Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo rehearsed the climactic dance sequence for five months, practicing almost every day in the same studio that Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly used to rehearse for Singin' in the Rain (1952). "It was really hard," remembers Bejo, "and even now when I look at the movie I can't believe how fast we're doing it. Sometimes it's like my feet still hurt."
The character of George Valentin is based on two silent movie stars, Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert. Both actors starred in silent movie swashbucklers, and both saw their careers decline with the introduction of sound films. (In Gilbert's case, his "squeaky voice" is often rumored to have caused his decline in the "talkies." But in fact, his clashes with studio head Louis B. Mayer were more to blame.) Both Gilbert and Fairbanks starred in occasional sound films, but never achieved the success that they had known in the silent era. Gilbert died of alcoholism in 1938, at the age of 36, and Fairbanks died of a heart attack (brought on by incessant smoking) in 1939 at age 56.
The film is shot with 22 FPS (frames per second). When played at the standard 24 FPS, the action becomes slightly accelerated. Most silent films were shot with 14 to 24 FPS, which makes many of these films appear "faster" in motion when played on modern projection equipment at 24 FPS. When sound films were introduced, the frame rate was standardized at 24 FPS to make it possible to sync the sound with the images.
In solitude, George views a reel from one of his silent swashbucklers through a film projector centered within his apartment. The film is in fact a genuine silent film, The Mark of Zorro (1920), which established its star, Douglas Fairbanks, as a real life silent era action hero and matinée idol, the kind George Valentin is portrayed as being within the film. The scene from Zorro is altered, however, substituting actor Jean Dujardin as George for Fairbanks for the close-up shots.
Ludovic Bource won an Academy Award for composing the Best Score for this film despite never having any formal higher educational training in music orchestration nor film score composition. (Bource learned to read music as a child from accordion lessons and studied jazz as a teenager.) Five arrangers and five orchestrators helped realizing his musical ideas with a large-scale symphony orchestra.
The movie was shot in the 1.33:1 "Academy ratio," just as in silent-film days, since director-writer Michel Hazanavicius considered it 'perfect for actors' because it gives them 'a presence, a power, a strength. They occupy all the space of the screen.'
This film is only the second ever silent film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first was Wings (1927) which was the very first film to win the award for Best Picture in the Oscar's inaugural year. As Wings (1927) won just two Oscars, for Best Picture, Production and Best Effects, Engineering Effects, The Artist (2011) is the first ever silent film to win Oscars for Best Director, Best Score, Best Costume and Best Actor.
After Peppy Miller visits George Valentin at his mansion, she says to her male companion in the car, "Take me home. I want to be alone." This can be seen as a reference to the infamous line uttered by Greta Garbo in the film Grand Hotel (1932), "I want to be alone." Greta Garbo was an actress who was an international icon during Hollywood's silent and classic era, who successfully transitioned into talkies much like Peppy Miller. Another Greta Garbo parallel is that her frequent silent film co-star, John Gilbert, was not able to make a successful transition to the talkies.
The role of Jack the dog was actually played by three matching Jack Russell Terriers: Uggie; Dash; and Dude, although The lead dog Uggie did the majority of scenes. All three dogs were colored before the filming began, made to look more alike.
In order to include the old "Hollywoodland" sign in several shots, it was necessary to use special visual effects, since the "land" portion of that sign has been gone since 1949 when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce contracted with the City of Los Angeles to repair and rebuild the sign which had fallen into a state of deterioration. The contract stipulated that "LAND" be removed so as to spell just "Hollywood," reflecting on the section of the city, and not the original housing development of "Hollywoodland."
This film was one of two films at the 2012 Academy Awards which examined silent cinema. The other movie was Hugo (2011), both films were heavily nominated, and both pictures ended up winning the same number of Oscars, five.
George and Peppy briefly meet on a staircase with ornate wrought iron filigree. This staircase is in the central atrium of the Bradbury Building located at 304 South Broadway, Los Angeles, California. Dozens of movies, TV shows, and music videos have been filmed there. Most notably, the interior and exterior were featured prominently in Blade Runner (1982).
Peppy's house in the film is the house which Mary Pickford lived in before marrying Douglas Fairbanks and moving into the legendary Pickfair mansion (which was torn down in the late 1980s), and the bed where George Valentin wakes up is Mary Pickford's bed. In the briefly-visible dining room, you can also see an English Sheridan dining room table-and-chair set that belonged to Pickford, and the lace tablecloth also belonged to her.
The titles shown on posters and outside cinemas often mirror the plot - for example, "The Thief of His Heart" is visible as Peppy tries on George's coat,"The Lonely Star" when George sadly crosses a street and "Guardian Angel" is the Peppy Miller film visible just after the auction.
First black-and-white film to win the Best Costume Academy Award since the discontinuance of the Best Costume (black-and-white) Oscar in 1967. The last black-and-white film to win a Costume Oscar, for Best Costume (black-and-white), was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) forty-five years earlier.
The Napoleon extra as played Hal Landon Jr., refers to the life of Albert Dieudonné (1889-1976). Long after playing the eponymous hero of Abel Gance's 1927 silent Napoleon (1927), Dieudonné made a living from public lectures as Napoleon himself.
First completely black-and-white film to win the Best Picture Academy Award since Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) just over half a century earlier. Wilder was actually thanked three times during the Best Picture Oscar acceptance speech for this movie. The film is also the first black-and-white film to win this award since the predominantly black-and-white Schindler's List (1993) eighteen years earlier.
The faux film credits that are shown to illustrate Peppy's rise to stardom contain at least two "Easter eggs" - a credit for "Uggie" as "The Dog" (Uggie being the real name of the canine actor playing George's dog) and a credit for "Alan Smithee", a popular pseudonym used by directors who don't want to receive credit on a picture.
The film's win for the Academy Award for Best Picture, the year after The King's Speech (2010) marked the first time since 1981-82 that there were two consecutive Best Picture winners which were produced outside the United States (from UK/Australia and France/Belgium, respectively). The first time was with Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982) (both were British productions).
The character of George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) was based in part on the filmmakers referencing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' book DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS by Jeffrey Vance (Academy Imprints/UC Press, 2008).
The roadster that George Valentin drives in the movie-within-a-movie shown at the start of the film is modern reproduction of a 1920s Bugatti Type 35. In the mid-2000s original Type 35 Bugatti Grand Prix racers were valued at $500,000 to $3.5 million, depending on their originality and condition.
James Cromwell remarked that his performance in the film wasn't really a silent one, as all of his scenes involve dialogue rather than pantomime. He claimed that he played the role like he would any other, speaking his lines out loud.
Malcolm McDowell portrays one of the butlers in this film, in a fully silent role. McDowell portrayed a character named Alfie Alperin, who was a famous silent film star who became a studio executive (a role loosely based on Charles Chaplin), in Sunset (1988). In real life, Chaplin was best friends with Douglas Fairbanks, the man who George Valentin was based on. Further, Chaplin lived next door to Fairbanks when Fairbanks lived at Pickfair, his home with Mary Pickford, where Pickford moved after she married Douglas Fairbanks, after living in the house which was used as Peppy's home.
Basil Hoffman, who portrayed the auctioneer in this film, bears more than a strong resemblance to silent film legend Buster Keaton. Hoffman also portrayed comedy writer Herb Lee, who chose to be always silent, in My Favorite Year (1982).
During the sequence in which it becomes clear that George Valentin is becoming a thing of the past, the music refers to the beginning of the 'Saturn' movement from 'The Planets' by Gustav Holst. An apt reference, since in Holst's work Saturn is seen as 'The Bringer of Old Age'.