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Monday, February 19, 2007

scent of an Oscar?

Al Pacino has deserved several Academy Awards but has only one once. It wasn't for either of the great Godfather films, it wasn't for best supporting actor in Glengarry Glen Ross, and it certainly wasn't for Scarface, although in retrospect Tony Montana is surely the most culturally important movie role of the past twenty-five years. (Fishscale, anyone?) This year the smart money says the Academy will finally recognize Martin Scorsese as best director, but why have they denied him before and does he deserve it for The Departed?

Let's get straight to the point: Martin Scorsese has never won an Oscar because of racism. Racism, you say? But he's white, isn't he? As in everything, it all depends on who's doing the looking. I hope we can all agree that all the racial categories of past and present are biological fictions. Their only reality is in people's minds. (If I need to explain this to you, then perhaps you're at the wrong website. Try this one instead.)

Scorsese has been nominated five times and has deserved it at least two of those times: 1980 for Raging Bull and 1990 for Goodfellas. But let's consider all five nominations and the winners :
-1980 Raging Bull (Robert Redford for Ordinary People);
-1988 The Last Temptation of Christ (Barry Levinson for Rain Man);
-1990 Goodfellas (Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves);
-2002 Gangs of New York (Roman Polanski for The Pianist); and
-2004 The Aviator (Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby).

Any group of people can be constructed by others, or by themselves, as a race, and racial identities often have hierarchies within them. Are the Irish a race? They were to many of the English who occupied their country and starved them out of it. They were to the white Americans to whose country they then emigrated. Today they're a 'nationality' or an 'ethnicity', perhaps equally imaginary categories but less susceptible to discrimination. In the twenty-first century, many Americans have racialized Muslims (a religious group) and Arabs (a language group), which only goes to show fluid and adaptable 'racial' discrimination is.

The category of 'white people' has always had its internal hierarchies in the States: there are white people, and then there are 'ethnic whites' or 'white ethnics'. For many people—consciously or unconsciously—to be an 'ethnic white' is to be white but not quite. The category usually includes Italians, Poles, Greeks—basically any European population group that is Catholic or Orthodox Christian and/or generally swarthier-complected than WASPs. To the ignorant people who care about degrees of whiteness, Jews are somehow beyond the pale. (For the record, I don't subscribe to any of this racial rubbish. I'm just trying to characterize a racist set of attitudes that one encounters in the world. I believe that racism exists but race doesn't.) (Second aside: if you ever watch Spike Lee's Jungle Fever again, pay attention to the Italian-American candy store scenes. Michael Badalucco's character explicitly talks about his ethnic envy of Robert Redford. Spike Lee knows what I'm talking about.)

Now scroll back up to the list of Scorsese's nominations. Do you see any patterns? Scorsese most deserved to win in 1980 and 1990 for New York-based films about Italian-Americans, and he was beaten both times by Redford and Costner(!), non-'ethnic' white guys making films about non-'ethnic' white people way west of New York. And Clint Eastwood? Eastwood is the icon of the stoic, no-nonsense white man of the west. Scorsese is not just Italian-American. He's also short, asthmatic, a fast-talker, and a New Yorker. In person he talks even faster than Woody Allen in Annie Hall. I'll even go one further and say that much of America, especially in the 70's and 80's, racialized New Yorkers in general. We were one big cesspool of pollution to the red-blooded, and blue-blooded, states. (Woody Allen expressed New Yorkers' internalized racism eloquently in Annie Hall: 'Don't you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.')

Things are getting better at the Academy and in the States generally, but the Academy has historically discriminated against Scorsese as an Italian-American, as a New Yorker, and, compared to Eastwood et al., as a non-Hollywood masculine body. It's racism and more, and it stinks. Will the Academy, as expected, right a historic wrong this year? And if Scorsese wins, will he deserve it? For the answer to the last question, tune in tomorrow for part two, tentatively titled 'Hong Kong comes to Boston'.

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Blogger Tristan said...

I should have asked Craig Brewer when I saw him on a panel tonight after a screening of Black Snake Moan how he feels about helping Three Six Mafia win an oscar before Martin Scorsese.

12:17 AM, February 20, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Three Six Mafia is lucky Clint Eastwood did not write a song that year.

12:58 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hollywood is one of the most aristocratic organization in operation today. You're right that it has genuine contempt for Scorsese but I don't know if it's racism. I think it has more to do with adherence to an abitrary guise of aesthetic propriety. Clint Eastwood has been recently praised for such schlock (to use a Jewish aphorism for crap) as the godawful Mystic River and the woefully overpraised Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood typifies the elegantly shot/lit films of the vastly octogenarian Academy's fading collective memories. Eastwood's pitiful John Ford impression has largely been awarded due to his standing as a prototypical American director and his former success as an actor (the academy is approx 1/4 actors). Though there does seem to be a special distaste for Scorsese. Although rewarding "ethnic" directors is rare, it has happened. Francis Coppola won for the Godfather II, a dark, handsomely lit film about family that simultaneously glorifies and glosses over many of the sordid details Scorsese has shown in full. The Godfather is a great film but is somewhat out of place amongst other classics of the 70s. The Czech born Milos Forman has won the Best Director award twice for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. While interesting with great production values, both films fail to grasp the more interesting themes at their core. They manage to be largely aesthetically uninteresting, relying on strong performances and decent scripts. Rulebreakers like Fellini, Leone and Bergman went unawarded despite their envelope-pushing style. Scorsese's aggressive directorial style, darkly masculine themes, and adherence to grisly subject matter has never made him friends in Hollywood. His New York mannerisms, which you described perfectly, turned distaste to contempt. In Hollywood, aesthetic audacity is the ticket to the Oscar blacklist. But it should be noted that with last year's directorial win for Ang Lee and this year's nomination for Mr. Inarritu, Hollywood seems to have begun to ignore race/ethnicity and award boring, mediocrity no matter the country from where they hail.

1:04 AM, February 20, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Well said, Anonymous. I am going to steal the bit about 'Eastwood's pitiful John Ford impression'. Too true.

Forman and Polanski, though also Hollywood veterans, don't register on the domestic 'ethnic' scale. They're 'foreign' or 'European'.

1:21 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous Blue Blood said...

Jeff, a surprisingly vanilla exegesis of racism and "ethnic" whites, and, unfortunately, not so very convincing. Anonymous picks up on your theme and says, "Although rewarding "ethnic" directors is rare, it has happened." Well, it's really not so rare if you scan the list of directors who have won over the past thirty years. And some of those names: Coppola! Cimino! Minghella! Indeed, there seems to be a prejudice in favour of these Italian-derived directors. Zemeckis!

Let me first point out that anonymous is quite correct about one thing - Hollywood leaps to reward handsome, cherished actors who move to the director's chair: Robert Redford, Warren Beattie, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Robert Duvall, Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Costner are all actors-turned-directors who were amply and multiply rewarded for their transition. Anonymous does not quite go far enough: almost no WASPs have won Best Director award over the past 30 years without being an actor. And if you exclude foreign-born people (which really scuppers your argument), then it's even more rare for WASPs to go home clutching the gold statuette. It's almost as if WASPs have to prove themselves in the Hollywood system as actors before they'll be considered as Oscar-worthy when directors.

I'm delighted that Anonymous pisses on Milos Forman, who really is tremendously over-rated. Otherwise, anonymous just regurgitates everyone's annual complaint about the middle-brow aesthetics of the Academy: yes, anonymous and Jeff, I'm sure your taste in film is far more eclectic, erudite, and dangerous than the Academy's. Bravo! Bravo!

7:42 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

Er, Robert Redford's father was Irish.

Kevin Costner has Irish and Native American ancestry.

Jewish people have quite regularly been rewarded by the Academy; as have Italians, as blue blood points out.

Frankly I think the theory that Scorsese is a victim of racism is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that.

The more parsimonious explanation of Scorsese's lack of success is that the Academy has a long history simply of rewarding the wrong films.

And The Departed would be the wrong film this year, too. It is far inferior to Eastwood's recent work.

8:38 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous Blue Blood said...

For once, Blinky, you are exactly right! It really is nonsense.

And the New York thing doesn't really work either, considering how the Academy has rewarded Woody with a slew of nominations despite his public antipathy to the Academy, his non-Waspiness, and his excess of "New York" (16 nominations, 2 wins, by my count).

I don't worry much about parsimony in my arguments about art, but Blinky is simply correct about how the Academy rewards the wrong films, at the wrong times.

9:08 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

I am pleased that for once, blue blood, you can see that I am exactly right!

My appeal was not to parsimony in arguments about art, though, because Jeff's racism theory is not an argument about art. It is pernicious nonsense because, of course, the charge of racism is a very serious one. And every time that charge is levelled frivolously or casually, as it is here, it dilutes the force of those occasions when it is justified.

9:18 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous Blue Blood said...

Speaking of incontinent charges of racism . . . Tony Montana, the "most culturally important movie role of the past twenty-five years"(vs Hannibal Lecter? Mr Pink? Maybe . . .), has been labelled a racist caricature of Hispanics in general and Cubans in particular.
"Say Hewo to my Widdle FWEN!"
His popularity in Black culture, as one of the baddest gangstas of all, is an interesting commentary on the fluidity of racism and racial stereotypes, and the production of race.

9:51 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

I remember some rappers giving Tony Soprano his props: "Original G".

Obviously the most culturally important movie role of the past 25 years is not Tony Montana but Ellen Ripley. (Okay, her first appearance was in 1979 but the rest fall within our arbitrary timescale.)

10:03 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blue blood said...

Not Lara Croft?

11:09 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blue blood said...

(Not as a movie role, but as a culturally important figure - well, maybe as a movie role as well).

11:10 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

Duh, no, not Lara Croft.

11:26 AM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

But it might be a tie between Ellen Ripley and Rocky Balboa.

I noticed some blithering idiot lately wrote an article arguing that the Rocky films were racist.

1:54 PM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blue blood said...

Of course they're racist. Not all Italian Americans are boxers.

2:18 PM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

Interestingly, for Rocky, Stallone became only the third person ever to be nominated for both leading actor and screenplay in the same year, after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, in whose company he can stand proud.

That he didn't win either one was no doubt due to racism.

PS Rocky Balboa is better than both Babel and The Departed.

3:47 PM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blue blood said...

1976 - Actually a stunning year for Italians and Italian Americans in the cinema. Stallone, De Niro, Giannini, Wertmuller, Fellini. The Academy, in their usual fit of racism, chose a francophone film set in Africa over the Italian film for Best Foreign Film. Of course, typically, actual Italians only won for . . . costume design. Sigh.

Well, that's not exactly true. Carlo Rambaldi won for Special Achievement, but he had to share it with non-Italians.

Blinky - please save comments on how the Academy shut out Rocky Balboa until the Best Film thread tomorrow. Jeff's teaser suggested that this might be an explanation of how Scorsese, stung by years of racism, takes on the topic of Orientalism in his re-make of Infernal Affairs.

4:16 PM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

Your wish is my command, blue blood. Gosh, it's almost like you think this is your own blog!

Can I just point out that Dances with Wolves is not really about "non-'ethnic' white guys", as Mr Strabone bizarrely seems to think it is? (By giving that mimsy mush a gong, the Academy was, rather than being racist, as Mr Strabone bizarrely thinks, signalling its impeccable liberal enmity towards anti-Native American racism.)

6:10 PM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

Can I also just point out that Roman Polanski is, um, an "ethnic" white guy? And that Gangs of New York was a steaming heap of shit, next to which The Pianist actually begins to look like a good film?


6:20 PM, February 20, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Who knew that when I started my blog last November it would turn into a comedy routine?

Clearly, I will have to compose a separate blog entry sometime after the Oscars to make the case for Tony Montana's significance to American culture, particularly hip hop. We'll see how many artists are still quoting, sampling, and pretending to be Tony Soprano in twenty years' time. Perhaps he, too, will spawn new genres of rap.

10:42 PM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blue blood said...

Blinky - It has already been established that Jeff is willing to let you to remain on this site despite my pleas that he ban you. Nevertheless, I'm glad you're willing to state the blindingly obvious, which is that Dances With Wolves is anti-racism at its most facile, and was given smug Oscar props strictly on account of its anti-racist sentimentality.

Jeff, as for Tony Montana - sure, a very important and problematic cultural figure. But probably not the most important and problematic cultural figure of the past two and a half decades. And you will never be able to convince Blinky that Montana is more important than Ellen Ripley, whose name is the last thing Blinky has spluttered every single night for the past two decades before falling into a very deep sleep.

11:44 PM, February 20, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

I must protest in the strongest terms at blue blood's pitiless exploitation of privileged information acquired during the many long years we spent together as pillow-mates.

Suffice it to say in the throes of passion it was blue blood who would squeal: "Jonesy? Jonesy?!"

5:53 AM, February 21, 2007

Anonymous David said...

blinky said...

" And that Gangs of New York was a steaming heap of shit,"

Too generous,more like a pile of cold shit. Steaming might have been fascinating. I wanted to walk out

7:16 AM, February 21, 2007

Anonymous David said...

I admired the way Daniel Day-Lewis a tall slim, slight man could appear bulky and muscular (like in “My Incredible Laundrette”).
He even stomped like a big man. I hated Di Caprio who I have come to admire in other films.

12:46 PM, February 21, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

Day-Lewis, as I read it, was fuelled with an extraordinary, combustible rage at the idiocies being perpetrated all around him by everyone else connected to the film. "So I'm acting in a turd of quite monstrous and possibly unprecedented proportions? So be it! I will show those fuckers some acting like they have NEVER SEEN!!!!1111oneoneone" And he did.

My Incredible Launderette is a much better title than the real one.

12:50 PM, February 21, 2007

Anonymous blue blood said...

When I was an aspiring screenwriter a couple years ago, I had actually written a treatment called "My Phenomenal Laundrette"! It was about a violently gay Husserlian scholar who meets a Pakistani laundrette-owner and their East-meets-West romance. But apparently, it was too close to some 1980s film. Is that the one you're referring to? "My Incredible Laundrette"? I think "My Phenomenal Laundrette" is a much better title. Coincidentally, I was actually imagining Daniel Day Lewis starring in it - I think that he would do a really excellent job as a Pakistani Laundrette owner.

1:41 PM, February 21, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it was fashionable to hate on Gangs of New York in late 04 early 05 when it was fashionable to think The Aviator was Scorsese's best since Casino. That time has passed and even when it hadn't those who referred to it as anything fecal-related were dismissed as aspiring film snobs without an ounce of filmic sense. People who needlessly hate on Scorsese are as stupid as those who consider Tarantino the greatest filmmaker of all time. Gangs of New York is a deeply flawed movie about an interesting and underexplored period of American history. Although DiCaprio and Diaz are walking rectal plagues, Day-Lewis steals the fucker and nearly saves it. The script sucks but, somehow, the movie doesn't.

1:51 AM, February 22, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I excluded foreign-born directors from my examination of 'whiteness' discourse in the States because that is generally how the discourse works. I never said it was logical. In fact, it's all quite stupid.

People have raised some good points, particularly Anonymous at comment three. The Academy's historic antipathy towards Scorsese is surely more multi-themed than simply his being an Italian-American making films about Italian-Americans. But I disagree that his ethnicity is irrelevant to the discussion. In part I was being provocative, but, even so, I stand by what I said. My initial entry certaintly drew comments.

Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from Alien is a standout character from the 1970's. (According to IMDB, she was not Ellen until the sequels.)

As for Dances with Wolves, my recollection is that it's about a white guy who gets to play boy scouts with Native Americans. I don't recall it as a film about Native Americans.

As for Gangs of New York, see my part two on Scorsese.

2:35 AM, February 22, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from Alien is a standout character from the 1970's. (According to IMDB, she was not Ellen until the sequels.)

Ie, Ellen Ripley is a great culturally important movie role from the last 25 years.

7:53 AM, February 22, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

I stand by what I said.

So, you "stand by" your incontinent and hysterical slander of various members of the Academy over the years, even though it has rigorously pointed out to you that there is no empirical basis for it at all, and even though a great deal of counter-evidence has been amassed in the comments? Well, though you seek to adopt a noble stance of intellectual independence, I do not think that "standing by" what you have said is very respectable in this case.

9:56 AM, February 22, 2007

Anonymous blue blood said...

I excluded foreign-born directors from my examination of 'whiteness' discourse in the States because that is generally how the discourse works.
This is simply not true. There is no "discourse"; you may be alluding to one particular discourse, or perhaps even one particular discourse in one particular book, but I'm afraid that we too were having a discourse on ethnicity and whiteness, prompted by your own post. That we did not abide by some otherwise-arbitrary rules created by giddily smug members of academe in order to make their lives easier, their points simpler, and their morals more outraged, does not negate the fact that your points were chewed on and devoured, one by one, like hapless little olives.

11:23 AM, February 22, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

For Blue Blood to deny that there is no racialist discourse in the States wherein some Americans are regarded as 'ethnic whites' is shocking. He is either obstinant or unfamiliar with the U.S. And it is not an academic discourse but a populist one, and one that I do not participate in except to criticize it from afar.

Blinky understands neither the nature of evidence nor that of dialogue. That there are multiple reasons that the Academy has slighted Scorsese does not prove that the reason I emphasized is wrong. There can be and are multiple partial explanations.

4:50 PM, February 22, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

That there are multiple reasons that the Academy has slighted Scorsese does not prove that the reason I emphasized is wrong.

Oh, let me be clear: the "reason" for the "slighting" that you invented (not "emphasized") is utterly without merit. You have provided exactly no evidence for it, and commenters in this thread have provided enough counter-evidence to show it for the hysterical, specious, pernicious and catastrophically fatuous fantasy that it is. And I say that on exactly the basis of my understanding of the "nature" of evidence as well as that of "dialogue" - because as a matter of fact, the only "dialogue" here (in the sense of a conversation in which each party takes account of the other's arguments rather than ignoring them or, with comical crassness, misunderstanding them, as you did with blue blood's last comment), has been that between blue blood and myself.

5:57 PM, February 22, 2007


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