Are movies about moviemaking the shortcut to Oscar glory?
During award season, nothing says Oscar more than a movie about moviemaking. So it’s no surprise that the film that has so far earned the most award season word of mouth is “The Artist,” a valentine to the romantic era of silent movies by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius. Despite being in black and white and having almost no dialogue, the film is near the top of every Oscar pundit’s best-picture scorecard.
Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is also getting its fair share of award season buzz, thanks to a flood of glowing reviews. Set in 1930s France, it chronicles the relationship between a young boy who tends the clocks in a Paris train station and a curmudgeonly toy seller who turns out to be Georges Méliès, the cinema wizard whose groundbreaking 1902 short, “A Trip to the Moon,” made him one of the most iconic figures from the pioneer days of filmmaking.
Both films have award season cred because the motion picture academy voters have rarely been able to resist heaping plaudits on movies about show business. As early as 1937, the academy fell in love with the inside-showbiz tale “A Star Is Born,” giving it seven Oscar nominations. In 1950, Hollywood spawned two big showbiz-centric Oscar favorites, with Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” vying for Oscar glory against “All About Eve,” a backstage Broadway drama that ended up winning six Oscars, including one for best picture.
More recently, “Chicago,” a classic backstage musical, won the best picture statuette in 2003, and Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” a 2005 best-picture contender, chronicled the exploits of Howard Hughes, who produced a host of seminal early sound films and romanced a host of Hollywood starlets.
This year, both “The Artist” and “Hugo” have a lot going for them. “The Artist” is loaded with charm and sly wit. It cleverly draws on our memories of past films. The leading man has a Jack Russell terrier that is a throwback to Asta, the playful wire-haired fox terrier in “The Thin Man” movies, while the film’s flinty chauffeur, played by James Cromwell, is clearly inspired by a similar character played by Erich von Stroheim in “Sunset Boulevard.”
As Scorsese’s first foray into 3-D, “Hugo” also functions as a meditation on the art of filmmaking, with Scorsese breaking new ground using 21st century stereoscopic cameras as he tells the story of a filmmaker who pioneered many of the tricks Scorsese and other artists grew up using.
European filmmakers have often hit Oscar pay dirt with movies about movies. Notable examples are Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” in 1963, François Truffaut’s “Day for Night” in 1973 and Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” in 1989, which were all memory films about the influence of film — and filmmaking — on their characters’ lives. The key word here is memory. The academy eyes the past with a reverence and emotional tug, which is why so many films set in the past do so well at award time.
Harvey Weinstein, who understands Oscar voters better than anyone else alive, recently pointed out that Hollywood loves films about the creative process almost as much as films about showbiz. If you study Oscar history, you see that it’s a shrewd observation (and not just because Weinstein’s new film, “My Week With Marilyn,” another inside showbiz tale, will probably earn Michelle Williams a lead actress nomination). Oscar voters are fascinated with creative process films, whether they are stories about a troubled math genius (“A Beautiful Mind”), the Bard at work on a masterpiece (“Shakespeare in Love”), a musician whose gift helps him avoid certain death (“The Pianist”), a writer whose work ripples through generations (“The Hours”) or a brainy iconoclast whose college-dorm invention changes the way we relate to each other (“The Social Network”).
The Oscars are all about celebrating artistry, so it’s no wonder that the movies that often resonate the most with academy voters are films that explore the lives of artists, whether they are literally show people or simply characters whose creativity is an art form in itself. It’s why, come nomination day, academy voters may not forget about “Midnight in Paris” either. The Woody Allen film is all about our fascination with the artistic process, populated with iconic artists (Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who’ve already been absorbed into our movie memories. It’s a pretty simple award season equation. Art about art equals Oscar nomination — at the very least.
Photo: Berenice Bejo, right, with Jean Dujardin at a screening of "The Artist" at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year in Cannes, France. Credit: Vincent Damourette/European Pressphoto Agency