|Jack Nicholson in The Departed|
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way.
Subject: The Departed celebrates its 10th anniversary this Thursday.
Theory: Jack Nicholson deserved an Oscar nomination for The Departed.
This week marks the 10th anniversary for director Martin Scorsese's The Departed. While the film definitely has plenty of merit, the film's legacy would likely be reduced to "That time Scorsese finally won an Oscar." After all, he is one of our greatest living talents, and the fact that Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, The Aviator, or Gangs of New York didn't get him an Oscar many moons sooner is itself an appalling reality acknowledged at the ceremony as his peers gave him a standing ovation. Comparatively, The Departed is a minor film in his legacy. There's no denying that Scorsese goes full force in the film - throwing the language of cinema so expertly into the mix that its typical crime story is elevated to something greater.
I for one really like The Departed. I have seen it about five times now, and each time I find more to appreciate alongside the irony that a director known for Italian crime movies set in New York somehow won for an Irish crime movie set in Boston (go figure). Even then, there's plenty to love in the performances, which features one of the better mostly male casts of the decade. Everyone is given a moment to shine, and it would almost seem plausible for The Departed to pull a move not too reminiscent of All About Eve and double up on acting nominations. Instead, the film ended up with one sole nomination: Best Supporting Actor's Mark Wahlberg.
There is the story of why Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't nominated for what would've been a sure win. He believed that The Departed would have that All About Eve factor, and he felt guilty competing against his co-stars. Instead, he campaigned for the highly subpar Blood Diamond, which was smart from a political activist standpoint but dull from an acting standpoint. That left Wahlberg as a lone figure for the acting representation of The Departed. To be totally honest, the Best Supporting Actor for 2006 was pretty strong. There's no refuting the placement of Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond) and Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) -- not as wild about Alan Arkin's cameo-level role -- was deserving. Yet here is where I get on my soapbox: Wahlberg didn't deserve that nomination one iota.
Okay, that sounds mean. I'll back up and say that he's good in the movie. Everyone is. Alec Baldwin is good. Kevin Corrigan is good. Even Anthony Anderson is good. The list goes on. Yet you wouldn't give the B-Level cast much thought, would you? If one was to think about the best performances in the film, you could look at DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Vera Farmiga, or Jack Nicholson. Those are your four main actors who deliver the knockout moments in The Departed. While it is true that everyone gets a moment, to ignore these four names is to ignore how they expertly carried the film through the twists and turns that lead to the shocking conclusion.
That brings me to Wahlberg. Yes, he is technically a key character in the film. He does have a Boston accent and gives those masculine throw downs with the best of them. But consider for a moment -- what moment of his elevates him above DiCaprio and Damon? What moment? Here we are focusing on a group of characters forced to be deceptive to one another, and they have this tension to their roles. You buy into their deception so well because these are gifted actors who have star power on their sides. They carry the film with such ease that it almost becomes a thankless task to have them perform in a Scorsese movie. What about Wahlberg? He was great in Boogie Nights. The Departed is far from his most defining work - even the later nomination for The Fighter was more deserving. I suppose if there was any narrative to his nomination, it was the idea of being a "serious" actor: a moniker that he's rarely tried to earn since.
It is at this point that I suggest something that hasn't come across as a big issue, likely because of his overwhelming stature. Jack Nicholson was robbed. I'm not saying that he should've won, but he definitely should've been nominated over Wahlberg. Considering that Meryl Streep gets literally nominated for anything that she does (see: August Osage County, Into the Woods, The Iron Lady...), it would only seem fair that the fellow acting heavyweight would hold some bias. The only difference is that Nicholson brought his all to The Departed and it may also be the last time that cinema would ever have "vintage" Nicholson. That's right. The vintage Nicholson who swore, did drugs, was highly sexual, and could persuade you with no more than a swarthy monologue. He may be an actor of often specific talents, but he is very good at it. Seriously. There's a reason that his track record includes Oscar nominations in five different decades.
So, what makes The Departed an invaluable performance? Take into account everything that I just said about vintage Nicholson. Now apply it to what has worked for Scorsese, specifically in Goodfellas. There's the violence, sure. However, Nicholson's delusional sense of power felt controlled in a way that only the best performances would. It is present in his opening monologue where he suggests that "I want my environment to be a product of me." He carries himself, even as the cliche Rolling Stones music is cued up. The way that he controls his mafia with occasional dark humor (specifically in the theater where he improvised use of a dildo) is so bizarre that one cannot help but be mesmerized and afraid of him at the same time.
It may be considered a detriment, but there's something to knowing that you're watching Nicholson at his best. You are watching a legend own a role and putting everyone else on screen to shame. Even then, it's a testament to DiCaprio and Damon that they can even come close to matching his charisma. For a second-rate Scorsese film, it's packed with great performances, and the epitome comes from Nicholson's raised eyebrows forcefully calling out hits on his enemies. He has a cool so great that the greatest criticism that one could place on The Departed is that Nicholson didn't work with the director before or after. He's used the lesser (and somewhat repetitive) Joe Pesci more, and he sometimes comes across as a third rate version of Nicholson's aggressive type.
He may be only one component in a larger story, but he has to be the threat to make the film work. You buy into every moment that he's on screen. His death is what makes The Departed so satisfying in the third act. While just as much is due to the additional actors and directing, be honest with yourselves: this film would be NOTHING without Nicholson. It may not necessarily rank among his very best, but that doesn't matter. He's got the charisma and legacy that somehow got Alan Arkin an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine. It only makes sense that even if he didn't necessarily need a nomination, he more than was qualified. If nothing else, there were a handful of performances that deserved it more than Wahlberg.
I know that The Departed likely won't be regarded as one of the best movies in cinematic history. It's not even the best in Scorsese's history. However, its status as a second tier film still is a sight to behold. With so much action and focus, it's the work of a director in charge of his image. He knows how to get great performances out of anyone. I don't know that we'll be talking about The Departed in the way that we do even The Wolf of Wall Street, but it's still really good. Reducing the acting nominations to Wahlberg of all actors is itself a ridiculous smudge on this film's permanent record. If DiCaprio had been nominated, he would've likely won and saved us insufferable "No Gold for Leo" memes and the lackluster legacy win for The Revenant. It wouldn't be his best film, but it would be more deserved than whatever Wahlberg got.