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`The Departed' shows silence can be golden

Martin Scorsese was a sentimental favorite to win at last, so there was no effort to hype the star-filled mob drama.

February 26, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

TO THE VERY END — even as he walked into the Kodak Theatre on Sunday afternoon -- the producer of "The Departed" was downplaying his film's Oscar chances, maintaining that it was just a modest genre movie fortunate to get some awards attention.

"We didn't even think we'd be here," Graham King said on the red carpet. "We honestly didn't."

As a campaign strategy, Oscar politicking doesn't get much more sophisticated -- or fruitful -- than that.

Riding the coattails of its influential and long-overdue director, Martin Scorsese, the film won a leading four Oscars, including the best picture and best director trophies, in the unusually wide-open 79th annual Academy Awards.

The unrelentingly bloody remake of the 2002 Hong Kong cop drama "Infernal Affairs" also won statuettes for adapted screenplay for William Monahan and editing for Thelma Schoonmaker. It was nominated for five Academy Awards.

"The Queen's" Helen Mirren was named best actress, and Forest Whitaker won the top actor award for "The Last King of Scotland." In the three-hour, 52-minute broadcast hosted by comic Ellen DeGeneres, "Little Miss Sunshine's" Alan Arkin collected the best supporting actor trophy, and Jennifer Hudson from "Dreamgirls" was selected best supporting actress.

In movie marketing, Hollywood tends to overpromise and underdeliver. But in the case of "The Departed," the formula was turned on its head: From the very beginning, the movie's awards credentials took a back seat to its commercial prospects.

As a box-office tactic, the plan worked beautifully: The drama of dueling police officers -- Leonardo DiCaprio's honest cop has infiltrated Jack Nicholson's mob, while Matt Damon's crooked cop is on the bad guys' payroll -- grossed $132 million.

It was Scorsese's highest-grossing movie ever, and easily dwarfed the ticket sales generated by the four other best picture nominees.

But the film also started winning major awards, taking home top prizes from the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America.

If King had reason to slow-play his "Departed" Oscar hand, it was understandable.

King, Scorsese and DiCaprio had collaborated on two earlier high-profile movies, both of which entered the Academy Awards with the highest of expectations.

Yet 2002's "Gangs of New York" and 2004's "The Aviator" collapsed under the weight of their relentlessly advertised importance; though both were nominated for best picture and director, neither won either award.

"Could you double-check the envelope?" Scorsese, the 64-year-old director of "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas," joked when he accepted his Oscar, the first directing win in six nominations.

"The Departed" may have prevailed Sunday night by never blowing its own horn too loudly. The movie hit theaters Oct. 6, far ahead of the Christmas season, the time when many Oscar contenders and winners are released.

And unlike the makers of "Dreamgirls," who touted that film's award credentials long before the movie debuted, King and other people involved in "The Departed" rarely talked of the movie's potential for winning anything but moviegoers' affections.

"I think it was just a decision to let the movie speak for itself, and fortunately we're in a position where we have a movie that can speak for itself," screenwriter Monahan said a few minutes before the Oscar ceremony started.

King said his first priority was to ensure that "The Departed" would succeed as a crowd-pleasing hit.

As the film's awards prospects brightened, the normally chatty Scorsese turned into a media recluse, declining scores of interview requests.

It was a 180-degree turn from the "Gangs of New York" awards drive, one of the most aggressive campaigns in recent Academy Award history.

Even though "Gangs of New York" entered the Oscars with 10 nominations, it went home empty-handed. That film's chances may have been doomed when it was revealed that a Miramax Films publicist had ghostwritten a pro-Scorsese editorial essay attributed to the infirm Robert Wise, director of "The Sound of Music."

Not surprisingly, the campaign for "The Aviator" was more unassuming, and it won five Oscars from 11 nominations. But not until the most humble effort of all on "The Departed" did Scorsese and King win the most coveted statuette of all.

When asked if he told Warner Bros. not to push too hard, Scorsese said: "Ultimately, if this wasn't ... in the cards, that's life. The thing is I got to make the films that I wanted to make. 'Mean Streets,' 'Taxi Driver,' 'Raging Bull,' 'Last Temptation of Christ,' 'GoodFellas.' On this one, let's just relax and make as good a film as we can."

Although the "Departed" campaign may have been low-key, it did create some headlines, when Paramount Pictures studio chief Brad Grey tried -- but failed -- to be credited as one of the producers eligible for the best picture Oscar.

For Warner Bros., it was a rare visit to the Academy Awards winner's circle, and may even open the door for a rumored "Departed" prequel or sequel -- which would be a neat trick, as nearly everyone in the film dies.

Said Scorsese: "I am interested."

john.horn@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Gina Piccalo and Robert Welkos and special correspondent Lisa Rosen contributed to this report.

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