On a night with a few surprises, “The Artist” withstood a challenge from “Hugo” because Oscar voters thought it was a miracle, not a novelty
In the end, the Oscars ran more or less the way people thought they would. Everything old was new again, silence was golden, and a batch of shiny statuettes will soon have first-class passage on Air France.
"The Artist" was named the Best Picture because it charmed Academy voters in a way nothing else did, because box-office figures no longer mean much to the Academy, and because no other film was ever able to establish itself as the alternative for the voters who didn't want the black-and-white silent film to win.
Its critics may have felt that "The Artist" was a novelty, but it didn't seem that way to voters.
Instead, it seemed like a miracle.
And on a night when the Academy put a scare into the film that had dominated awards season, giving five awards to "Hugo" during the first half of the show, the body of voters accused of being too old, too white and too male finally went for the film that was so old-fashioned that it felt fresh and new to them.
It wasn't an Oscar show with a lot of surprises, though Meryl Streep's Best Actress victory after a 29-year drought was a shock to those of us who thought Viola Davis would win.
"The Artist" is now the first film to win both the Best Picture Oscar and France's Cesar Award for best film, the second to win both the Indie Spirit Award and the Oscar, and the first silent film to be named Best Picture since the very first Oscars, in 1927.
(The film does have one sequence with sound effects, and another, briefer one with dialogue. So it might be more accurate to call it a largely silent film.)
And its victory capped an exceptionally good night for the Weinstein Company, which ended up with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Documentary Feature, among others.
The results also left me wondering if the last two years haven't seen the return of the old Academy.
Two and a half years ago, on the day I began writing an awards column for TheWrap, I talked about the reasons why "The Hurt Locker" might win Best Picture even though it was seen as being too tough and too small and too violent to win.
I asked: Wasn't the 2006 winner "The Departed" too violent? Wasn't "Slumdog Millionaire" too tough and too small? Wasn't "No Country for Old Men" too tough and too small and too violent?
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With those choices, and with the subsequent pick of "The Hurt Locker," Academy voters showed that they could go for risky films well outside the definition of what used to be an Oscar film.
But then last year they chose "The King's Speech" over the riskier "The Social Network," and this year they opted for "The Artist" – two inspiring, emotional, feel-good movies very far from that "Departed"/"No Country"/"Slumdog"/"Hurt Locker" string.
Is this the return of The Oscar Movie? Are we seeing the dawn of a new conservatism within the Academy? Has its own version of the Tea Party seized control?
It's possible, though I think "The King's Speech" would have been an Oscar winner in almost any year. And I think "The Artist" came along in a perfect year, and then played the awards game perfectly.
When it debuted at Cannes, where it was a last-minute entry, it came as a delightful surprise: Here was a silent movie that pulled off its conceit and actually worked as a film. The Weinstein Company bought it, and suddenly a Best Picture nomination seemed to be a possibility – a crazy possibility, perhaps, but a possibility nonetheless.
Commercially it was still a longshot, so Weinstein worked the festival circuit, and director Michel Hazanavicius and stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo spent most of awards season in Los Angeles. And when they weren't around, the rest of the "Artist" cast – Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Uggie the dog – worked tirelessly on their behalf.
For the initial round, the idea was to get people to see the film, to sell it as vibrant and fun and exciting. Promotional images were always limited, and the one that was used incessantly (right) was all glamour and pizzazz.
Then, when that worked and it got the nominations, the film had to appeal to everybody to triumph in the Oscar system of Best Picture vote-counting, where the winning film needs to craft a consensus.
At that point the emphasis shifted to the film's emotion: lest its charm and flair not seem substantial enough, Weinstein began to feature a more somber picture of Dujardin (below), and a tag line that emphasized the emotion: "You don't have to say anything to feel everything."
Meanwhile, its main contenders never managed to gain enough of a foothold. "The Descendants" was a deft blend of drama and comedy, but it was all nuance and subtlety and carefully-calibrated mood shifts; even George Clooney's immeasurable charm, and surprisingly strong box-office numbers, weren't enough to make it a consensus favorite.
Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" was dazzling and magical, but also schizophrenic: part adventure tale for kids, part homage to the early days of cinema. Those who loved it really loved it, but it also proved to be divisive, which undermined its chances in the final vote.
And Tate Taylor's "The Help" had the support of the actors, by far the largest branch in the Academy. It could have been a real challenger if it had support from any other branch, but it didn't; its four nominations consisted of Best Picture plus three acting nods, one of which it won.
If one of those films had been able to sell itself as the movie to vote for if you didn't want "The Artist" to win, it might well have been able to pull off an upset. But none of them quite got there, despite the SAG ensemble win for "The Help" and a mid-February flurry of awards for "The Descendants."
(It didn't help that Harvey Weinstein, the master of making his film the alternative, was in the camp of "The Artist," not the one of any of the films that needed to employ one of his specialties.)
The bottom line was that 2011 had a lot of movies for voters to like, but it didn't have a lot for them to love.
But it had "The Artist," a film that charmed its way right into the winner's circle.