Scorsese and the Oscars: Furthering Film Education With Promising Period Pieces (1993 – 2002)

Martin Scorsese’s next motion picture proved he had enough, setting out to make a costume drama, an adaptation, real Oscar-bait — I’m joking of course. It was back in 1980 when Jay Cocks (another writer collaborator of Scorsese’s) introduced him to the novel The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. The two of them always spoke over the years about delving into other avenues, like a western, or as his new film would have it, a kind of romance.

Scorsese would have those anticipating his next move scratching their heads. This was the guy that brought us Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Goodfellas. This was also the guy who had inflicted his undoubted passion for celluloid for over twenty years, in more than just “gangster flicks”. This wise guy had a vision of the period piece that would be The Age of Innocence, and it was executed remarkably. So intricate, beautiful, an unparalleled attention to detail. Viewers were now shaking their head in awe, that Scorsese could do this too. His repeated viewing, and eventual love, for Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, was also a part of Scorsese’s film education making The Age of Innocence.

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Where the awards season was concerned, The Age of Innocence was there or thereabouts. I mean, this had Martin Scorsese behind the camera (and adapting the screenplay with Jay Cocks), with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder as heavyweights on the screen. With a potential battle alongside filmmaking buddy Steven Spielberg (who was handed the film Schindler’s List by Scorsese), many were now enthusiastic about his Oscar chances.

When the nominations were announced, Schindler’s List unsurprisingly lead the pack with twelve. There were two period dramas in the Best Picture race, but it was The Remains of the Day and The Piano, rather than The Age of Innocence. Daniel Day-Lewis was a Best Actor nominee, but for Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father – also a Picture nominee. The fifth slot went to The Fugitive, a fine film, but a suspect choice given the Academy’s general tastes. The Age of Innocence picked up five nods, including Winona Ryder for Best Supporting Actress, and a shared Best Adapted Screenplay mention for Scorsese. He would not win here.

Scorsese would return to “familiar” territory with Casino in 1995, mixing the mafia lifestyle with the lucrative gambling industry. Greed, money, power, betrayal, heads in vices, pens in throats. Written by Nicholas Pileggi a la Goodfellas, the Academy may have been experiencing some reincarnation of the material. And eve perhaps considered this a little too rich in its violence, though luminously shot by Robert Richardson, and edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. No Oscar nominations for them this time. Dante Ferretti was absent, too, from the Best Art Direction list. As were John Dunn and Rita Ryack for Best Costume Design. A sin.

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But Scorsese himself was much fancied to not only get a mention, but perhaps break his losing streak. However, the Academy were not willing to gamble at this time with Casino. Or Seven. Or Heat. Nothing for Scorsese, then. Only Sharon Stone was nominated, for a genuinely remarkable turn as Ginger, in the Best Actress category. Her director pulled off a real trick here with Stone – her performance both surprised audiences and warranted the Academy’s recognition. Ferocious and capitulating, it was as if Scorsese had her watch some strong, albeit wacky, female-centered films, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Kundun would mark Scorsese’s venture into a more historical, cultural can-I-call-it-epic digression from his norm. Received with mixed opinion, given the high bar set from the filmmaker, Kundun never quite reached font-runner status in the Oscar race. But critics awards would drop by once in a while and honor the mesmerizing technical elements. And AMPAS would follow suit with four well-deserved nominations.

Roger Deakins should have won Best Cinematography, thus putting to bed the oncoming bridesmaid status that would last a further twenty years. In fact, had it not been for the over-lavishing of James Cameron’s Titanic, Kundun could arguably have scored four-for-four. Long time Scorsese collaborator and twice nominated Dante Ferretti, working with set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, headed a gorgeous department that would have justified wins for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Best Original Dramatic Score was also part of the titanic sweep for the late James Horner, though the brash, piercing music composition from Philip Glass was, in my opinion, a much better choice.

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Ask three different Martin Scorsese fans what they thought of his origin picture Gangs of New York. One will shake their head without commenting, another would shrug and say “it’s not bad”, and the other would easily put it in their top five. I’m likely the first person you ask, and lands pretty low on any potential Scorsese discussion I. Likely many of the Academy voters were divided across the spectrum, but Gangs of New York‘s nomination tally of ten (second only to Chicago‘s thirteen) meant the love was the heavier slice.

Having nabbed the Golden Globe for Best Director, Scorsese still has his work cut out, with Rob Marshall winning the Guild. Neither would win the Oscar of course. What turned out to be mere box ticking exercises in the grand scheme of honoring things, Gangs of New York’s popular nominees like Michael Ballhaus, Dante Ferretti, Sandy Powell, and Thelma Schoonmaker were there for the goody bags. And it was not winning Best Picture, certainly behind Chicago (the eventual winner) and The Hours in the pecking order.

As it turns out, it was The Pianist that got the biggest gust of wind, taking Best Adapted Screenplay, and defeating Day-Lewis and Scorsese for Best Actor (Adrien Brody) and Best Director (Roman Polanski) respectively. The Pianist was a handful of votes from winning Best Picture, but Gangs of New York made history winning zero from ten. And Scorsese still had not one single Academy Award to place on his bookshelf.

Have a read of the other two parts:

1973 – 1991

2004 – 2016

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