I was first attracted to being in the silent movie The Artist for the most unexpected reasons. Firstly, I love ideas that don’t usually get traction in Hollywood and this was certainly an idea that seemed like a risk. I also knew from the start that this was not just an homage to a bygone era, it was going to be a story that would be as contemporary today as it was back in the early days of the “talkies.” In and around the beautiful love story was a nugget of an idea that appealed to me as an actor — the idea of the world moving on without you and the knowledge that we actors are all too aware of — that we are replaceable.
Looking back now, I was probably the most likely among my 67 fellow ensemble actors to find myself in this black-and-white silent film. And why? My mother, actress Kay Johnson, was in Cecil B. DeMille’s first two films with sound. My father, John Cromwell, was an established Broadway director and actor. He had made his motion picture debut in The Dummy, in 1929, one of the early talkies. During the transition from silent movies to talking pictures, it was realized that theater directors really knew how to work with speaking actors, so many made the move West. As a result my father was brought out from New York to Hollywood, and so began the next stage of his career as a director. In a sense this movie is my homage to my parents’ story.
The Artist is about the metaphor of silence and the result is that which the audience imagines. With a silent film, what goes on in the theater is the audience creating the story, taking their cues from what’s in the frame onscreen, from the power of the musical score and from everything they bring into that movie palace themselves.
The Artist, of course, is a love letter to Hollywood. The film evokes with great power the enchantment that is at the core of all film. The Artist shows that the power of film is not diminished by a presentation that is outside the normal, modern human experience. This is a black-and-white world and one where human speech is missing and yet it captures us and allows full play to the gamut of our emotions.
Like the creation of those early silent films, the film-making process on the set of The Artist was far from silent. We actors had dialogue, the set was filled with music and the brilliant director Michel Hazanavicius could be heard sharing his vision during the entire 39 day shoot in Los Angeles. It could have been any set in Hollywood, only on this set, those sounds were not recorded. One might ask, besides the lack of sound, what else is different about acting in a silent film. For one, an actor has to adjust to the faster film speed by sustaining the expression a fraction longer so the audience can adjust their perceptions. Gesture replaces inflection, yet the performance still somehow reads completely natural.
Ultimately, acting on any film set is telling the truth while pretending it’s fiction, it’s often very difficult to do with words anyway because they so rarely mean what we use them to say.
By James Cromwell
James Cromwell is an American film and television actor best known for his Oscar-nominated role in BABE, LA CONFIDENTIAL, THE GREEN MILE and the series, SIX FEET UNDER. He plays Clifton, the beloved chauffeur in THE ARTIST, directed by Michel Haznavicius.