France celebrates historic sweep of Oscars

'The Artist' won five Oscars last night, including the first Best Picture and Best Actor awards for France. 'Hugo' also won five awards.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Jean Dujardin holds Uggie after accepting the Oscar for best picture for “The Artist” during the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

A French film has never before won an Oscar for Best Picture. A French male has never won Best Actor.

Last night "The Artist" won both, in what became a clean-up night for the French film industry at the annual red carpet gala in America's Tinseltown.

The black-and-white silent film – a throwback to a Hollywood golden age – took five statuettes in all, topping “The Descendants” for Best Picture.

The popular actor Jean Dujardin – a former locksmith known mainly here for his low-budget comedic spy spoofs and expressive eyebrows – edged out George Clooney and Brad Pitt for Best Actor. And relative unknown Michael Hazanavicius topped big names like Martin Scorsese for Best Director.

France also showed its enduring capacity for “soft power” through the arts, as films like the fantasy special-effects “Hugo,” set in a Paris train station, also won five Oscars. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” was a Best Picture nominee.

“They must be going nuts in France right now,” quipped Oscar host Billy Crystal after actor Tom Cruise opened the envelope at the end of the evening to announce that “The Artist” took the coveted Best Picture prize.

French TV journalists reporting live from Hollywood were slightly beside themselves after the best picture win, throwing their hands over their faces and repeating “phenomenal!” and “incroyable!”

But at 5:30 am here – there’s a nine-hour time difference between Paris and LA – there was no discernible Oscar noise, at least on the residential streets.

Instead, French woke to newspapers and media hailing the evening as historic. “Never has a French film won so many US honors,” wrote Le Monde.

A good run for Europe

Oscar-wise, it's been a good run for Europe. The British film “The King’s Speech” swept top honors last year, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Colin Firth), for a period depiction of the trials of Britain’s King George VI in surmounting a speech impediment on the eve of World War II.

In "The Artist" Mr. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent star with a pencil-thin mustache who can’t or won’t make the transition to talkies, goes into a funk, but is saved by his adorable dog and a woman he generously helped when he was riding high in the early 1920s.

The French actor learned to tap dance for the Valentin part, and says his favorite American actor is Paul Newman. In last night’s acceptance comments, Dujardin said Douglas Fairbanks also was an inspiration.

“I haven’t seen 'The Artist' yet. I guess I’m going to go now,” said one manager of a café near the Radio France complex in Paris, who gave his name as François.

Ironically Dujardin did not win at the Cesars, France's equivalent of the Academy Awards, handed out two days earlier. Paris Match commented wryly that a prophet is never accepted in his own country, and said it took the Oscars to give Dujardin due fame.

Mr. Clooney is a favorite in France and Europe and for a time was a frequent visitor in Paris. He appears as himself in a popular ever-present French coffee advert, saying the name of the coffee and asking coolly, “What else?” This morning, online media showed Clooney, and next to the words “what else?” gave the name, “Jean Dujardin!”

A rare Oscar sweep by France

French cinema and filmmakers are famed for innovating styles like avant garde, film noir, art nouveau, and cinéma vérité. France’s Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for Best Actress in 2008 for her depiction of singer Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose; Roman Polanski was the first Frenchman to earn Best Director when he won in 2003.

But French silver-screen offerings have never broken through with the kind of sweep seen in this year's Oscars.

The city of Paris also proved last night its ongoing imaginative hold. Mr. Scorsese's “Hugo” centers on an orphan living in a Paris train station who manages to preserve the creations of French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès. “Midnight in Paris” is Mr. Allen’s wry tribute to the bittersweet era of, among others, Ernest Hemingway and the Lost Generation on the Left Bank. It stars Owen Wilson and Ms. Cotillard and has a cameo by Carla Bruni, wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

(Mr. Sarkozy, who faces reelection this spring, issued a post-awards statement commending the “special vitality of French cinema.”)

Even Steven Spielberg's “War Horse” is set partly in the frighteningly chaotic Franco-European battlefields of World War I. 

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