“Artist” Renders Oscars Speechless: The 84th Annual Academy Awards

Jackie Jerkins, Literary Editor

Silence is golden—that’s the rule. The 84th Academy Awards, occurring at 8:30pm EST on February 26th, 2012, saw the splendid 2011 feature film The Artist sweep the awards, proving all that glitters is not gold but the Golden Age. The Artist, an entirely black-and-white film, and really completely silent except for two spoken words, is the first largely silent film to win the award for Best Picture in 83 years—Wings, released in 1927 and starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, and a very young Gary Cooper, was the first film to ever win an Academy Award and simultaneously the last silent film to win one.

In total, The Artist picked up five Oscars at the ceremony: Best Picture (the most coveted of the Academy Awards), Best Actor (to French cherub Jean Dujardin), Best Director (to Michel Hazanavicius), Best Costume Design, and Best Score (to composer Ludovic Bource).

I must admit I swelled with pride as I watched the silent film make off with many of what are considered the most prestigious awards in all of cinema. Having seen The Artist and having experienced firsthand the brilliance, artistry, and enchantment, I wildly applauded before my television screen. A great, great lover of silent films, I consider The Artist to be one of the finest celebrations of the art of film I’ve ever seen.

The rest of the Awards (at least, the ones that I paid attention to) went as follows: Best Actress to Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Best Supporting Actress to Octavia Spencer (The Help), Best Supporting Actor to Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Best Cinematography to Hugo, Best Art Direction to Hugo, Best Visual Effects to Hugo, and Best Original Screenplay to Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris.

Keeping notorious tradition, Woody Allen did not make an appearance at the Awards. It brings reminders of my personal favorite actress, Katharine Hepburn, who, incidentally, maintains the most Oscars of any Actor or Actress in a Leading Role in history—four—and, as was her way, had a habit of not showing up to accept them.

Regardless of the absentees, past or present, the Artist cast and crew were all accounted for, many eight-and-a-half pounds heavier (the Oscar statuette weighs 8.5 pounds). Alas, trouble in paradise: in the halls of the Film Buff Manor, there is gripe that perhaps The Artist won on the ticket of exploited nostalgia and novelty rather than on standard and depth. The isolation of beefy contenders Hugo, The Tree of Life, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy presents a problem for many, as their losses mean an undeserved gain for France.

I can see the point of view, and I also share and understand it. The Artist capitalized on the incredibly powerful (and really quite manic) human sensation of reminiscence, legacy, and classicism of yore. It rushes us back to the days of Doug Fairbanks (whom Best Actor winner Dujardin, in between his very adorable Fwensch stammering, named as his inspiration in his acceptance speech), Rudy Valentino, John Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Such were days when film was the biggest and greatest thing on Earth; it was indestructible.

But it comes down not to why Michel Hazanavicius’s brainchild doesn’t deserve its award(s), but why it does. After all, the Awards are a universal celebration of great filmmaking more than they have ever been a “competition.” Those hundreds of movie stars primp and coif and are corralled into an impressive theater not in an arms race but in commemoration of how far filmmaking has come.

The Artist, in my opinion, deserves the award. It is a project of passion, a moving commentary on pride, a stunning expression of beauty, and a heart-stopping glimpse into why we all worship movies at a palatial gala in the first place. Director Michel Hazanavicius invested every ounce of his heart and soul into his film and it shows superbly. As he has stated before, to make The Artist at all, even if it was a minor film, was his dream; to have it succeed and touch the lives of millions of others exceeded his wildest fantasies. Such intimate connection is rare to see in a world of Christopher Nolans, James Camerons, and Michael Bays, and while I maintain that Scorsese is indeed our greatest living director, I am ecstatic that the awards went to a film that was not made but born, nurtured, and loved (not to mention that Hazanavicius had to make a total departure from modern filmmaking as he knew it to emulate the DeMilles and Wellmans and Griffiths of the past). How can one look at the cast and production crew of The Artist, filled with unpretentious mirth, bringing reminders of parents watching their child win the Spelling Bee, and tell them that no, their dreams coming to life in a film does not deserve this award? The entire purpose of the Awards is to honor films that were made in the spirit of creation and art, and such a quality cannot be denied to the people behind The Artist.

Would I have been just as happy if the other top three nominees had won? Absolutely. They are more than deserving of any of the Awards. But, as a lover of film, I just can’t find it in me to cast contempt on the Academy, no matter how many times they’ve robbed and will continue to rob great performances. The thing is—and I believe this is something that the stars and directors and producers realize a lot more than we do—film is bigger than the Awards. It’s bigger than a ruggedly handsome golden statue. It’s bigger than us. And—let’s not kid ourselves here—it’s bigger than life itself.

But why so big? My two cents: Movies are the closest we as humans will ever get to seeing our dreams suddenly tangible and in a waltz before us. Film is an audience looking straight into the eye of every wonder they’ve ever wondered. Jean Cocteau sums up my perspective rather perfectly in saying that a film “is a petrified fountain of thought.”

Perhaps Woody Allen has got the right idea—there are no “bests” in filmmaking. What right do any of us have to put films in a contest each year, anyhow? A quote attributed to two of my favorite actors, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, contends that the Academy Awards are useless because there is no feasible way to judge performances from so many different films. If there were to be a real competition, they assert, each actor would have to play the same part and be judged thus. But, in that case, “Laurence Olivier would win every year.”

At the end of the day, we need to realize that there are not films against each other. In reality, there exists only film by itself. In the grand scheme of things, film possesses a quality we often take for granted once we become too absorbed in the “nowness” of it all: the art of film is, in finality, a best all its own.