Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Artist - One of The Year's Best Films

THE ARTIST (2011) Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Written by Michel Hazanavicius. Produced by Thomas Langman. Run Time: 100 minutes. Black and White. France. Silent, Romantic, Comedy, Drama.

The silent era of filmmaking has been the subject of two extraordinary films in 2011: HUGO and THE ARTIST. Both deal with how the change in public tastes and expectations affect early filmmakers and stars. HUGO poignantly touches on the real life story of George Méliés. THE ARTIST on the other hand, tells a story reminiscent of WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (1932). In that film, Constance Bennett stars as Mary Evans, an aspiring actress who meets, falls in love with and who’s career eventually eclipses that of director Maximillan Carey (Lowell Sherman).

In Michel Hazanavicius’s brilliant film, set at the end of the silent movie era, aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) turns a chance encounter with swashbuckling actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) into a career path. Valentin has just premiered his latest Kinograph film, The Russian Affair, to an excited audience. A mixture of Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, Valentin has an ego that is as big as the silver screen. The word ham comes to mind as he milks the applause of the audience for all its worth by dancing for them and playing with his dog co-star, before finally bringing out, and then quickly leading off, his female lead Constance (Missi Pyle). Outside the theater, the news photographers, what we now call paparazzi, take photo after photo of the star, when out of the crowd accidentally tumbles Peppy Miller. Swept up in the hoopla, she poses and preens for the camera, even landing a kiss on the always smiling actor’s cheek. The photo lands on the front page of Variety under the headline asking Who’s That Girl?

The photo and the story rub both Valentin’s wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and his boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman) the wrong way. Doris, who really never has much to do in this film other than be dissatisfied, doesn’t like seeing her husband kissing another woman and Zimmer doesn’t like the fact that the story pushed publicity for The Russian Affair off the front page. Meanwhile, Peppy is just happy to see her photo in print. She even brags to another one of the extras waiting to be cast (Malcolm McDowell) about it. And though she is cast, Zimmer recognizes her and fires her off the set, only to be overruled by Valentin who wants Peppy to stay. Rather than lose face, Zimmer leaves the set.

During a lull in filming, Peppy goes to Valentin’s dressing room and there is a bit of business with his trademark tux jacket that would be worthy of any silent comedy. When Valentin returns, he catches her in mid self-caress. Playing the part of mentor, Valentin suggests she use a drawn on beauty mark as a way of distinguishing herself from the other actresses. The beauty mark will not only become her trademark, but will also be the name of one of her first starring films, reminiscent of The It Girl for Clara Bow and Platinum Blonde for Jean Harlow. There is a smoldering attraction between the two, which gets derailed when Clifton (James Cromwell), Valentin’s faithful chauffer and manservant returns from a shopping trip to buy something for Valentin to give Doris.

Over the next two years, we see Peppy’s career ascend as she moves up the billing block, while Valentin stays a star making The German Affair. It is interesting that every time we see Valentin walking he is usually headed downstairs and Miller is always shown going up on the same set. Then, in 1929, everything changes in Hollywood with the coming of the talkies. As was the case for many silent stars, most notably John Gilbert, sound meant the end of their career. Valentin, who refuses to even attempt a talkie, is fired by Kinograph and ventures into forming his own production company, making and paying for his own jungle adventure film, Tears of Love. Meanwhile Peppy is one of the rising young stars at the studio and in Hollywood. Tears of Love are slated to open opposite Beauty Spot on October 25th. Only days before the release of his film, Valentin is also hit hard by the collapse of Wall Street. He is wiped out unless Tears of Love is a success. No one is surprised when it isn’t. Adding insult to injury, Doris decides to kick Valentin out that same night, giving him two weeks to move out his memorabilia.

Broke and down on his luck, Valentin becomes a drunk, pawning whatever he can to buy another bottle. Even though he hasn’t paid Clifton for over a year, the chauffer stands by his down on his luck boss, having to be fired before he leaves. Totally broke, Valentin sells everything he has, save his films, at auction. Everything is purchased by a mysterious man, who we quickly learn works for Peppy. By 1932, Valentin sits alone watching his old movies while he drinks himself into greater depression. Suddenly, feeling sorry for himself, he goes on a rant and decides in a whimsy to burn all his old films. Valentin is only saved when his dog runs for a policeman, in a scene out of every TV episode of Lassie. Before passing out from the smoke, Valentin grabs one reel of film back from the flames.

When Peppy learns of his plight, she rushes to his hospital bed, the canister of film that had to be pried from his hands nearby. When she looks at it, she sees it is from the first film she had made with him. Touched, she takes him home to convalesce. Trying to help him, she blackmails Zimmer into bringing Valentin back for another film with her. Clifton, who is now working for Miller, delivers the script to Valentin’s bed. But rather than take the hand out, the actor’s pride is too great. Discovering that Miller has all of his memorabilia stored in her house, he leaves with his dog back to his small apartment. He is intent on committing suicide. Again, this is reminiscent of the situation in What Price Hollywood? But in this case, Miller arrives in time. Driving like a mad woman through the streets of Hollywood, she has many near misses, but ultimately hits the tree in front of his apartment. The Bang the car makes stops Valentin who literally has the gun in his mouth at the time. Reunited with Miller, Valentin suddenly has a resurgence of vigor.

Having gone to the edge he lets Peppy pull him back from the precipice. But still he refuses to talk in films. Instead, she hits upon the idea of his dancing in the film, something she has seen him do on his own many times. In the last scene we see Zimmer watching them go through their routine. Valentin is back and Miller is by his side.

In much the same way The Wizard of Oz used color to distinguish Kansas from Oz, Hazanavicius uses sound. It is subtle throughout most of the movie. When Valentin dreams about not being able to talk at all, we hear the sounds of a drop of water, the laughter of extras, even a floating feather makes a whump when it finally lands. Everything makes noise, except Valentin. At the end of the film, we finally hear everyone talking, even Valentin. Like its star, the film finally moves into the realm of sound and we know there is no going back.

There are few things not to like about THE ARTIST. The casting for the most part is superb. Bejo especially looks like she could have been a flapper girl and early sound star. She is right for the era they are trying to pay homage to. I’m never surprised when John Goodman ends up in some offbeat film and his turn as movie mogul Zimmer seems to be based on cutthroat moguls like Louis B. Mayer. Goodman’s best scene is when he lets Valentin go as the studio gears up to make only sound films. Zimmer tells his star that the two of them belong to a different time, but as it turns out only one of them is going to stay.

I was surprised to see how many actors and actresses were willing to take such small parts in a small film. James Cromwell as Clifton and Penelope Ann Miller as Doris have little to do, though both characters they play are important to the plot. Malcolm McDowell has perhaps the skimpiest of parts. I’m not sure if he even warranted a title card when his unnamed character and Peppy interacted. Bit actors, like Joel Murray (best known as TV actor) and Bill Fagerbakke (perhaps best known as the voice of Patrick on Spongebob) both play policemen. My hat is off to all of the actors who participated in the film because they added to its atmosphere.

Speaking of bit parts, I would be remiss not to mention the Dog played by Uggie. This mutt can certainly do it all. Not only is he loyal to his down on his luck owner, but he is great for comic relief and is used for that throughout the film.

Despite this being a French film, it was shot in Los Angeles and locales, such as the Bradbury Building and the Orpheum Theater, are used to give THE ARTIST an appropriate period feel. Sad to say it took a French filmmaker to show interest in this fascinating time in Hollywood history, but perhaps because he was an outsider, Hazanavicius tried hard to get it right and he succeeded. I fear that a Hollywood film company might have shot the L.A. scenes somewhere else to save money.

There are few things that Hazanavicius uses as a convenience. For example, when Miller examines the reel that Valentin saved from the fire by holding it up to the light, it happens to be the outtakes of their first scene together. And while I’m no expert on the history of Variety, I don’t think it was ever such a gossip rag as to let a sidewalk kiss dominate the entire front page, the way it does in the movies. And I’m pretty sure that movie stars rarely actually owned the animals they used in the movies. But this is truly quibbling on my part and I know it.

THE ARTIST is the right film if you love Hollywood history, love films about films or just love a good story well told. As we come to the end of the year and to the official start of Awards season in tinsel town, THE ARTIST should be in the running for every award possible and should be at or near the top of everyone’s list of best films of the year.

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