I couldn't help myself on Oscar night.
The spectacle of Hollywood congratulating itself for another year of films tilting toward the lackluster tends to nauseate me. Whenever Tinseltown's big night swings around, I reach for the remote to turn off the television or flip to another channel.
Yet I couldn't resist tuning in to Sunday's broadcast of the 84th annual Academy Awards. Some very good films and actors — as well as some mediocre ones — were vying for those gold statuettes.
But this Oscar night was more personal for me. Part of my national pride — more precisely, the Francophone facet of my multicultural identity — was at stake.
I'm glad I did. By evening's end, I was on my feet and practically signing "La Marseillaise."
A French-produced film had finally conquered the world's movie-making capital, firmly planting France's tri-color flag next to the Hollywood sign.
Not only that, but three of the other nine films that were up for the Best Picture honor had a French dimension: "Hugo" is set in Paris; Woody Allen filmed "Midnight in Paris" in the City of Light; and part of Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" unfolds in France's World War I battlefields.
Since the birth of the motion picture, whose lineage could arguably be traced to the invention of moving images by Lumière brothers, France has consistently captured a place in Hollywood's imagination. In case you didn't notice, the freres even make an indirect cameo appearance in Martin Scorsese's magical ode to the bygone age of the silent picture.
Throughout the history of cinema, Hollywood and France have had a long-running, albeit stormy, love affair. Until Sunday's ground-shifting turn of events, Hollywood, in my view, had virtually relegated French filmmakers to a secondary rank in filmmaking. As far as Hollywood was concerned, glorious examples of French films belonged historically to the straitjacket category of Best Foreign Language Film.
France has served Hollywood's moguls as a blank tableau of possibilities in studio set designs or an open space for on-location shoots with postcard-like backdrop for romantic films, war films and thrillers. For Hollywood, France is a wellspring of cliches about its people that are captured in celluloid and help shape American perceptions of the French.
There is the beret-wearing, garlic-breathing, accordion-playing, baguette-toting Frenchman; the rampant French appetite for food, wine and sex; the Gauloises-smoking lady-killers; and the sirens of French cinema who tempt, charm and torment our American hearts.
You get the idea.
"The Artist" deserved to win this year's Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. I would even suggest that Michel Hazanavicius' low-budget, black-and-white film, which paid homage to the silent picture era in American filmmaking, should have shared those two awards with Scorsese's "Hugo."
In their distinct styles, both films took the viewer on journeys back to the beginnings of filmmaking. While "Hugo" relied heavily on computer-generated imagery to create its magical effect, "The Artist" was a purer example of filmmaking. It is a beautiful film because the storytelling is simple and original.
The filmmaking is pure and does not rely on fancy effects but, rather, on the abilities of the person behind the lens and his cast and crew. The skill of the acting and storytelling are the qualities that essentially have distinguished European films from their special effects-heavy American counterparts.
When Hazanavicius and his film's producers appeared before the camera to accept the Oscar for Best Picture, the Frenchman in me was overcome with national pride as I gazed at my T.V. set. The director's triumph at the Oscars also represented French cinema's quiet, sweet revenge on Hollywood.
After years of standing on the sidelines, as Tinseltown-made films inundated the cinemas that line the Champs-Élysées — thereby threatening the very survival of Francophone culture, as some French people feared — here was a film from France about the lost art of Hollywood filmmaking, made on its home turf by a Frenchman, and starring two French stars.
Finally, I want to end this column on a personal note.
The triumph of "The Artist" on Sunday, particularly at the moment when Hazanavicius paid tribute to Billy Wilder, a late and great American comedy filmmaker from another of Hollywood's golden ages, it evoked a memory that I'll always associate with my mother. Whenever we visited Paris, as a way to encourage me to speak in her native French, she would take me to see French movies.
We once made an exception. On an overcast summer afternoon in Paris, she and I went to a cinema house on one of those boulevards off the Arc de Triomphe. We regaled ourselves with Wilder's "Some Like It Hot." That recollection is among my last memories of the times I spent with her in Paris.
Had she lived, Marcelle Jeanne Leconte would have turned 84 on Friday. She died of cancer 25 years ago in New York, a city that she loved and in a country that gave her a freedom that she had struggled for in her class-conscious birth land.
Ironically, my mother came into this world in March 1928, the middle of a season of filmmaking honored in the first edition of the Academy Awards, which Hollywood feted in May 1929. So, as I discovered in boning up on cinematic history for this column, she belonged to a generation born on the cusp of the end of the silent picture era and the arrival of the "talkies," a storyline that underpins "The Artist."
Bonne anniversaire, Maman. This one's for you.
IMRAN VITTACHI is the features editor of The Daily Pilot. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun