With many of today’s movies competing to be the raunchiest, loudest or filled with the most dazzling visual effects, “The Artist” stands out in a big way because it is a mostly silent film that is deliberately made to look as if it came from the silent-film era. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist” takes place in Hollywood in the late 1920s, during the transition period when silent films started to become outdated and movies with sound began taking over the film industry. “The Artist” is being hailed for its imagination, attention to detail in recreating this historical period, and the impressive performances by the cast members, who could not rely on sound when delivering their dialogue.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent-film star who finds his career on the decline. Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, an aspiring actress who befriends George, and they develop an attraction to each other. John Goodman is ambitious movie-studio executive Al Zimmer. Penelope Ann Miller is Doris, George’s wife, who finds him less attractive the more he experiences problems with his career and finances. James Cromwell is Clifton, George’s loyal chauffeur. At “The Artist” press junket in Los Angeles (where the movie had a special screening at the 2011 AFI Fest), Dujardin, Bejo, Goodman, Miller and Cromwell talked about their memorable experiences in making “The Artist.”
How would you describe your character in “The Artist”?
Bejo: I play Peppy Miller, a young extra who is going to become a famous actress in the ‘30s. She’s a character that is very into life and true to herself and has fun with everything that happens to her, and who is in love with someone — with George. She’s going to be in love with him, through everything he is going to be through: the rise and the fall. She’s always going to be there for him.
Dujardin: George Valentin is a movie star in the ‘20s — a silent movie star. He’s a joker, naïve, sometimes arrogant, but a nice guy. No instinct for the future.
Bejo: The silent movies are over, and it’s the beginning of the talking movies. And [Jean Dujardin’s] character doesn’t want to go into talking movies. He thinks he has something to say in silent [films] still, so he’s like, “No, I don’t want to go there.” And my character is actually becoming a very famous actress of the talking movies. And it’s how they met and how their stories crossed over the years.
Goodman: I play a man named Al Zimmer, who owns the [movie] studio that the artist works at. [Al Zimmer] is one of those old-time cinema pioneers who is tough, but he has to have an artistic sense: keep an eye on the dollar signs, keep an eye on the competition, and keep up with the technology that’s rapidly changing all the time. So it’s a good way to earn a buck in the ‘20s.
I like to think of him as one of the founders of the business, as one of the guys that came out from New York, probably walked his way out of Europe at one point. You know, one of those really tough guys cobbling together a business, and it’s blooming into this huge industry. A pretty tough businessman, but he’s got an eye for the artistic. He’s not an artist, but he knows who to hire and how to take care of things.
How do you think the arrival of sound in movies affected what was going on in U.S. history at that time?
Goodman: Since they’ve been invented, motion pictures have been constantly reinventing themselves. Up until this point, [talking films] has been a major revolution, because a lot of people thought it was going to be a passing fancy, it was a gimmick, like 3-D. It still might be, you never know, but it was on the peak of taking it to one more level. Unfortunately for the country, we’re on a brink of a depression as well. With sound [in film], it really helped a lot of people through, because there were a lot of musicals, a lot of wiseguy movies, a lot of things that really required dialogue, so it came along at a very fortuitous time.
How would you describe George Valentin and Peppy Miller, as played by Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo?
Goodman: This girl Peppy Miller has got what Elinor Glyn in the ‘20s called “it.” She’s definitely got star quality, which unites her and George, because I think that they recognize in each other they’re basically two lonely people, two planets gravitating around each other with this gravity of star power. And it attracts them very much, but he has a moral sense — and she does too — that it’s just not right for them at this time.
But she wants to take care of this guy, because I think for her, it’s the love of the image. And then she gets to meet the person. And then there’s definitely a spark on her part. He’s a little self-involved at first, I believe. But it’s great to watch her rise, because she’s pretty much guileless and ambitious, but she just really has that star quality. She just has it. And when they do finally get together, it’s very gratifying.
She really pulls off a hungry young starlet who wants it all but she’s not harsh in her ambitions. You root for her, because you can tell she’s got a good heart. You just want what she wants for her — and what she wants for him: for George too. She’s young. She’s peppy as hell. She’s just got that presence, that star quality you gravitate toward. Your eye just falls right on her. And she’s a terrific dancer, a hard worker. Boy is she swell to work with — just really easy, really nice.
You just can’t take your eyes off of him. Not only is he a terrific actor, but whatever that quality is that his character has, he has as well. And the same’s true with Bérénice: She’s [got] amazing energy and is as pure as gold.
Cromwell: Jean is magic to work with — so expressive, so present, so quick. He’s simply a joy. And he gives an indication about what you’re to do with your performance, because you’re matching it with somebody who is constantly comfortable with what he is doing, how he is expressing and telling the story.
Miller: Everything is so beautifully conveyed in his eyes and his expression. It is magical. Bérénice, first of all, is just beautiful. And talk about a face! As Gloria Swanson said, “We didn’t need words, darling. We had faces.”
She has a face. And she has beautiful expression in her eyes. And to me, she captured so many of the nuances that I noticed when I would watch these actresses: the Carole Lombards and the Joan Crawfords and the Katharine Hepburns and the Jean Arthurs and Clara Bow and Mary Pickford. The littlest thing: the wink, the shrug of the shoulder, the holding of her fur, the way she stood.
That one scene in the film, which I think is so stunning and so moving is when they’re [George and Peppy] are falling in love, and she sneaks into his dressing room. And she puts his hand into his sleeve and pretends that he’s holding her and caressing her. That scene with silence and incredible music is conveyed so beautifully by her.
Why should people see “The Artist”?
Goodman: It’s a film that is served best by seeing it with an audience. It’s an old-time story that you want to be in a movie palace to see it or a cinema, just to get the reaction of the people around you to share that. Maybe it’s because of the lack of dialogue, it helps fill that in. You’re so intrigued by the story, you focus more on the story. The pictures lend themselves to telling the tale, and the audience really fills a lot of that in. And it’s just great to see a story about Hollywood in black and white with other people.
I just think it’s a good, uncomplicated love story, history lesson, success story. It’s fun and clean. And by “clean,” I don’t mean un-obscene. It’s just clean in easy, simple, good storytelling. It’s fun. It’s just a lot of fun to watch. And the music is terrific! It’s just a good place to spend a buck. It’s just a lot of fun.
It’s just composed in a way that you really can’t take your eyes off it. It’s wonderful to see. It’s got a lot of lovely pictures and lovely people. It’s a great way to tell a story. It’s simple, great filmmaking. It’s a lot of fun.
Michel [Hazanavicius, the writer/director of “The Artist”] is obviously a fan and a student of cinema, particularly early history, because there’s so much in there that’s an amalgam of things that happened and different studio bosses. And it’s a great way to tell a love story about the cinema and about these two people. He handed me a scenario book when he wanted me to do the film, just to show me the type of film it was going to be.
It was a scenario. It had the title cards printed out. And it also had beautiful photos of old movies, old movie studios and stuff like that. It was just lovely. He had a great vision for the thing. And every time I see it, I catch something different. It’s just beautiful.
Miller: I think that’s the beauty of the film, of “The Artist.” We can go back, it can still be as beautiful, it can still be as entertaining, it can still be as moving. And, in fact, I think we’ve gone so far to the extreme, technologically speaking, that we’re forgetting about the contact, we’re forgetting about the character, we’re forgetting about the story. And this movie brings you back to that.
For more info: “The Artist” website
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