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France set to make Oscar history with 'The Artist'

The Academy Awards may be a mostly frivolous affair, but they sometimes also feature unexpected breakthroughs, broken records and underdog victories. This year is no exception, and could see even more surprises than usual.


The Oscars get a fair amount of bad press, and justifiably so. The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is largely composed of old white men. Good films and performances are routinely snubbed, while mediocre ones take home top honours. The show itself is expensive, runs too long and tends to be more silly and self-obsessed than entertaining. And relentless campaigning by studios and nominees often makes us forget the prizes are meant to reward artistry, and not marketing.

Yet, there are still reasons to pay attention. Aside from providing a window into Hollywood’s current mindset, the typically frivolous and risk-averse Oscars also feature the occasional unexpected, quirky, and even moving breakthrough, new record, or underdog win. This year’s ceremony may have more such moments than any other in recent memory. Here are five potential history-making developments to watch for on Sunday night.

A first for France?

If Michel Hazanavicius’ widely adored black-and-white silent movie “The Artist” wins Best Picture, it will be the first-ever French film to get the top prize. Two other French movies have been nominated for the award – Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” in 1938 and Costa Gavras’ “Z” in 1969 – and France has snagged the Best Foreign Language Film statuette an impressive 12 times. But according to the majority of Oscar prognosticators, Sunday night will likely see a French movie made by a French director barely known outside his country triumphing over works by US heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Terrence Malick. If it does, expect France’s film industry to rejoice in its victory over the Hollywood bulldozer it loathes and loves in equal measure.

A double win for African-American actresses?

African-American performers have prevailed in multiple acting categories three times in the past: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry respectively won Best Actor for “Training Day” and Best Actress for “Monster’s Ball” in 2002, Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman scored Best Actor for “Ray” and Best Supporting Actor for “Million Dollar Baby” in 2005, and Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson took Best Actor for “The Last King of Scotland” and Best Supporting Actress for “Dreamgirls” in 2006. But Oscar analysts predict this Sunday will be first time African-Americans take both female acting prizes (for the same film, no less). Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are indeed considered frontrunners for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for their portrayals of 1960s Mississippi housemaids in "The Help". In an industry known for its lack of complex roles for women of colour, the significance of the moment would not be ignored.

Can the ‘French George Clooney’ out-Clooney Clooney?

French actresses Simone Signoret (“A Room at the Top”) and Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”) triumphed over their Anglophone peers to win the Best Actress prize in 1960 and 2008. But if Jean Dujardin, the debonair, dancing star of “The Artist”, beats out US heartthrobs George Clooney (“The Descendants”) and Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”) for Best Actor, he will become the first Frenchman in Oscar history to pull off the feat. Though he started off as a longshot, Dujardin threw himself into Oscar campaign season with gleeful abandon. He peppered his interviews with jokes delivered in charmingly accented English, did a first-rate Robert De Niro impersonation, and never lost the wide smile that suggested he was relishing every minute of his American adventure. Handsome, humble, and a Hollywood outsider, Dujardin is just the kind of underdog the Academy loves.

Never too late to win?

When an 80-year-old Jessica Tandy won Best Actress for “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1990, she became the oldest performer to win a competitive acting Oscar. But a new record may be set Sunday night if, as expected, Christopher Plummer takes the stage to accept a Best Supporting Actor statuette for his performance in Mike Mills’ “Beginners”. Playing an elderly gay man revelling in his newfound sexual freedom after recently coming out of the closet, the 82-year-old Canadian's performance projects a youthful energy and infectious sense of mischief. And even if he doesn’t win, the Academy can hardly be accused of ageism. Experts say the nominee most likely to dash Plummer’s hopes is Max Von Sydow (for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), also 82.

Iran’s year?

A handful of filmmakers from Iran, like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Majid Majidi, have been earning accolades from critics and festival juries around the world for the last few decades. But US audiences got a taste of a harder-hitting, faster-paced Iranian New Wave cinema last year with Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”, a tense domestic drama about two Tehran couples embroiled in a legal battle. Now the movie is considered as the favourite to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which would make it the first Iranian work to take the prize (Majidi’s “Children of Heaven” was nominated in 1999, but did not win). Given the context of severely strained relations between the US and Iran, a statuette for “A Separation” could serve as a reminder that movies are not merely entertainment, but also a potentially powerful diplomatic tool.

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