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Hard sell for Oscar favorite ‘The Artist’

By Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

PHILADELPHIA — Thomas Langmann was elated. The French film producer had a script he loved. It was about a Hollywood heartthrob, his faithful dog, and a cute bit player.

But when he pitched the story to potential financiers in 2010, “the meetings were very short,” Langmann said by phone from Paris. “They asked, ‘Do you have any other ideas?’”

Virtually no one wanted to invest in “The Artist.” Not only did the film lack a marquee director and recognizable stars, but Langmann also wanted to shoot it as a silent film in black and white set in 1928, the dawn of talking pictures.

So Langmann did what producers and gamblers — and the protagonists of “The Artist” — do. He mortgaged his assets and financed the $15 million movie from writer/director Michel Hazanavicius.

The little-seen, out of nowhere film received a boatload of Oscar nods and is poised to take best picture honors Sunday night at the 84th Academy Awards.

“It’s got 10 nominations, wins from the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild,” says author and Oscar handicapper Mark Harris. “There’s no reason to assume it isn’t going all the way.”

In the movies, as in so many other realms, success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. “The Artist” has three Dads — Langmann, Hazanavicius, and distributor Harvey Weinstein, an Oscar-campaign strategist who has masterminded four best-picture wins since 1996.

For Langmann, son of the late Claude Berri, the Oscar-winning producer-director, the prospect of being a Frenchman at the Academy Awards is almost surreal. Consider that when Berri won an Oscar in 1966 for his short, “Le Poulet,” he could not accept in person. Lacking cash for the plane ticket, Berri received his statuette by mail. Consider also that “The Artist” is the first French-only production nominated for best picture since Berri’s own “Tess” in 1980. And consider that if Langmann, 40, wins, he will join Coppolas, Hustons and Minnellis as a member of an Oscar dynasty.

Should “The Artist,” which has been an awards magnet since its premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival, take the top prize, it would be the first silent film so honored since 1929, the inaugural year of the Academy Awards.

It is a throwback in this throwback year of best-picture nominees. This French movie is up against eight contenders — among them are “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris,” American movies set in the Paris of the 1920s; “The Help,” set in the Jackson, Miss., of the 1960s; and “The Tree of Life,” set in the Texas of the 1950s.

Hazanavicius says “The Artist” was conceived under a lucky star. “I met the right producer at the right time,” he said. Still, he admits, it takes more than serendipity for non-American filmmakers to crash Oscar’s best-picture party.

“There’s the movie,” says the 44-year-old filmmaker. “And then there’s Harvey Weinstein.” The director is certain that without the principal of the Weinstein Co., “we would not be here.”

As Langmann remembers it, “I always wanted to work with Michel.” He proposed that Hazanavicius remake “Fantomas, the hugely popular early 20th-century series of French crime movies. Langmann, known for the gangster films “Mesrine and the broad comedy “Asterix Goes to the Olympics, envisioned their new film as the French counterpart of Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes movies. Hazanavicius imagined a black-and-white silent. Langmann suggested that the director write an original.

The first draft was set in Berlin in the 1920s. “I planned to shoot it in the German Expressionistic style. The hero was depressed. In the end, he committed suicide.” Hazanavicius worried it might be too much for the audience.

When friends asked him why he wanted to make a silent movie, “I realized I had been more interested in the how than the why.” This time, the pleasure of re-creating a period, as he had for his ‘60s-era “OSS” comedies starring Jean Dujardin, wasn’t enough.

“It occurred to me that the audience could better accept a silent movie if it was about a silent-movie actor.” When the setting shifted to Hollywood of the 1920s, so did the film’s tone. The expressionist shadows were still there, but there also were rays of sunshine — and tap dancing. Not to mention a scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier.

In three months, he wrote the Hollywood draft, originally titled “The Beauty Spot,” expressly for his life partner, Berenice Bejo, and comedian Dujardin, who played the smug undercover agent of “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio.” Dujardin declined. Hazanavicius persisted. “I knew that with him it would be perfect.”

The only change Langmann requested was a new title.

After being rebuffed by the deeper pockets among European movie financiers, the producer raised some money from French TV. It was insufficient. His father had mortgaged the family home to make “Tess.” So Langmann mortgaged his movie library, future profits from the films he produced. Financing “The Artist” was just like its hero, Georges Valentin, mortgaging his assets to make a silent movie in a time of talking pictures.

Much of its $15 million budget went to evoke 1920s Los Angeles. Filmmakers got permission to shoot on the Warner Brothers and Paramount lots. The manor that Bejo’s character, talkies star Peppy Miller, lives in was the home of silent-movie legend Mary Pickford.

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