George Valentin starts off The Artist as the cat's pajamas. He's the bee's knees. The tomatoes all think he's hotsy-totsy—after all, he's an Oliver Twist.
What's that? You don't speak 1920s slang? Don't worry; everything's Jake—er, that's okay. We'll translate.
When we first meet George, he's the best. The hottest. The ladeez all think he's super-hot—after all, he's an awesome dancer.
But that's not all he is.
George's a silent film star with the world at his feet and a smile for miles. He lives in a big mansion with his beautiful wife and his canine sidekick, Jack. The press loves him. The camera loves him. The ladies love him. His dog loves him. There's lots of love all around for our boy George (not to be confused with Boy George).
The only person who doesn't totally love George all the time might be his director, Al Zimmer…probably because George clowns around a lot. For example, the movie's opening scene shows George hamming it up on stage for the audience (who, again, loves him), but totally ignoring his female co-star and director, both of whom wait in the wings.
Is it fair to say George might be a little full of himself? Maybe, but who wouldn't be, with his million-watt grin and his stunning career…a career that he is, by the way, terrified of losing.
In fact, we first see this fear when George meets Peppy Miller (she bumps into him and is thrown in front of the cameras—what a meet cute). And he seems a bit miffed that she's stolen his spotlight.
This first interaction sets up a sort of competition between the pair and demonstrates the line George is always walking, between a pompous awareness of his own celebrity and a kind-hearted, child-like generosity.
Behind Closed Curtains
Everything might seem peachy keen for George Valentin on set, but for George at home it's a different story. His wife, Doris, is tired of being ignored by him…but George doesn't want to talk about their problems:
DORIS: I'm unhappy, George.
GEORGE: So are millions of us.
George tries to evade Doris' annoyance by joking around and staging plays with his dog at the breakfast table. But we get the impression that, while that was cute for a while, it's gotten a little stale. His marriage is failing.
He may like confronting the portrait of himself hanging in his foyer (okay, maybe he's more than a little self involved), but it seems there are other things George has a hard time confronting. Like feelings.
On set, though, George delivers time and again—his charm is inexhaustible. But while George's allure might be reliable, the movie business sure ain't.
The early years of film saw the art form's rapid transformation from black-and-white silent shorts to longer, narrative color films with sound. George's star rose in the period of silent film, and as his world begins to shift and change around him, it becomes clear that he's not ready to change with it.
When Zimmer shows him a preview of a talkie, George just chuckles:
ZIMMER: Don't laugh George! That's the future.
GEORGE: If that's the future, you can have it!
Oh, George. Bad move.
Because while he may be super-talented, he's not flexible enough to reshape himself to fit the trends of cinema. You know the old adage about genius being one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration? Well, we'd alter that to say that fame is one percent talent, ninety-nine percent knowing your audience. (Yeah. It's not as pithy.)
And while George has talent galore, he's too self-centered and stubborn to realize that the audience won't stay loyal to him forever.
For all you old movie buffs out there, George's difficulty keeping up with the times may call to mind Douglas Fairbanks, who also had difficulty adapting to talkies. But the similarities don't stop there—Fairbanks also played Zorro, was married to America's sweetheart (Mary Pickford), and found the new sound films restrictive and retired in 1934.
Will They or Won't They?
George's competition (or is it sexual tension) with Peppy is another important aspect of his trajectory in the film. In many ways, Peppy acts as a foil to George, and he seems attracted to her despite—or is it because of—their differences. Although the film leaves the question of George and Peppy's romance unresolved (they don't even smooch), the chemistry between them is explosive enough to satisfy even Walter White.
But even though it features two attractive people who are drawn to each other and look even more attractive side by side, The Artist isn't really a love story.
First and foremost, it's a story about a man coming to terms with change. George goes through a major transformation in the film—he gets thrown from his pedestal at the top of his game, and never quite recovers from the feeling that he's been discarded by the movie biz.
Part of the trouble is his feeling that he's being used—by his producer and by the media:
NEWSPAPER HEADLINE: "I'm not a puppet, I'm an artist!" – George Valentin
Things get pretty dark for George for a while, as the empty booze bottles pile up and depression claws down his door. Eventually, he hits rock bottom—nearly perishing in a fire of his own making and finding himself face to face with the barrel of his own gun—and it's only when he is truly confronted with himself that George can let down his guard and accept the help of others.
And it just so happens that that "other" is the lovely Peppy.
All's Well That Ends Well
When George finally lets Peppy pull some strings for him and get him back on set where he belongs, we all breathe a sigh of relief. It's a relief to see that sparkling smile again.
How fitting then, that George's last (and only spoken) words of the film are:
The sound of his (heavily accented) voice both explains his resistance to speaking (Hollywood in the 20s was even more problematic than it is now, even in the era of #oscarssowhite) and also breaks the literal silence of the film. As the sounds of the modern era envelop them, George embraces that era, a humbler and more open man than he was at the start of the film.
It doesn't hurt that we also get to see him tap dance up a clickety-clackety storm.