Is Scorsese Oscar Poison?


Feb. 23, 2005 — -- If misery loves company, Martin Scorsese might try summoning the ghosts of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps together they can explain why none of them has ever been able to call himself an Oscar-winning director.

Scorsese's latest work, "The Aviator," soared last month with a leading 11 Academy Award nominations. But so did his last film, "Gangs of New York," which earned 10 nominations two years ago (second only to "Chicago"), only to lose in every category.

The 62-year-old filmmaker is now 0-for-6 at the Academy Awards, losing four times when nominated as best director ("Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Goodfellas" and "Gangs of New York") and twice when competing for screenwriting honors. Perhaps things will be different this year with his lucky seventh nomination -- or will they?

The race for best director will be tight. Clint Eastwood, already an Oscar winner, is one of Hollywood's most popular filmmakers. He could easily win again for "Million Dollar Baby." Then there are the other nominees -- Alexander Payne ("Sideways"), Taylor Hackford ("Ray") and Mike Leigh ("Vera Drake"). Payne might have the best shot at surprising, and he could siphon off enough votes from Scorsese or Eastwood to tip the scales in any direction.

If Scorsese loses, at least he has no chance of being the only director winless after five nominations. It's a dubious distinction he'd share with Hitchcock, whom you'd think would have be a shoo-in for such classics as "Rear Window," "Psycho" and "Spellbound." But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in all its wisdom, thought these films were worth nominations and nothing more. "The Birds," "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest" didn't even earn Hitchcock a nod.

The good news is: This is Hollywood, where there seems to be an award for everybody. In a worst-case scenario, Scorsese can look forward to that inevitable honorary Oscar, such as the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, usually given to recipients late in life. It's Tinseltown's way of making sure that one of its best won't get sent off to that big cast party in the sky empty handed.

To be sure, Hitchcock and Welles were eventually hailed with honorary awards. One can only imagine what was running through Hitchcock's head in 1968 when he won his Thalberg. At the time, Hitchcock was 68 years old and still making films. He marked the event with the shortest acceptance speech in academy history, muttering, "Thank you" before walking off stage.

This year Sidney Lumet -- who helmed "12 Angry Men," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network" -- gets his honorary Oscar. Lumet is 80 years old and still working, but not on the sort of projects likely to give him what he richly deserves -- recognition among his peers as an Oscar-winning director.

Perhaps Lumet, Scorsese, Welles, Hitchcock and Kubrick have more in common than an empty spot on the mantelpiece. They're not just great directors, they're famous for making realistic, sometimes gritty, and often controversial films. That's not always the best sort of movie to bet on, when it's time to hand out awards.

Just look at the classic Scorsese characters: Travis Bickle, the mentally unstable Vietnam War veteran in "Taxi Driver"; Jake La Motta, the brutal boxer in "Raging Bull"; the various thugs in "Goodfellas"; and, now, the obsessive-compulsive billionaire Howard Hughes in "The Aviator."

If Oscar voters are looking for wholesome subjects to promote the film industry -- and cynics will say that's the primary reason for the Academy Awards -- they're not likely to find them in Scorsese's work.

That's not to say that the Academy Awards haven't embraced some controversial films. They have. And Scorsese's films haven't been totally snubbed. Robert De Niro ("Raging Bull"), Paul Newman ("The Color of Money") and Ellen Burstyn ("Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore") have won Oscars for their work in Scorsese films.

Still, Scorsese's overall Oscar record is dreadful. His movies have gleaned 59 nominations, but have won just six times. In addition to "Gangs of New York," "Taxi Driver," "Cape Fear," "Casino" and "Kundun" were completely shut out.

Just how did Hollywood fail to honor five of its best directors? Here's a look at just how Hitchcock, Welles, Lumet, Kubrick and Scorsese lost -- and who topped them. Surprisingly, in many cases, these masters lost because directors they competed against had films that were, arguably, just as worthy as theirs.

But in some cases, you can make a pretty good case that a great director had been robbed by a film industry that, at times, might be a bit too skittish. Does anyone still believe that Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" stands up better than Scorsese's "Goodfellas"? Come on.

Alfred Hitchcock: Five Directorial Nominations

Hitchcock lost to some of the most successful movies in Hollywood history. "Going My Way," which seems a bit dated to today's audiences, was an Oscar juggernaut, with seven wins and 10 nominations.

"Rear Window" and "Psycho" are great films, just as powerful today as when they were released. But "On the Waterfront" stands out, even among Oscar winners, and "The Apartment" remains a classic.

Only one Hitchcock film was nominated for best picture -- "Suspicion" in 1942. That year, it was competing against Welles' masterpiece, "Citizen Kane," and both films lost to "How Green Was My Valley."

Hitchcock's only Oscar gold came with the Thalberg award.

Martin Scorsese: Five Directorial Nominations

You can criticize Oscar voters for thinking more about what's good for Hollywood's image, rather than what's the best movie. But if so, it's hard to explain Scorsese's loss to Polanski, who has been a fugitive of justice since fleeing the United States in 1978, after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Polanski, obviously, couldn't be on hand to accept the award, because law enforcement officers would have been there to greet him, and not because they're movie buffs.

"Last Temptation" might be the best example of a Scorsese movie that's highly respected but too controversial to win. Scorsese's best chance may have been with "Goodfellas." Certainly, in the years since, Costner has seen his career plummet.

Scorsese's other Academy Award nominations came for co-writing the screenplays to "Goodfellas" and "The Age of Innocence," which came out three years later. Neither prevailed on Oscar night.

Stanley Kubrick: Four Directorial Nominations

It's interesting to note that the first two times Kubrick lost, Oscar voters were clearly going for feel-good family entertainment. But in his last two Oscar bids, he was beaten out by directors with gritty, R-rated films.

Together with nominations for best picture, screenwriting and other achievements, Kubrick has been an Oscar contender 13 times. But his only award came for best visual effects for "2001."

Sidney Lumet: Four Directorial Nominations

Sweeping historical epics tend to be winners. And "Gandhi" and "Bridge on the River Kwai" fit the bill. Like Kubrick, Lumet lost to "Cuckoo's Nest" in 1976. "Rocky," the film, turned out to be much like Rocky, the character -- an unknown that came out of nowhere to score 10 nominations and win three Oscars

Lumet was also nominated for co-writing "Prince of the City," but his honorary award this year is his only Oscar.

Orson Welles: One Directorial Nomination

"Citizen Kane" earned nine nominations and won for best original screenplay. Welles, who had a hand in writing the movie, shared that award with Herman Mankiewicz. While "Citizen Kane" is often spoken of as one of Hollywood's greatest achievements, its failure at the Academy Awards can be explained. It was a commercial failure, losing $150,000.

By 1948, Welles had moved to Europe, and even some of his best films, such as "Touch of Evil," were more popular abroad. When the academy gave him his honorary Oscar in 1971, he was not at the ceremony, accepting the award with a pre-recorded speech.

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