of the argument in their favor.
To the cynical, The Artist, 2011’s Best Picture winner, looks like the perfect storm of Hollywood nostalgia, written by a computer algorithm to give maximum appeal to the predominantly aging-white-male Academy members’ proclivities. But director Michel Hazanavicius’s ode to silent films and their stars is full of more than references to yesteryear.
Take a glance at most critics‘ and periodicals‘ “best of the decade” lists, and you would be hard pressed to find The Artist anywhere among them. That does not mean it’s neither a worthwhile film nor one that should not be sought after. I would argue that a Best Picture winner should not be a “statement film” meant to endure throughout the ages. Rather, it should serve as a snapshot of the best of where we were as a culture in that moment. Of course, this standard won’t apply to every single Best Picture winner – ahem, Green Book and The King’s Speech – but a Best Picture winner’s quality shouldn’t solely be based on its timelessness.
The Artist particularly stands out as a “flash-in-the-pan” kind of film, especially among Oscar-winning films from the past decade. Hazanavicius and lead actor Jean Dujardin — who won for Best Director and Best Actor, respectively — and lead actress Berenice Bejo have mostly returned to working on films in their native France. And its win didn’t spark a renewed call for the return of the silent film, despite it surely being much of the public’s first experience with the genre.
So why did the Academy award The Artist, rather than the other eight films that year? (To refresh your memory, the other contenders were The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight In Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse.) Though we’ll never know the final voting order, surely its closest competition — with an outside chance going to Moneyball — was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a much weightier film with bigger, more resonant ideas on its mind. Though 2011 was a notoriously weak year in the Best Picture category, The Artist‘s win shouldn’t be looked at as a fluke bestowed by an Academy too sheepish to award a film that concerned itself with, you know, THE BIRTH OF THE UNIVERSE.
Sometimes it’s simply refreshing to see an overly sincere film get its due, and The Artist has that in spades. The film may underline its themes and influences a little heavily at times — the opening shot is a movie within a movie where the first “line” is a tortured hero telling his captors that he won’t speak — but Hazanavicius’s message of the difficulties of change, and who gets left behind, is only part of what makes The Artist a winner. Beyond that, the technical aspects of the film — the score, the cinematography, the attention to detail in the production design and the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, to name a few — make it feel like a time capsule rather than mere set dressing.
Rewatching this film for the first time since originally seeing it, I was struck by how utterly charming it could be. Dujardin, playing a prequel version of Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond, simply flashes a wide grin and you can see why he’s a star. He and Bejo feel at home in this era, perfectly cast while still making their characters more than riffs on famous faces. The Artist is a silent film we’ve never seen before because it literally could not exist in the genre’s heyday before the emergence of talkies.
Chaplin and Keaton’s films certainly had touches of darkness, but they were regularly punctuated by humor to let the audience know everything would be all right in the end. For example, the scenes when Dujardin is at his lowest keep the film from drowning in its own smugness. Sometimes it feels like The Artist is a little too in love with itself (see the multitude of references to characters’ inability to talk). But some of its best moments are when it gets creative, embracing the technologies its filmmakers have at their disposal. Moments like when the film either goes completely silent or breaks up the score with genuine sound, and how terrifying and different it felt — luxuries that classic silent films were hardly ever afforded. Despite only seeing the film once until recently, the final scene has resonated with me ever since, an inventive and perfect way to wrap up the story.
So can the Academy’s love for The Artist simply boil down to a love for an earnest Hollywood story, where the down-on-his-luck movie star ends up back on his (dancing) feet in the end? Or was there something more profound at work? A closer look at the films of 2011 could reveal a peek inside the Academy’s thinking process: Though the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in its earliest stage, the winds of change were surely blowing. Marvel had only released four films when The Artist had its May 15, 2011 Cannes premiere — five by the time it hit U.S. theatres in October — but The Avengers was already slated for the following year. Not to mention Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight efforts (whose trilogy would also round out in 2012) had captivated moviegoers and critics into an increased fervor for superhero stories. And, to a lesser extent, the Harry Potter franchise had dominated ticket sales consistently through eight films, finalizing its series in 2011. This was only the beginning of Marvel and Disney’s utter takeover of the global box office, and film conversation among the general public with it.
Over the years, the Academy has been especially frightened of change. Sure, the membership has expanded and diversified after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, but the same types of films mostly end up rewarded — with the occasionally shocking exception, of course. Through this lens, it can be easy to see The Artist‘s win as Hollywood yearning to go back to the way it used to be while still looking progressively toward the future. The film harkens back to the days of Hollywood’s infamous Production Code, when women could not wear pants, toilet gags were expressly forbidden and the hero always triumphed in the end. Men were rarely anything other than the main draw, but Hazanavicius envisions a world where women could just as easily work their way up the ladder.
In some ways, the Oscar conversation of 2011 that The Artist began is still happening today. Whether it’s the Marvel / Disney debate, or Netflix’s party-crashing entries, Hollywood is desperately hoping to keep the status quo intact. Two of this year’s front-runners (The Irishman and Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood) are throwback tales of nostalgic melancholy — much like The Artist — with the latter specifically focusing on a long-gone era of Hollywood we may never get back.
As it stands, who has won the battle? “The public wants fresh meat, and the public is never wrong,” John Goodman’s studio executive tells Dujardin when the actor refuses to follow the industry into the future. Studios will invariably churn out franchises today and rake in the cash while independent films will unfortunately struggle to be seen — though an argument could be made that the former necessitates the latter, coexisting as a sort of symbiotic relationship. For example, Martin Scorsese served as an executive producer on one of the better indie films of 2019, The Souvenir, which may have been left in development limbo without his backing. Sure, Marvel / Disney have produced almost all of the highest-grossing films in history, but at the end of the day, The Artist has one more Best Picture Oscar on its mantle.
Also: RIP, Uggie.