By John H. Foote
When The Irishman (2019) began screening late last October and early November, critics fell over themselves writing superlatives for Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic. Absolute raves greeted the film, standing ovations, the film was on an instant path to a Best Picture nomination. And then the film won the coveted Best Film award from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, outside of the Academy Award the single most important film award. The second it won that award, it was over. The Hollywood backlash began, the campaign against the film began, and perhaps as collateral damage, the very public humiliating of Martin Scorsese, possibly the finest film director in the history of the art form.
I understand why Hollywood and the film studios are concerned with Netflix. They were fine when the streaming company was paying for the right to stream their movies, but how dare that streaming company start making movies … and very good ones! Who gave them the right to rack up the most Academy Award nominations? How dare Netflix make good – no, correction – great, films.
While I agree movies belong in front of an audience, that they should be seen by a large group, did Netflix not release their Oscar contenders into theatres for a qualifying run as per the Academy rules? They most certainly did and further they took their films to the major fall film festivals to build that all important awards buzz.
And to be clear, Martin Scorsese went to every major and minor film studio to make The Irishman, who all turned him down. Yes, they turned down this cinematic genius so Netflix stepped up and gave him not only the money to make the film, but the freedom to make it his way, the time he needed for production and the complicated make up de-ageing of his actors, a complete hands off approach. Apparently they offered the same approach to Noah Baumbach with Marriage Story, Fernando Mureilles with The Two Popes, and the year previous with Roma (2018) which won three Academy Awards but not Best Picture.
The Golden Globes roll around and sure enough Netflix has a huge presence, The Irishman and Scorsese expected to be the winners. In every other category, the winners are those predicted, but when Best Director is announced, stunned expressions prevailed. Sam Mendes, an Oscar and Golden Globe winner for American Beauty (1999) exactly 20 years before, would win his second award for his superb WWI epic 1917. Even Mendes seem embarrassed by defeating Scorsese who he praised in his acceptance speech. Oh, but the humiliation was not over, 1917 then proceeded to win Best Picture over The Irishman, making the public humiliation of Scorsese complete, and just getting started. Mendes would follow this with a Directors Guild of America Award for Best Director, also his second, incredibly giving him one more than Scorsese. Could Hollywood humiliate the greatest living director any further?
Yes they could.
And yes, they did.
To the eternal shame of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they nominated Scorsese and The Irishman, and other brilliant Netflix work, only to embarrass everyone involved except Laura Dean to whom they threw a bone with a Supporting Actress Award.
Parasite, a huge festival hit, offered the Academy the chance to make a different kind of history, and one infinitely more attractive than awarding a Netflix film Best Picture. By the time the Academy Awards rolled around The Irishman with 10 nominations had no chance of winning Best Picture. Nor did the other Netflix Best Picture nominee Marriage Story, a brilliant study of the agony of divorce. So, while the Academy could have made history honouring a film from Netflix as the years best, while they could have given Scorsese a second Oscar for Best Director, which he deserved, there seemed to be a campaign against The Irishman, more so than for Parasite. It seems more Academy members were voting for Parasite, indeed making history.
We are supposed to think them evolved, that they are growing in their artistic sensibilities, but they are not. Had they wanted to honour a Foreign Language Film as the year’s Best Picture why not Cries and Whispers (1973), Last Tango in Paris (1973), Seven Beauties (1976), Das Boot (1982), Fanny and Alexander (1983) or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), all major nominees. Why not Roma (2018) which was good enough for Best Director but not Best Picture? Sure they have made history, but will it be the kind they can be proud of? Oh yes, the Academy made history.
But not without collateral damage.
They have sent a message out that Netflix is not welcome at the Oscars, for they will nominate them but rarely award them. Netflix can follow every rule, make art, but they are not welcome, not really. And if a film as brilliant, a film for the ages like The Irishman loses to inferior work, as did Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), how is Scorsese not to take it personally?
The Academy made this very personal, to their eternal shame.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.