In 'The Artist,' A Silent Look At Old Hollywood

Nov 21, 2011
Originally published on November 22, 2011 8:18 am

Director Michel Hazanavicius met me at the Bradbury building in downtown L.A. It's the location of a key scene in his audacious new movie The Artist, which takes place just at the moment when talking pictures supersede silent films.

"It's mythic," said Hazanavicius of the era during which Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were stars.

In the scene shot here, a dashing film star reminiscent of Fairbanks bumps into his lovely young protégé on the building's remarkable staircase. He's on his way down; she's on her way up.

On the way down is precisely where George Valentin, played by French heartthrob Jean Dujardin, finds himself. He's unable to adapt to the newfangled talkies and his career is about to be ruined. Like so much else in The Artist, the location at this moment is a loving reference to cinema — the Bradbury has appeared in dozens of movies, most famously Blade Runner.

The Artist is itself a silent film, and black and white. But in spite of what might seem to be two formidable barriers to mainstream popularity, it's generating some of the strongest Oscar buzz of the year. Hazanavicius convinced producers to invest in The Artist based on the strength of two domestically successful comedies he directed about a 1950s French secret agent.

"That's one of the most difficult parts of the entire process," he sighed. "So they said yes, but it was a very shy yes."

The Artist was shot on classic old Hollywood back lots, as well as historic locations, including the Orpheum Theater. And the cast includes some great American faces, including John Goodman and James Cromwell, who you might remember from Six Feet Under and Babe.

"My goal was not to be in a silent picture," Cromwell confessed to NPR. Contemporary screen actors like to use their voices, he said, and use tricks incommensurate with silent film. For example, "You keep your eyes wide open, always, because you don't want to blink. Because when you blink, the director's going to cut away from you. So you betray as little of your inner life through your face as possible, and everything is done by the dialogue."

Acting in a silent movie, for Cromwell, was liberating.

"It's all on your sleeve," he said.

Making this film turned out to be liberating for another of the film's stars-- a scruffy little dog named Uggie. Because The Artist is silent, Uggie's trainer could bark commands, so to speak, whenever necessary while the cameras rolled.

"Usually he has to wait for the actors to stop talking," Hazanavicius grinned. "Maybe that's why the dog is so good in the movie."

In fact, Uggie won this year's "Palm Dog" for canine acting. It's just one of a heap of awards The Artist has accumulated, including the prize for best (human) acting at the Cannes film festival. The Weinstein Company, which won a bidding war to release the film in the United States, is banking on The Artist carrying off even more prizes, of the golden Oscar-shaped variety, at the Kodak theater come February.

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This week two movies are opening that tap into nostalgia for old films. One is the latest from Martin Scorsese and we'll hear a review just ahead. The other is a black-and-white silent film from an obscure French director. In spite of the silence, "The Artist" is generating a lot of talk, including talk about Oscars.

NPR's Neda Ulaby met the director at a landmark in downtown Los Angeles where part of the movie was filmed


NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This 1920s movie palace is a faded fantasia of Art Deco design. Underneath the swooping marquee stands the director with a difficult name - Michel Hazanavicius. He's lanky in blue jeans and bright yellow sneakers.

MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS: So now we're facing the Orpheum. It's a theater on Broadway, I think. Yeah, that's it - on Broadway, downtown.

ULABY: Today, it's a downtown stretch of grimy storefronts selling knockoff purses and cheap jewelry.


ULABY: But with a flourish, Hazanavicius transports you back in time to a dazzling Hollywood premiere, 1927, the era of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks.

HAZANAVICIUS: It's so mythic.

ULABY: The movie "The Artist" follows the decline of a dashing silent film star. Imagine Fairbanks with a whiff of Rudolph Valentino. He's playfully virile, with a pencil mustache. But the newfangled talkies leave him behind, even as his lovely, tap dancing protege blossoms into a new screen darling.


ULABY: Director Michel Hazanavicius thinks every director secretly yearns to make a silent film. It's cinematic storytelling at its purest. And "The Artist" is immersive in the same way great radio can be. There's a sense missing. Your brain fills it in.

HAZANAVICIUS: So you do it with your own imagination, with your own ghosts, your own life, your own sounds, your own reference. So it makes the movie much more yours in a way.

ULABY: I saw "The Artist" with someone who swore later he could remember what the actors sounded like. The film is critically adored. It's a smash in France and the lead won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Still...

How difficult was it to get people to finance a silent, black-and-white movie.

HAZANAVICIUS: Yeah, that's one of the more difficult parts of the entire process.

ULABY: What helped Hazanavicius was the fact that back at home he'd made two hit comedies about a French secret agent.


ULABY: If you're ever bored one night at home, it's worth checking out the "OSS 117" movies. They happen to star the same two leads as "The Artist," so producers signed on reluctantly to Hazanavicius' wild dream of filming a black-and-white silent movie on location in Los Angeles.

HAZANAVICIUS: They didn't say no exactly but it was a very shy yes.

ULABY: "The Artist" was shot on classic old Hollywood back lots, as well as historic locations here. The cast includes some great American faces, character actors like John Goodman and James Cromwell, who you maybe remember from "Six Feet Under" and "Babe."

JAMES CROMWELL: My goal was not to be in a silent picture.


ULABY: Cromwell says most actors prefer to be heard. They're accustomed to using their voices and acting in ways that work in contemporary film.

CROMWELL: The trick is to always come under in the performance and do very, very little with your face. Your face - you keep your eyes open always because you don't want to blink because when you blink, the director's going to cut away from you. So you betray as little of your inner life through your face as possible and everything is done by the dialogue.

ULABY: Acting in a silent picture meant rediscovering how your face and body could express your character.


ULABY: Of course, music also does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in a silent film. Director Michele Hazanavicius played it as the actors worked, to set the mood. Now, as he ambles down a particularly noisy Los Angeles street, he says it was a real benefit not to have to worry, say, about sirens.


HAZANAVICIUS: What's great with a silent movie is that kind of sound, it doesn't - it's OK. You can shoot.

ULABY: The mechanics of silent film production was also a blessing for one of the film's other stars, a scruffy dog whose trainer could bark orders while the cameras were rolling.

HAZANAVICIUS: Usually he has to wait for the actors to stop talking. He could really talk to his dog during the shooting. And maybe that's why the dog is so good in the movie.

ULABY: So good, the dog actually won a special award.

HAZANAVICIUS: La Palm Dog, which is a pun on La Palme D'or on La Palm Dog. I think it's a bone or something.

ULABY: If Oscar watchers are right, Hazanavicius may take home the movie world's biggest bone of all, the Oscar for Best Picture.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.