Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Scorsese's Time Has Come

There might not be a more intriguing and diabolical story line in the world of film than Martin Scorsese's futile pursuit of an Academy Award.

He's been slighted in every way possible over the years: when crafting the most inventive film (Taxi Driver), the best movie (Raging Bull and Goodfellas), and the most epic production (The Aviator). No matter what his level of brilliance, it has never been enough for the academy. Whether this is the result of some kind of personal vendetta, sheer bad luck, or a case of the rules changing as we go, the fact is that one of - if not the best - directors of all time is still without an Oscar for Best Director.

Well, it says here that the time has come. Marty is finally going to get his long-awaited and much-deserved Academy Award. Here are the reasons why:

*Spoiler Alert!* (If you haven't seen The Departed yet, feel free to skip down to point number two. Don't say you weren't warned.)

1. The Film Itself. This seems a little obvious, but it must be mentioned. I can't recall the last time I went to see a movie that was this highly anticipated and that still managed to live up to the hype. The theatre was enormous, people were lining up hours beforehand on the third night of release, and the crowd was one hundred percent into the movie the entire time. It felt epic in scope, larger than life. At the same time, The Departed was an incredibly subtle movie. In fact, it was the juxtaposition of "epic" and "subtle" that made it such a fabulous movie. Vulgarity fused with intelligence, heads being blown off set against a backdrop of complex moral ambiguities.

Take Leonardo DiCaprio's character as evidence of Scorsese's ability to fuse violence and passion with a light touch. DiCaprio's discomfort with the world's worst undercover assignment was seen in the bold, brash scenes like the "feed me to the poor" rant in the back of the Martin Sheen's car, but even more so in his seen-but-never-discussed dependance on Oxycontin. The character's story arch visually ended in the most visceral and dramatic fashion possible, yet the ultimate conclusion of DiCaprio's Billy Cositgan came in the quietest moment - when he ultimately regained his name and his honor in the form of a police burial.

Scorsese's constant ability to blend loud and quiet, bold and subtle was impressive, to say the least. The movie gained strength in its contemplative silences (DiCaprio's powerfully wordless acting right before Vera Farmiga asks if he is "really that vulnerable") as well as in its gruesome violence. Even the musical accompaniment revealed this delicate balance, running the gamut from the uber-aggresive Boston anthem "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" by the Dropkick Murphy's to Howard Shore's delicate score.

The other magical aspect of The Departed was watching a cast full of heavyweights transform into authentic characters within a matter of moments. While some of the Boston accents might have been a little in-and-out and forced, the personas were not. Matt Damon easily morphed into cocky, sneaky, guilt-ridden Colin Sullivan. DiCaprio obviously became his character (as he always does). Even larger-than-life Jack Nicholson moves away from "Jack being Jack" territory long enough to make you think you are watching Frank Costello.

I have always contended that Scorsese's work on The Aviator was immensely underrated, because of the way he that he orchestrated such a massive undertaking. There is more to being a good director than just holding one long shot or using color filters for various scenes. There is also more to it than just telling a great story. The other element is actually directing an enormous project - managing and utilizing the hundreds of people on set. Despite a reputation for being a perfectionist, Scorsese rarely goes over budget or runs long on a shoot. That, to me, is remarkable. And his ability to make all of these huge personalities mesh and melt into an authentic story is directing at its finest. I mean, he was nearly able to reign in Nicholson, which pretty much says it all.

Speaking of Jack ...

2. The Nicholson Factor. One of the theories floating around in Hollywood regarding Marty's Oscar drought is that the academy doesn't like him. The reasons range from a prickly personality (read: no patience for inept members of the media) to his New York address to his refusal to participate in industry politics. Whatever the actual reason, you can make a good case he's been on the wrong side of the aisle where the academy is concerned. When you've been at it as long as Scorsese has, it is pretty hard to change that dynamic.

So what's the next best thing? Bringing aboard a true academy favorite, andJack Nicholson is that guy. Nominated a whopping 12 times for Best Actor, Nicholson has actually managed to break through and win on several occasions, most notably in 1998 for As Good as It Gets. Getting Jack to leave his Staples Center courtside seats to shoot a movie for the first time since 2003 was a major coup for Scorsese. You know that Nicholson will be getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and probably a win), which is only going to build the Oscar buzz surrounding The Departed.

3. A Quick Glance at the Names of Other Winners. Granted, their wins came in another category, but the fact is, Eminem and Three-Six Mafia have Oscars and Scorsese doesn't. I have to believe that at some point, voters are going to notice this as well and attempt to rectify this incongruence, lest future civilizations assume the worst about us.

4. The Recent Nature of the Award. Lately, the Academy Awards have started to take on a bit of a lifetime achievement feel, or perhaps you could even say that it has a "makeup call" type of feel to it.

Just take the Best Actor debacle that occurred from 2000-2002. Russell Crowe should have won in 2000 for The Insider but since they gave it to Kevin Spacey that year as part of the American Beauty lovefest, they had to turn around and give Crowe the award in 2001 (for Gladiator), even though he was more deserving the following year (2002) for A Beautiful Mind. Unfortunately, they had to give it to Denzel Washington that year as a makeup for Malcom X and - to a lesser extent - The Hurricane, even though A) Denzel's work in Training Day wasn't all that amazing and B) the only aspect that garnered A Beautiful Mind (a movie that wasn't much better than "good") its Best Picture award was Crowe's acting. Confused yet? Exactly.

So even though The Departed may not be the single greatest movie of Scorsese's career (although I think I rank it higher up that list than many), he may get the vote simply from a "crowning achievement" angle. Check out the the history that will be rattling around in the minds of academy voters while they are thinking "maybe we should finally give him one":

1976 - Taxi Driver. He wasn't even nominated here, but that has more to do with how early this happened in his career. I think he might have won if this comes out five years later.

1981 - Raging Bull. His greatest movie and, obviously, greatest slight. He lost to Warren Beatty for Reds, which is just a joke, in retrospect.

1989 - The Last Temptation of Christ. Lost to Oliver Stone for Born on the 4th of July.

1991 - Goodfellas. The greatest mob movie ever made that doesn't have "Godfather" in the title, Scorsese had the bad luck to be going up against Jonathan Demme the year that Silence of the Lambs was taking the Oscars by storm.

1993 and 1995 - Age of Innocence and Casino. This was the height of the anti-Marty era. I'm not saying he should have won for either of these films, but all he came away with was one lousy Best Screenplay nomination.

2003 - Gangs of New York. I'm convinced this will wind up being one of the most underrated movies of his career. He spent eight years crafting this story, launched DiCaprio into the "Next DeNiro" stage of his career, coaxed a legendary performance out of Daniel Day Lewis (who somehow didn't win Best Actor for his "Bill the Butcher" character), and created an entire city in Italy in which to shoot the movie. Fantastic cinematic work, yet he lost to a guy that had been run out of America for having sex with minors (Roman Polanski). There is no justice.

2005 - The Aviator. If I'm being honest, this movie doesn't really stack up with Scorsese's best, but as I mentioned above, it was a tremendous achievement in film management, if nothing else. I am still bummed that Clint Eastwood beat Scorsese here.

And speaking of Clint ...

5. The Biggest Threats Don't Appear that Big. I've been looking forward to The Departed for months and a big part of that has been my hope that this will finally be the movie that gets Marty some hardware. Of course, those hopes were tempered the minute I realized that the academy's golden boy, Clint Eastwood, was launching his next collaboration with another academy golden boy (this one of more recent vintage), Paul Haggis, in the form of Flags of Our Fathers. Talk about a potential Oscar-winning film. By all accounts, the movie is very well done and a nice tribute to our veterans, but from the word on the street to the cast to the previews, it doesn't feel like a Best Picture (and therefore Best Director) shoo-in. This is good news for Scorsese.

Not only is Flags looking less formidable than it otherwise might have been, but other Oscar hopefuls look less than intimidating. The Queen is getting great reviews but it seems like it will get its due in the form of a Best Actress nomination (and possible win) for Helen Mirren. Same for Little Children and Kate Winslet. All the King's Men got a lukewarm reception from critics and bombed at the box office, so it is probably out. Bobby is directed by Emilio Estevez, for crying out loud, so unless we are ready to face the apocalypse, I don't think he will be beating Scorsese. Dreamgirls is getting a lot of buzz, but even if it gets Best Picture consideration, I can't see a musical taking the Best Director category this year. Blood Diamond is only the second-best Leo DiCaprio vehicle of Oscar season, so that shouldn't be a real threat.

In fact, other than Eastwood, the one director that looms as the greatest threat to keep the unfortunate streak intact is the fabulously talented Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has already gained fame with Amores Perros and 21 Grams and whose Babel is looming as a huge critical hit.

For years it seems that Scorsese has had the misfortune of releasing his strongest movies during the strongest years, but all things considered, that particular run of bad luck appears to be ending. There will be some intriguing choices, but if the academy is truly interested in rectifying this long-standing slight, they might have the right year and the right movie to work with.

The Departed is vintage Scorsese and a movie with no visible flaws. This year, this time, that should be enough.

The again, I've thought that before.

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