I was sure that every last molecule of sincere interest or belief I had in the Academy Awards had long since been driven from my body. Each year I ask myself why I even watch this four-hour snoozer of patting on the back, terrible musical numbers and handing out these most prestigious movie awards to the wrong people. But last night when Martin Scorsese's name was called for Best Director, I screamed with delight. And then in a matter of seconds, as he accepted the award, I quickly transitioned to fighting back tears. By the time The Departed won Best Picture a few moments later, it was almost anti-climactic.
Just a few days after I got to NYU as a freshman in 1990, Goodfellas debuted at the Waverly theater in Greenwich Village. The friends I'd made were almost all film students, and they idolized filmmakers like Scorsese, David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. I hardly knew anything about Scorsese at the time, but I was a quick learner. Soon I was watching his back catalog on video, with particular attention - of course - to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Seeing Goodfellas in that time and place marks an important personal epiphany for me. Even though I wasn't a film major at NYU, I'd come there with a budding curiosity about the art of cinema that would eventually see me become a film critic for seven years. It all started that evening when Ray Liotta's character says in voice over "I always knew I wanted to be a gangster" with the screen in freeze-frame as he's just put a half-alive man in the back of his trunk out of his misery. The audience around us erupted in laughter.
Coming from a religious family but not personally of the churchgoing persuasion, I quickly identified with the way Scorsese imbued secular subjects and people with a great spiritual intensity. However, it has often been the the technical aspects of his directing I've enjoyed the most. The long Steadicam shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco entering the Copacabana in Goodfellas is the touchstone for all those that have come afterward, gliding through a long sequence of kitchen and back-room spaces with exquisite smoothness, revealing mobster Henry Hill's high place in the pecking order amidst a Fellini-esque conglomeration of colorful peripheral characters passing in and out of the frame. There's also a shorter tracking shot in Taxi Driver that moves past Travis Bickle on a payphone to capture the street outside, subtly displaying his alienation. (It was shot in a back hallway of the Ed Sullivan Theater.)
Without question, my favorite Scorsese film is Taxi Driver. I adore Bernard Hermann's score - it's the only film score on my i-Pod (save for one Star Wars track), and it evokes his masterful past works for Citizen Kane and several Hitchcock films while using brass and electric piano to establish an identity of its own. I also find the cinematography and editing to be absolutely stunning. Just the simple vision of Bickle's taxi roaming the grungy Manhattan streets was beautiful.
I also identified with the angst Bickle feels about New York, for I'd come to NYU without ever having visited the city before-hand, and my pie-in-the-sky notions of Gotham had been trampled by rudeness and the smell of urine. Travis, it seemed, was on to something. Luckily over time I instead transferred my allegiances to the movie's maker.
A few years ago rumors surfaced of a possible Taxi Driver sequel. I wrote an essay for Salon that was an open letter to Scorsese begging him and Robert DeNiro not to do it. I didn't want anyone - even Scorsese himself - to change my perceptions of that movie.
I actually only saw The Departed a few days ago. I liked a lot, but would have to agree with critics who say it's not at all his best work. At the same time, if Scorsese was finally going to win the Oscar, I'm very glad it was for a quintessential Scorsese film.
By going from the list of Academy Award non-winners to winners, Scorsese actually abandons a prestigious list of filmmakers for a more dubious one. Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick have never won Oscars. Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson have.
Last year my opinion of the Academy sank to its all time lowest depths when Crash won. Not only is that not a great movie, but it's not even good. Nobody in their right mind expects the Best Picture award to go to the actual best film from that year in anything but a few fluke cases like The Godfather. While I'm also not a fan of the notion of giving Oscars to nominees as reward for their body of work, that doesn't stop me from cheering for Scorsese. The Departed is in my mind more or less as good as any of the Best Picture nominees, and that brings more than enough license to feel a sense of vindication and redemption.
And lucky, you couldn't find two more quintessentially Scorsese themes.