'The Artist' treats L.A. like a star

As a front-runner to win top honors in the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, "The Artist" is a rarity. Not only is it in black and white, almost entirely silent and a French director's take on old Hollywood, it is the only movie among the nine best picture nominees filmed entirely in Los Angeles.

The 1960s civil rights drama "The Help," another potential favorite for best picture, was shot in Mississippi; "The Descendants," starring George Clooney, was filmed in Hawaii; and Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," a whimsical tale about the early days of cinema, was produced mainly on a soundstage in the United Kingdom. "Moneyball," starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, was filmed in Oakland and various L.A. locations, including Dodger Stadium.

Only "The Artist," however, was filmed exclusively locally, giving star treatment to iconic Hollywood locations — from downtown L.A.'s historic movie palace the Orpheum Theatre to the Hancock Park mansion where Mary Pickford once lived — at a time when many productions are leaving the state for cheaper locales. The $14-million picture released by Weinstein Co. took the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards on Saturday; a day later at the Screen Actors Guild Awards it garnered lead actor honors for Jean Dujardin, who plays silent film star George Valentin.

"'The Artist' was not just a love letter to silent cinema but to the city of Los Angeles as well," director Michel Hazanavicius said recently at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards, where the film picked up four awards including best picture.

The L.A. City Council returned some of the love Tuesday when it presented Hazanavicius and other cast and crew members from the "The Artist" with its first "Made in Hollywood" honor. The city proclaimed Tuesday "'The Artist' Day" in a ceremony at Red Studios on North Cahuenga Boulevard, which represented Kinograph Studios in the movie.

The city's elation is understandable. Relatively few big feature films still shoot in Los Angeles, especially Academy Award winners and nominees. Since 1973, only about 20 best picture nominees, including Roman Polanski's 1974 movie "Chinatown," Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and 2003's "Seabiscuit," shot primarily on locations in the L.A. area (excluding animated movies or those filmed mainly on soundstages), according to an awards database from the online movie ticket service Fandango.

If "The Artist" wins, it would be the first best picture Oscar winner since "Crash" filmed mainly in L.A. Before that was Clint Eastwood's 2004 winner "Million Dollar Baby" and 1999's "American Beauty," which ended a two-decade-plus drought following 1976's "Rocky."

Woody Allen's 1977 movie "Annie Hall" filmed partially in L.A., but it was hardly a flattering portrait of the city. When actress Diane Keaton's character Annie Hall remarks about the cleanliness of L.A., her big-screen lover Alvy Singer (Allen) replies: "That's because they don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television."

Why the paucity of L.A.-based Oscar nominees and winners? The obvious explanation is runaway production. Filmmakers continue to flock to states such as Louisiana, Georgia and New York and foreign cities such as London and Vancouver, Canada, to take advantage of film tax credits and rebates.

Best picture contenders "Hugo," "The Descendants" and "The Help" all benefited from out-of-state film tax credits. ("Moneyball" received a California film tax credit; "The Artist" applied for one but did not receive it because the credits are doled out by lottery).

Another factor may be the tendency of academy voters to favor movies shot in unfamiliar places far from L.A., where most of them live.

"It may just be a subconscious thing," said Chuck Walton, editor in chief for Fandango. "The academy's choices tend to be films that take you on a journey, outside the L.A. comfort zone. With 'The Artist,' everything old feels new again — it's classic L.A., but re-envisioned through French eyes."

Producers of "The Artist" had considered shooting the movie in Eastern Europe to take advantage of lower costs, but Hazanavicius insisted on filming in L.A., using classic locations including the Bradbury Building downtown on South Broadway, Fremont Place in Hancock Park, Cicada Restaurant downtown on Olive Street and the American Film Institute near Griffith Park.

"The initial thought was we should shoot some of these iconic locations in L.A. and film everything else in Romania or Bulgaria," said Richard Middleton, an executive producer on "The Artist." "Then we thought, 'This is crazy.' If the end result is that people laugh at the movie because it's not the Hollywood that people have in their mind's eye, it's a waste of money."


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