Up until recently, Michel Hazanavicius's French film The Artist has received nothing but praise from all who have seen it: last week, it won three Golden Globes, for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy, Best Original Score and Best Picture Musical/Comedy. The heartwarming fictional story of a 1930s silent film star (played by Jean Dujardin) who watches his fame and career crumble after stubbornly resisting the new invention of "talkies", this silent film has become 2012's "buzz picture"; a film that has so much good word of mouth that it has inevitably been touted for many awards.
And as the Academy Awards loom, it looked as though the path was clear for the film to upset a lot of Hollywood's big names and scoop many prizes, possibly even becoming one of the first French films to be nominated in the Best Film category.
That path, however, has been blocked by an unexpected source: the American actress Kim Novak.
The 78-year-old retired star, a favourite with the director Alfred Hitchcock and who has starred opposite the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, has taken umbrage with the film and expressed her displeasure in the most extreme manner - describing her body of work as being "raped". Her grievance is to the use of six minutes and 20 seconds of the score from her most famous film, Hitchcock's Vertigo, originally composed by the late Bernard Herrmann. Novak printed a full-page advertisement in the cinema trade newspaper Variety, which begins with the headline "I want to report a rape", continuing to say, "I feel as though my body - or at least my body of work - has been violated by the movie The Artist". Although the estate of Alfred Hitchcock has released no statement on the matter, she invokes the name of the great director, and her co-star in the film, James Stewart, as the reason why she had to speak out. "In my opinion, the combined efforts of the composer, director, Jimmy Stewart, and myself were all violated …. I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN SPEAK NOW. They didn't need to use what I consider to be one of the most important love scenes in motion picture history by playing the Vertigo score and using emotions it engenders as if it were their own. Even though they gave a small credit to Bernard Herrmann at the end, I believe this to be cheating, at the very least. Shame on them!"
What made the advertisement even more of a surprise, despite the obvious strong phrases used by Novak, is that no "theft" in any legal sense had taken place. Hazanavicius paid for the use of the piece, and even credited Herrmann alongside the composer of the original score in the credits. Still, Novak insisted that the piece should not have been used at all, writing in the advertisement: "It is morally wrong for the artistry of our industry to use and abuse famous pieces of work to gain attention and applause for other than what they were intended".
While there are few cases where such a notable piece from a film has been used in another, directors using pre-recorded music in place of an original score is quite common. Of course, directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are famous for using pop music as an alternative score for their films. However, perhaps the most famous "borrowing" of classical music was for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick hired the composer Alex North to write an original score for the film; however, both Kubrick and the producers of the film were so impressed by the classical pieces used as a temporary soundtrack that they kept them as the final score.
But what does this mean for The Artist's chances at the Academy Awards, as the January 24 nominations announcement and the February 26 ceremony approach? Certainly, there are examples of negative publicity hurting certain parties' chances of glory. For example, it is believed Russell Crowe's failure to win the 2002 Best Actor award was due to his behaviour at that year's Bafta Awards in Britain, where he aggressively confronted the show's producer for cutting his acceptance speech short. However, in this instance it is more likely the film will benefit from the adage "all publicity is good publicity", as was the case at the recent Golden Globes.
Novak has received a lot of criticism from domestic-abuse charities for using such a loaded term to describe her grievances, while Hazanavicius has come away from the incident relatively well, releasing a respectful statement, saying that he was "sorry" that Novak disagreed with his choices, but that he was "very pleased" to have the music in his film and that the score had been used by many filmmakers in the past. Add this to the fact that the film has distributors who are somewhat specialists in Oscar campaigns in the form of the former Miramax owners the Weinstein Brothers, and it is unlikely that Novak's efforts will do anything to sway Academy voters' decisions. Most likely it will remain a colourful footnote in the history of an already very successful film.