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Scorsese will remember his big night. But will filmgoers remember 'The Departed'?

February 26, 2007|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

HAVING won the Oscar for best picture, "The Departed" will always, from here to eternity, have an aura of distinction, like a suave white-haired gent gliding into the Governors Ball in his tuxedo.

But once the hoopla dies -- and in Hollywood, hoopla dies pretty quickly -- a thornier question will surface: What will we think of "The Departed" 30 years from now? Will it be considered a classic like "Lawrence of Arabia" or a musty heirloom like "My Fair Lady"?

If "The Departed" outlives Sunday night's other nominees, it won't be because it was necessarily a better movie. It will survive because genre movies, be they thrillers, westerns or comedies, have a timelessness and a lack of pretense that tend to age better than films about topical subjects or social issues. If for example "Babel" had won, it would have spoken to a particular moment, but if history is any judge, its portrait of post-Sept. 11 anxieties will have far less resonance a generation from now.

Nobody knows this better than "Departed's" Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, a student and champion of genre filmmaking. As Scorsese has acknowledged, "Departed" is a kind of hommage to the great Warner Bros. gangster films of the '30s -- just the kind of movie Oscar voters generally ignore and fans love.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
'The African Queen': An article in Monday's Calendar section about how best-picture winner "The Departed" might be regarded 30 years from now referred to "The African Queen" as a 1952 movie. It came out in 1951.

"I'll never forget watching 'Public Enemy,' " Scorsese said backstage, referring to the seminal 1931 gangster film. "The brutal honesty. The street honesty always stayed with me. That's a mark I always aimed towards. This film had that kind of attitude."

It's a testimony to the academy's antipathy toward genre filmmaking that it took Scorsese six nominations to win best director and that some of his best movies, such as the boxing biography "Raging Bull" and the mob action flick "GoodFellas," lost best picture to lesser movies with weightier themes -- "Ordinary People," and "Dances With Wolves" respectively.

"Genre movies age better because Hollywood is at its best working in fields it knows best, whether it's westerns, film noir or screwball comedy," says film historian David Thomson, author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film." "When good craftsmen tell the hell out of a story it has a better chance of lasting than when people try to make a grand statement. 'Casablanca' is simply a far better movie than some over-inflated epic like 'Out of Africa' or 'Dances With Wolves.' "

Screenwriter and author David Freeman believes that "all too often the academy mistakes seriousness of theme for the quality of execution. The voters, and I'm one of them, are often absolutely blind, unable to see beyond the sensation of the moment."

The movies that resonate the longest are often films from genres that aren't especially respectable, certainly not with academy voters. John Ford's greatest westerns never won an Oscar. Nor did a Marx Brothers comedy. Alfred Hitchcock's best films -- "Notorious," "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest" -- weren't even nominated for best picture. The film he made that won, 1940's "Rebecca," is an over-stuffed drama bathed in respectability by the presence of Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Dubbed ``romantic-gothic corn'' by critic Pauline Kael, it feels badly dated today while ``Psycho,'' a pure Hitchcock thriller ignored by the academy, still crackles with mischief and mayhem.

It's a reasonable rule of thumb that the more serious or sentimental the picture, the more its reputation crumbles over time. Leo McCarey's "Going My Way" won best picture in 1945 but today it is considered a trifle, drenched in sentiment. However a host of losers from that year, led by Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not," Edward Dmytryk's "Murder My Sweet" and two great comedies from Preston Sturges, "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "Miracle of Morgan's Creek," are viewed as classics, full of cracking dialogue and wonderfully drawn characters.

"Chariots of Fire," which won in 1982, is a high-toned snooze, especially compared with the rollicking vigor of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the sly sensuality of "Body Heat" and the buoyant lyricism of "Atlantic City," all losers from the same year. 1952 was a great year for movies, starting with "The African Queen," "Bend of the River" and "Singing in the Rain." They remain vastly more absorbing than the year's winner, "The Greatest Show on Earth," which is virtually unwatchable today.

In fact, there's no easier way to infuriate movie lovers than to remind them of the long line of inexplicable Oscar injustices. From today's perspective, it seems impossible to imagine "Citizen Kane" losing to "How Green Was My Valley," "The Searchers" beaten by "Around the World in 80 Days" or "GoodFellas" being snubbed in favor of "Dances With Wolves."

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