I fully understand how The Artist (2011) was this year voted Best Picture by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.
It is not only very, very good but is as fond an homage as any writer or director has been able to bestow on Hollywoodland.
Relishing both roles Michel Hazanavicius has created the ultimate, visual ‘Thank You’ card to the world of motion pictures.
References abound to great movies and great movie practitioners. Though the following may read like a wine bore ruminating on the ‘lifted estery aroma reminiscent of lime, pear, spice and steel’ I begin to salivate as the memories return of all the motion picture allusions.
The hero with the pencil thin moustache (a tour de force by Jean Dujardin) unable to accept talking pictures as the future was a cross between Douglas Fairbanks and unfortunate John Gilbert whose matinee idol status in silent film was destroyed by audiences when he spoke with a reedy accent in talkies.
Dujardin’s character is George Valentin, the comparison with Rudolph Valentino, looks remarkably like Gene Kelly when he smiles. He dances a la Kelly and falls from grace rather like the Kelly character in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), rated by many the finest-ever movie musical.
This destruction from stardom also mirrors that of Fredric March (1937), James Mason (1954) and Kris Kristofferson (1976) in the three evocations of A Star is Born. *
Stunning Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller, the up-and-comer, had shades of Clara Bow (the ‘It’ girl), who too sported a beauty spot in exactly the same place as Peppy but unlike our heroine, Clara was also a failed convert from silent movies to talkies.
Peppy is also adored by audiences in the same manner as Mary Pickford; and even channels Garbo with an “I want to be alone”.
James Cromwell’s devoted chauffeur Clifton is a take on Erich Von Stroheim’s Max from Sunset Boulevard (1950), working without pay and never erring in his loyalty.
The dog – a feature player – is like Asta from The Thin Man (1934), where William Powell and Myrna Loy played a husband and wife detective team, decades before the television imitators.
Countless other images are probably there, cleverly hidden from even the most ardent movie buff. The detail in The Artist is extraordinary and my favourite was when George, having sold the last of his possessions at auction, crosses the street and a building name appears in the background above his head. It reads ‘Lonely Star’.
There are few words in The Artist and images like this filled the gaps. Only on closer inspection would one get anywhere near them all but Hazanavicius has provided them in spades.
However, with this comes my conundrum. I felt great respect for this movie but whether I really enjoyed it is an entirely different matter. The Artist is a seminal piece of American cinema – an homage to all that went before to produce what we see today. It is great because it is different, because it chooses to inform rather than necessarily entertain, although it does the latter on an extremely high scale.
*Bradley Cooper has since added to the group from A Star is Born (2018).