Scorsese's Oscar odyssey

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In 2002, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein made it his mission to keep Martin Scorsese out of a Hollywood club that no one wants to join: elite filmmakers who have never won an Academy Award for directing.

"I didn't want that to happen on my watch," says Mr. Weinstein, who was making the ambitious epic "Gangs of New York" with the bespectacled director at the time. "I didn't want to go down as the infamous idiot who blew it for Marty."

Mr. Weinstein did blow it, despite his best intentions. An Oscar winner himself, Mr. Weinstein launched an aggressive campaign aimed at landing Mr. Scorsese the golden statue that had long eluded him. He put the shy and reluctant New Yorker on a whirlwind tour of Oscar screenings, glitzy parties and testimonial dinners. But the plan backfired.

"I was overly zealous and got carried away," says Mr. Weinstein. Instead of wooing Oscar voters, the over-the-top campaign ended up alienating them.

Now, Mr. Scorsese's legacy is on the line again. Many see his violent mob thriller "The Departed" as his best shot at the award since his earlier classics. The movie has been nominated for six Golden Globes and earned Mr. Scorsese best-director trophies at a number of critics awards. After the "Gangs" episode, Mr. Scorsese is taking a come-what-may approach this time, say people familiar with his thinking. He is shunning the usual rounds with press (he declined to be interviewed for this article) as well as glitzy Academy parties, and instead is burying himself in a documentary on the Rolling Stones.

After nearly four decades spent making some of America's most memorable movies, including "Goodfellas" and "Taxi Driver," the 64-year-old director has been repeatedly passed by for Hollywood's most coveted prizes. Nominated five times -- from "Raging Bull" to "The Aviator" -- Mr. Scorsese has never won an Oscar for best director. And none of his movies have won for best picture.

For other classics such as 1976's "Taxi Driver" Mr. Scorsese didn't even get nominated for directing. Starring Robert DeNiro as a Vietnam war veteran and Jodie Foster as a child prostitute, "Taxi Driver" is the violent tale of a Manhattan man sinking into brutal despair. The American Film Institute ranked it the 47th greatest film of all time.

At the time, however, many Academy voters loathed "Taxi Driver," says Michael Phillips, who co-produced the movie with his late ex-wife Julia Phillips. "People would walk up to me unabashed and tell me how much they hated it," he says. Mr. Phillips, who won an Oscar for "The Sting," says the movie was highly innovative for its time and "innovation isn't always embraced." "The Academy usually goes with the safe choice," he says.

That didn't turn out to be "Raging Bull," either. Starring Mr. De Niro, the 1980 film was based on the story of boxing champion Jake LaMotta. Again, it tackled subject material the Academy apparently found difficult to stomach: violence and guilt, topped with a grim ending. And it was filmed in black and white.

"Until then, movies hadn't expressed things in such graphic terms," says Robert Chartoff, who co-produced the movie with Irwin Winkler. After the film had a sluggish debut at the box office, the producers suspected that many Oscar voters, especially women, didn't even see it.

But Mr. Scorsese faced a bigger problem that year: a dashing, popular actor-turned-director named Robert Redford. Actors make up the biggest contingent in the Academy and that fact is often reflected in the voting. "Ordinary People," Mr. Redford's directorial debut about a family in crisis, swept the awards show of 1981.

Mr. Scorsese was disappointed, say people with him at the ceremony, but he took solace in two awards for "Raging Bull": one for best actor and another for editing. Mr. Chartoff speculates that the Academy may have thought that by giving Mr. De Niro the best actor award, they didn't also need to acknowledge Mr. Scorsese. "Those compromises are not uncommon in the Academy," says the producer, who had just won an Oscar for a boxing movie with a happy ending: "Rocky."

Mr. Scorsese's next shot came eight years later, when he was nominated for best director for "The Last Temptation of Christ." Portraying Jesus as a sensual man tormented by temptations, the movie sparked protests but the attention didn't work in its favor.

"Everybody realized Marty's gargantuan talent but the controversy kept people away," says Harry Ufland, an executive producer of the movie who was Mr. Scorsese's first agent. Mr. Ufland says Mr. Scorsese tackles issues others don't dare to. "Marty's movies have rage and real emotion, not fake movie emotion, and that upsets people," he says.

Two years later, "Goodfellas" won multiple nominations, including best director. The story of a small-time gangster working his way up the mob hierarchy, "Goodfellas" was based on a true story. That made the violence more palatable to some voters. But Mr. Scorsese again faced a popular actor making his directorial debut: Kevin Costner and "Dances With Wolves."

That film swept the awards ceremony in 1991, winning seven statues including best picture and best director. In part, it may have been the surprise factor: "Dances with Wolves" was better than anyone had expected. But the tale of a white soldier who lived among American Indians also captured the zeitgeist. "It was the politically correct film," says Mr. Winkler, who produced "Goodfellas." "Goodfellas was the antithesis of that."

The next movie Mr. Costner directed, "The Postman," was a widely reviled bomb. David Thomson, a film historian who compiles the "Biographical Dictionary of Film," says "the Academy isn't good at picking up on the great directors."

It was a decade before Mr. Scorsese's next director-award attempt, and times had changed. When he teamed up with Mr. Weinstein on "Gangs of New York," Oscar campaigning had become a refined art and Mr. Weinstein, then running Miramax, was the king. A big fan of the director, Mr. Weinstein promised to work around the clock to get him his Oscar dues.

Mr. Scorsese was acutely uncomfortable lobbying for an award. While extremely eloquent discussing the cinema, Mr. Scorsese visibly recoils when he has to talk about himself. He rarely goes to film openings or parties. And when he does, he's sometimes seen sitting in the corner.

The low point came when Oscar winner Robert Wise's name was attached to a ghostwritten opinion piece declaring that Mr. Scorsese deserved the Oscar. The column, which first appeared in the Daily News of Los Angeles and was reprinted in ads for the movie, caused a furor among some Oscar voters, who complained it was offensive.

In a column in Variety, screenwriter William Goldman complained: "I am sick unto death of feeling guilty about Martin Scorsese." He added that "more than ever, it's like there's a Byzantine plot to get Scorsese the honor."

To make matters worse, he didn't win. "Gangs" was nominated for 10 awards but won none. The Academy threw its weight behind "Chicago" instead. "I always believed that I could change things by doing things" says Mr. Weinstein. "Working with Marty made me realize karma is everything."

Mr. Weinstein backed Mr. Scorsese's next movie, too, the Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator." The producer says he took a lighter touch to promoting the film that time. "I learned my lesson," he says. Unlike many of Mr. Scorsese's past movies, "The Aviator" was a commercial hit. But another actor-turned-director stole the Oscar show: Clint Eastwood with "Million Dollar Baby.'

"The laid-back approach didn't work and neither did fighting hard," says Mr. Weinstein. "It will come when it comes."

"The Departed" could finally be the winning ticket. The movie is a commercial hit, partly because of its all-star cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon. Yet once again, the film's brutal nature is likely to make many Academy members squirm. And again this year, a top actor has emerged with his directorial debut. This time, it's one closely affiliated with Mr. Scorsese: Mr. De Niro. However, his "The Good Shepherd" is considered a long shot to upset the Oscar hopes of "The Departed." Also lurking, though, is Mr. Eastwood, whose "Letters From Iwo Jima" is considered a strong contender.

If it isn't Mr. Scorsese's time, he won't be in bad company. Two filmmakers he highly respects -- Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick -- never won Oscars for directing, either.



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