Jean Dujardin, who manages to be both suave and folksy – in a French sort of way – is a 2012 "Best Actor" Oscar nominee for his role in “The Artist,” a black and white “silent” throwback to the 1920s, with swing-era jazz and plenty of playful nostalgia.
Mr. Dujardin, unknown abroad until now, is loved in France as an unsnobby comic who rose from a working class Paris suburb, a one-time locksmith who was told his face was too rotund for the camera.
“I adore him …he is a born clown,” says Christine Bertholts, a legal secretary in Paris, in a typical comment. “And those eyebrows!”
While France has produced several female Oscar winners, Dujardin, will be the first French male to take home the prize if he gets the nod on Feb. 26.
Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent star with a pencil-thin moustache who can’t or won’t make the transition to talkies and goes into a funk, but is saved by his adorable dog and a woman he generously helps when he’s riding high.
The Artist is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. It just won three Golden Globe awards – including best actor in a comedy for Dujardin – throwing film-crazy France into a small state of euphoria. In interviews after the ceremony, French radio hosts had fun with an Anglo version of Dujardin’s last name, asking if they were speaking with “Jean of the Garden.”
"When I started [as an actor],” Dujardin said after winning the Golden Globe, “An agent told me, ‘You won’t make films, your face is too expressive…’It's not my fault,’ I told him, ‘My eyebrows act independently!’"
France's main Hollywood presence for years has been Mr. Depardiu, who earned a 1990 Academy Award nomination for Green Card, but did not win. Le Point, a French news magazine, said of Dujardin, “He may even de-throne Depardieu in the Anglo-Saxon heart.”
"We thought it would be a film for festivals, a film that critics could like, but we weren’t counting on this!" French daily Figaro quoted director Michel Hazanavicius saying about its commercial and critical success.
It's a good thing "The Artist" is a silent film. Dujardin speaks little English and says he’s not preparing for work outside of France.
“He’s just a regular guy,” says Remi, a young financier who works near the Arc de Triomphe. “He doesn’t care about the show-biz world or the paparazzi and all that. The public has seen him grow and we can identify with him. He is one of us.”
Dujardin made a rare-for-France crossover from TV to film. His ability to reprise and mimic the foibles and quirks of the average French guy earned him a place in the public’s heart. Some of his characters are modeled on friends he met in Army barracks when he served in the military.
He starred in an unusual TV series, “A Guy, a Girl” – some 500 micro-sketches of seven minutes each – that garnered attention in the late 1990s. The two characters, Loulou (guy) and Chouchou (girl), often compete or are mean but in the end stay together, seen as a parody of relationships with a French touch.
Dujardin and "A Guy, a Girl" lead actress Alexandra Lamy became a real life couple, sending buzz about them into the French stratosphere. They are now “Jeanlexandra,” a transatlantic equivalent of “Brangelina” (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie).
“We have been lucky to be able to watch the love grow between Jean Dujardin and Alexandra Lamy over the years,” said Ms. Bertholts, the legal secretary. “It's like watching friends of yours get together after years of friendship.”
In 2005, Dujardin broke through in film, playing a clueless sun-bleached surf bum in the film “Brice de Nice.” His character, after whom the movie is named, sees himself as a character in the film Point Break, but never quite gets that there are no big waves on France’s calm Mediterranean coast.
Dujardin also spoofs James Bond spy films, conjuring a cross between Peter Sellers's character Inspector Clouseau and Mike Meyers's Austin Powers in “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio.”
“It’s quite funny that a man who produced a film like Brice de Nice could actually win an Oscar – I mean it’s really far from anything you could call ‘major cinema,’” said a French student out for a stroll in Paris.