The silent-film Wings won the first Best Picture award in 1929, but they were effectively outdated two years later. Not the Oscars—they wouldn't be behind the times until Ordinary People beat Raging Bull. Rather, the advent of the talking picture made the silent-film era, and a large percentage of its stars, obsolete.
So how is that more than 80 years later, a silent film may win Best Picture? It isn't the gimmick; that much you should know straight away. But it could happen due to a combination of benefiting from a pretty lousy year for other prestige films, a beautiful if familiar story, and being in the right place at the right time. More than anything, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius reminds us that it doesn't matter how much a film costs, how much it brings in, or whose name is above the marquee that makes it worthwhile: If you don't transport an audience, nothing else matters.
We have seen a few tributes to old Hollywood in the past month. Michelle Williams' radiant performance as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn is one of the year's best. Martin Scorsese's Hugo becomes a treatise on the beginnings of the medium and the director's plea for film preservation. And now there is The Artist, which does not fix its gaze on a specific event or Tinseltown legend, but rather on our general impression of life during the silent-film era.
The setup brings to mind a mixture of Singin' in the Rain and A Star Is Born: Silent-film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is riding high in 1927. At the premiere of his latest epic, he stumbles onto a young dancer fresh off the bus. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) seizes her chance encounter and becomes a star in her own right. But as she gains popularity in the age of the talking picture, George Valentin fades away.
By 1929, Valentin is no longer in demand, and he is financially wiped out by the Depression. But Peppy Miller has never forgotten him, and even though she is now the biggest star in the movies, there is a feeling that she will cross paths with the suave leading man again.
Admittedly, for the first 15 minutes or so, The Artist exists in this kind of mawkish artificiality. Being a black-and-white silent picture, how could it not? But as the plot moves away from its ancestors, Hazanavicius begins to create something unique, pure and even a little magical. That he is able to accomplish it all so simply—primarily through the use of two actors' bodies and no CGI—underscores how little you actually need to make a compelling, memorable motion picture.
It may be that Hazanavicius' concept, more than his execution behind the camera, is what captures our attention, but even that is a reminder that sometimes the best direction is just getting out of the way. Most of the film's impact is made by its stars, whose faces and actions need to tell a more-complete story in this format. Dujardin, in particular, is poetry in motion. His is a complete and heartbreaking performance.
There are a few other things to keep in mind as you begin to hear more about this film in the run-up to the Academy Awards. The last black-and-white movie to win Best Picture was Schindler's List; before that, it was The Apartment in 1961. If this wins the Oscar, it will be the third Best Picture in four years made without a drop of American financing, joining The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire. What does any of that mean? Simply that audiences around the world, and maybe especially here in the United States, are gravitating toward strong storytelling, regardless of its origin.
Maybe we're learning bigger is not always better.
Maybe we're learning that film truly is the international language—even when it never says a word.