Will ‘The Artist’ be this year’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’?

At the Oscars, “The Artist” could be a tough sell. It’s a French, black-and-white silent film competing against movies whose genres have a proven track record with the Academy: a historical biopic (Clint Eastwood‘s “J. Edgar“), a war epic (Steven Spielberg‘s “War Horse“), and a high-minded political drama (George Clooney‘s “The Ides of March“), among others.


Gold Derby editors, experts, and users currently put “The Artist” in the running for a Best Picture nomination, but can it actually win? It has more in common than you might think with “Shakespeare in Love,” which staged one of Oscar’s biggest upsets thirteen years ago when it defeated “Saving Private Ryan.” To wit:

It’s a feel-good romance. With some notable exceptions (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Hurt Locker”), the film that appeals to voters’ emotions usually wins. That’s one of the reasons the heartwarming “Shakespeare” beat the darker, more violent “Ryan.” Consider also: “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network,” “Titanic” over “L.A. Confidential,” “Forrest Gump” over “Pulp Fiction,” “Rocky” over “Taxi Driver,” and so on. If its rapturous reception at the Cannes Film Festival is any indication, “The Artist” could be that kind of emotional crowd-pleaser.

It has artistic pretentions. Will a blithe romantic film appeal to comedy-phobic Oscar voters? It will if it has snob appeal. “Shakespeare in Love” had built-in literary cachet thanks to its subject (who would vote against the Bard?) and its writer (Tony-winning playwright Tom Stoppard), which made it a respectable alternative to Spielberg’s serious anti-war epic. “The Artist” has snob appeal as well: it’s a film with the artistic daring to embrace a silent-era aesthetic in a 21st century marketplace.

It’s about show business. “The Greatest Show on Earth,” “All About Eve,” and “Chicago” also won Best Picture for stories about the entertainment business – you could even count “Slumdog Millionaire,” whose story revolved around a TV game show. Such movies are custom-tailored to appeal to the Hollywood insiders who vote for the Oscars. Furthermore, “The Artist” has a nostalgic component that might especially appeal to older members of the Academy, recalling as it does a classical era of cinema history.

It’s backed by Harvey Weinstein. The Oscar svengali famously helped put “Shakespeare in Love” in the winners circle and secured nominations for other films like “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat” during his years at Miramax. After several years out in the cold, he staged a remarkable awards comeback with “The King’s Speech” last year, proving that he’s once again a force to be reckoned with on the campaign trail. He acquired “The Artist” at Cannes and has scheduled it for a November release, just in time for Oscar season.

But despite its strengths the film will have to overcome a few major hurdles:

It lacks big-name stars. Sure, it has John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell in supporting roles, but they’re not exactly marquee stars, and the lead actors, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, are mostly unknown to American audiences. Other films have won without an A-list cast (“Slumdog,” “Hurt Locker,” “The Last Emperor”), but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

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It lacks an established director. But maybe this isn’t a problem at all. Michel Hazanavicius may not have the name recognition or track record of other contenders in this year’s race – Eastwood, Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher – but that didn’t stop Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”). Or Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”). And though inexperienced filmmakers Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) and Paul Haggis (“Crash”) ended up losing the directing prize to famous auteurs (Roman Polanski and Ang Lee, respectively), their films won Best Picture anyway.

Will it make any money? If it’ll be difficult selling “The Artist” to Oscar voters, it’ll be even more difficult selling it to the moviegoing public. However, last year proved unique art films could succeed at the box office (“Black Swan” and “The Social Network,” grossed a combined $550 million worldwide), so if a contemporary silent film can become a crossover hit, we might suddenly be looking at the film to beat.

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