All right, all right…it is the worst crime in all of cinema. Worse than Alfred Hitchcock never handling directorial Oscar gold. More appalling than Stanley Kubrick’s 1 for 13 Academy batting average (he received one for 2001‘s special effects???). Over the course of his highly praised career, Martin Scorsese, a true American auteur, has never won the big prize. Granted, he’s still considered a filmmaking genius. But for many, that’s not good enough. Instead of letting him rest on his considerable laurels, fans and faux well wishers want him to walk down that red carpet and pick up the industry’s biggest reward. It won’t affect his status as a legitimate legend (just ask Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, or any other renowned director who had to wait around for “honorary” recognition). But for many, it would be vindication after decades of being purposefully passed over.
Some of his slights have been pretty heinous. For the record, Scorsese has been nominated six times for Best Director, all for films made after 1980, none for anything prior to Raging Bull. He also has two screenplay nods as well. Of the movies he’s been recognized for, two are hailed as modern masterworks – 1980’s Bull and 1990’s Goodfellas. How ironic is it then that both efforts lost to first time directors (Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, respectively) both of who were superstar actors first, distinguished filmmakers a far distant second (quick, name another noteworthy film either has made since). One of the strongest arguments defenders make about Scorsese’s snubs is that, in a system which quickly rushes to celebrate the flavor of the moment, the Academy often fails to look at the bigger motion picture picture. And Marty is that man out of time.
No one would argue that Ordinary People (Redford’s still amazing movie) is better than Bull. It’s merely a matter of artistic degrees. Similarly, it’s a shame that the overblown reach of Costner’s pro-PC Western Dances With Wolves became the cause celeb of its otherwise mediocre movie season (let’s face it – Ghost, Awakenings and The Godfather Part III were Best Picture candidates that year as well). In both cases, Scorsese made the better film, the more timeless entertainment, the surest cinematic statement. But because of Hollywood happenstance, the power of the publicity machine, or the overall jealousy of an industry less enamored of his efforts than the critical community, Scorsese remains the Academy outsider, looking in. His latest nomination for the brilliant crime thriller The Departed promises to finally end his losing streak. But the fact remains that, in an amazingly creative career, it comes as far too little, way too late.
Indeed, there are at least five other films that Scorsese should have been acknowledged for, efforts that usually don’t get mentioned along with Mean Streets or Taxi Driver (remember – Oscar didn’t start to take notice until a decade after these definitive efforts). When you consider that two of his recent nods have been for less than successful works - no one would compare Gangs of New York or The Aviator to his finest – the indignity becomes even richer. One of America’s premiere talents has had to endure the nagging question of whether he will ever be the beneficiary of Academy recognition. Once you see the list of movies that haven’t made the cut, along with the few that did, you realize how rhetorical said query really is. Scorsese’s body of work is just phenomenal. His lack of AMPAS recognition is just ridiculous. Proof of point – the motion pictures listed below, beginning with:
1974 – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Not Nominated)
After the aesthetic epiphany that was Mean Streets (remember, Scorsese was an unknown whose only major filmmaking fame was as one of Roger Corman’s b-movie journeymen) many weren’t prepared for this road movie cum character study. Substituting the stark Southwestern desert for the overcrowded streets of New York, Scorsese deconstructed feminism, showing how paternalism dominates both the personal (Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson) and professional (Vic Tayback) landscape. With Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn in the driver’s seat, and stellar supporting work from Diane Ladd, girl power was still prevalent. It’s interesting to note the absolute lack of directing tricks in this surprisingly immediate film. Utilizing handheld cameras and found locations, there is a decided documentary feel to this film that Scorsese would rarely revisit throughout the course of his career. It’s a sensational, slightly surreal cinema véritié approach that proves there is more to this man’s body of work than carefully choreographed compositions and meticulous tracking shots.
1983 – King of Comedy (Not Nominated)
With the monumental achievement of Raging Bull, the critical question became: what would Scorsese and his acknowledged acting collaborator Robert De Niro do for an encore. The answer, oddly enough, was one of the ‘80s bitterest satires. Predating the prevalence of fame whores by at least 15 years, this wholly New York look at celebrity and shallowness remains one of the filmmaker’s unappreciated classics. Like a brutal response to Network‘s previous clarion call, Scorsese took screenwriter Paul Zimmerman’s burlesque Travis Bickle, and with the help of an amazing performance from his partner, fashioned the oblivious Rupert Pupkin into the entertainment equivalent of Gordon Gecko. With its talk show as social signpost symbolism and unusual approach to romance, King was a delightful denunciation of every hack who ever believed him or herself capable of stardom. Featuring Jerry Lewis in one of his few dour, dramatic roles and a remarkable turn by stand-up comic Sandra Bernhard, the film remains a tremendously cynical cinematic statement.
1988 – The Last Temptation of Christ (Nominated, Lost to Barry Levinson for Rainman)
Talk about throwing a scandalized dog a bone. When it was discovered that Scorsese was bringing Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel to the silver screen, the newly empowered Religious Right got their representational rocks ready for a good old-fashioned stoning. Fast forward almost 20 years, and a famous Hollywood superstar (pre-Anti Semitic rant) decides to do an equally contentious take on the Messiah, and he’s embraced as a motion picture prophet. Must have something to do with the public’s willingness to accept abject violence (Passion‘s snuff film scourging) vs. a question of theoretical enticement (Christ’s crucifixion based fantasy about a secular life with Mary Magdalene). Anyone interested in the psychological and dogmatic underpinning of faith deserve to see Scorsese’s overlooked epic. While Gibson may have received the fundamentalist stamp of approval with his picture, Scorsese delivered the real scholarly take, and was given a token nomination as a reward (the film’s only Oscar acknowledgment).
1995 – Casino (Not Nominated)
Poor Casino. When placed alongside Mean Streets and Goodfellas, it becomes the bastard stepchild of Scorsese’s mob movies, an also ran in a dynamic dominated by acknowledged artwork. But it takes real creative chutzpah to focus on the grime under the glitz of Las Vegas and come out with anything remotely original. Thanks to the unique storyline (following real life gambling boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, here renamed Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein), stunning visual setting, and incredibly gifted cast (yes, EVEN Sharon Stone), Scorsese turned the crime drama on its ear. Instead of making the violence the most visceral part of his exposé (and there is some incredibly brutal material here), the accomplished auteur brought backstage bravado – and more than a little directorial pizzazz – to the everyday workings of a high rolling gambling establishment. Sure, the film loses its way toward the end, but in a year that saw Braveheart’s Gibson take the prize, this film deserved much, much better.
2005 – No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Out of Oscar Consideration)
Hopefully, the lunkhead over at PBS who kept this stellar documentary from getting a well deserved theatrical release is currently looking for a new place of employment. Of all the ‘60s icons, Dylan remains the most fascinating, and frustrating. At one time a true folk traditionalist, his transition into a potent political voice was an elusive aesthetic turn. The best thing Scorsese accomplishes with what is essentially a talking head retrospective is the complete contextualization of Dylan’s social and musical importance. He draws distinct parallels between the rising tide of unrest in the country and the simultaneous seismic shifts in the various entertainment mediums. He even stretches out beyond the scope of a standard biography to explore the importance of Dylan’s initial purist position, and why so many felt betrayed by his decision to “go electric” in 1965. And the worst part of all of it? It didn’t even win an Emmy. Scorsese lost the award to Baghdad ER.
All together, the man has made 21 major first run features. Of that number, 16 (give or take two or three) are considered by most film fans to be good or great. That’s quite a high percentage. It’s truly sad then that Oscar has failed to recognize his brilliance until now. But here’s guessing this is one filmmaker who would take his track record over a little gold statue any day. His lack of recognition from the Academy is dreadful. His work behind the camera remains definitive.