To say that only Harvey Weinstein could land a Best Picture Oscar for a silent film, as he is expected to do Sunday for The Artist, is more than just a reflection of the mogul's resurgent power of persuasion over Academy members — it's actually true. A silent film has not taken top honors since the very first Academy Awards, held in May 1929 and honoring movies released between Aug. 1, 1927, and July 31, 1928, and at that first ceremony, there was no prize called Best Picture. The prize won that night by William Wellman's silent war film Wings was called Best Production, while F.W. Murnau's silent Sunrise took home the Best Unique and Artistic Picture trophy, an award conceived by the Academy's founding body to be just as exalted as Best Production, but to specifically honor creative innovation. That art-over-commerce prize was dropped immediately.
Harvey's unique gifts aside, The Artist wouldn't have captured the imagination of the industry if it didn't also speak to its anxiety du jour. For all of the silliness surrounding them, the Oscars are valuable as an indication of how Hollywood feels about itself in the given moment. This year, The Artist is not the best movie in the Best Picture field, but it is the best reflection of both the moment Hollywood finds itself in (facing a massive technology-driven industry transformation) and of why the Academy was created to begin with (to help the industry's powerful elite survive a massive technology-driven industry transformation). The Artist, then, isn't any silent film; it's a silent film that transforms a real, historical Hollywood crisis into a fairy tale, complete with a happy ending depicting the industry emerging from that crisis ever stronger. It's a fairy tale that Hollywood currently desperately needs to hear.
The Artist begins in 1927, the same year the Academy was conceived by MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer, who pitched the industry's elite that strength in numbers could help Hollywood survive two significant predicaments: heat from the morality police, which was increasing in intensity as the celebrity gossip media expanded; and the rapidly escalating transition to talkies. At the same time, studio chiefs were smarting from a recent wave of unionization, and Mayer's desire to consolidate power at the top of the industry later would be read as a move to protect his own bottom line by staving off further labor organization. The actual handing out of awards came later, as a PR move, an attempt to take the industry's product, dismissed by some as a degenerate fad, and rebrand it as an art form worthy of canonization and preservation.
Over the next few years, studio heads like Mayer (represented by the mogul played by John Goodman in The Artist) took advantage of the change in technology and their consolidated power to cut salaries, renegotiate contracts and generally eliminate squeaky wheels. As The Artist dramatizes, well-fed older players were shipped out, and cheap “fresh meat” was brought in. A typical performer's contract in the early days of talkies included a rider “approved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences,” which gave a producer the right to record and reproduce an actor's voice infinitely, and didn't require payment for audio tests and retakes. These were just some of the ways in which AMPAS, as Anthony Holden writes in Behind the Oscar: A Secret History of the Academy Awards, served to “protect the studio bosses' muscle against rebellious technicians, and to keep talent in its place.”
The Artist dramatizes the flexing of that muscle in a way that ultimately and cheerfully endorses the subservient relationship of the talent to the producer/studio. When the Goodman character fires Valentin, the star defiantly pledges to strike out on his own. “I'll make a great movie,” he says. “And it's not like I need you for that.” The rest of the narrative essentially proves him wrong: If Valentin wants to make a movie that anyone cares about, he needs to do it with a studio. That we're supposed to accept his film-closing rebirth as an Astaire-esque dancing movie star — contracted by the same mogul who all but left him for dead — as a happy ending and not a humiliation, is a baffling turn of events, if we're also supposed to sympathize with his plight as an independent artist. The Artist, then, is a film in which an iconoclast hits rock bottom by staying true to himself, and learns via near-death experience to embrace conformity.
Falling in line was unquestionably the order of the day. By 1930, the year of the second Oscars (and the year in The Artist when Valentin's passion project flops), the Academy was sponsoring training seminars called “sound schools,” designed to baptize huge numbers of technicians in the latest technology — increasing the speed of the transition, and decreasing the chance that one studio could hold a significant technical (and thus, commercial) advantage over another. The conversion to the new was made total, and anyone who didn't follow was left behind. The Artist dramatizes this trauma of being outpaced by technology as the reluctant Valentin must adapt to the new by exorcising his silent film past before he's allowed to skip to the all-singing, all-dancing future.
Like Singin' in the Rain, a film to which it's often compared, The Artist is an example of the kind of mythic history Hollywood tells about itself in order to promote its own survival in times of trouble. When Rain was released in 1952, studios were struggling to adapt to both a 1948 court order that forced the studios to give up ownership and management of movie theaters, and the growing lure of television. The Artist has been released into a similar period of transition, as celluloid technology is being replaced by digital, and theater attendance is threatened by the habits of a new generation born into an on-demand world. If the Oscars truly are Hollywood's way of telling us what it's thinking about itself, then the dominance of The Artist reflects the paranoid uncertainty of a contemporary movie industry barreling toward an uncertain future, and looking to the past for reassurance.