Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Academy’s Complex Relationship With Martin Scorsese

In awards land, much time is spent discussing snubs, misses, and what could possibly be “the right thing to do.” Much of this is due to two factors. First, we have a lot of time to talk throughout the year about supposed mistakes. Second, we have the arc of history. Think of all the great artists The Academy must end up awarding either posthumously or with an honorary award because they finally realized they messed up. So, I’m not here to tell you what is right because there is no real objectivity about subjective awards, no matter how much anyone tells you otherwise. I am here to talk about a man who, in my opinion, is our greatest living director and, hell, maybe the greatest in all of film history: Martin Scorsese.

Just writing (or reading) that name immediately creates some images. Is it the crime movie? The struggles with faith? The protagonist whom you cannot quite root for? He has brought a myriad of characters to us, his viewers, no matter what the internet tells you. He is a fixture in the world of cinema and has been since 1973 with “Mean Streets.” Of course, he had a film before that (“Boxcar Bertha”) and numerous shorts. But here’s the truth: Scorsese, whom we know and love, had his coming-out party thanks to De Niro and Keitel as his muses. He has also become such a fixture in the awards conversation on an almost yearly basis. He is now the most Oscar-nominated living director (10!) and is knocking on the door of William Wyler’s record of 12 Best Director nominations.

And you might wonder, is that not enough? It’s a great career, regardless, isn’t it? To quote another often nominated person, Anette Bening, in “20th Century Women,” “Well, yes and no.” If you told young Scorsese that he would be nominated in double figures and win once, he would not believe you. And yes, he has not been completely shut out. He won for, let’s be generous and say, not his best film in “The Departed.” This was, I think correctly, widely seen as a make-up Oscar for his many prior masterpieces. It’s lovely that he has won because it would truly be an embarrassment if he were to finish his career and not be rewarded at least once. 

But something has stuck with me as we recover from the 96th Academy Awards. The Academy seems to nominate Scorsese and many others who work on his films but rarely reward them. Briefly, here are some recent statistics. His last four narrative works received 26 nominations and a grand total of zero wins. He also has the dubious honor of having three films (“Gangs of New York,” “The Irishman,” and “Killers of the Flower Moon“) going 0 for 10 at the Oscars. This is one short of the Academy record of eleven nominations with no wins (“The Turning Point” & “The Color Purple“). For this to happen repeatedly to one director could be by chance, but it made me want to dig a little deeper. Could there be some actual reasons for this particular pattern?

A New York State Of MindWhen you think of Martin Scorsese, one of your first thoughts should be of New York. It is in his blood, and he has never hid this fact or tried to shake it off. We can just ignore the fact that his worst movie is named after that particular city (“New York, New York”). Whether you’re talking about “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas,” “Taxi Driver,” or “The Age of Innocence,” many of his great works take place in the city that never sleeps. And regardless of locale, his movies always seem to ooze New York. 

New York and Los Angeles are very different places. And yes, this is obvious. They are 3,000 miles apart. But I would bet the cultural gulf is even larger. This is not a “New York is great and L.A. is garbage” argument. They are different. The bright lights of Hollywood cater to a different clientele than the grimy, gritty streets of New York. This is why most crime films are set in New York and other boroughs. There is a dark reality that seems to be swept off of the streets of Los Angeles. The exceptions are films featuring the deep past, like “L.A. Confidential” and “Babylon,” that capture a Los Angeles on the verge of its creation. Most dark Los Angeles stories are either literally underground or of a hidden underbelly. New York’s grittiness is on the very surface. Ask any New Yorker; they walk past it every day. It is simply a part of life. 

Martin Scorsese is New York to his core. To this day, he resides in New York, though I assume more comfortably than he did in the 1970s. I’m sure that if he had moved to Los Angeles, given in to the glitz and glamour, his career would have been quite different. But then, he wouldn’t be Scorsese, at least not the version most of us know and love. It is difficult to imagine a non-New Yorker making “After Hours,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” or “The Wolf of Wall Street.” 

It’s not hard to imagine this fact has harmed him regarding awards. I use the term “harmed” very loosely here. But, the Academy, very generally speaking, likes to award their own. And that wide berth between Martin Scorsese and the Los Angeles elite is something that is hard to cross. I’m not breaking new ground here to state that the Academy Awards is something of a popularity contest. To repeatedly win requires weak competition or a willingness to campaign for yourself. I genuinely feel Scorsese would rather his actors, editors, and production designers take home the gold. Yes, you see him at all of the ceremonies, but rarely see him talking himself up. This is, of course, one of the things I love most about him. He loves cinema, he loves the stories; his own glory is much less important. 

Pointing The Finger At UsBut no, we cannot simply explain away the absence of victory by distance alone. Martin Scorsese does not make easily digestible pictures. Yes, his movies can be easily enjoyed, but he is clawing at something deeper, something more human. Importantly, being more human does not always mean goodness or worthy of empathy. Humanity can be beautiful, but many of his stories are ugly, even when common. 

I could write an entirely separate essay on his use of unworthy, untrustworthy protagonists. Please remember, as many forget, that the definition of the term protagonist does not equal hero. Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, Ace Rothstein, Rupert Pupkin, Jake LaMotta. The list goes on and on. I would hope no one reading this sees these characters as aspirational or heroic. Martin Scorsese does not seem interested in the hero’s journey unless you count the story of Jesus Christ. But the Catholic Church would vehemently disagree with Scorsese’s treatment of that tale, for sure.

More interesting is that Scorsese does not treat these characters as wholly evil or even solitary in their disturbed nature. These are people (usually men) who live in our society, even if we choose to ignore them. In bringing this point to the forefront, he points the finger at all of us. As we lightly relate to these men, it makes us aware that we could be a part of the problem. And he does this again with the character of Ernest Burkhart in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” In uncomfortable ways, we are Ernest when he asks, “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” Ernest is a wolf, and so are we. If you question this, I urge you to go back and watch the ending featuring our very own Scorsese. He points the finger at himself, the audience, and the dominant culture.

Now, I only bring this up because I believe it is one of the specific reasons that he is not awarded. These stories are uncomfortable for people who want to celebrate themselves. This is not a story about the triumph of the human spirit, the power of cinema, or a hero coming out victorious. It is not lost on me that “The Departed,” in many ways, is a tragic hero giving up everything to do the right thing. So, looking back, it makes perfect sense that this is Scorsese’s lone win. 

Friendly Neighborhood MartyIt is interesting for me to look back at the (thankfully unfinished) career of the great Martin Scorsese through the lens of how he is seen culturally. In the 1970s, he was seen in two ways. At first, a young genius on the verge. Regardless of awards, you cannot be angry at the run that includes “Mean Streets” through “Raging Bull.” Technically, that last one is 1980, but you get what I’m saying. On the other side, he was troubled—challenging relationships with women, obvious drug problems, and clearly having difficulty working within studio systems.

In the 1980s, many would see it as a down period. Although many of the films found new life later, critically and commercially, there were struggles. I’m not saying this was bad output, but it was not his highlight during that decade. Don’t let that Criterion of “After Hours” fool you; this is a revisionist (but in a good way) history. It was also a time of risks. You don’t get more risky than “The King of Comedy” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” This highlights what I love about him; even if you don’t like some of his movies, you are almost forced to respect it.

The 1990s are mainly a return to critical valor. “Goodfellas,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “Casino” would all be career highlights for any director. It is unbelievable to think you could remove all three, and he would still have a phenomenal output. But again, you have movies that were not so lauded, like “Bringing Out the Dead” (excellent, in my opinion) and “Kundun,” which was unfairly buried.

Despite minimal awards wins, the last twenty years of his career have been incredible. I could sit here and list every one of his movies and have many good things to say about all of them. Basically, every movie he has made this century has been critically applauded, besides maybe “Shutter Island” (and that has been mostly reappraised). Because of this fact, he has been a constant presence at awards ceremonies. This is not even to detail the incredible work he has done on film preservation and the propping up of international filmmakers. He is cinema royalty, and he deserves every bit of appreciation. But is it possible this is precisely what hurts him when it comes to awards? He has already been awarded Best Director once, so maybe the Academy sees this recognition as a sign that their work is done.

Not-So-Final WordsFrankly, this is getting ridiculous. “The Wolf of Wall Street.” “Silence.” “The Irishman.” “Killers of the Flower Moon.” These are the Martin Scorsese films that have been released since the last of his movies took home any Oscar gold. It has been seventeen years and six great films since he took home Best Director. And remember, he did not receive his sole Best Director win until thirty-three years after “Mean Streets.” Martin Scorsese definitely needs to be on the level of multiple winners, like Frank Capra, John Ford, Ang Lee, and Alfonso Cuarón. For my money, he is a better director, a more varied director, and even more important to film history than any of these. It is high time that he is awarded Best Director again. Maybe the Academy will write these wrongs with the upcoming “A Life of Jesus” or “Roosevelt.” Martin Scorsese has been a gift to filmgoers everywhere. Awards aren’t everything, but they are important. If, in the near future, Mr. Scorsese was not making movies anymore and this wrong was not corrected, it would be a damn shame.

How do you feel about Martin Scorsese’s recent run with the Academy? Do you think he’ll win another Oscar? Which film would you have given him an Oscar for? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account.

You can follow Dave and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @darnthatdave

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