Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Departed" (2006)

Left to right: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Departed
Release Date: October 6, 2006
Director:  Martin Scorsese
Written By: William Monahan, Alan Mak & Felix Chong (adapted from Infernal Affairs)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 151 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Martin Scorsese)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Supporting Actor (Mark Wahlberg)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Letters from Iwo Jima
-Little Miss Sunshine
-The Queen

And the winner is...

One of the most common opinions in modern film culture is that director Martin Scorsese is among the best. Many even consider him to not only gifted, but capable of releasing masterpieces at least once a decade - a feat that very few directors can tout. By 2006, he had not only been a seasoned director, but was hitting what could have been his autumn years. Even with successful films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator to his recent credit, it looked like it could've been the end for him with The Departed. Even if most will not claim to like it more than Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, or even The King of Comedy, one thing was for sure: Scorsese still had it together. The only unfortunate thing? He had yet to win an Oscar by the time he was 64-years-old despite this enviable legacy.

To look at The Departed is to see a lot of goofs in Scorsese's career. If forced to summarize his career, it would be like this: Scorsese was a director known for making films with Robert De Niro in New York, often about Italian-American Catholics with ties to the mob. While he hadn't collaborated with De Niro since Casino, it was interesting that the film that would be selected as his remembrance starred his secondary muse Leonardo DiCaprio and a gang played by an all-star cast playing Irish-American Catholics in Boston, Massachusetts. Also, for a man who was known for doing "original" stories, he became the only director (so far) in Academy Award history to win for a remake of a foreign film - this time with the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs.

To his credit, he wasn't aware that it was a remake until he had signed onto the process. When he discovered this, he refused to watch the original until it was finished. As he pieced together the cast, he initially had Brad Pitt in a lead role. The actor was busy at the time working on Babel, but stayed on as producer. Likewise, Jack Nicholson initially turned down the role but became intrigued because of one simple reason. The legendary actor was coming off of a string of comedies and was aching to play a villainous role. He felt that Frank Costello was the embodiment of pure evil and would give him plenty to chew on. Rounding out the casting calls was Martin Sheen, who solely took the role because he wanted to work with Scorsese. Likewise, Vera Farmiga was chosen because she was a relatively unknown actress at the time. What started off as a film intended to be low budgeted quickly increased to $90 million.

In typical Nicholson form, the film was filled with personality solely by his presence. Costello was a character based off of notorious crime boss Whitey Bulger. Unlike most of the other characters, Nicholson was allowed to improvise large portions of his role to create a more chaotic presence. In one scene, he is going to an opera with both a white and black woman. Both the location and his guests were his idea. In one of the film's more sporadic scenes in an adult film theater, Nicholson is seen with a dildo. Again, his idea. To go down the line of everything he contributed would take too much time. However, his presence was what made the film sporadic and fun while everyone else was rooted more directly into the conflicting nature of their characters.

Scorsese, as always, was known for being inspired by classic films. The most famous element involves a nod to Howard Hawks' Scarface, in which upcoming deaths are depicted by 'X's whether explicit, or in the architectural design. With nods as well to The Third Man, the film was intended as a nod to classic crime films from directors like Don Siegel and Robert Aldrich. When asked about The Departed, Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau was critical of its length (The Departed was 50 minutes longer). While he accepted that it was Americanized, he was critical of smaller things, such as Farmiga being a condensed version of two roles and that it was in a lot of ways a compacted version of the three Infernal Affairs movie. Much like everyone else, he still liked it.

The film became Scorsese's third film to debut at number one at the box office. With critical acclaim, it became an easy awards contender. However, the awards push was a little more complicated than perceived. Since the cast was massive, there was trouble considering one of the actors for a lead nomination over the others. Inevitably, this created problems for Leonardo DiCaprio, who the studio thought would be a more viable contender if nominated for another 2006 film: Blood Diamond. As a result, DiCaprio refused to campaign against his co-stars. The Departed only scored one acting nomination, which was for Mark Wahlberg as Best Supporting Actor. He would lose to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine.

While the film won, there's consistent debate on if this was an award to Martin Scorsese for the film, or for his career. Most people consider this inferior to many of his other films. When he won, he received a standing ovation that marked a momentous occasion. Much like John Ford with How Green Was My Valley, I do believe that it was more of a cumulative win than for it's quality, even if its story and craft are astounding. It was a film that embodied the struggle with identity, which felt very prescient in the years following the 9/11 attacks - which some say can be alluded to in the film. However, if you had to ask Scorsese about the award, he is rather cheeky about it. When he won the award, he claimed that he won because it was his first film with an actual plot. It also is the film with the most profanity, featuring the f-word a reported 237 times.

Even if the film remains conflicting to most in terms of whether it's his best, there is one legacy that it proudly can hold. While the film is set in Boston, a lot of scenes are shot in New York. This is solely because there was a 15% tax credit to shoot there. There were six weeks shot in Boston over a few months - mostly for exterior scenes. Because of the film's success, Boston changed its ratings and began offering 25% tax credit shortly after The Departed became a huge success. This made things more advantageous for films in later years like The Town. While Scorsese hasn't had a major film take place in the city in the nine years since, his achievement definitely has at least impacted people's careers.

The Departed is both a great crime film as well as a career cumulative win. This may seem problematic, but it is more indicative of an ambitious director who continually offers something worthwhile almost every time he steps behind the camera. To watch him in motion is to be mesmerized by someone who has control of film. He brings life to every story he touches, even taking risks with Nicholson doing improv most of the time. Even if it's not his best, it's still a lot better than some people's bests. It's riveting, timely, and shows that remakes can be just as valuable as the original. For what it's worth, there's a lot to admire about The Departed winning, mostly because it showed that after over 40 years, he's still got it.

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