Following the complete shutout for The Gangs of New York two years prior there may have been a touch of Academy guilt attached to the potential lavishing of Martin Scorsese’s latest venture – The Aviator. Add to that, of course, the fact this phenomenal film director had yet to receive a single Academy Award for directing. Incredible. He was in good company though. Stanley Kubrick. Alfred Hitchcock. Ridley Scott. David Lynch. Robert Altman. Nice job AMPAS, honoring the finest indeed.
We know that the Oscars don’t necessarily award the “best” of any given year. In my opinion The Aviator was a far better picture than The Gangs of New York, but of course it was no Raging Bull. And that was one obstacle The Aviator had already – that it was hitting below masterpiece weight. But with the debt owed to Scorsese, that little blip hardly mattered. Plus Scorsese was notching up a good few critics awards. Though the domination of Alexander Payne’s Sideways was a dent in the road, winning more precursor Best Picture awards than any other film. Wasn’t even close. Downside there, it was an Academy repeller – a comedy. Where The Aviator was an epic biography, of sorts, about the movies, Howard Hughes, his struggle against OCD, the quest for perfection – against the odds.
The see-saw of why and hows was compelling. Especially when gatecrasher Clint Eastwood crept up on proceedings with Million Dollar Baby. Key Golden Globes wins for Sideways, then the SAG Ensemble. The Aviator took the PGA. Then Eastwood won the DGA. What now? A nail in the coffin, and ultimately a super-significant indicator, came when Paul Giamatti missed out on a Best Actor Oscar nomination, instead it was Clint Eastwood who got in. For Sideways, it was sadly over. The Aviator, however, notched up 11 nominations, the highest. But the pendulum seemed to still be swinging towards Million Dollar Baby, one of the most timely bouts of momentum in Academy Awards history.
Martin Scorsese was to present the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Roger Mayer on the big night. Many of us no doubt wondered if this choice of presenter was indicative. The Aviator took the first award of the night, for Art Direction. Sandy Powell later won Costumer Design. Thelma Schoonmaker was the Film Editing winner. Cate Blanchett was named Best Supporting Actress. Wait a minute. I was not the only one who relished the very realpossibility of where this night was going. Then Robert Richardson wins Best Cinematography. Wow. The Aviator is already on five Oscar wins. The respective speeches swooned over this director Scorsese, imprinting in us the very real glow that this could be his year after all. Could it? Really? Well, no. Clint Eastwood, another bloody actor, would defeat Scorsese.
By now, Scorsese would likely win Best Director for a Dude, Where’s My Car? remake. As every Oscar year floated on by without mention of his name from the opened envelope, the more we cried “Just give him the fucking Oscar!”. Better late than never, right? Scorsese’s last film actually suffered from the delayed release. No time to simmer with its audience, and a sole nomination for Best Cinematography. Years earlier, Shutter Island’s release jumbled release issues meant it got stampeded, and with it little chance of Oscar buzz. Oh what could have been. On both counts.
Both Hugo and The Wolf of Wall Street were being talked about for a long while before their respective awards season journeys. And both films landed rather late to the party, and somehow with them came a snowballing momentum. With eleven Oscar nominations (like The Aviator), Hugo would outshine firm favorite The Artist, which trailed slightly with ten. And on the night, Hugo would pick up five wins (like The Aviator), and mark another big year for Martin Scorsese only to be bested when it came to Best Picture and Best Director. And although The Wolf of Wall Street sprinted into the Oscar race late, it was a little too late. I’m certain, had it arrived a week earlier, Leonardo DiCaprio would have won Best Actor. Oh what could have been.
Back in 2006, DiCaprio’s name would be read out on Oscar nomination morning, not for Scorsese’s The Departed, but rather Blood Diamond. That wasn’t a good sign. Jack Nicholson was not honored with a Best Supporting Actor nod, but Mark Wahlberg was. In fact, The Departed only tallied five nominations, with four other films outscoring Scorsese’s crime flick. But 2006 proved that these kind of statistics can be red herrings. Between The Aviator, The Departed, and Hugo, Scorsese’s films would win fourteen Academy Awards.
Digest this, then: in 2007 Dreamgirls was the most nominated with eight, but not in Best Director or Best Picture. Pan’s Labyrinth had six, again not in Picture or Director. Actual Best Picture nominee Babel, then, might have looked like the favorite in some quarters, notching seven in total. The Queen had six, Letters from Iwo Jima had four, both also with Director and Picture nominations. PGA winner Little Miss Sunshine seemed to see its chances wilt when Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were absent from the Director line-up. Instead it was Paul Greengrass for United 93 making the cut.
The truth is, through sheer will, a tremendous run in the critics awards season, not to mention one of the genuinely exhilarating films of the year, the Best Picture and Best Director prizes were only really going to one film. The Departed would make history in being the first time, and only so far, that Martin Scorsese would be handed the Best Director Oscar (and for his film to go on and win Best Picture too). It was written in the stars, on the wall, in our hopeful minds, a fate so long in coming it somehow made the moment all the more bittersweet. When Scorsese’s old friends Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg took to the stage to announce Best Director, there would be no other outcome. Regardless, Martin Scorsese was a winner long before they opened the envelope.
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