The runaway favorite for Best Director at tonight's Academy Awards is Martin Scorsese for "The Departed," and that makes me sad.
It's not that I don't like the movie. I don't — it's not a patch on the Hong Kong thriller it's based on, "Infernal Affairs." But it's not that. Even if I loved it, I'd think, "Of all the Scorsese movies ..."
In 1974, Scorsese changed the face of American cinema with "Mean Streets," a movie with style to burn yet the texture of real life. No nomination.
A few years later, he directed "Taxi Driver" — a feverishly original mix of realism and Expressionism, the American cinema's nod to Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground." He lost the Oscar to the director of "Rocky."
Then came "Raging Bull," a film that will be studied as long as there's film.
Robert DeNiro took home the prize for his martyr to American machismo ... but Scorsese lost to Robert Redford and his "Ordinary (his very ordinary) People."
Scorsese gave "The Departed" snap, crackle, pop and arterial spray, but it's basically a money job.
He'll win tonight because Academy voters are desperate not to hurt his feelings again. He'll be over the moon, and who can begrudge him the ultimate accolade?
All I can say is that if he never won an Oscar, he'd be in good company.
Alfred Hitchcock, who created the vocabulary of the modern thriller in "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "Psycho," never did. He got an honorary award in 1968.
Howard Hawks: Nope. He got his lifetime achievement prize in 1975.
That bad boy Orson Welles? He shared a screenplay prize for "Citizen Kane" but nothing more until his honorary Oscar.
Robert Altman got his special Oscar only last year, before his death.
How about great actors? Many won the prize, but not the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck, who got her honorary Oscar after 50 years in movies. And not one for our best-ever leading man, Cary Grant, who had to wait until 1970 to receive a lifetime statue.
The Oscars are fun. They're a great occasion to focus on movies for a month, to see actresses in beautiful — or hideous — gowns, and exhibitionists struggle to keep from imploding before our eyes. But by and large they don't award the most challenging, the most innovative, the most enduring work until late in the game.
So, tonight is about "Mean Streets" and "Raging Bull." Martin Scorsese will be a winner, but he has been a winner for three decades. Too bad he needed the Oscar seal of approval to drive that home.