What is it about Martin Scorsese and awards?
I just finished voting on the year's best films with my critics group, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and I was astonished to see that The Departed (355 screens) came up empty. Voting in these groups is a lot of fun and it's exciting to anticipate what's going to win, but what actually wins is almost always a disappointment. I couldn't help noticing that many of the films that have won this year -- not only our awards, but others groups' awards as well -- were the types of films that were specifically designed to win awards: Little Children (25 screens), Babel (373 screens), Flags of Our Fathers(142 screens), etc. Folks who have previously won awards and are trying to duplicate their success usually succumb to this practice. The problem with these films is that they're overly concerned with what viewers are going to think of them; they're self-conscious instead of true expressions of an artist's soul. But the other problem is the critics who can't tell the difference.
In the grand scheme of things, these award movies rarely last more than a season. No one revisits them. That's why, when we look back on Scorsese's career, it's shocking to learn just how he has lost. In 1976, the year of Taxi Driver, he was not nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and the winner was John G. Avildsen, that great auteur who went on to make The Karate Kid Part III (1989) and Rocky V (1990) after beating out Scorsese with Rocky. (For the record, the other four nominees were Alan J. Pakula, Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet and Lina Wertmüller.)
In 1980, the year of Raging Bull, he lost to Robert Redford. Redford may have a place as an actor, and I enjoyed his film Quiz Show, but his other gauzy features (The Legend of Bagger Vance) probably won't make much of a dent in the history of cinema.
Scorsese was nominated in 1988 for the controversial -- and extraordinary -- The Last Temptation of Christ. He lost to Barry Levinson (for Rain Man). I won't deny Levinson his Baltimore series (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon and Liberty Heights), but his remaining films are almost totally devoid of personality. In 1990 (the year of GoodFellas) Scorsese lost to Kevin Costner, a "filmmaker" who went on to make The Postman, and who also lent his directorial skill (without credit) to Waterworld.
By the 2000s, people began to notice and complain about Scorsese's lack of awards, but in 2002 and 2004 he actually lost to worthy adversaries, Roman Polanski and Clint Eastwood. They had each made "important" films, while Scorsese was just doing his same old thing.
This week, our critics group gave the Best Director award to Paul Greengrass. I won't deny that Greengrass is talented at what he does, but he makes docudramas. (And Bourne Identity sequels.) I suspect that our critics were more impressed by his film's 9/11 theme than by the filmmaking itself; I didn't see anyone falling all over themselves to hand him an award for the equally well-made Bloody Sunday four years ago.
That's the main problem, right there. Scorsese is consistently good. Voters believe that if he gets passed over yet again, he'll come up with something brilliant next year or the year after. No problem. This is the kind of thinking that caused the hole in the ozone layer. We'll deal with it later. It's also the kind of thinking that left Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Robert Altman without any Best Director Oscars.
For that matter it could also be why Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant or Peter O'Toole never won a competitive acting Oscar. I voted for O'Toole as the year's best actor for his performance in the upcoming Venus, but he didn't even make our final ballot. We gave our award to Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat. I liked Borat as much as the next guy, but really, how does Cohen beat out O'Toole? Cohen is great at voices and skits and stuff, but that's where he stops. O'Toole is one of the greatest scenery chewers of all time, one of the funniest and most energizing actors ever to hit the big screen. In Venus he shows that -- after nearly 25 years on the sidelines -- he's still in top form. He's capable of playing the most vile scoundrel and making him as lovable as a teddy bear.
Likewise, my choice for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (4 screens) and A Prairie Home Companion respectively, did not make the final ballot. Instead we had two actresses from the aforementioned Babel, chosen for their association with an "important"-looking movie rather than their performances.
Awards are fun, but I'm sick to death of how they consistently fail to look beyond the short view. There is greatness right here in our midst. Let's pay attention to history and anticipate what's coming. That's the best way to expose the flavor of the month.