The roots of Hollywood history run deeply through Sunday's 84th annual Academy Awards. From silent films through Cinemascope epics, this year's Oscars are seeded with nostalgia for what movies used to be.
It's a year in which the audacious concept connecting two best picture frontrunners goes back to cinema's origins, in both theme and execution. Martin Scorsese's Hugo (11 nominations) and Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist (10) expertly celebrate the birth and infancy of filmmaking.
They are two of the nine best picture nominees this year, but not the only ones to hark back to past movies and mores for inspiration. War Horse redefines World War I drama, while The Help transports us to 1960s civil rights unrest and Midnight in Paris to the '20s and even earlier. Moneyball is a 21st century story told with the counterculture spirit of the 1970s.
But it's Hugo and The Artist bowing most deeply to the creative influence of bygone days.
Hugo spends much of its third act imitating the groundbreaking techniques of French filmmaker Georges Melies, specifically 1902's A Trip to the Moon, enabling Scorsese to plead for preserving such seminal works. The Artist looks like one Scorsese would save: a bold, black-and-white throwback to the silent era Melies pioneered.
Hugo is whimsically academic, The Artist wistfully romantic, and although officially 2011 releases, either might warrant a much earlier year inscribed on their statuettes. Yet both movies are firmly planted in the now and subtly radical about what that means in Hollywood.
Hugo is crafted with state-of-the-art computer graphics and 3-D effects typically reserved for superheroes and warring robots. Melies is considered the James Cameron of his day, inventing then-astonishing special effects with a magician's instincts and primitive props: a puff of smoke, a fish tank or a papier-mache dragon. And always with a story in mind.
Scorsese urges today's Camerons to resist pure bombast, to match Melies' passion for surprising audiences and themselves. Then he demonstrates, utilizing 3-D and extensive CGI for the first time in his career and creating an emotionally richer movie experience.
All those explosions have desensitized our ears, so The Artist is particularly daring, speechless until its finale, with few sound effects competing with Ludovic Bource's musical score. Tonight it will likely become the second silent film to ever win the academy's best picture prize, after Wings inaugurated the category in 1929.
Hazanavicius affectionately mimics Hollywood pretalkies, the exaggerated expressions of actors emoting without words, preening celebrities before stars wanted to be left alone. The rise and fall of silent film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is unapologetically inspired by Hollywood's tradition of backlot melodrama, from A Star is Born to Sunset Boulevard.
The Artist is a scrapbook of Turner Classic Movies favorites, from a kitchen patterned after Debbie Reynolds' in Singin' in the Rain, to Bource borrowing from Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score for a tense sequence. Dujardin's performance contains swatches of Douglas Fairbanks' swagger and Gene Kelly's athleticism. Hazanavicius even has a dog doing Rin Tin Tin duty when his owner is endangered.
Yet The Artist never strays into easy parody nor surrenders to any other temptations of this jaded age. Its only irony is that the most original movie of 2011 is an imitation of movies from 90 years ago. Hazanavicius celebrates what studio filmmaking was then and often isn't today: born of the heart and impressively quiet.
The academy's nostalgia trip doesn't end there. Next in line among nominees are War Horse and Moneyball with six each, including best picture. Either film would nicely fit into best picture races decades ago.
Steven Spielberg's sweeping World War I drama War Horse earnestly echoes John Ford and David Lean's historical epics from the mid 20th century, so much that its burnished tones often resemble rust. The anti-establishment hero in Moneyball, whose quest to build a championship baseball team ends with an ellipsis, feels transported from the 1970s.
Then there's the peculiar sentimentality of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a return to his comedic style circa 1980. Surely it is the only best picture nominee ever with Ernest Hemingway, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí in featured roles, rather than contributing behind the camera or inspiring with their art.
Frontrunners in nearly all acting categories might have traveled through time from a previous Hollywood era: the African-American maids of Imitation of Life and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? updated to more enlightened standards by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in The Help, and the harried Cary Grant charm of George Clooney in The Descendants.
In the supporting actor race, two venerable, leading contenders actually did make the trip from Hollywood's past. By the end of tonight's show there's a good chance that the record for oldest actor to win an Oscar will be broken by either Christopher Plummer (Beginners) or Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), both 82.
With all these reminders of Hollywood's past, it's appropriate that Billy Crystal is back for his ninth turn hosting the show. One more flashback, this time to hilarious montages with Crystal inserted into best picture contenders, and his endlessly clever ad-libs. Get Plummer to perform a few Jack Palance pushups and the nostalgia will be complete.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.