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[THE OSCARS] | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Not that much of a departure

'The Departed' had the studio/stars imprimatur the academy usually favors -- and a foreign pedigree to boot.

February 26, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

THIS was not an ordinary Oscar year. This was a year without an overwhelming best picture favorite, a year when, according to Daily Variety tabulations, "the total number of noms earned by the five best picture contenders is the lowest in more than 70 years."

This was also a year when each of the five nominees represented a different trend, a different kind of filmmaking. So examining why "The Departed" won when the others didn't illuminates things a best picture victory doesn't always show.

In some ways, Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" represents the kind of classic filmmaking the academy usually wants to reward. But Eastwood had been such a big winner in the recent past that a return to the podium was not in the cards this time.

Similarly, though "The Queen" was well-liked, its non-studio British origins made it a longshot for the major prize. Which left three films and three points of view in contention.

"Babel" represented the part of Hollywood that likes to think of itself as socially conscious, the part that gave two awards, including best song, to "An Inconvenient Truth." This sentiment helped propel "Crash" to its victory last year, but enough people likely felt that "Babel" was simply the art-house "Crash" to keep its victory total down to one out of seven nominations.

The aptly named "Little Miss Sunshine" represented Hollywood's sporadic championing of the little picture that could. But this little picture was also a comedy, not usually the academy's favorite genre, and Will Ferrell's plaintive lament early in the show -- "A comedian at the Oscars, the saddest man of all, the movies may make millions, but your name they'll never call" -- turned out to have as much truth as poetry to it.

But "The Departed" didn't win only because of a lack of serious negatives or because it faced a field that was not overwhelmingly strong. Though it did not seem so at first, it was the film that benefited most by the best picture shutout of "Dreamgirls." That exclusion left "The Departed" as the only film out of five that was a true big studio picture, cast with major stars, made with an eye toward success yet with enough artistic cachet, courtesy of the long-neglected Martin Scorsese, to pass muster with the voters. And, when push comes to shove, Oscar voters have always been partial to one of their own.

There was another factor worth noting in "The Departed's" victory. Though director Scorsese initially tried to downplay it in publicity material, and though the broadcast voice-over got the place of origin wrong, this was the rare best picture winner that was a fairly faithful remake of a film from another culture: the splendid "Infernal Affairs," a product of Hong Kong, not Japan.

It is not the happiest state of affairs that Hollywood, once the storyteller to the world, has to go to another culture to get its best ideas. But on the other hand, on a night when much was made of the multicultural nature of the Oscar nominees, it was a good thing that those other cultures were sharing their stories with us. A major part of the reason "The Departed" was good enough to win was the great material it had to work with, and, as a moviegoer, it is hard to argue with that.

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