In the run up to last night's 84th Academy Awards, one of the common comments-slash-gripes was about the nature of the committee who selects the winners. In an L.A. Times article from last week, John Horn, Nicole Sperling, and Doug Smith wrote that "academy voters are markedly less diverse than the moviegoing public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry may suspect." By that, they mean 94 percent Caucasian, 77 percent male, and with a median age of 62. They are not, perhaps, an example of the typical American, though they are an example of the typical American who has been, traditionally, "in charge" of this country. But what does it mean when those largely male, largely white 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences choose a French film for best picture, and French men for best actor and best director? Does it mean that the era of "Freedom fries" is finally over? Or is the backlash just beginning?
The Artist, which went into the evening with 10 nominations, emerged tied with Martin Scorsese's Hugo as the most honored, with five Oscars (along with best picture, it won for best actor, best director, costume design, and original score) . Upon accepting his award for best actor, Jean Dujardin shouted, “I love your country!” And, with awards also going to Martin Scorsese's Hugo, set in Paris, and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, it might seem that we love France right back.
The New York Post is the most aggressive in refuting that notion. Monday's edition is vehemently aghast at The Artist -- which they call "a silent black-and-white film beloved by cinema snobs" -- and the system by which deemed it "best." The Oscar committee thumbed their noses, the Post puts it, at "the year's most popular," i.e., American-made, films. The cover of the paper features the (American) Rooney Mara along with the headline "Say What?" -- "Artist win has H'wood speechless." Inside, Lou Lumenick posits that the only reason the movie won was because Oscar voters hated it the least.
Still, other outlets herald it as a new day in Franco-American relations. "The French are crowing as only the French can," Marcus Mabry writes in the International Herald Tribune Rendezvous. "One can hope that it will lead to an era of greater emphasis on the universal values and affinities that unite us across all kinds of borders, rather than focusing on our many divisions." He also quotes Olivier Bonnard, film reporter for the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, who writes in his paper, "Michel Hazanavicius and Thomas Langmann, the director and producer of The Artist, went and snatched the gold from under the nose of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick and even Woody Allen. The moment is historic, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, historic: the last time a French film took the best-picture Oscar was … never."
Alexandra Sage, writing for Reuters, points to a wave of national pride unleashed in France at the Oscar win, including swift moves for politicians to grab the win for their own purposes:
President Nicolas Sarkozy called Dujardin's performance "dazzling," while his Socialist rival for the presidency, Francois Hollande, said the five Oscars won by The Artist made the film a "legend of French cinema."
Others, perhaps not quite as thrilled, called The Artist's win "fitting if unsurprising," holding off from further editorializing. Gloria Goodale, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, makes the case that maybe it's more about nostalgia and people valuing hard work (Dujardin's "sheer athleticism") in a down economy than about France. Roger Ebert writes that it's just that The Artist "was so darned much fun."
Hollywood doesn't actually seem all that speechless, but one thing is clear -- you can't get away from politicizing movies anymore than you can get away with politicizing McDonald's hamburgers. By and large, however, it seems that the majority of American writers have decided not to hold onto any sour grapes against the French for their big win and instead to do the more diplomatic thing. We'll simply co-opt Dujardin into our fold as someone we can understand and praise: namely, as "the French George Clooney." If not an Oscar for the American George, maybe a Nobel?