Is It Payback Time?

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Is the sixth time a charm?

That's the question for the great director Martin Scorsese, who has been five times nominated for a Best Directing Oscar and has never won. Now, his film "The Departed" will almost certainly be nominated Jan. 23 in a number of categories, directing among them, and the question is: Will he at last get to make the speech with the golden statuette in his hand, signifying whatever it is that an Oscar signifies?

Why not? Scorsese, 64, is recognized as one of America's finest directors -- if not the finest -- a consummately engaged member of the film community, active in film restoration and other initiatives. He's kept his hand in the documentary world, and often segued from big-budget Hollywood pictures to small, hard looks at issues and artists.

So it's his due. It's his time.

But . . . questions: Does Scorsese care? Does he deserve it for "The Departed"? Why hasn't he won before? And, most important of all, should we care?

I don't, not a bit. But Scorsese surely does, not because "The Departed" is his masterpiece. It's not. It's nowhere near his masterpiece, an earnest bit of corporate filmmaking designed to honorably milk genre expectations for maximum profit. It's somehow largely unconnected with his previous great films and, happily, also unconnected with his previous mediocre films.

But an Oscar signifies something that's clearly important to the New York filmmaker, and that is acceptance in the far glades of Los Angeles filmmaking. You would think it meaningless after all the success he's had, all the praise, and that if the work isn't its own reward, then the rewards were their own rewards. But an Oscar, particularly for a sickly kid who grew up thinking he'd be a priest? Especially someone so sunk in film history and culture? John Ford won Oscars, and Billy Wilder, and Steven Spielberg, and he'd want to be a part of that set.

The irony? If he wins, it'll be for one of his least Scorsesesque films. It even could be argued that "The Departed" is an imitation Scorsese film. It seems to be made by a graduate student who has studied the great Marty, and now has some money to play around with and has decided upon a tribute to the master.

The film isn't set in New York, where all of Scorsese's great films were set, and it's not set among the Italian American Mafia subculture, and its characters seem by far a cooler lot than Scorsese's typical crew of hotheads and sociopath outsiders who yearn to belong and start killing when they don't. Nor does it have the hypnotic intensity that Scorsese brings to his typical film, that sense of hyper-realism that takes on a nightmarish clarity. It doesn't have Scorsese's old friend and collaborator Robert De Niro (who was off making his own film, "The Good Shepherd"), thus vacating a fat old-guy role for Jack Nicholson, who brought a different and distinctly non-Scorsese tone to the piece.

Where De Niro would have been manic, obsessed, riveting as the gang lord Frank Costello, Nicholson plays the old guy in an almost comic tone. He's in the game still, after all these years, because he loves the game. De Niro's Costello would have still been in the game all these years because he loves to win. De Niro would have driven the movie faster, his pathology would have made it hang together more. (What is the difference between the two actors? Nicholson knows he's funny; De Niro is so funny precisely because he doesn't know he's funny.)

This latest film from Scorsese represents a kind of professional directors' conceit. All these guys -- Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, the generation that broke through in the '70s -- seem to be hitting a similar stage in life. They understand they are not wunderkinder anymore; they don't want all the Sturm und Drang on the set. Somehow, they became the establishment and decided they'd rather do 10 more films that are pretty good than one more that's a difficult work of genius.

Scorsese seems to have drawn a lesson from "Gangs of New York." That was his baby and getting it made, with budget overruns and editing problems and fights with management, must have nearly killed him. Even when he did succeed, he was a full year behind schedule. When the film earned mediocre reviews and did mediocre business he must have wondered: Why did I put myself through that?

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