A silent screen star rejects the introduction of "talkies," while a young actress' film career is on the rise in this silent, serio-comic ode to Old Hollywood. The Weinstein Company release was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won five Oscars, including Best Picture of 2011.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, a Douglas Fairbanks-like silver screen icon whose films generously show off his suave looks and derring-do.
As "The Artist" opens, we witness the black-tie premiere of Valentin's latest film, "A Russian Affair," in which Valentin's character (aided by his trusty canine sidekick) escapes the clutches of his Bolshevik captors, rescues a blonde maiden, and takes to the skies.
"Free Georgia forever!!!" he declares (in a silent screen inter-title).
The film is received with boisterous applause (which, naturally, we don't hear). Valentin takes his bows before his adoring public - and is loathe to share the adulation with his female co-star Constance (Missi Pyle).
While engaging the press, Valentin "meets cute" with a fan and aspiring actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). They play it up for the cameras, to the delight of everyone - except Valentin's long-simmering wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).
Eager to capitalize on her notoriety, Peppy heads to Kinograph Studios for extra and chorus work.
Peppy Miller and a fellow actor (Malcolm McDowell) await a casting call.
Peppy is hired to appear in a scene with Valentin.
In take after take, we see their growing attraction for one another.
Peppy sneaks into Valentin's dressing room, where she fantasizes being in his embrace, courtesy of his tuxedo hanging on a coat rack.
Though attracted to Peppy, Valentin is mindful of his marital state, and instead offers her advice from a Hollywood veteran: "If you want to be an actress, you need to have something no one else has."
He then gifts her with a beauty spot above her upper lip, courtesy of a make-up pencil.
The studio's boss (John Goodman) invites his biggest star to a screening of a new sound film technology that will revolutionize entertainment, and possibly improve the fortunes of the studio.
But Valentin is disparaging, believing talkies are a fad, and laughably announces that he doesn't need a "voice" to sell tickets.
He fails to see the future.
To Valentin's amazement Kinograph announces it is suspending production on all silent films - "talkies only" from now on!
"People want to see new faces. TALKING faces!" says the studio head. "And the public is never wrong."
Defiant, George leaves the studio, declaring, "It's me the people want and it's my films they want to see. And I'm going to give them to them. . . . I don't need you. Go make your talking movies. I'm going to make them a beautiful film!"
But the encroaching new technology induces sound-infected nightmares for Valentin.
Valentin pours his heart and soul (and bank account) into a self-produced melodrama, set on the Dark Continent, called "Tears of Love."
But the crowds do not come.
Instead, he watches as the audience lines up for a new sensation down the street - starring Peppy Miller.
Peppy has taken the silver screen by storm, playing up her spunky flapper personality portraying "The girl next door ... The girl you'll love to love!"
Meanwhile, Valentin's prospects are washing away.
After the failure of "Tears of Love" - and a little thing called the stock market crash - Valentin is at rock bottom.
He envisions the life he once had, but which now appears to be beyond his grasp.
Peppy's rising stardom reveals a similar hubris that affected Valentin, when she talks to reporters:
"People are sick to death of those old actors who pull faces to make themselves understood. Anyway, it's normal for the young to take over from the old, that's life. Make way for youth!"
But when Peppy discovers Valentin's obsession, she decides to embark on a course that may change both their fortunes.
Reproducing silent film language to tell a story about silent pictures, "The Artist" both focuses on an intimate story of a man's prideful fall and fight for redemption, and on the vicissitudes of such a fickle business as entertainment.
It was indeed a shock to the Hollywood system when sound was introduced, and the earliest examples of talkies - compared to the silents of such directors as Chaplin, Murnau, Vidor, Lang, von Sternberg, Pabst and Keaton - were stage-bound, claustrophobic and, well, talky.
Valentin here has a point: The new technology was TERRIBLE. But it was NEW, and failing to be an early adapter meant death for many a career. It's a lesson that still resonates today.
Director Michel Hazanavicius says telling stories without words is the purest form of moviemaking. "Really, it's about images. You don't need dialogue," he told CBS News' Lee Cowan. "People think it's intellectual, but it's exactly the opposite. . . . It's a very sensual experience."
Hazanavicius said convincing a Hollywood studio to fund a silent movie in the 21st century was difficult. "Well, at first they were smiling," he said, as if they thought he were kidding. Their response? "'OK, you want to do that - but what do you want to do for REAL?'"
Jean Dujardin received the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards for his performance in "The Artist." He was also nominated for an Academy Award.
Previously Dujardin starred in the espionage capers "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" and "OSS 117: Lost in Rio" (both directed by Hazanavicius). He also appeared in "Mariages!" "Le convoyeur," "Counter Investigation," "Hellphone," "99 francs" and "Ca$h."
Jean Dujardin with director Michel Hazanavicius on the set of "The Artist."
Berenice Bejo, the wife of director Michel Hazanavicius, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance in "The Artist."
Bejo appeared opposite Heath Ledger in "A Knight's Tale" (2001).
Her other film credits include "Passionnement," "The Captive," "24 Hours in the Life of a Woman," "Dans le rouge du couchant," "Dissonances," "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies," "Cavalcade," "The House," "Modern Love," "Bouquet final" and "Prey."
John Goodman plays the studio executive desperate to modernize by branching into talkies.
He said he was attracted to playing a big shot, without lines. 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?" he said.
James Cromwell ("L.A. Confidential," and an Oscar nominee for "Babe") plays Valentin's loyal chauffeur.
He says that 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."
Though "The Artist" has virtually no dialogue, it IS filled with wall-to-wall music, courtesy of Oscar-nominated composer Ludovic Bource.
The pastiche of musical styles - from flapper-era swing to lush Golden Age Hollywood film scoring - garnered some controversy by liberally quoting from Bernard Herrmann's music for Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" in a key dramatic scene.
More controversial was a full-page ad in the trades placed by "Vertigo" star Kim Novak, who called the filmmakers' appropriation of the music tantamount to "rape."
Hazanavicius responded by calling his film "a love letter to cinema . . . I love Bernard Herrmann and his music has been used in many different films and I'm very pleased to have it in mine. I respect Kim Novak greatly and I'm sorry to hear she disagrees."
Filming a dance sequence in "The Artist."
Although many of the techniques of Old Hollywood were used against - mimicking the lighting styles, shooting in 1:33 frame ratio - the production actually photographed "The Artist" on color film and then converted the image to black and white in a lab because (according to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman) current black-and-white film stocks produce too sharp an image, unlike the shimmering, glowing nitrate images of yesteryear.
Actor Jean Dujardin reacts as he accepts the award for Best Actor for "The Artist" from actress Catherine Deneuve, during the awards ceremony at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, Sunday, May 22, 2011.
Actor Jean Dujardin poses for a portrait during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, Sept. 12, 2011.
Actor Jean Dujardin accepts the Best Actor - Comedy/Musical for "The Artist," during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
Berenice Bejo arrives at The Weinstein Company 2012 Golden Globe After Party at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012.
Actor Jean Dujardin accepts the Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role award for "The Artist" during the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 29, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Actress Berenice Bejo and actor Jean Dujardin pose in the press room during the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards, held at The Hollywood Palladium on January 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. "The Artist" received the Best Picture Award.
Director Michel Hazanavicius, winner of the Director Guild of America's Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film for 2011 Award for "The Artist," poses in the press room at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland on January 28, 2012 in Hollywood, California.
Jean Dujardin and George Clooney - each nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, for "The Artist" and "The Descendants" - pose for a group photo at the 84th Academy Awards Nominations Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton hotel on February 6, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
Michel Hazanavicius accepts the Best Director Award for "The Artist" onstage during the 84th Annual Academy Awards February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California.
Backstage Hazanavicius was asked his personal favorites of silent films: "It's very difficult to say one, because silent movie is not a genre, you know, that because it's just a format. I would say that the Murnau's movies, the American ones, "Sunrise" and "City Girl." . . . King Vidor's "The Crowd," it's a wonderful movie. Everybody can see it. It's easy to watch. It's very touching. It's moving picture and very modern."
He also praised Tod Browning's "The Unknown Gypsy Circus," "Underworld," "Docks of New York," and works by Charlie Chaplin.
Actor Jean Dujardin accepts the Best Actor Oscar for "The Artist" during the 84th annual Academy Awards held at the Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California. "Merci beaucoup," he said.
Meryl Streep, winner of the Best Actress Award for "The Iron Lady," and actor Jean Dujardin, winner of the Best Actor Award for "The Artist," pose in the press room at the 84th annual Academy Awards on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California.
Composer Ludovic Bource, winner of the Best Original Score Award for "The Artist," attends the 84th Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California.
In the press room Bource said (through an interpreter) that the first prize he got for "The Artist," at the European Film Awards, was a statue of a woman, and that his son had said, "Papa, you need to bring me the man, the Oscar, so that they can kiss each other." Ah, l'amour!
For galleries of each of the nominees for Best Picture click on the links below: