LOS ANGELES - He steals the show on the red carpet, his co-stars regard him as a solid actor, and his director believes he is an essential character in "The Artist."
But Uggie, the playful, loyal Jack Russell terrier who stars in the silent movie, was left out in the cold by Oscar organizers on Tuesday despite having won the hearts and minds of millions of movie-goers.
"He's been an amazing partner and a very kind and very good actor," Berenice Bejo told Reuters after winning a best supporting actress nod for her "Artist" role as the rising new star at the dawn of talkies.
With 10 Academy Award nominations, "The Artist" and its tale of a silent star whose career dives as talking pictures take over Hollywood, is seen as a front-runner for Oscar gold in February, thanks partly to the cute canine who goes from playing dead, to ultimately saving the day.
Despite a long list of previous film credits to his name, including "Water for Elephants," little Uggie, 10, never stood a chance of winning a nod in his own right from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
That's because more than 80 years ago, the Academy drafted rules that specifically exclude animals being nominated for Oscars, all because of the success of another superstar dog of the silent era, Rin Tin Tin.
Susan Orlean, author of "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend," says that Rin Tin Tin was so popular with movie audiences in the silent era that he almost won the very first best actor Oscar in 1929.
"The reporting that I did, indicated that Rin Tin Tin got most votes for best actor. But as much as he was admired and beloved, the Academy was trying to establish itself as a serious new awards program and they thought 'We can't give awards to animals. This will cause all sorts of embarrassment for us.' So the rules were then drafted so that no non-human could receive an Oscar," Orlean told Reuters.
That bit of Oscar folklore can't be conclusively confirmed or denied because the Academy did not keep the ballots from those first Oscars, said Orlean, who spent eight years researching her book.
Uggie's essential role
Just like Rin Tin Tin, whose performances in 27 movies in the 1920s were evaluated by movie critics as if he were a human actor, Uggie's role in "The Artist" is a cut above that of a mere animal sidekick.
Director Michel Hazanavicius said "The Artist" would "never have been the same movie without the dog."
Uggie "is really essential in the entire storytelling process ... George Valentin is very selfish and eccentric, but the fact is the dog loves him throughout the movie ... So the audience trusts the dog and if the dog follows him, he must be a good person," Hazanavicius told Reuters.
Orlean said Uggie was a charmer, whose pure heart rises above the petty concerns of humans. "I love that people are responding to it and that we are not too cynical to be touched by the tale of a cute dog doing something heroic," she said.
Sarah Clifford, who helped train Uggie for the movie, recalled a scene when the depressed and destitute Valentin, played by Oscar-nominated Jean Dujardin, holds a gun to his head.
"There was a take where Uggie actually reached out and tried to pull the gun out of his (Jean's) hand with his mouth. He put his mouth on Jean's hand and started pulling his hand. We were so stunned. He wasn't told to do that," Clifford said.
"That dog was responding to the actor in an emotional sense. I think that's a form of acting that was amazing to see," said Clifford, owner of AnimalSavvy.
Clifford said that in 10 years in the animal entertainment business she has never experienced the kind of media attention Uggie is getting from "The Artist."
Uggie did, after all, get to walk the red carpet at the recent Golden Globe awards — wearing black tie, of course.
Yet Clifford understands the Academy's rules. "I love that Uggie is getting recognized as an actor. But I also think the Academy Awards is such a prestigious awards show that it should just be for humans," she said.
Besides, Uggie has his own awards show coming up in February in Los Angeles. He has two nods for the Golden Collar awards for best dog in a motion picture.
"We're feeling pretty confident," said Clifford, "but you never know."
(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)