For Your Consideration: The Year Classic Film Made a Comeback

“Awards! All this town does is give awards! Best Fascist Dictator, Adolf Hitler!” – Woody Allen, Annie Hall

If by chance you are unfamiliar with how the Awards season works, here’s a brief outline: Studios tend to release their real Oscar contenders (i.e., films with any sort of non-mainstream artistic merit) until the year’s final Quarter when, badda bing badda boom, theatres find themselves gorged with posters fairly grafittied by four stars and gratuitous praise– all of which prominently feature the words BEST FILM OF THE YEAR in bolded Times New Roman.  Courting the attentions of voting members of the Academy and industry guilds, these films bottleneck around Thanksgiving, just in time for the first in a long slew of awards nominations. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association unofficially kicks off the Oscar race with the Golden Globes, followed in quick succession by the major industry guild awards, The PGA, DGA and SAG, all of which have a heavy influence on the Oscar outcome (the DGA has failed to predict the best director Oscar only 7 times in the past 60 years). The BAFTAs roll around in early February and, by then, the hotly contended Oscar race has been wined and dined until the Academy members’ votes have been more or less… secured.  If this sounds like a well-oiled political machine, that’s because it is. By the time Oscar night rolls around, the odds are so firmly fixed that there are few, if any, surprises.

But.

What does surprise me this year, with Awards season just now kicking into high gear, is that fact that four of the films garnering the most amount of critical accolades are in fact nods to classic film.

I’m talking about, of course, Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.

From Simon Curtis, in his feature film directorial debut, comes My Week With Marilyn, featuring Michelle Williams taking on (arguably) *the* pop culture icon of the 20th century. The story centers on the filming of Laurence Olivier’s tumultuous production The Prince and the Showgirl where a very young man (Eddie Redemayne) grabs a job on the shoot, meets Marilyn Monroe, and ends up spending a week with her at a guest cottage. And yes, it’s based on a true story. Or at least, a memoir. I’m sure I’m not alone in being rather, shall we say, protective when it comes to portrayals of Marilyn since stereotype and sensationalism so often cheapen the woman behind the image. My Week With Marilyn is a flawed film about a flawed woman, and I suppose that’s what makes it work so well.  Williams may not be Marilyn’s doppleganger, per se, but what Williams absolutely commands is the fragility and loneliness that so consumed Marilyn. The film may lack somewhat in plot, but is entirely forgiven by performance. It is also, let’s be honest, total eye candy for classic film lovers. We get to revel in the early golden years of Pinewood Studios, and are treated to appearances by such classic film luminaries as Laurence Olivier (a solid Kenneth Branagh) Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and even Jack Cardiff (Karl Moffat)! Although charming and sentimental, My Week With Marilyn relies on neither.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS ; Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO

Woody Allen’s unapologetically sentimental Midnight in Paris was released earlier this year, but has enjoyed a recent For Your Consideration awards campaign that has put it squarely in Oscar contention. The film, in many ways, mirrors Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo: in Cairo an unhappy housewife sought relief at her local theatre, while Paris tells the whimsical tale of an idealistic Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who, while on holiday with his very ‘L.A.’ fiancee (Rachel McAdams), finds creative freedom and whirlwind love in 1920s Paris. Literally. A mysterious black taxi cab pulls up  in front of his hotel and whisks him away to a hole in time– make that a watering hole in time. A left bank cafe whose regulars are the none other than the artistic superstars of the ‘20s: Ernest Hemingway, Salvidor Dali, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds– and a beautiful young flapper (Marion Cotillard). While Midnight in Paris is not technically a ‘Hollywood’ movie, and lacks the gut-wrenching stomach punch that makes Cairo such a classic, Paris is still the sort of fanciful grown-up fairy tale that hearkens back to a day when studios were still brave enough (and young enough) to take creative risks– it is a film that could only be made by a  a classic film enthusiast like Allen.

Rather like Allen’s cineaste colleague Marty Scorsese…

Asa Butterfield in HUGO; Harold Lloyd in SAFETY LAST

Like Allen, this proud New Yorker has chosen the City of Lights for his family-friendly offering. Hugo is currently being packaged and marketed as a Holiday family film of feel-good fluff.  Talk about false advertising. Sure, Hugo is family friendly, but it is hardly Holiday fluff. Scorsese, a masterful storyteller, has created a  dazzling film that, at its core, is a lesson in film history, a case for film preservation, and an unabashed love letter to the cinema. (As if one could expect anything less from Marty, cineaste supreme and film preservation champion.) Orphaned when his clockmaker father (Jude Law) is killed in a museum fire, Hugo takes to minding the clocks at a grand Beaux Arts train station, ducking the comically villainous policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen) by weaving in and out of secret nooks and crannies. Just as the clocks never stop ticking, neither does Hugo’s sharp mind– nor his light fingers– which deftly scrape the station for scraps of food and scraps of junk from an old man’s joke shop (a fantastic Ben Kingsley). The boy is desperate to repair a broken automaton, which is his last tangible connection with his father, and is convinced that the automaton is holding a secret message. He’s right… kind of. With the help of spunky, wide-eyed adventuress Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who happens to be the crotchety old joke shop owner’s niece, Hugo unlocks much more than he imaged. It is 1931 and young Hugo is a movie lover– movie going being one of his favorite pastimes with his late father– and he introduces them to Isabelle who has been banned from the movies by her uncle. They gasp and laugh in wonder at Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock in Safety Last (a feat Hugo mimics later in the film) and, it soon becomes clear why Isabelle’s uncle is so opposed to them. The man is none other than Georges Méliès, the first great artist of the cinema, and also the first true casualty of the film business. In a wondrous stretch of visual narrative, Scorsese recreates Méliès’ magical early days of invention and inspiration in dazzling 3D that is a tremendous thrill for film fans. Scorsese’s vivid recreation of A Trip to the Moon (1902) itself is worth the price of admission. Méliès, broken and shadowed by oblivion for so many decades, finds a new beginning through Hugo’s large blue eyes, just as Hugo finds a surrogate father figure in Méliès. They, in effect, fix each other. Too sugary sweet? Maybe, but hardly superficial, and like the classic films that so inspired Scorsese, the result is magic. Will kids bite Scorsese’s clever bate, which is so obviously geared at introducing classic films to a new audience? One can only hope…

Jean Deaujardin in THE ARTIST; Fredric March in A STAR IS BORN

And finally, from French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius comes a film not set in Paris, but rather Hollywood 1927 during the onset of sound.  The Artist is a silent film, shot in black and white in 4:3 aspect ratio and worked from a scenario– not a script. Which means The Artist is The Real McCoy. Whimsical, gorgeous, and at times, just plain magical.

Trust me, no one was more skeptical than I going into The Artist. Just who did this Michel Hazanavicius think he was, anyway? What could he possibly know about silent filmmaking. I am happy to say that my misgivings were ill founded. Hazanavicius is completely in control here.

He is highly fluent with the grammar of silent film narrative. Occasionally, perhaps he understands it a little too well– Hazanivicius’ formulaic setup keeping me from being completely immersed in material. (And total  immersion is what silent film is all about– being completely absorbed in the pure magic of shadow and light). A film critic friend of mine shrugged when I mentioned this, replying that “silent melodramas were all pretty formulaic.” I bit my tongue. In fact, I have decided to bite my tongue about all of my nitpicks with The Artist. (i.e., Kinograph Studios not doing a sound test on its stars until 1929 when sound had in fact already taken over.) because this is NOT a historical film, it is a silent melodrama set in Hollywood.

And who cares that George Valentin (Jean Dujardin)’s tragic story is actually A Star is Born 3.0 (although the performance does, I say, give Fredric March some serious competition.) the fact is he nails it. And when we finally do hear Valentin’s voice, in the final seconds of the film, the fact that he has a French accent is a marvelous kick.

What is also exciting, for silent film enthusiasts, is the reaction of the audience. At a time when the theater going experience is becoming more and more insular, the shared experience of a dark theater becoming less and less of a cultural pasttime, it was so wonderfully (I hate the overuse of this word but no other will do) organic to hear nothing but music and laughter for 90 minutes. (And speaking of music, classic film fans will swoon over the fact that the film’s emotional climax relies entirely on Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score from Vertigo!)

And also, vindicating. An art form over 100 years old still has the power to entertain and charm mainstream audiences… hopefully, the critical success of The Artist means that someone will come along with the balls to prove that silent film also has the power to enlighten!