The Weinstein Company, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — While Hollywood advances its 3-D capabilities and other dazzling digital technology, the Academy Awards could be going silent.
Not since the first Oscar ceremony in 1929 has a silent film walked away with the top prize. But the 84th Oscars feature a potential front-runner with virtually no spoken dialogue in "The Artist," a loving reproduction of the silent era that has emerged as an early favorite among awards watchers.
"Early favorite" is a critical distinction, given that the Feb. 26 Oscars still are months away. Awards fortunes rise and fall, momentum shifts back and forth, and other awards shows help sort out winners from losers on the long path to the Oscars. At this stage, unlike past years when clear front-runners emerged from the outset, every major Oscar category is up for grabs.
Yet "The Artist," made by a French filmmaker barely known in Hollywood, looks like a solid contender for one of the best-picture slots alongside a lineup of big studio productions such as Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" and the hit literary adaptation "The Help."
"To be honest with you, that would be totally alien," said French actor Jean Dujardin, who stars with Berenice Bejo in filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist." ''I do not think very much about it. Others do that for me. But if there happened to be a nomination, whether for Michel, for Berenice, for me, or for the movie itself, that would be fantastic."
Here's a look at the prospects in top categories:
Unlike last year, when eventual winner "The King's Speech" and runner-up "The Social Network" quickly stood out as the favorites, this season is murky, right down to the number of nominees.
Oscar overseers who doubled the best-picture field from five to 10 nominees three years ago have tweaked the rules again. This time, there will be anywhere from five to 10 nominees, depending on how many films receive at least 5 percent of first-place votes in nominations ballots from the roughly 6,000 academy members.
Great reviews and honors from some of the season's initial awards have raised the Oscar fortunes of "The Artist," a black-and-white tale that stars Dujardin as a silent-era star whose career crumbles as talking pictures take over in the late 1920s.
But Spielberg's "War Horse" is the sort of sprawling, glorious epic that could gallop in to grab the reins as a front-runner. Gorgeously shot, "War Horse" is one of those big, big pictures that always used to dominate the Oscars.
The action follows a resilient horse as it is raised by a British youth, sold into the cavalry during World War I, then passed from side to side amid the battlefields and trenches. The film is based on a children's book and the stage play it inspired that used life-sized puppets to create the horses.
"I heard about the play and that inspired me to read the book, which I loved," Spielberg said. "Then I traveled to the west end in London with my wife and actually saw the play, and walked out of that marvelous experience with a deep desire to make the movie."
Deep desire describes the motivation behind Scorsese's "Hugo," another adaptation of a children's book that allows the director to play with new technology in a ravishing 3-D production while indulging his love for early cinema and devotion for film preservation.
The story of a boy and girl caught up in a mystery involving French silent-film pioneer Georges Melies, "Hugo" also has momentum from early awards announcements that could help launch it into best-picture contention.
With a stellar cast and box-office success already behind it, the crowd-pleasing civil-rights era drama "The Help" is in the mix, along with "Social Network" director David Fincher's thriller "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
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