So we finally got around to seeing The Artist over the weekend. I’m pretty sure you know about it, and if you like movies then you’ve probably even seen it already, but ANYWAY it’s a fantastic silent movie about the silent movies, a “lavish, loving valentine to early Hollywood” according to the Washington Post.
And on the off-chance that you haven’t seen it I’m going to go ahead and say you probably should.
We really loved it.
Not least because it’s fun and smart and constantly playing off the old classics. I’m guessing there were lots of references that went over my head, but I thoroughly enjoyed the ones I got—especially all the Singin’ in the Rain stuff. In fact, plot-wise, it kind of felt like a tongue-in-cheek update.
But there’s a lot going on too. The reviews I read have been quick to point out how the story’s central crisis—the double-edged nature of technology and the anxiety of being made obsolete in a changing world—is as timely today as it was for silent actors when the talkies came to town. That’s meaningful and significant and no doubt worth writing long reviews about, but I haven’t heard anybody talk about what was to me the most obvious update.
Yep. I’m totally going there.
Peppy Miller! Why isn’t anybody talking about Peppy Miller? Like Singin’ In the Rain, the lead of the story is a successful (male) silent actor in his late prime, failing to cope with the technological changes sweeping Hollywood. The female lead is a struggling actress/dancer, desperate to break into the business. In both stories, the male lead uses his influence to get the female’s career going. Male lead to the (career) rescue!
This is where The Artist makes a sudden, jarring swerve into new territory.
Because once Peppy Miller’s career starts rolling, it really rolls. She’s just as expressive, talented, and cheeky as George Valentin and unlike him she’s primed for the talkies. She becomes a super star. (Meanwhile Debbie Reynolds gets stuck in the broom closet doing unacknowledged voice overs until the male leads decide it’s time to take down the career of a different woman—one who happens to be more annoying and far less grateful).
But that’s not the interesting part.
The interesting part is that the romantic tension of the whole piece is focused on George’s ability (and inability) to cope with the fact that his career is hitting rock bottom while Peppy’s is going from great to fabulous. It was fine for him to reach out, godlike, and paint a mole on Peppy’s face to give her that extra, Hollywood edge… but when Peppy plays guardian angel (with significantly more investment) to him, the experience is so painful he becomes suicidal.
Technology isn’t the only thing that’s changing in this fragile, fast-paced world; relationships are equally unfamiliar. George has to decide how to relate to Peppy now that her success throws his own career problems into sharp contrast. Where is the line between pride and self-respect? It was fine for him to help her out with self-assured swagger, but what happens when the stakes are higher and she’s the one with the great career and the industry influence? Does every story line have to fit the accepted postcard of male independence, or is it ok for us to finally admit to the give and take of equals?
The story is about technology as much—if not more—than it is about gender, but I think it’s interesting that when George’s life depends on his ability to adapt to changes the bigger challenge for him is the question of gender.
Funny how reviewers seem to miss that. It’s about technology, it’s about nostalgia, it’s a valentine to old Hollywood.
But it’s also the most refreshingly optimistic and interesting portrayal of gender I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s not a statement movie, one of those heavy-handed monologues about the power and general awesomeness of women. Those are always painful. It’s just a smart, funny movie where Peppy has an uncanny way of matching George, both in personality and in heart.
And this might not have anything to do with it, but as I was skimming around the Internet trying to learn a little more about the movie and the people who made it, I discovered an interesting fact: The actress who plays Peppy is also the writer and director’s wife.