Will Oscar Smile On Scorsese?

American film director Martin Scorsese pose as he arrives at the Festival Palace to attend the screening of his film "Gangs of New York," at the 55th International Film Festival in Cannes, southeastern France, Monday, May 20, 2002. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Martin Scorsese has a 2002 Oscar nomination for directing "Gangs of New York," but he could win the prize instead for his work from 1976, 1980 and 1990.

Campaigning on Scorsese's behalf, Miramax Films chief Harvey Weinstein has suggested that the Academy Awards perpetrated an injustice by not honoring him those previous years for "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas."

Giving Scorsese the award for "Gangs of New York," Weinstein argues, would be a good way to make it up to him.

TV and print ads for the film boast critic Richard Roeper's quote that "Gangs" should bring Scorsese the "Academy Award he's had coming for nearly 30 years."

"I've got news for you and I'll say this candidly: Marty would love to win the Oscar, for his body of work, for 'Gangs of New York,' for whatever it is. Marty would like to get one of those golden guys," Weinstein said in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview.

Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands said Weinstein's favoritism for Scorsese is a personal bias and not the policy of the company, which also has stakes in "Chicago" and "The Hours."

Weinstein declined to be interviewed for this story.

His campaign may backfire. The emphasis on Scorsese's earlier work would imply that "Gangs" - which has 10 other academy nominations, including best picture - is somehow unable to stand on its own.

Even Scorsese, who at first embraced his darling status, seemed to balk when asked at the Directors Guild Awards whether his past films should influence voters.

"If they like 'Gangs' they should vote for 'Gangs,' and if they don't, if they feel it's not well-directed, I mean, you know ..." He finished the sentence with a shrug, apparently unwilling to say out loud: "vote for someone else."

He has four previous directing nominations, for "Raging Bull" (1980), "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), "Goodfellas" (1990) and "The Age of Innocence" (1993).

Screenwriter William Goldman, who won Oscars for 1976's "All the President's Men" and 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," recently attacked the Scorsese sentimentality push in a column in the trade newspaper Variety, even though he thinks the tactic will ultimately succeed.

"I think he's a lock to win," Goldman said in an interview. "There's been such a hype by the critics who want it so badly for him and he wants it so badly - and he got screwed (before)."

Producer Irwin Winkler, a best-picture Oscar-winner for "Rocky" whose other credits include "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull," fired back in Variety with a letter that said Scorsese is "one of the greatest living directors, and it's perfectly legitimate to point out that he hasn't been honored by his peers."

Robert Wise, a two-time Oscar-winning director for "The Sound of Music" and "West Side Story," sent a column to the Daily News of Los Angeles in which he characterized "Gangs" as "a summation of (Scorsese's) entire body of work" and a "huge achievement."

Miramax caused an uproar last week by using the column, written by a studio publicist and approved by the director, in advertisements in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, which some academy members complained was unethical.

The academy has a history of retroactively rewarding stars many years after their early groundbreaking projects.

Consider Al Pacino's lead-actor win for 1992's "Scent of a Woman" after losing six times for performances in such films as "The Godfather" parts one and two, "Serpico" and "... And Justice For All."

Henry Fonda and John Wayne were near the end of their careers before winning lead-actor Oscars for 1981's "On Golden Pond" and 1969's "True Grit," respectively.

Sometimes close Oscar races result in perceived short-term paybacks for the loser. Kevin Spacey won the lead-actor award for 1999's "American Beauty," but respect that year for Russell Crowe's portly, middle-aged tobacco whistleblower in "The Insider" likely fueled his victory in 2000 for the less-nuanced action spectacular "Gladiator."

Other times a respected individual never wins. Despite making some of the most praised films of the past century, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Charlie Chaplin never won Academy Awards for direction. (Welles was co-winner of the screenplay Oscar for "Citizen Kane" while Chaplin won two honorary statuettes and shared a competitive one for the score of "Limelight.")

Observers say those kinds of omissions can cast doubt on the significance of the academy and prompt voters to overlook mediocrity in favor of rewarding a veteran talent.

"They don't like a situation where they suddenly turn around and there are people like Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock who never won an Oscar," said Kirk Honeycutt, film critic for The Hollywood Reporter.

Other veterans who have been snubbed include Lauren Bacall, whose lost her sole nomination - a supporting actress bid for 1996's "The Mirror Has Two Faces" - to Juliette Binoche for "The English Patient." And despite a modest sentimental push, Robert Altman lost his fifth directing nomination last year for "Gosford Park" to "A Beautiful Mind" filmmaker Ron Howard.

Honorary awards are one corrective measure, but some view them disdainfully as "whoops" prizes, Honeycutt added. This year, Peter O'Toole - who has had seven lead-actor nominations but no wins - initially balked at receiving the recognition, saying he preferred to win an Oscar in competition.

Scorsese's momentum took a hit when he lost the March 1 Directors Guild Award to first-time filmmaker Rob Marshall for "Chicago." The award has predicted the Oscar winner 49 times in the past 55 years.

Scorsese collected the guild's lifetime achievement honor the same evening, which perhaps alleviated any guilt voters felt in passing over him once again.

Besides Marshall, Scorsese's competition for the Oscar is Stephen Daldry, for "The Hours"; Pedro Almodovar for the Spanish film "Talk to Her," and veteran Roman Polanski for the Holocaust saga "The Pianist."

Like Scorsese, the Oscar has eluded Polanski despite a number of well-regarded films such as "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby," but his recent film's studio, Focus Features, has tried to avoid referring his past work in the Oscar race.

"I'm not selling the old ones, I'm selling this one," said Focus Features co-President James Schamus, adding that he didn't think it was fair to turn the contest into a "lifetime achievement award."

There's another reason to avoid Polanski's past: his fugitive status after fleeing the United States in 1978 to avoid sentencing for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.

"The Pianist" star Adrien Brody, a lead-actor Oscar nominee, said voters shouldn't consider Polanski's past films or past crimes. "I think regardless of his past great achievements or not-so-great achievements, this stands alone," he said.

Some defenders of Scorsese insist "Gangs" stands on its own in the race, and deny that his history will play a role. For instance, "Goodfellas" actor Joe Pesci reacted bitterly when asked if he thought Scorsese's Oscar bid would benefit from a degree of sentimental favoritism.

"Do you think that?" he responded. "Well, you must think that, you asked it. ... No, I don't think that - you do. I think it's well-deserved all around."