Oscars: Silence Is Golden For 'The Artist'

The Artist became the first silent film to triumph at Hollywood's highest honors since the original Oscar ceremony 83 years ago. The film's lead actor Jean Dujardin also took home an Academy award for best actor while Michel Hazanavicius, the film's director, also won.

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"The Artist" won five Oscars last night. That's the black and white silent movie set in the 1920s and '30s. The style of that movie tells you something about the style of last night's awards ceremony.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco was backstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: This year's Oscars had a distinctly retro theme, most notably with "The Artist." It tracks Hollywood's transition from the silent movies to the talkies and it dominated the top awards for: Best Picture of the year, Best Director, Costume Design, Original Score. And leading actor Jean Dujardin, the French actor, was anything but silent when he won for his portrayal of a silent picture star.

JEAN DUJARDIN: If George Valentine could speak he'd say, Wow, victor merci. Formidable, merci beacuoup. I love you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

DEL BARCO: Dujardin also took the stage with the cast and co-star Jack Russell terrier Uggie, to accept the Best Picture award. It was the first time a French actor and French filmmaker won the Oscars' top acting and directing awards. And "The Artist" was the first silent film to win Best Picture honors since the first Academy Awards in 1929. Dujardin noted how much times have changed.

DUJARDIN: It's funny because in 1929, it wasn't Billy Crystal, but Douglas Fairbanks who hosted the first Oscar ceremony. Tickets cost $5 and it lasted 15 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: Backstage, producer Thomas Langman told reporters in this age of digital 3D blockbusters, it wasn't easy, at first, to convince studios to back "The Artist."

THOMAS LANGMAN: No one wanted to help us making a silent, black and white movie.

DEL BARCO: Another movie about the early days of cinema, Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," also won five Oscars last night in the technical categories: Visual Effects, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Sound Editing. [POST-BROADCAST NOTE: The fifth award for "Hugo" was for Sound Mixing.]

Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato told reporters backstage, that although "Hugo" was shot in 3D, the effects were not entirely computer-generated...

ROB LEGATO: Aside from paying homage to the subject of the movie, which was Georges Melies and his techniques, there's still the better solution to get you something that looks real. And when you can do that, you should - and we did.

DEL BARCO: For the first, time, an Iranian film, "A Separation," won in the best Foreign Language category. Here's director Asghar Farhadi, backstage.

ASGHAR FARHADI: (Through Translator) If people around the world try to find the image of one another through the prism of culture, I believe that image would be a more real and a more clear image.

DEL BARCO: This year the Oscars were held in what was until very recently known as the Kodak Theater, until the Kodak Company took away its sponsorship as part of its bankruptcy. Host Billy Crystal had a new name for it.

BILLY CRYSTAL: We're here at the beautiful Chapter 11 Theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: It was decked out as an old-time movie palace. And during one intermission, attendants walked through the aisles giving out treats. The show itself seemed bent on the idea of selling movie magic on the big screen, to an audience used to downloading movies on handheld devices. Throughout the telecast, big movie names like Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise joined Werner Herzog and Robert Downey, Jr. in giving testimonials to the silver screen.

WERNER HERZOG: It sticks to you forever, it never leaves you. It becomes part of your existence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "The Outlaw Josey Wales."

TOM CRUISE: "A Place In The Sun."

JULIA ROBERTS: Daniel Day-Lewis and "My Left Foot," it just gets into my soul. It just makes me happy.

ROBERT DOWNEY, JR.: So, I guess in that way, it's not just thrill me, and entertainment. It's - I want to be transported. Not that where I am is intolerable, though it might be.

DEL BARCO: Billy Crystal was onstage for the 9th time as host, and he joked about the aging demographics of the Hollywood nominees.

CRYSTAL: Happy birthday, Oscar. He's 84. You know? What does age matter, especially in this town? You know, look at some of our nominees tonight. Christopher Plummer is 82 - may be walking up on stage tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

CRYSTAL: He may be walking up on stage tonight, because apparently he wanders off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEL BARCO: Christopher Plummer, in fact, did win for Best Supporting Actor in the film "Beginners." In triumph, he talked directly to his golden Oscar.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: You're only two years older than me, darling, where have you been all my life?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

DEL BARCO: Meryl Streep, who had been nominated for awards 17 times, won her third Oscar, this time as Leading Actress for her portrayal of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

MERYL STREEP: When they called my name, I had this feeling - I could hear half of America going, Oh, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STREEP: Oh, come on. Why? Her. Again. You know. But, you know, whatever.

DEL BARCO: Backstage, Streep said after all these years, it actually was still a thrill to hear her name being called as winner.

It was Octavia Spencer's first nomination, and she came away with the Best Supporting Actress award for her role as an outspoken maid in 1960s Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

DEL BARCO: Spencer was so emotional, she cried throughout her speech. Backstage, she paid tribute to those who made their voices heard during the Civil Rights Era, like the characters portrayed in "The Help."

OCTAVIA SPENCER: I'm the benefactor of all the riches that the real-life Minnie, Abilenes, Constantines, Skeeters, Celias - that they basically reaped. And so, I am - I'm very humbled because I get to stand here and accept this award.

DEL BARCO: Among those cheering her on was a group of real-life domestic workers who gathered to watch the Oscars in Los Angeles.

But with a lackluster telecast, there was perhaps much more drama outside the theater on the red carpet. Comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen showed up decked out as a bearded dictator to promote his new movie. His character had threatened unimaginable consequences if he wasn't allowed to attend the ceremony. He ended up throwing ashes on red carpet host Ryan Seacrest.

Best Actor nominees George Clooney and Brad Pitt hammed it up for the screaming fans in the bleachers. And the composer of this year's Best Original Song, Bret McKenzie, serenaded NPR with his winning tune.

BRET MCKENZIE: I'll sing you the chorus. This...

(Singing) Am I a man or am I a Muppet? Am I a Muppet? If I'm a Muppet, I'm a very manly Muppet.

DEL BARCO: Only time will tell if "Man or Muppet" becomes a classic.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Hollywood.

INSKEEP: You hear her on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm David Greene.

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Clarification Feb. 28, 2012

We said that Hugo won five Oscars but named only four. The fifth was for Sound Mixing.

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