While the people involved in The Artist have been gathering awards by the armful, the film’s publicity machine has mounted an additional, and very successful, campaign on behalf of its canine star, Uggie. And who can blame them? He’s highly appealing and a natural performer, both on and off screen, so it’s an easy sell.
But it made me wonder about other animals on the big screen. There have been plenty of other dogs – Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Marley in Marley and Me, to name but a few. Horses are movie regulars as well – Black Beauty, National Velvet and, currently, Joey in War Horse – with more unusual animal stars including Clyde the orang-utan, who completely upstaged Clint Eastwood in their movies together. Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning western would have needed another title without the wolves and even Skippy, the much-parodied kangaroo, had a feature film all of his own.
What all of these four legged stars have in common is that they can be, at least to some extent, trained. The same can’t be said of cats who, as anybody sharing a home with one will tell you, simply won’t do as they’re told. The most notable movie cat was in Breakfast At Tiffany’s – and its name was Cat – although the cat in The Third Man and General Stirling Price in the original True Grit come close to being method actors. In the former, Harry Lime’s girlfriend Anna remarks that the cat didn’t like anybody but Harry, while the General simply snarls and hisses at anybody that comes near him. Blofeld’s grumpy Persian, who appeared in several Bond films, didn’t really have much of a part, but I always suspected him of bigging it up by plunging his claws into his master’s thighs. The one, true hero cat was Jones in Alien, who survived all those acid-dripping attacks, with a little help from his sidekick, Sigourney Weaver.
Cats are just behind dogs in the pet popularity stakes in this country and could be great on the big screen: they’re intelligent and photogenic – but won’t do anything to order. My moggie, Bertie, is a case in point: he has monochrome good looks that would be a winner in a sequel to The Artist, but it would have to be a silent movie as, despite his decidedly masculine appearance, he has a miaow that is best described as that of a wuss. And, to coin a phrase, one word from me and he does as he likes!
The Uggie coverage has also raised the question about animals receiving awards for their performances. The answer to the debate – I can’t bring myself to call it a problem – already exists, a witty invention from the Cannes Film Festival. It has a special award for canine ‘actors’ called the Palme Dog which comes in the shape of a collar and last year’s winner, Uggie, was wearing it with pride at the recent Golden Globes. A shame they didn’t award it back in 1948, as the bull terrier in David Lean’s Oliver Twist would have been a shoo-in: his performance when Nancy is murdered was brilliant (and was engineered by a cat on the other side of the door!).
With such a precedent, why shouldn’t there be other special awards for animals? Cats could be honoured in this country with a CATFA or horses with a Horscar from the American Academy, for example. The Berlin Film Festival already has its animal award sewn up but, having seemingly gone for a niche market, I can’t think of many likely winners, past or present ……
Somehow, I think Uggie, his contemporaries and predecessors, will have to content themselves with fan-sites on the internet for the time being at least. And it’s a sobering thought that fame comes at a price, even for animal stars: just a week before filming started on The Artist, Uggie was neutered.