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'Artist' win is a tribute to Harvey Weinstein's tenacity, vision

The film from Michel Hazanavicius bucks the odds by being a favorite that actually wins.

By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

1:48 PM PST, February 27, 2012

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"The Artist" has won the Oscar for best picture and I'm speechless.

It's not lack of passion for the film that has robbed me of the power of words; it's that I felt so strongly that my thoughts were geared to how I would react should the worst happen, but like the flabbergasted editors from "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," victory was something I didn't expect.

I knew, of course, that "The Artist" was considered the favorite, but I wasn't so sure. As someone who first heard about this project while it was quietly filming on the streets and back lots of Hollywood, I was intensely aware of how enormous a leap it would be for what is basically a French silent picture that didn't even think it would get American distribution to walk off with what the ABC telecast called "the most coveted award in motion pictures."

The favorites in previous years, from "The King's Speech" to the seemingly outside-the-box "Slumdog Millionaire," were less of a longshot than the film that turned out to be the first silent winner since 1929. I feared that the members would be irked at having their choice taken for granted and vote for something else in a kind of institutional protest. Believe me, things like that can happen.

It won, I believe, because the final reaction of the academy members was identical to the initial reaction of viewers at Cannes, and to viewers everywhere the film has played. This is a film that people are both suspicious of going into and delighted with once they experience it.

While "The Artist" was cleaning up at the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, the Weinstein Co. team, from the leader on down, looked more concerned than celebratory. They sensed this race was tighter than the pundits were saying.

The way the awards were structured Sunday night didn't exactly calm anyone down. "Hugo," which along with "War Horse" was the closest this year had to a traditional Oscar-type film, came out of the box like gangbusters, winning the first two awards announced, including one, cinematography, that was widely expected to go to "The Tree of Life's" Emmanuel Lubezki.

Things got worse before they got better. "Hugo" picked up two sound awards and at the midpoint of the program was leading "The Artist" four Oscars to one, though that one, for costumes, was a head-to-head victory over Martin Scorsese's film.

But like that celebrated come-from-behind racehorse, the great Seabiscuit, "The Artist" finished impressively strong, taking all three of the top-tier awards it was nominated for, including lead actor for Jean Dujardin, best director for Michel Hazanavicius and, of course, best picture.

To borrow a line from Sally Field's celebrated acceptance speech for "Norma Rae," the voters liked it, they really liked it, it's just that simple, and no amount of sophistry or carping about how the film wasn't this or wasn't that kept them from their appointed voting rounds.

The film also had the support of Harvey Weinstein, and that is no small thing. When Tom Cruise announced the final award, the TV cameras showed Weinstein with a look of unmistakable satisfaction on his face, giving a high five to producer Thomas Langmann, the man who had first agreed to put money into this highly unlikely production.

For whatever else is said about the man — and there probably isn't anything that hasn't been said about him, both good and bad — Weinstein is someone who is passionate about film. Only someone who felt that way would embrace "The Artist" and see the potential for this kind of acclaim for it, let alone do the kind of heavy lifting that made success possible.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com