It may have taken forever, but Bob Dylan won a Grammy and Satchel Paige made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now the academy must right a wrong of its own. It was great to wake up Tuesday to the news that Scorsese had earned yet another Oscar nomination — his sixth — this one for his great work directing "The Departed," which is also up for best picture.
But nominations are one thing: For the academy to dig itself out of a gaping karmic pothole, it must make the 64-year-old filmmaking legend a winner.
Along with Clint Eastwood, Scorsese is arguably America's greatest living director, not to mention one of our most passionate advocates for cinema history and preservation. There is an entire generation of young (and no longer so young) filmmakers who see Scorsese as an inspiration and role model as well as one of the few remaining vital links to the glory days of 1970s cinema.
It was, of course, in the '70s, when the academy began its long history of overlooking Scorsese's achievements. Not that I'd ever advocate such a thing, but if you wanted to make the case that the academy is, at heart, a plodding, middle-brow assortment of earnest craft folk and insecure actors, its record of ignoring Scorsese's work would be Exhibit A.
His first great film, 1973's "Mean Streets," went totally unnoticed. The academy then managed to add insult to injury by nominating "Taxi Driver" (1976) for best picture while ignoring its director. He finally earned a best director nomination for 1980's "Raging Bull" only to lose to Robert Redford for "Ordinary People." Even worse, a decade later, with "GoodFellas," Scorsese lost to Kevin Costner ("Dances With Wolves").
Sadly, the academy has been blind to the virtues of many great filmmakers. Robert Altman was finally given an honorary Oscar after being nominated five times without a victory. Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar. The same goes for Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Federico Fellini. (Many filmmakers have received honorary Oscars, the academy being much better at hindsight than foresight.)
When it comes to acknowledging great artistry, award groups are notoriously inept at sensing the zeitgeist. It took the Rolling Stones 20 years to win a Grammy; Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin have never won. It comes as no surprise that the academy has trouble recognizing the Scorseses of today, which is why gifted younger directors, such as "Pan's Labyrinth's" Guillermo del Toro and "Children of Men's" Alfonso Cuarón, were absent from Tuesday's best director nominations. It's telling that Alejandro González Iñárritu, at 43, was the only best director nominee younger than 50. The academy tends to reward gravitas, not youthful daring.
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"What makes Marty so special is that he never plays it safe," says Irwin Winkler, who produced "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas." "Show me a Scorsese film and I'll show you a movie where he's taken risks. It's just his nature. He's an artist, and artists take risks. He always does what he believes in."
The great thing about "The Departed" is that it not only shines as a stylish thriller but also serves as an impressive recapitulation of Scorsese's career. His movies have always been about the psychic laws of the jungle, the uneasy balance between loyalty and betrayal. Whether he's portraying the early immigrant warlords in "Gangs of New York" or the cellphone-wielding killers in "The Departed," his heroes are brutish creatures of the underworld, proud of their clannish insularity while haunted by deception and paranoia.
The critics made much of Jack Nicholson's menacing craziness in "The Departed," but to any Scorsese admirer, he is a familiar figure, a first cousin to Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy in "Mean Streets" and Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito in "GoodFellas."
In "The Departed," as in so many Scorsese films, it's often hard to tell who we are supposed to be rooting for — the bad guys often being indistinguishable from the good guys. Whether it's "Raging Bull's" Jake La Motta or "Taxi Driver's" Travis Bickle, Scorsese's men are unhinged by uncontrollable emotion, obsessed by sin and redemption.
It's no surprise that one of Scorsese's favorite screen characters is Ethan Edwards, a savage loner played by John Wayne in John Ford's "The Searchers," his pursuit of a young girl kidnapped by the Commanche an epic example of a man consumed by hatred. In Peter Bogdanovich's documentary, "Directed by John Ford," Scorsese says of Ford: "He is the essence of classical American cinema. Any serious person making films today, whether they know it or not, is affected by [his work]."
We could say the same thing about Scorsese. It's time the academy gave him an Oscar, not out of guilt or sentiment, but because he deserves it.