Eastwood, Scorsese square off again

The two veteran helmers compete for Oscar against three enormously talented international filmmakers.

Even the least attentive of moviegoers can recall the competition two years ago, when veteran filmmaker Martin Scorsese was an Oscar nominee for "The Aviator" and his counterpart Clint Eastwood a nominee for "Million Dollar Baby." Of course, Eastwood won with his late-year release that came out of the blue to dominate the awards, and Scorsese went home empty-handed -- his fifth directing nomination with no prize.

This time, industry consensus is that Scorsese will take the grand prize for Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," leaving Eastwood with a nominee's certificate for "Letters From Iwo Jima," also from Warner Bros. But Eastwood and Scorsese are not the only directors slugging it out this year. They will be joined by three other enormously talented filmmakers: Stephen Frears (Miramax's "The Queen"), Paul Greengrass (Universal's "United 93") and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Paramount Vantage's "Babel").

In an awards season that has been full of surprises, it would be premature to rule any of them out. But for Scorsese, a bridesmaid so many times, a loss this year would be particularly bitter.

Three decades after he launched his career as a New York outsider, Scorsese has become one of the industry's elder statesmen, respected and even idolized by many of his peers (not to mention the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which bestowed its top award on him this year, a solid indicator of his front-runner status).

Eastwood, too, has become a filmmakers' favorite, though he has taken a very different route to this point in his career, moving behind the camera after establishing a legacy as one of cinema's pre-eminent stars. His early work behind the camera (1976's "The Outlaw Josey Wales," 1980's "Bronco Billy") had a certain individuality, but few could have imagined it would gain the subtlety and depth best characterized by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan when he wrote: "He has so eliminated nonessentials, so gone away from showy directorial flourishes, that his only fingerprints are the absence of fingerprints, the way he allows us to be unaware that we are watching a directed film at all."

Pundits have underestimated Eastwood's chances of winning the Oscar, just as they did for "Baby," but Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters are a unique breed, and they have demonstrated a profound fealty to the filmmaker.

In some ways, Eastwood and Scorsese are at opposite poles of the studio-filmmaking world, at least when it comes to their style. Eastwood prefers a hidden hand, "the style that hides the style," as helmer William Wyler's work was once described. By contrast, Scorsese imposes his personality on every frame in his movies; his nervous vitality revolutionized American film when it was unleashed in the days before MTV and the steadicam made camera movement and fast cutting de rigueur.

Eastwood's a cinema of invisibility; Scorsese's a cinema of visibility, and while Academy members have generally favored the former, this is the year that might change.

With an understated style very much in the Eastwood school, another of the nominated directors, Frears, stands apart from many of the British directors who have made a mark in recent years and who -- unlike him -- came from commercials, such as Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott. His work has not been characterized by visual panache so much as by an unerring sense of drama. He returns to these awards 17 years after receiving his first nomination for 1990's "The Grifters." Since then, he has shunted between varyingly successful studio projects such as the Dustin Hoffman starrer "Hero" in 1992 and the ill-fated Julia Roberts vehicle "Mary Reilly" in 1996, as well as some exceptionally interesting British films such as the 1996 production "The Van" and the acclaimed 2002 production "Dirty Pretty Things."

Not the least of Frears' British endeavors was the 2003 telefilm "The Deal," which paired him with producer Andy Harries, writer Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen, the trio that would reunite for "Queen."

While Frears began his career as an assistant to some of the leading British directors of the post-World War II generation -- such as Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz -- Greengrass started out in TV documentaries, though a generation later. He worked for many years on the British TV program "World in Action" (similar to PBS' "Frontline") and even co-wrote the book "Spycatcher" with one of England's more famous spies, before his movie "Bloody Sunday" drew enormous acclaim in 2002.

Greengrass' roots in documentary and his fondness for the hand-held camera have stamped his work, especially his more personal efforts like "United 93," which he also wrote. Since gaining prominence, Greengrass -- the only nominee whose film is not also up for best picture -- has succeeded in doing quite personal work for the studios that have hired him. The filmmaker forged a collaborative rapport with Universal executives while helming the second installment in the distributor's Jason Bourne franchise, 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy," which led to Universal greenlighting "United 93" before a script was even in place.

He is currently working on the next Bourne film for Universal, the planned August release "The Bourne Ultimatum," while also developing another war-on-terror film, this one adapted from the nonfiction book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

As different as Greengrass and Frears might be, the British helmers approached their movies in rather similar ways, devoting themselves to considerable research in a quest for authenticity, then working in intense rehearsals with their actors. But while Frears' central character was portrayed by one of England's leading stars, Helen Mirren, Greengrass worked almost entirely with unknowns and even drew some of the real-life personae -- the air-traffic controllers and others connected to the downing of United Flight 93 -- into his movie.

Similarly, Inarritu chose to work with unknowns in "Babel," casting A-list stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in smaller supporting roles. Finding the right nonprofessional actors proved to be an enormous challenge -- he cast the two boys responsible for the shooting that launches the film on location in Morocco after persuading local mosques to trumpet word of the auditions.

Part of a new wave of Mexican filmmakers who have transformed their national industry, Inarritu entered the film business not through television (like Frears) or acting (like Eastwood) or even documentary (like Greengrass), but through commercials. Given his mastery of that short form, it is striking that his work has been devoted to sprawling, complex tales that stretch the intellect as well as the emotions.

Like all the current director nominees, with the exception of Greengrass, Inarritu has been through the Oscar mill before -- but in the foreign-language section. His debut feature, "Amores Perros," was a nominee for best foreign film in 2001. This year, he might also go home empty-handed if Scorsese proves as dominant as he did at the Golden Globes. But "Babel" was a long shot at the Globes and still came away with the best dramatic picture nod.

And long shots, as Scorsese can testify, have a scary way of plucking the prize.
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