This year’s best director contest reminds me of those Hemingway vs. Faulkner debates English majors used to have way back in the 20th century. In this equation Martin Scorsese is William Faulkner, with his swooping, swirling shots and breathless run-on sentences, while Clint Eastwood is Ernest Hemingway: simple, unadorned, with scenes of emotional power that are excruciating because of their very understatement.
But to complete the metaphor: Hemingway’s already got his Pulitzer; Faulkner doesn’t. And that, I hope, is the key.
Flowers for Scorsese
Yes, I’m rooting for Martin Scorsese. Who isn’t? The man is one of our greatest filmmakers and he’s 0-4. I wasn’t rooting for him two years ago when he was up for “Gangs of New York” because I thought that movie overlong and uneven, and he was competing against Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which is the best film about the Holocaust ever made. But “The Aviator” soars, and feels light only in comparison with Scorsese’s heavier works (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas”), not in comparison with previous best picture winners (“Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Chicago”). How heartbreaking would it be if, once Scorsese gives the Academy what they like, they still snubbed him? I might have to turn off the television.
A few critics compared “The Aviator” to films by Scorsese’s friend Steven Spielberg, which is both correct (Spielberg once talked about directing a Howard Hughes biopic) and not. Spielberg always has to reach out to fiddle with our heartstrings, while Scorsese can’t be bothered with that crap. As averse as I am to Spielberg’s brand of sentimentality, this lack may be the main problem with “The Aviator.” Visually it’s stunning, and intellectually it’s fascinating: the story of a man who lived life big — he lifted the gigantic Spruce Goose into the air! — and who is undone by things too small to see. But there’s little emotional resonance. Scorsese has removed his usual dark heart and left the film with no heart. Just a slight “what might have been” stir at the end.
In Siskel and Ebert’s 1991 book, “The Future of Movies: Interviews with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas,” Spielberg, talking about the Hughes biopic he never made, mentions the “three or four lifetimes” that Hughes lived in a short span, and Scorsese has certainly captured those; but Spielberg also talks about the wonder of this gregarious man becoming our most famous recluse. “What drove him into the rooms with the curtains drawn?” Spielberg asks. Beyond a perfunctory childhood scene, Scorsese doesn’t answer. Is there a parallel between Hughes’ hygienic and filmic perfectionism? Did his life move so fast because he was trying to outrun the demons that finally caught him? Intellectually, we could talk about it all day. Emotionally, it never sank in.
Unfortunately Eastwood hasn’t given up some of the moral simplicity of his Dirty Harry days. The world is still full of bullies (the trash-talking Shawrelle Berry) and victims (the dweeby “Danger” Barch), and those who avenge the victims (Morgan Freeman’s “Scrap Iron” Dupris). The female champion, Billie the Blue Bear, is basically Mr. T’s missus, while the only mean thing about Hilary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald is her hook. Her white-trash family? Not many shades of gray in that trailer park. They’re the biggest bunch of clowns to appear in a serious film.
This moral simplicity, by the way, doesn’t extend to the powerful final third of the film, currently under attack by right-wing blabbermouths Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved. The choices the characters make here are made with gravity and love. An empathetic audience will feel the horror of the characters’ situations and wonder what their own choices might be in those situations. This is exactly what art is supposed to do. The film isn’t condoning anything. (I, for one, don’t think I could do what either character does.) The only ones uninterested by such powerful scenes are fundamentalists: people who believe they have all the answers and so don’t need to hear the questions. Apparently they don’t want the rest of us to hear the questions either.
And, just as an aside, what kind of insane nation have we become when the right-wing attacks Clint Eastwood? Who are they going after next — John Wayne?
Taylor Hackford? Honored more for his decades-long effort in getting “Ray” made than for the film. But Mike Leigh — what a pleasant surprise! Most analysts anticipated Zhang Yimou for his breathtaking work in “House of Flying Daggers,” but Academy directors — who nominate the directors — must not like bright colors much. They also ignored Leigh in 1999 for his vibrant, colorful “Topsy Turvy,” yet nominated him for another drab working class picture, “Secrets & Lies,” in 1996. “Vera Drake” is so non-colorful it feels like it’s filmed in black-and-white. In tone, it’s similar to “Million Dollar Baby,” and that’s good news for Scorsese. Leigh won’t steal any of Marty’s votes; Zhang Yimou might have.
So here are the nominees again in easy-to-read format:
Martin Scorsese for “The Aviator”
Strengths: The greatest filmmaker of his generation who has yet to win an Academy Award for directing. The film, a long, sweeping historical biopic, is the kind the Academy usually honors.
Weaknesses: No heartstring-playing.
Clint Eastwood for “Million Dollar Baby”
Strengths: Both powerfully emotional and morally ambiguous. Golden Globe winner. Rush Limbaugh’s rants don’t hurt either. Weaknesses: Eastwood’s already got a statuette. And did Maggie’s family have to be that reprehensible?
Alexander Payne for “Sideways”
Strengths: A quality film honored coast-to-coast. Weaknesses: No stars. No heroes. Intelligent.
Taylor Hackford for “Ray”
Strengths: Jamie Foxx and good box office. Weaknesses: Almost everything else.
Mike Leigh for “Vera Drake”
Strengths: Both powerfully emotional and morally ambiguous. Weaknesses: “Million Dollar Baby’s” got those, too, and it’s up for best picture.
Since the age of four Martin Scorsese has been in love with film, and as an adult he’s become one of film’s greatest ambassadors — not only for the classics he’s made but for his work in preserving the movies that came before. No matter what happens February 27th, none of this will change. And if he doesn’t win? He’ll join five-time non-winners Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman. Being in such rarefied company is probably more of an honor than the Oscar; but I’d rather he got the Oscar.