CHICAGO — This year’s Oscar nominees are living in the past, whether it’s World War I by way of classic studio pictorialism (“War Horse”), a movable Jazz Age feast a la Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”) or, with the presumptive Oscar front-runner, “The Artist,” the dawn of the talkies.
And yet this year’s best picture nominees reek of futurism compared with the nostalgic tint of the first Academy Awards ceremony back in 1929.
By 1929 the sound revolution had been waged and won. The public had spoken and demanded actors do the same. But in celebrating studio pictures released in 1927 and 1928, the first Academy Awards were dealing with relics from another era, the late silent era — already a distant cultural memory.
The memories grow more distant every second. There’s a reason Martin Scorsese wanted to make “Hugo,” which among other things is a lavishly mounted argument for film preservation. That first year at the Academy Awards, Emil Jannings won best actor for two performances: One in Josef von Sternberg’s spectacular balderdash “The Last Command,” about a refugee Russian general who ends up a Hollywood extra, and the other in “The Way of All Flesh,” which is lost. “Lost” means gone. The film does not exist. The theater is fleeting while cinema lasts forever, they say. Not true. Not on nitrate, not even, some say, on digital.
Nine months ago “The Artist” was nothing, really. The black-and-white, virtually silent novelty from French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius was slated to make its world premiere in a noncompetition slot at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The movie charts the fall and rebirth of a silent matinee idol and his “it girl” protege. Jean Dujardin, an extraordinarily deft comic stylist, plays the fallen star, George Valentin; Berenice Bejo, Dujardin’s fellow Oscar nominee, is Peppy Miller, flaming youth incarnate.
Just before last year’s Cannes festival in May, the programmers moved “The Artist” into a competition slot. It didn’t win the Palme d’Or; its eventual fellow Oscar nominee for best picture, Terrence Malick’s largely ‘50s-set reverie “The Tree of Life,” won instead. But Dujardin, a huge European favorite, took home the best actor award. The movie was off and running. It has since snagged prizes all over the place, its latest batch at last week’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards in London.
Awards bashes thrive on cheap tension and perceived or genuine competition. The British academy had none. “The Artist” was favored going in, and it was the favorite going out. In a post-event video chat, members of The Guardian’s crack film staff conducted a shrug-based post-mortem. Catherine Shoard, Guardian film editor, noted that while many find “The Artist” charming, even beguiling, “there’s not really that much to talk about.” It’s “a bit thin,” she said. By its fifth or sixth award the other night, Guardian film writer Xan Brooks said, “You started thinking, aw, not ‘The Artist’ again!?”
Is it a surprise that a significant portion of the film’s potential American audience simply cannot be bothered? The notion of a silent film, modest or grand — “The Artist” is modest — presents a bridge too far in 2012, at least for some. Subtitled foreign-language films are adversity enough for a fixed set of filmgoers (though you wouldn’t call them film lovers, or they’d have gotten over the subtitle thing by now). But a silent feature about a casualty of a technological evolution? Forget it.
A more complex issue with “The Artist” relates to the way Hazanavicius freely and disarmingly samples various styles and moods in his story. The film begins as breezy pastiche, with a Hollywood premiere akin to the “Royal Rascal” scene in “Singin’ in the Rain,” before plunging into near-tragic despair an hour later, more typical of an F.W. Murnau or Frank Borzage late-era silent. “The Artist” has been a very tricky number for its distributor, the Weinstein Co., to market. One week the ad campaign has played up the comedy, or the dog, Uggie, or the Americans in the multinational cast. (Misleading ploy: It’s Dujardin’s show.) The next week the ads are selling “The Artist” as a predominantly serious story, embracing the silent tradition in such a way as to be Oscar-worthy.
If “The Artist” wins best picture, it’ll be the first silent to do so since the first Academy Awards. At the inaugural ‘29 company picnic for Hollywood, director William Wellman’s World War I romance, “Wings,” flew off with the so-called best production award. F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise,” an “American Tragedy”-inspired tale of a tortured small-town man, his wife and his mistress, was recognized with an artistic quality of production nod, never again awarded, going to “the most unique, artistic, worthy and original production, without reference to cost or magnitude.”
In essence “Wings” won the audience prize — the popularity contest. “Sunrise” got the art-schmart diploma. Another stern and audacious late silent, King Vidor’s “The Crowd,” made by MGM, actually netted the most votes for that latter, “artistic” category. But for various and probably compromised reasons, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer protested the decision, pushing successfully instead for a rival studio’s prestige flop, “Sunrise.”
It’s absurd to compare the pocket-sized scale and ambition of “The Artist,” whose story begins in 1927, with either “Wings” or “Sunrise,” both of which were released that same year. Yet in all three — the two originals and the valentine — you’re reminded of how films of all eras, if they’re any good at all, tend not to conform to a single genre.
“Wings” is a love story, a war film, an epic and a girl-next-door vehicle, thanks to its star, Clara Bow, the woman stuck on the flyboy played by Charles “Buddy” Rogers. It’s corny, but it still plays, and the aerial sequences? Well, whoever wrote the Daily Tribune review under the pseudonym Mae Tinee spoke for many when she/he enthused: “My, but that air stuff is wonderful!”
“Sunrise” is as different from “Wings” as it is from “The Artist,” yet here too we have a head-spinning blend of concerns and themes, plus cinematic wizardry of the highest order. The protagonist played by George O’Brienvery nearly murders not just his mistress (Margaret Livingston) but his angelic wife (Academy Award winner Janet Gaynor, cited also for Borzage’s “Seventh Heaven” and “Street Angel”). And yet the ending is happy. And there’s a slapstick chase after a drunken pig in the stunning passage chronicling the married couple’s escape to the big city.
In “Wings,” there’s a Paris sequence — watch for the tracking shot across table after table of champagne-fueled revelers, a long away from the trenches — wherein a local hussy tries her come-hither on the true-blue Yank portrayed by Rogers. “Come wiz me,” she coos in a title card. Dujardin’s George Valentin in “The Artist” says only two words aloud, but they’re neat bookends to that “Wings” line: “Wiz pleasure.” And that’s enough for me to predict “The Artist” will join “Wings” in Oscar history.
An excellent edition of “Wings” is now on available on Blu-ray and DVD on Paramount Home Entertainment. “Sunrise” is also widely available on DVD; among other viewing options, it’s one of 12 restored films featured on the marvelous 20th Century Fox boxed set “Murnau, Borzage and Fox.”
The 84th Academy Awards,
8:30-11:30 p.m. EST Feb. 26