The Long Shot: But is it 'The Artist?'

Posted by · 3:15 am · October 6th, 2011

Last week, a good friend and a great critic, the Daily Telegraph”s Tim Robey, wrote a lovely valentine to “The Artist,” detailing at length the ample charms of the French silent-cinema homage, before musing hopefully on its awards-season future. It”s a piece quite unabashed in its gushing from a writer who has never been the easiest sell on presumed Oscar fodder (if anything, he dislikes “The King”s Speech” even more than I do), and indicative of how hard those won over by the film really do fall. I could make this an easy column to write by quoting multiple chunks of the piece, but you”d be better off reading it here

I open with Tim”s piece not because the internet is short of glowing reviews of Michel Hazanavicius”s Cannes hit, but because he makes the best possible case (if not a prediction) for the film”s potential Oscar glory: chiefly, that the very unlikelihood of the film winning big is precisely what”s working in its favor.

Channelling the peerless Oscar analyst Mark Harris, he reminds us of the “who”da thunk it” theory that drove such against-the-odds victories as Sandra Bullock”s critically jeered Best Actress win (or, even, to insert my own example, the improbable Cinderella ascent of “Slumdog Millionaire”), whereby crowdpleasing achievements never expressly designed for the Academy become juggernauts precisely because they”re such counter-intuitive choices.

Oscar voters may frequently be unaware of their own predictability, but that”s not to say they can”t see the allure of a good awards-season narrative, usually with a strong underdog element. America”s pluckiest sweetheart scores the biggest hit of her career in middle age and finally gets some industry respect. A starless fairytale of Indian streetkids narrowly escapes the straight-to-DVD trap and becomes the toast of Hollywood. The indie war movie with only $12 million in its pocket slays the highest-grossing blockbuster of all time.

A Best Picture win for “The Artist” would fit comfortably into that particular chapter of the history books: ahead of numerous bigger films from baitier names, a jazzy, joyful throwback entertainment carries the day, despite the minor obstacle of it being silent. And back-and-white. Oh, and French. As Oscar narratives go, it”s a more romantic one than, say, “Hollywood”s most successful director adds more honors to his mantel” (however marvellous “War Horse” turns out to be) or “Sturdy craftsman  nobody truly adores scores fourth consecutive nod for steering the most box-ticking vehicle of the year” (however… etc).

As the industry”s most notoriously savvy campaigner, Harvey Weinstein knows this better than most, and while Hazanavicius”s film presumably initially caught his eye on its own honest and plentiful virtues (and potential for bumper arthouse box office), I have no doubt that he was as drawn to the story he could build around it as he was to the film itself. Weinstein has in the past applied his considerable magic to films widely deemed undeserving of the privilege – step forward, “Chocolat” and “The Reader” – but cynicism is tempered when he adopts an exciting film that audiences and critics actively love. (Let”s not forget he”s the guy who cut his Oscar teeth getting such daring titles as “The Crying Game” and “The Piano” into the race.)

Cool, stylized and proudly European in its take on an American culture, “The Artist” is arguably the most eccentric title in recent years to emerge as the prime candidate for The Harvey Treatment during awards season, particular countered on the Weinstein slate with such more conventionally grabby prestige fare as “The Iron Lady” – which is a smart move after the mogul cleaned up last year with “The King”s Speech,” a vehicle many (though certainly not many Oscar voters) found too pandering. Lightning never strikes twice, and neither, for the most part, do identical Oscar strategies.

Not that Academy members are going to be thinking about any of this when they eventually catch “The Artist,” if they”ve haven”t already: it”s entirely too delightful on its own terms. Any successful Oscar pony has to grab potential voters as a movie first, and as a contender second, by some distance. The less aware they are of the latter identity, the better: “Slumdog Millionaire” was a film voters felt they”d discovered, however craftily studio-engineered their supposed discovery, and “The Artist” could follow a similar course.

Emotional appeal is key here. Hazanavicius”s film may be sold squarely as a gorgeous feelgood entertainment steeped in nostalgia, but it”s no empty exercise: as a bittersweet elegy for a now-defunct artform, I suspect it will move as many film industry professionals as it amuses. Chief among these should be the largest branch of AMPAS: actors who should easily connect with the protagonist”s insecurity over his own temporal influence, the successful artist”s eternal fear of losing his audience. “The Artist” is nobody”s idea of bait, but it could hardly be more explicitly about the Academy.

All of which is to finally put in writing an idea that”s been at the back of my head since I walked springily out of the film”s first press screening at Cannes back in May: that this film, crazy as it sounds – no, precisely because of how crazy it sounds – could be The One. I suppressed the notion then, not least because no right-minded cinephile wishes to speak of such things at an event where cinema, for ten days, is bigger than the industry around it.

But by the time Tom O”Neil invited my ranked predictions for his Gold Derby pundits” chart, and I cautiously placed “The Artist” atop my Best Picture list, I was intrigued to see I hadn”t been alone in keeping these thoughts to myself: David Poland is a believer, as is Dave Karger. Only the unveiling of key opposition films in the next two months, and of course the film”s own performance upon release in November, will determine whether others join us or whether we”ll forever look struck by autumn madness.

Would I be so bullish about “The Artist””s chances if I didn”t like the film so much myself? Possibly not – with films” reputations half-formed at best at this stage in the race, it can be hard to imagine how a contender will be seen through eyes not your own. I believe the film can do well, but I also want it to: chiefly because it”s witty, impassioned, ingeniously conceived and exquisitely crafted, but also because a win for a chiefly French production could open up the future Oscar conversation in necessary and exciting ways.

“The Artist” may be about Hollywood and in (mostly unheard) English, but it could serve as a bridge for the Academy to recognize the industry”s inevitable globalization – a truth not currently served by a list of Best Picture winners that has never travelled further than the United Kingdom. The film”s rare evocation of the past is what will spur admiring voters to place it on their ballots; what they might not realize, however, is what a forward-thinking choice it could be.

My current nomination predictions can be found here.

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