In the winter of 1942, a young filmmaker named Orson Welles arrived at the Academy Awards on a wave of promise, hype, and startling talent. His first film, Citizen Kane (1941), was nominated for nine Oscars, including four for Welles himself; Best Picture (as the film’s Producer), Best Director, Best Actor In A Leading Role, and Best Original Screenplay, the only person ever to be nominated in all four categories in the same year. Though Kane is widely considered to be the greatest American film ever made, Welles won only the Best Original Screenplay award that night, sharing the prize with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. Despite a long and storied career as one of America’s finest directors and actors, Welles would never win another Academy Award, receiving only an “honorary” award in 1970. Well, at least he won one. Alfred Hitchcock never did (he picked up an honorary Thalberg award in 1967). Clearly, there is a disconnect in Hollywood when it comes to recognizing true greatness.
Martin Scorsese is the greatest American filmmaker working today. Any reasonable examination of his body of work reveals a wide-ranging and diverse group of films that includes the some of the finest American movies of the last four decades; Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence. But Scorsese’s own Academy Awards horror story rivals that of Welles and Hitchcock in the annals of Oscar injustice. In 1980, Scorsese was nominated as Best Director for his magnum opus Raging Bull (not just the best picture of 1980, but probably the finest film of the entire decade.) The Academy chose Robert Redford’s fine Ordinary People as that year’s Best Picture and Redford as Best Director. Another decade, another injustice: In 1990, Scorsese was up again for Best Director and Best Picture for his seminal Goodfellas. This time, the Academy chose another actor-turned-director, Kevin Costner, and Dances With Wolves for the sweep. Sunday night, Scorsese’s The Aviator, a film of startling virtuosity and dazzling direction, is topped by Clint Eastwood’s boxing tearjerker Million Dollar Baby. History has conspired again to keep the prize away from its rightful owner.
That is not to say that I did not enjoy Million Dollar Baby. I thought the film, much like last year’s Eastwood directed Mystic River, was just fine, another in a long line of well-made movies that deliver an emotional punch to an audience starving for stories for grown-ups. There are so few great dramas being made in Hollywood today that a film like Million Dollar Baby, with its overwhelming sense of paternal loss (Mystic River redux anyone?), plays much bigger than its story actually delivers. This is certainly the case with Eastwood’s film which moves so precisely along the formulaic screenwriting map of Hollywood that, after listening to Morgan Freeman’s hauntingly familiar voice wisely narrating the exact emotions being registered on the actors faces, I half-expected Eastwood’s heartbroken boxing coach to walk out of his low-rent gym and straight into Shawshank prison. There is no doubt that Eastwood is a beloved figure in Hollywood, and as a director, I think he has made some excellent films (Unforgiven being my favorite). But let’s get one thing straight: Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, and Robert Redford combined could not direct a film with the visual imagination, style, and absolute love of movies that is Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.
The Aviator is the story of a young Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), the maverick American billionaire whose thrill-seeking career lead to innovations in the fields of aviation and filmmaking, but who was plagued by an obsessive tactile paranoia. The film chronicles the early years of Hughes’ life, from his direction of the 1930 blockbuster Hell’s Angels and his love affair with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) to his battle to save his Hughes Aviation from a Federal investigation into fraudulent business practices. Scorsese handles his subject with the same wide-ranging scale that has become his trademark; the epic undertaking of Hughes’ career is thematically pitted against the intimate details of his personal fall into reclusive madness. Visually speaking, The Aviator is a marvel, capturing the tone and structure of the golden age of Hollywood while transcending it with some truly awe-inspiring sequences. The scene in which Hughes crashes his experimental plane into a Southern California suburb is worth the price of admission all by itself. The film, like any, has its flaws; a screenplay that never seems to find the right tone between dramatizing Hughes’ obsessions and the story required to explain and justify them. But the one thing that seems to have severely hampered the film’s chances at the Oscars has little or nothing to do with the film itself, and more to do with our culture’s idea of who we are.
Consciously or not, by choosing a film like Million Dollar Baby over a film like The Aviator, a clear message is being sent about the state of the American self-image. The line that separates Million Dollar Baby from The Aviator can be summarized in the single idea, voiced over and over again by critics of the film: ‘Who cares about the problems of a crazy billionaire?’ The quality of the film, of the work, be damned: The biggest mistake that Scorsese made was in his choice of subject. Again and again, people in the press and in general conversation (with me, anyway) have been parroting the complaint that they are tired of seeing stories about the troubled lives of the rich and famous. In a day and age where the entertainment industry is constantly bombarding the public with stories from the frontlines of privilege and obscene wealth, Americans seem to feel a certain incredulity about the problems of the larger than life crowd. Instead, we prefer to imagine ourselves as the humble victims of fate, acting in a world where we are forced to make difficult choices by circumstances beyond our control. Instead of enduring the trials and tribulations of great drama, we reject attempts at greatness as being immmodest. We prefer to eat our humble pie, preferably lemon, and preferably served in a greasy spoon in rural Missouri.
Of course, Scorsese has always followed his own passions with an almost operatic obsession with the fluctuation of scale. As a director, he understands that the small, psychological details that haunt the lives of his characters seem all the more profound when seen in the context of great drama, violent action, and dreams unfulfilled. Newland Archer’s detailed, keyhole-focused longing in The Age Of Innocence is only compounded by the context of the grand theatrics of the society in which he lives. Jake La Motta’s explosive family battles are the perfect subtext for the intimate, physical pounding of Scorsese’s fight scenes in Raging Bull. Scorsese is not only committed to visual gravitas in his films, his work is the very definition of it. In a day and age when we seem to be ashamed of drama and fiction, when stories seem to have become a dispensable luxury, we need artists like Scorsese more than ever. Here’s hoping that one day, sometime soon, he gets what’s coming to him.