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BOB'S TAKE

Movie once unlikely contender, now Oscar front-runner
By Bob Fischbach
WORLD-HERALD STAFF LUNCH


When it comes to the award-season fortunes of a movie, what a difference a month can make.

Shortly before the Oscar nominations came out four weeks ago, "The Artist" and "The Descendants" were seen as solid frontrunners for the coveted best-picture award.

Since then, one has been pulling way out front.

"The Artist" is the story of a 1920s silent-film actor (Jean Dujardin) whose fortunes are reversed by the introduction of talkies, while a chorus girl he helps break into the biz (Berenice Bejo) becomes the new it girl.

"The Artist" once looked like an unlikely Academy Award contender. It's in black and white and is an all but silent movie, two distinctions many movie fans simply can't get past. It stars two French actors virtually unknown to American audiences. The French director-screenwriter, Michel Hazanavicius, also is new to Hollywood.

But look what's happened as award season has rolled along.

"The Artist" won best film last week at the BAFTA Awards, Britain's closest equivalent to the Oscar. It won best comedy or musical at the Golden Globes. It was the top pick by the Producers Guild of America, the Broadcast Film Critics, the film critics in New York, London, Boston, Phoenix, San Diego, Toronto and Washington, D.C.

Perhaps as significant: Hazanavicius won the Directors Guild of America's top prize. The DGA's choice matches the eventual best-picture Oscar winner more than 80 percent of the time, just about the best harbinger out there for how things are likely to go.

And yet.

Omaha director-screenwriter Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," about a Hawaiian family in crisis, won movie of the year from the American Film Institute, the best-drama Golden Globe and film critics awards for best film in Los Angeles, Dallas, Florida and the Southeast.

"The Descendants" has earned $70.7 million in North America, nearly three times the take of "The Artist," whose box office numbers have been anemic. Weeks after snagging 10 Oscar nominations (only "Hugo" has more, at 11, but it's hobbled by zero acting nominations), "The Artist" has sold just $24 million worth of tickets in North America.

But the Academy Awards are not about the public's taste in movies. They're about artistic achievement. And while you could make a case for "The Descendants" on both substantive story matter and the craft of filmmaking, the Academy has always been a sucker for movies about moviemaking. Hollywood clearly warms to the topic of its own history.

Academy voters are older than the average moviegoer, less likely to look on black-and-white and a celebration of silent films as negatives.

"The Artist" clearly has the big mo, and not just in the best-picture race. Hazanavicius is the favorite for best director over Payne and Martin Scorsese ("Hugo").

And while George Clooney was once widely hailed as the odds-on favorite for a best-actor trophy, prognosticators now slightly favor Dujardin, who won a Golden Globe to match Clooney's for "The Descendants" (they were in separate comedy and drama categories) plus the Screen Actors Guild best-actor award (one category only), among many others.

Clooney is well-liked in Hollywood and has gotten plenty of love from the Academy in the past, including nominations for co-writing and directing "Good Night, and Good Luck," for co-writing "The Ides of March" and for best actor in "Michael Clayton" and "Up in the Air." He won the supporting actor trophy for "Syriana" in 2005.

Dujardin is a first-time nominee with no high-profile credits before "The Artist."

Similarly, Payne enjoys a strong relationship with the Academy, having served on its Board of Governors. He snagged directing nominations for "Sideways" and "The Descendants." His first nod was for the adapted screenplay of "Election," which he shared with Jim Taylor, and the two won the adapted-screenplay trophy for "Sideways." Payne is nominated again, for the adapted screenplay of "The Descendants," along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rasch.

Hazanavicius, like Dujardin, is a first-time nominee who was nowhere near the Academy's radar screen before "The Artist" came along.

My opinion: Payne won't go home empty-handed. He'll win his second screenwriting trophy.

Could "The Descendants" pull a surprise and win best picture? You bet.

Could Payne be the shocker of the evening as best-director winner? It's possible.

Could Clooney top Dujardin as best actor? Probably the most likely category in which "The Artist" could lose to "The Descendants."

But I wouldn't bet the farm on any of those happening. Not with the track record "The Artist" has heading into Sunday night.

Hear World-Herald reviewer Bob Fischbach's summary of what's opening each week at the movies Friday mornings on KQKQ-FM, 98.5, at 8:50 a.m.; and KOOO-FM, 101.9, at 8:35 a.m.

Contact the writer: Bob Fischbach

bob.fischbach@owh.com    |   402-444-1269

Bob reviews movies and local theater productions and writes stories about those topics, as well.

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