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"The Artist": Silents are still golden

From Points West this morning, Lee Cowan has a sneak preview of a SILENT movie that's making a lot of noise. You might think the idea that silence if golden seems totally out of place in the world of modern filmmaking. But no!

It was Hollywood's infancy - when just a gesture or a glance was enough to light up the silver screen - a time, as Gloria Swanson once famously quipped in "Sunset Boulevard," when stars "had faces."

"You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big."

"I AM big. It's the PICTURES that got small."

But Norma Desmond might have felt right at home at THIS premiere last week. The film getting all the attention was a quirky, against-the-odds project entitled "The Artist."

Not only is it in black and white - but it's wordless, as in SILENT.

But THIS was shot in the Hollywood of today - with every high-tech sound recording device simply turned OFF.

"No one's shouting 'Quiet on the set!'?" asked Lee Cowan.

"No, no!" laughed French director Michel Hazanavicius, whose brainchild "The Artist" is. Telling stories without words he says, was a fantasy - the purest form of moviemaking.

"Really, it's about images. You don't need dialogue," he said. "People think it's intellectual, but it's exactly the opposite. I mean, it's very sensorial. It's a very sensual experience."

But selling silence, in a town where Avatars and Transformers roam the studio backlots, is no easy task.

When he first told people I want to make a silent movie, Hazanavicius said, "Well, at first they were smiling and ..."

"As if they thought you were kidding?" asked Cowan.

"Exactly. Yeah, OK, you want to do that, but what do you want to do for REAL?"

He WAS for real. The script he wrote is about a silent movie star named George Valentin, played by French actor Jean Dujardin, complete with a dog sidekick.

John Goodman plays Valentin's boss, the studio executive desperate to modernize by branching into talkies instead.

What was it about the role that attracted him? "Playing a big shot, without lines!" he replied.

Since there was no scripted dialogue, he (and ALL the actors) just made it up, acting out loud, even though the audience would never hear a word.

"If I screwed up the dialogue that I was improvising, who cares?" said Goodman.

"You didn't have to memorize a thing!" said Cowan.

"Less work for Dad," Goodman laughed. "Me like!"

Not that it was easy.

James Cromwell, who plays Valentin's loyal chauffeur, says on the silent screen over-acting is far too easy.

"The difficulty for an actor is that you have no reference as to where to pitch your performance," Cromwell said. "Usually we gauge it by hearing ourselves speak. This, you have to rely completely on your facial expressions and your gestures."

And of course, the music, which becomes almost a character itself.

It helps set the mood of what becomes a love story between Valentin (whose star begins to fade) and his beautiful chorus girl, who soon finds her voice in the "talkies."

To bring the character Peppy Miller to life, Beranice Bejo (the director's wife) spent hours studying classic film legends like Marlene Dietrich.

"I used to watch the way she winks and she smoked cigarettes and hold her head and move just because I needed to have a sense of what it was to be an American movie star," Bejo said.

Weinstein Company

But perhaps even Hollywood stars couldn't have done quite so much with a coat rack!

Even her husband director was shocked.

"I was like trying stuff," she explained, "and he said, 'Oh keep that. That is so funny!"

Funny, and charming - those are the two words most often used to describe this film. The film's gotten rapturous receptions at the Cannes, Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Some are even talking Academy Awards.

The last time a silent movie got an Oscar - it was the first Oscar ever.

It was "Wings," all the way back in 1927.

"Silent films are not coming back, you know?" said Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. "No one has to be fearful of that, or excited about that!"

Turan sees just one downside of "The Artist": "The hardest thing about this film is to convince people that they're going to like it," he said. "I've been telling people about it for months, and you can tell by the look in people's eyes, they say, 'Yeah, you SAY it's good, but ... it's a SILENT film. I'm not going."

That would be a shame. Silence, says the director, has so much to offer.

"When you want to tell your wife you love her, for example, I mean you can say, 'I love you,'" said Hazavanicius. "But if you just stop and you just LOOK at her - I mean, something happens with no words. It's more powerful."

Which is why we'll stop talking now, too ...

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