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Jean Dujardin took home the golden statue at this year’s Academy Awards but he was only one part of the wonderful, silent ensemble behind ‘The Artist’. Another key addition to the cast was James Cromwell, who plays Clifton, the main character George’s trusted and steadfast chauffeur.
A native of Los Angeles, Cromwell is a child of the movie business; both parents, as well his grandmother and stepmother, worked in the industry. “My father arrived in Hollywood at the advent of the sound era and became a director in the 30s. My mother was DeMille’s leading lady when he first moved into sound pictures,” the actor remarks.
Prior to meeting with director Michel Hazanavicius, Cromwell reviewed a presentation book the filmmaker had put together that included detailed storyboards. “The book was wonderful. Michel had put a lot of thought into how exactly he would make this movie, and had a very clear vision. To me, the project was too good to pass up, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t.”
Cromwell describes the chauffeur as a steady, reassuring presence in George’s life. “Clifton is more than a chauffeur. He’s really George’s right-hand man and he cares for him a lot,” says Cromwell. At the same time, there is a formality to their relationship that is true to the period and true to Clifton’s nature. “Clifton is old-school: gentlemanly, quiet, unobtrusive, sympathetic, handy and dependable.”
Hazanavicius also sought out actress Penelope Ann Miller, who portrayed silent movie actress Edna Purviance in the biopic ‘Chaplin’ with Robert Downey Jr. In ‘Chaplin’, Miller had played silent scenes recreating portions of Chaplin’s work, and she was intrigued by the notion of acting in a feature-length silent.
The period setting also held great appeal to the actress, a lifelong movie buff who is extremely knowledgeable about Hollywood cinema history. She gravitated to the part of Doris, George’s increasingly disaffected wife.
“I saw a lot of emotion to work with in Doris,” says Miller. “At the point where we come into the movie, there’s clearly some tension in the marriage. Doris is a proud woman, upright, and it’s very important to her to keep up the appearance of a stable marriage. They’ve grown apart, but deep down, Doris still loves George, and still wants him to adore her. I think she’s suffering as a result of that.”
‘The Artist’ was an unusual casting proposition in Los Angeles: a film without dialogue and only a handful of supporting roles, some quite small. Nonetheless, the film attracted an ensemble of accomplished, well-known actors whose faces will be very familiar to American moviegoers.
Among them: Missi Pyle, who plays Constance, an actress who is none too pleased when George upstages her; Beth Grant, who plays Peppy’s maid; Ed Lauter, who plays Peppy’s butler; Ken Davitan, who plays a pawnbroker; Joel Murray, who plays a policeman; and Bitsie Tulloch, who plays George’s co-star in a jungle adventure.
Veteran star Malcolm McDowell heard about the production and requested a meeting with Hazanavicius. “I only had a very small part to offer him, almost an extra, and he was delighted!” marvels the filmmaker. “I really had tremendous good fortune with the entire cast.”
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