Great Oscar Debates: Martin Scorsese and Goodfellas vs. Dances With Wolves

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It’s week three of a look back at the multiple times when the Oscars got it wrong. This week I’d like to take you all the way back to 1991. Why? It was one of the many times Martin Scorsese would get passed over for Best Director and one of his masterpieces would be passed over for Best Picture. Instead of bestowing Best Director on Scorsese for Goodfellas, not to mention awarding it Best Picture, the Oscar voters chose…Dances With Wolves. Now, is Dances With Wolves a bad movie? Certainly not. Kevin Costner’s Civil War film absolutely deserved awards recognition. It was gorgeously photographed, had a great score, wonderful costume design, a solid story…but it didn’t reach the cinematic heights of Goodfellas.

Up until 2007, Martin Scorsese had not won a Best Director Oscar. Let that just sink in a minute. A man whose body of work includes: Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, Casino, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, has one Oscar. That’s shameful. In 2007 he finally won his Best Director Oscar for The Departed. It continues a proud tradition the Oscars have of awarding the right people for the wrong movies. The Departed is high quality, but not his best film. That question is a debate for the ages. My vote goes to Raging Bull. But right behind it is Goodfellas.

What bugs me about the 1991 Oscars, is that the Oscar voters could have honored both a proven veteran and a promising up and comer. Why not award Goodfellas Best Picture and Dances With Wolves Best Director or the other way around? Then they could have honored talents old and new. Or they could have awarded Dances With Wolves in the technical categories and given the top awards to Goodfellas. Now, it should be mentioned that Joe Pesci’s scene-stealing supporting performance did win an Oscar. So the film wasn’t completely ignored on Oscar night.

Goodfellas for my money is the best mob movie ever made. It’s a film that belongs in the same breath with Little Caesar, Scarface, The Public Enemy, and The Godfather. It took me into the mafia culture in the way no film ever had before. You really get involved in the whole complex world of the mafia and the effect living in it has on people. It probably helps that it was based on a true story. The film was an adaptation of Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi. It’s a journalistic account of the life of Henry Hill, Ray Liotta’s character in the movie. The screenplay by Pileggi and Scorsese is sharp and never has a wasted word.

The film is also one of the best acted I have ever seen. In addition to Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, you get Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Lorraine Bracco. Bracco of course would go on to star on the hit mafia series The Sopranos. She’s fascinating as Liotta’s wife, a character of unexpected complexity. She earned an Oscar nomination as well.

To me it’s just unconscionable that it took Scorsese so long to be recognized in the Best Director category. His body of work speaks for itself. I greatly admire what Kevin Costner achieved with Dances With Wolves. I don’t get the hatred he faces sometimes. Costner is a gifted actor and a talented director. But in 1991 the honors should have gone to Martin Scorsese, a man whose films continue to raise the bar decade after decade.

 

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