2012, more than any other cinematic year I can remember, was the year of movie re-makes and sequels. So it seems just perfect that the Academy Award-winning Best Picture should have been the fourth remake of “A Star is Born.”
The Oscar winner is called “The Artist,” ironically. It was made by a French director with French actors in lead parts. But it is a movie about Hollywood movies and the change-over from silent films to talkies. It is set in Hollywood. Most of its cast members are Americans, including John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and the British comedic actress Missi Pyle. Malcolm McDowell has a cameo.
“The Artist” is not a silent movie but rather a movie without dialog. The soundtrack music, like most of the impressive, black and white cinematic techniques, is retro, but really more like what one would get in movies of the forties or even fifties than the late silent (1920s) or early talkie (1930s) periods. Late in the film some sounds that are not human speech appear in the soundtrack along with the music.
For those readers who haven’t already had to sit through different versions of “A Star is Born,” here is the basic story as arranged for this particular reiteration: A successful silent movie star named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) meets a young actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and the two are attracted to each other.
Over the next couple of reels, George loses his wife (Miller), his wealth (to the stock market crash), and his career as talking pictures come in. He produces a last silent film himself, losing lots of money in the process. Meanwhile Peppy has become a very popular film actress.
He overhears her making what he interprets to be sneers at older actors. She tries to help him out without being obvious, secretly buying everything George sells and hiring his loyal chauffeur (Cromwell). But George remains proud. He drinks, seemingly without effect.
Downsized and living with his wonderful trick screen dog as his only companion, George just can’t stand it anymore. He sets fire to prints of some of his films and the fire fills the little house with smoke. Will he survive? Will the story find some way to ease his feeling of worthlessness? Brother, can you spare a dime?
Writer and director Michel Hazanavicius tells the story with considerable good humor, but it is still a tear-jerker of a tale. Dujardin and Bejo are likable. One can see what George is supposed to have brought to the screen that people would have and still do like. The film runs about an hour and a half and has enough going on in it that viewers won’t be bored by it. The dog is terrific.
But the story is silly. George is not a tragic hero undone by his pride so much as he is a specialist in a world where change is common and almost everyone has to move with the times. We don’t mourn the tragedy of the actors who have spent careers making t.v. soap operas now that their particular entertainment form is apparently on its way to the dump, do we?
“The Artist” doesn’t actually benefit much from being without audible dialog. I suppose the lack of talk and the fear that audiences would dislike the inclusion of intertitles (that’s what the cards reporting what the actors just said used to be called) have helped limit the movie’s liabilities. It may be tighter in some sense for having been essentially silent.
But the story and treatment are, again, more like later movies than like the ones made by silent geniuses like D.W. Griffith and Kansan Buster Keaton. If I want to watch a silent movie, I’ll watch theirs. And I won’t want to watch a version of “A Star is Born” ever again, silent or not.