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The Academy vs. Martin Scorsese

Credit: TIZIANA FABI / AFP

With twenty-six feature-length films, seventeen documentaries, a myriad of television episodes, and almost 60 years of directing experience, Martin Scorsese is considered a master of his craft.

Scorsese is best known for directing crime dramas like Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). However, he has also ventured into other genres, including period pieces, black comedies, psychological thrillers, and even a musical. Yet despite years of critical acclaim and commercial success, he only holds one Best Director award.  

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) garnered ten Oscar nominations at the 96th Academy Awards. This bumped up Scorsese’s Best Director and Best Picture nominations up to ten respectively. The director did not receive any awards for his latest work, and neither did the rest of the cast and crew. Martin Scorsese’s films were once considered a shoo-in for the Oscars, but in recent years, they have struggled to secure wins. As a result, it has become expected that his works may not receive any awards.

47 Years of Academy Nominations

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
In addition to being Scorsese’s first Best Picture nomination, Taxi Driver also served as Robert De Niro’s first Best Actor nomination. Credit: Columbia Pictures

Scorsese would receive his first Best Picture nomination at the 49th Academy Awards for Taxi Driver. While the film would lose to Rocky (1976), it won the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. While heavily accoladed during its awards cycle, the film has proved to be incredibly significant to this day, tackling the seedy underbelly of a 70s New York, with raw depictions of mental health, violence, and even child prostitution. Critics praised the movie despite its controversial casting of a twelve-year-old Jodie Foster in an iconic yet haunting role. Despite these critiques, it’s widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

The 80s brought increased recognition to Scorsese’s talents from the Academy. In 1980, Raging Bull would receive another Best Picture nomination for Scorsese in addition to his first for Best Director. Once again, however, the film would lose these two. In the 90s, Scorsese would receive eighteen nominations for his work on films like Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), and the aforementioned Goodfellas. Yet, just as in the past two decades, there was not a Best Picture nor Best Director win in sight. 

A Long Awaited Win

Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon in The Departed
The Departed marked the first Academy win for Scorsese’s direction. Credit: Warner Bros.

Then at the 79th Academy Awards, it finally happened. Scorsese would win his first and only Oscar for The Departed (2006). The film would collect four out of its five nominations including Best Picture. The film garnered great acclaim with many commending the partnership between Scorsese’s direction and the talent of the actors. As Robert Ebert stated, “What makes this a Scorsese film, and not merely a retread, is the director’s use of actors, locations and energy, and its buried theme. I am fond of saying that a movie is not about what it’s about; it’s about how it’s about it. That’s always true of a Scorsese film.”

But its win was odd. Many have speculated that Scorsese’s snubs are often due to the violent nature of his work and The Departed was no stranger to gore. Scorsese himself has even called the win “inadvertent,” not realising the film would mark his jump to big-budget films. In a press tour for Killers of the Flower Moon, he explained that The Departed was going to be his last major film: “I was leaving and just going to make some small films, I don’t know. And it just happened that The Departed clicked.”

Unintentionally, Scorsese’s Academy Award for The Departed has been responsible for his continuation in the industry. In the seventeen years since its win, Scorsese has released six films with five of them receiving Academy nominations. Of course, none have collected a Best Picture or Best Director win.

“You Can’t Make a Movie for an Award”

Leonardo Dicaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Scorsese’s most recent film, Killers of the Flower Moon, received a whopping ten Oscar nominations. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest film directed by Martin Scorsese, was highly anticipated and praised upon its release. With ten Oscar nominations, many were hoping for it to win Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Picture. On March 10, however, the film would go home with zero Oscars, similar to Scorsese’s previous film, The Irishman (2019). Since 2011’s Hugo, Scorsese’s work has sadly developed a trend of complete loss at the Academy.

And while this is disheartening for fans, does it really matter? The director continues to achieve success and expand his filmography without faltering. Despite these losses, there are already several projects upcoming, including a Grateful Dead biopic and an adaption of The Wager, written by Killers of the Flower Moon author, David Grann. For many artists, these continued losses may have slowed them down, but not Scorsese.

Scorsese has proved an innovator, tackling difficult subjects and making them part of the cultural zeitgeist with many considering his work as the epitome of exceptional filmmaking. His work has inspired many other great directors and his style has branded him as an “audiovisual historian” by the Library of Congress. When one thinks of film, the thought of Martin Scorsese is sure to follow.

Ultimately, the Academy Awards pale in comparison to such a legacy. As Scorsese has remarked, “I always liked being nominated at the Academy, even though knowing, especially the fact that they didn’t nominate us for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, when I didn’t get the Oscar, I understood that that wasn’t my lot in life”. But that didn’t stop the director from developing forty-three full-length features.

While he’s shown great honour for his singular win, there seems to be an understanding that awards are not the things that make his films. Instead, it’s been the iconic acting, unique styling, a dedicated crew, and of course, one tenacious director. “But I always said this: Just be quiet and make the movies. You can’t make a movie for an award,” Scorsese said in a 2023 interview. “Sure, I would’ve liked it, but like, so what? I mean, I had to go on and make pictures”.

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