It was a beautiful night as the 79th Annual Academy Awards unfolded. Even though everyone knew Martin Scorsese was going to at last receive his Oscar, after losing so many times, it was still quite moving to see the house hop to their feet when his name was called out. Three vets from the 1970s – Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Frances Ford Coppola – took to the stage almost like generals in an army awarding their top solider with a Purple Heart. Again, that was a dead giveaway that the Academy agreed it was Scorsese’s time. It’s amazing what they can accomplish when they think in big picture terms. When word got out that no black actress in 70 years had ever won a lead Oscar, the Academy responded by giving Halle Berry one, and Denzel Washington one too on the same historic night. It isn’t that they’re racists; it’s that they didn’t think about stuff like that until someone made a lot of noise.
No, Scorsese certainly did not “need” to win an Oscar. He would have joined the ranks of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick: visionaries who never won Oscars. But Scorsese’s career is anything but up. He made The Departed as if he was a 16-year-old again, without fear, without trying to conform to the Academy’s taste, and wouldn’t you know, they ate it up. It seems like it’s been a while since a really great film won the Best Picture Oscar (Return of the King doesn’t really count because it was part of a trilogy).
The Academy opened its doors this year to three Mexican filmmakers, a Japanese actress, a Mexican actress, a Spanish actress, several British actresses, along with an unusually low number of American artists. They called it “The International Oscars.” Every time anyone mentioned one of the “three amigos” – Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – the crowd erupted in applause. Even if they ultimately went home empty-handed, they can be satisfied that they breathed exuberance into the filmmaking community out here. They were auteurs in the most traditional sense, something we rarely see anymore in the American studio system. Because their films made money and garnered so many Oscar nods, it is now okay again to be an auteur for general audiences. Let’s hope it stays that way.
The Oscars have the power to set trends in the film community, whether they are considered old-fashioned or not. When they pay attention to something, everyone pays attention to it. That’s why they matter. They also often vote for films that seem to rarely stand the test of time. This year, however, they shattered almost every stereotype applied to them.
Almost everyone watching the Oscar race believed that The Departed was too violent, too vulgar, too much of a genre film to win. There was also the matter of it being a remake. But with a brilliant script by William Monahan (who also won), dazzling editing by Thelma Schoonmaker and the best acting Hollywood has to offer (even if Jack Nicholson was a bit over the top), how in the world could it lose?
With so many Best Picture/Best Director splits going on in the past few years, and especially when Brokeback Mountain lost last year, it looked like another film might take the big award, something like Babel, with the most nominations, or Little Miss Sunshine, the sweet/sad comedy that so many people liked. Often when there is a three-way split, one film that is mostly seen as the underdog prevails. In this case, it was easily The Departed.
In order to keep up with our rapidly evolving culture, the Academy had to do something about its taste. Last year’s upset put them in an awkward position because, to the outside world, they had done the unthinkable by awarding Crash their Best Picture prize. Many simply liked it better than Brokeback Mountain, but most believed they were horribly out of step with the film community at best, and homophobic at worst. This year, though, they wiped the slate clean, proving that they really do notice when directors hit it out of the park.
Of course, there were still some frustrations, like the glorious Pan’s Labyrinth losing to Germany’s The Lives of Others in the Foreign Language category; yes, it was a brilliant film, no doubt. But the reason it won was only that the voters had to see all five films in the category to vote. Had it been an open vote to the Academy, Pan’s would have won. It won three other Oscars as it was. But when put side by side with Lives, it had no chance with the small amount of people who bother to see those films. Lives was more up their street.
Also, how Happy Feet beat Cars will be one for the ages.
For the list of winners, go to smmirror.com