Going to the Dogs
Even a cat-lover like me couldn’t help but notice that 2011 was the year of the dog in cinema. Several excellent films had dogs who functioned as actual characters, not just as props.
The canine character getting the most attention is The Dog in The Artist, played by a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie, trained by Omar Von Muller. This is probably the showiest performance of last year; The Dog is, in fact, a performer, the costar as well as the companion — or should that be companion as well as costar? — of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Uggie’s frontrunner status has been solidified by the promotional appearances he and his trainer have made, appearing everywhere from the Ellen show to the Golden Globes red carpet.
My personal favorite was Arthur in Beginners, played by another Jack Russell terrier, this one named Cosmo and trained by Matilda de Cagny. Arthur originally belonged to Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) father Hal (Christopher Plummer), but came to live with Oliver after Hal’s death. Like most pet owners, Oliver talks to Arthur — in Beginners, subtitles provide Arthur’s side of the conversation. Sound precious? No, it’s charming and often funny.
Other dogs were used more traditionally, to illuminate humans’ characters rather than to function as characters themselves. In 50/50, cancer patient Adam’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) emotionally unavailable girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) arranges for him to adopt a companion animal — the shivering Skeletor, a retired racing greyhound. Skeletor was played by Denver, who was trained by Dana Dubé.
In Hugo, the heavy in pursuit of young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is accompanied by a menacing Doberman. Several dogs played the role of Blackie; the main one was Maximilian. All were trained by Cosmo’s trainer de Cagny.
It turns out I’m not the only one to have noticed that movies went to the dogs last year. The website Dog News Daily, an online dog magazine run by a marketing firm, is promoting the Golden Collar Awards (TM), to be given this year for the first time. There were originally five nominations for Best Dog in a Theatrical Film: Cosmo as Arthur in Beginners, Uggie as The Dog in The Artist, Denver as Skeletor in 50/50, plus Uggie again, as Queenie in Water for Elephants, and Hummer as Dolce in Young Adult.
Martin Scorsese, Hugo’s director, protested Maximilian’s absence from that list, telling Jimmy Kimmel “Not since Jack Benny has there been such underacting. And the muzzle that came out in 3D? It’s genius!” Dog News Daily challenged Maximilian fans to sign a petition on their Facebook page — 500 did so within 24 hours, and he was added to the list.
The awards were given on February 13. Predictably, Uggie won for The Artist. His performance involves far more tricks than the others, in line with the artificiality and stylization of the film; and, of course, the movie’s frontrunner status in the Oscar race for Best Picture didn’t hurt.
I’m a little disappointed, despite the inevitability of that win. My own preference was very strongly for Cosmo’s charming performance in Beginners — a truly lovely film about people’s struggles to connect authentically. Sorry, Cosmo.