Almost every year, the run-up to the Academy Awards features a film no one has heard of, a film like "Slumdog Millionaire" that seems to have come out of nowhere to become a possible best picture nominee. This year, that film is an especially unlikely one: a black-and-white silent French film called "The Artist" that festival audiences have simply adored.
While most years I'm as surprised as anyone at this kind of emergence, "The Artist" is a different story for me. Because of a combination of happenstance and luck, I have been tracking this unusual film from before the beginning, and I've been in a position to observe it win hearts and minds across a wide spectrum. What follows is a timeline of small events that has added up to some serious award season momentum.
September 2010: I hear from a young actor I know that he's gotten a small role in what sounds like an atypical film. A French director, Michel Hazanavicius, has come to Los Angeles with his French cinematographer and two French stars, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. He's making a silent film set in 1927 about Hollywood's transition from silent to sound pictures and wants to do it where the story took place. As a partisan of silent films, I'm especially interested. The film's name is "The Artist."
April: The lineup for the Cannes Film Festival is announced, and "The Artist" is listed as an out-of-competition entry, which sometimes can function as a kind of honorific. Because Hazanavicius has done the adroit James Bond spoof "OSS 117: Nest of Spies" and is well-regarded in France, I wonder if this is the case.
May 4: In a surprising move that attracts online buzz, "The Artist" is unexpectedly upgraded from out of competition to competition, one of the last films allowed in. The drums start to beat.
May 9: I receive, along with a handful of other American critics, an enthusiastic email from a distinguished French director and critic. He has just seen "The Artist" and is so unexpectedly entertained that he's taking the unusual step of writing at length because "it is a very pleasant surprise.... It is an affectionate tribute full of lovely ideas."
May 10: I have barely unpacked from my flight to Cannes when the news breaks that Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Co. have swooped in and grabbed the American rights to "The Artist" before it has been publicly screened. This is another good sign, as is the fact that executives at a rival U.S. distributor tell me a few days later that their company had wanted the film as well and complain about Harvey's freebooting ways.
May 11-22: The Cannes Film Festival is where the momentum for 'The Artist' really builds, starting with its exceptionally well-received first public screening at the ungodly Cannes hour of 8:30 a.m. If you like a film at 8:30 a.m., you know it's good. But it is what happens the next day, when the film has its first screening at the Marche, the market where productions are sold around the world, that is really special.
Ordinarily, anyone with a badge identifying him as a legitimate buyer for a foreign market can get into a Marche screening. But this is no ordinary scene. This is a crush to end all crushes. Hordes of buyers from around the world are massed in front of the door like sans culottes storming the Bastille. Representatives of the company selling the film are yelling out, in an unprecedented manner, the names of the territories in which the film remains unsold: "Anyone here from Benelux? Anyone here from Spain?" If your territory was not still in play, you couldn't get in the door.
After a fuss like that, it was a challenge to get an interview with Hazanavicius, but I was clandestinely squeezed into an after-hours slot on a day reserved for the French press. The director talked candidly of the way his American cast and crew was "astonished" by his decision to film in Los Angeles.
"It was very strange for them to have French people come to Hollywood to tell their own story; they were very moved by that," he said. "They said, 'We could never do this in the United States.'"
If the Marche screening had shown me the extent of "The Artist's" commercial appeal, another event near the end of the festival indicated something else. In a typical Cannes moment, I ran into one of Britain's top critics, a person I talk to only at the festival. As usual, we exchanged gossip and reactions about what we've seen. When I asked him what his favorite film had been, I assume he's going to mention something serious. Instead, he looked right at me and said passionately, " 'The Artist.' It's a joyous film."
Though some people felt "The Artist" was a genuine Palme d'Or contender, experienced hands knew that having a comedy take a major honor is almost out of the question at a festival that is weighted toward the serious (and, in fact, the top prize went to the Terrence Malick drama "The Tree of Life"). Once again, though, "The Artist" surprised, as Jean Dujardin bested all comers to take home the Palme for best actor.
When I stopped off in Paris on the way back to Los Angeles, my delighted neighborhood cafe was offering a special "Cocktail Jean Dujardin" to mark the occasion.
That's the euphoric effect "The Artist" has on people. That's why post-Cannes the film took the audience awards in San Sebastian and the Hamptons, was applauded in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, and why a full-page article in a recent Hollywood Reporter was headlined "How 'The Artist' Is Angling to Become the First Non-talkie to Win the Best Picture Prize in 83 Years." The Oscar drums have started to beat louder. Stay tuned.