I recently finished reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder which I thought was terrific and much better analyzed by Jon Fine in an earlier blog than I could do here. I will say, however, that any contemporary author who can lift a line almost verbatim from Casablanca and put it comfortably into an Amazonian setting deserves everyone’s respect.
And, speaking of movies… I wasn’t as enraptured by The Artist, which has recently been released on Blu ray and DVD, as the rest of the world seemed to be, but that, in itself, is not a particularly unusual phenomenon. If Ms. Patchett deserves admiration for rekindling memories of a line of dialog from a great film from the past, the producers of a black and white, silent film in the 21st century deserve something approaching canonization. The goal of a movie from a producer’s standpoint is to make money and nothing about The Artist was very promising from that standpoint. Still, you remove the gutsy aspect from the equation and what you are left with is a derivative movie with a cute dog in it.
The geriatric plot has to do with the decline of a major silent star’s career when the talkies come in, which is paralleled by the ascension of a bright and bubbly newcomer who adores him. If that sounds a lot like the three (and counting) versions of A Star is Born — themselves movies of wildly varying distinctions — it should. So what looks superficially brave and original is just a rehash of a rehash and not a particularly inspired one at that.
Historically, the success of the plot has been dependent upon the charisma of the stars enacting it. Judy Garland carried it off brilliantly, Barbra Streisand foundered badly, and Janet Gaynor peddled her by-then patented brand of sweetness to 1937 audiences that were beginning to weary of it. Their leading men were, respectfully James Mason (who matched Garland every step of the way), Kris Kristofferson (who disliked Streisand, to put it mildly), and Fredric March.
Jean Dujardin, the much-lauded star of The Artist, resembles Mr. March and he projects the same hammy competence that sustained March’s career over the span of several decades. Berenice Bujo has the bubbly aspect of her character, aptly named Peppy Miller, down pat. It is still Uggie that remains in the mind, mostly for all the wrong reasons.
A film so fiercely inoffensive was a shoo-in for an Oscar and The Artist collected a total of five. It is certainly far from the Academy’s worst choice. It will probably be lodged somewhere in the middle of the list of Best Picture selections at a point equidistant from the nadirs of The Greatest Show On Earth, Out of Africa, and Forrest Gump, but barely in sight of All About Eve, Gone With the Wind, and The Godfather. Its immediate neighbors might be The Apartment and My Fair Lady and there is worse company to be lodged between.
The Artist just served to remind me of the title of one of Peggy Lee’s biggest hits — “Is That All There Is?” But, come to think of it, there are worse things to be reminded of.
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