If you wondered why Jean Dujardin, in his exuberant thank-you speech at the Oscars, said “Yes, Melissa, your grandfather’s spirit and joie de vivre inspired me for this role,” he was acknowledging his indebtedness to Douglas Fairbanks as a key inspiration for his portrayal of silent film star George Valentin. What’s more, he was responding publicly to a letter he received from Fairbanks’ granddaughter Melissa. Courtesy of my friend, Fairbanks aficionado Jenny Paxson, here’s what Melissa wrote to Jenny from England: “Wasn’t The Artist magical? It just did something to my heart and spirit, and is as though a bridge had been made bringing DF Snr back into the present moment—quite an extraordinary thing.
“I had seen the film twice, and actually had been so deeply touched by it, as he really does seem to embody my grandfather. I wrote to [Dujardin] a few weeks ago, sending it off with a friend of mine who was up for special effects for Hugo. [I] thought nothing more of it, and then WOW! There we are!!!! What an incredible thing!!!”
Melissa was struggling to stay awake to watch the Oscar show on her computer, not having access to cable TV. “My phone went at 4:30 a.m. and it was my daughter Crystal in a mixture of laughing and crying. Then suddenly about 20 emails came in to say, ‘Did I hear what I think I heard?’ Then my sister Victoria phoned, screeching, and then I was in a crazy scramble to watch when it would be downloaded on YouTube which, of course, it was within a few minutes. What a wonderful tribute to Grandpa!”
Dujardin was not only generous enough to acknowledge both Melissa and her grandfather, but also pointed out that Fairbanks was the first President of the Academy 84 years ago.
And if, by doing so, he has piqued even a few people’s curiosity about the great Douglas Fairbanks, he has done film history an enormous favor.