Silent treatment creates a gem with 'The Artist'

By David Germain

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 22 2011 10:25 a.m. MST

Michel Hazanavicius, writer/director of "The Artist," poses at a screening of the film in Beverly Hills, Calif., Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. The silent, black-and-white film is set in Hollywood between 1927 and 1932.

Chris Pizzello, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

LOS ANGELES — "The Artist" is a dream for film fans, a dilemma for movie-marketing executives.

In an age of widescreen 3-D, rainbow-colored, star-driven spectacles, how do you sell a black-and-white film shot in a 2-D boxy format, with no A-listers and barely a word of spoken dialogue?

There's only one answer. Make people love it so much they do the selling for you, talking it up as one of the freshest, cleverest and sweetest nights out at the movies they've had in a while.

A throwback to the silent-film era, "The Artist" has been winning over audiences since premiering at last May's Cannes Film Festival and could become the first serious silent contender at the Academy Awards since the earliest years of the Oscars.

A couple of years ago, French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius felt utterly alone thinking that a silent movie might have a place in today's digital cinema era.

"It's something I had in mind for a long, long time, but it's very hard to find the money," Hazanavicius said at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "The Artist" also played. "It was like a fantasy. Oh, my dream would be to produce a silent movie. And people would say, 'Yeah, yeah, but in real life, what do you want to do?'"

Then came Hazanavicius' two "OSS 117" spy spoofs, both hits in France. With fresh box-office clout, he pitched his silent-movie idea to producer Thomas Langmann.

"Everybody thought I was crazy, and then I found someone more crazy than I was," Hazanavicius said. "He said, 'OK, let's do it.'"

Hazanavicius recruited French star Jean Dujardin, his "OSS 117" leading man, for the title role of "The Artist," 1920s Hollywood silent-film sensation George Valentin, whose fortunes abruptly slide as the sound era takes over.

As George tumbles from the top to the bottom, rising talkies star Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius' wife, Berenice Bejo), becomes a guardian angel trying to look out for her former idol.

Shot in Los Angeles, "The Artist" grandly recreates old Hollywood and beautifully weaves from comedy to melodrama, lively action to clever dance numbers. Almost all of the scant dialogue is told the old-fashioned way — through title cards — but "The Artist" is far from silent. The film features a gorgeous, jazzy musical score and brilliant sound effects that pop from the speakers during otherwise hushed sequences.

While Dujardin and Bejo are relatively unknown to U.S. audiences, the supporting cast includes such Hollywood regulars as John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell and Penelope Ann Miller. The film also co-stars a scene-stealing canine, Uggie, a Jack Russell terrier who is George's constant companion and co-star in his big-screen silent adventures.

"The Artist" picked up Harvey and Bob Weinstein as executive producers, whose Weinstein Co. is distributing the film domestically and aiming to do what the brothers do best — attract Oscar attention that can make a mainstream hit out of an art house film.

"Marketing is strictly word of mouth. It's almost impossible to market, but I do think that everyone who sees it falls in love with it," said Erik Lomis, head of distribution for Weinstein. "I think it's a picture that can play everywhere, and I think it will play everywhere. It's just going to take some time to gestate in the market place."

The film already is a hit in France, where it opened in October. It debuts Friday in four New York City and Los Angeles theaters, and Weinstein will gradually roll it out to the rest of the country during the buildup to the Jan. 24 Oscar nominations.

"The Artist" has a strong shot at a best-picture nomination in a field that could include such heavy-hitters as Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," George Clooney's "The Descendants" and Brad Pitt's "Moneyball."

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