Jean Dujardin wins best actor Oscar for 'The Artist'

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jean Dujardin won the best actor Oscar on Sunday for silent film “The Artist,” becoming the first Frenchman to win the coveted accolade and beating out Hollywood frontrunners George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

Dujardin was largely unknown outside of France until “The Artist” became the toast of film festivals and started racking up awards last year for his moving, virtually silent portrayal of a dashing actor struggling with Hollywood’s transition from silent to talking pictures.

Clearly overwhelmed at his win a beaming Dujardin took to the stage punching the air.

“I love your country,” he declared with his thick French accent.

“The Artist” is set in 1927 Hollywood. Dujardin referred to the first Academy Awards in 1929, which honored films from 1927 and 1928.

“It’s funny because in 1929 it was...Douglas Fairbanks who hosted the first Oscar ceremony,” Dujardin said. “It cost $5 and it lasted 15 minutes. Times have changed.”

He ended his acceptance speech shouting in his native French “Oh Putain! Genial! Merci! Formidable! Merci beaucoup!” (“Bloody Hell! Brilliant! Thanks! Fantastic! Thank you very much!”) followed by: “I love you!”

He was also asked if he might make more “talkies” in the United States. He said he would like to, but that he probably would not because he is French.

“I’m not an American actor. I’m a French actor. I’ll continue in France. If I could make another silent movie in America, I’d like to,” he joked.

Dujardin, 39, was the first French actor to be nominated for the best actor Oscar since Gerard Depardieu in 1990. French actress Marion Cotillard won the best actress Academy Award in 2008 for “La Vie en Rose.”

With Hollywood heartthrobs Clooney and Pitt early favorites to win this year’s best actor Academy Award, Dujardin overcame daunting odds and triumphed with his deft performance in the black-and-white silent film that has charmed critics, as well as audiences -- at least the relative few who have seen it.

Born and raised in the suburbs west of Paris, Dujardin won attention in his native country in 1996 after appearing on a talent show as part of comedy troupe called Nous C Nous.

A role in the French comedy series “Un gars, une fille” led to film work, culminating in the popular 2006 spy spoof, “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” garnering Dujardin a French César Award nomination for best actor. A sequel, “OSS 117: Lost in Rio,” followed.

But nothing could have prepared him for the success of “The Artist,” for which he won the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

More honors followed, including the Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy, the BAFTA prize for best actor, and the Screen Actors Guild award - all leading up to Dujardin’s Oscar triumph.

It has been a heady trip for Dujardin, the son of a construction company businessman who, since his “Artist” fame, has sometimes been called France’s answer to George Clooney, one of his fellow nominees for the film world’s highest honor.

Additional reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Sandra Maler