THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Departed’ (2006)

In 2007, the 79th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2006, and December 31, 2006, the awards were held on February 25. For the first time, the ceremony was hosted by talk-show host, stand-up comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres.

With his eighth unsuccessful nomination for Best Actor for his performance in Venus, Peter O’Toole became the unfortunate record holder for the most nominations without a competitive win. O’Toole had been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2002. With her win for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Dreamgirls, Jennifer Hudson became the 15th performer to win for their debut acting performance. At age 25, Hudson became the youngest African-American to win an Academy Award for acting. Dreamgirls also stood as the first film to receive both Best Supporting Actor and Actress nominations for African-American performers.

The Best Actor category also broke some odd records. Four of the five nominees were their film’s sole nominee, with Leonardo DiCaprio the only nominee to appear in a film (Blood Diamond) with further nominations outside the Best Actor category. This marked the first time since the very first Academy Awards where none of the Best Actor nominees came from films nominated for Best Picture, and the first time since the 6th Academy Awards where none of the Best Actor nominees came from films nominated in either Screenplay category.

Leading the way this year with eight nominations was Bill Condon’s Motown-inspired musical Dreamgirls. Despite being the pre-season frontrunner, Dreamgirls would fail to be nominated for Best Picture. This stands as the first and only time in Oscars history the film with the most nominations was not a Best Picture nominee. However, this fact is somewhat skewed, given Dreamgirls received three nominations for Best Original Song. The night ultimately belonged to Martin Scorses’s gritty cop drama The Departed, which took home four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.

The nominees:
The Departed
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

The winner:
The Departed

Based on the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, The Departed is the brutal and violent tale of two cops on two very different sides of the law. South Boston cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes undercover to infiltrate the organization of gangland chief Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). As Billy gains the mobster’s trust, a career criminal named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) infiltrates the police department and reports on its activities to his syndicate bosses. When both organizations learn they have a mole in their midst, Billy and Colin must figure out each other’s identities to save their own lives.

Why did it win?
After five losses for Best Director and seeing five of his brilliant and deserving films lose Best Picture, it was finally Martin Scorsese’s year. The must-loved and highly-revered director was long overdue for Academy recognition. By this point, it was becoming truly ridiculous that one of Hollywood’s most esteemed filmmakers had never received an Academy Award. But he still faced an uphill battle to get to that Oscars stage. The Departed was not a typical Oscar winner in the 21st century. It was a genre film. It was a remake of a foreign film. It was startlingly violent, full of foul language, plenty of blood, and a brutal and shocking conclusion. It only had five nominations – the least for a potential Best Picture winner since Annie Hall in 1977. And, of course, it was directed by a man who consistently failed to win.

But the growing “Scorsese is insanely overdue” narrative became the fuel The Departed needed to overcome these obstacles and take Best Picture, and, more importantly, award Martin Scorsese with that Best Director Academy Award he had deserved to win since Taxi Driver in 1976 (yes, I know he strangely wasn’t nominated for Best Director for Taxi Driver, but you know what I mean). Scorsese was one filmmaker everyone in Hollywood respected, admired, and adored. Not only was he an extremely likeable figure, he had been making consistently masterful films for over three decades. He was beleaguered with the most unfortunate run with the Oscars, in that every year he had a serious contender, there was always one piece of cinema that captured more Academy attention. Not this year.

Not to take anything away from The Departed, as it was easily the best film of 2006, but it was a rather light year, meaning Scorsese didn’t have to face the usual problems with his Oscar races of the past. Babel was good-not-great film, which mostly found itself here after some truly aggressive and relentless campaigning by Paramount Pictures. Likewise with Letters from Iwo Jima, which became Warner Bros’ chosen contender over its companion piece Flags of Our Fathers. The Queen was an enjoyable and captivating ride, cemented by the impeccable performance of its leading lady. And Little Miss Sunshine was the surprise smash-hit crowd-pleaser, which was far too light to be a real Best Picture winner. In a year devoid of solid contenders, The Departed became the obvious choice, even without the background narrative of Scorsese’s overdue win. It’s response from the public and critics only helped its case even further.

On a moderate budget of $90 million, The Departed earned $113 million at the U.S. box-office, making it the 15th highest-grossing film of 2006. The film added a further $159 million internationally to bring its worldwide total to $291 million. This made The Departed the 14th highest-grossing film worldwide of 2006. This impressive result also made the film Scorsese’s highest-grossing film to date. This record would be smashed in 2014 by The Wolf of Wall Street.

The Departed also received widespread acclaim from critics, with many calling it Scorsese’s best film since Goodfellas. TIME Magazine called the film a “very entertaining, densely layered, just-short-of-fabulous melodrama,” Variety hailed the film as one which “pulses with energy, tangy dialogue and crackling performances from a fine cast,” and, unsurprisingly, given the film’s setting, the Boston Globe decreed the film as a “relentlessly violent, breathtakingly assured piece of mean-streets filmmaking.”

As for the pre-season, The Departed was far from an outright frontrunner from the beginning. All the attention was focused on Dreamsgirls, which critics and Oscar watchers had deemed the likely Best Picture winner from the moment a one-minute long teaser trailer dropped before production on the film had even begun. That kind of pressure was its unfortunate downfall, and the film fell over before its Oscar race could even begin. As for the critics awards, Los Angeles and the National Board of Review went for Letters from Iwo Jima, while New York went for United 93. Even the Golden Globes didn’t go for The Departed, choosing Babel as their winner for Best Motion Picture – Drama instead. And when Little Miss Sunshine took both the PGA and SAG Ensemble prizes, Scorsese looked to be headed for another disappointing year.

But the tide turned when those Oscar nominations were announced. Little Miss Sunshine missed out on a directing nod for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and we all know films without directing nominations do not win Best Picture. From here, The Departed would win the DGA and WGA, and, as the calls to finally award Martin Scorsese grew louder and louder, the film became the chosen one. The Academy’s snub of Scorsese was finally at an end, and The Departed was the winner for Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
Let’s be honest. The Departed is not Martin Scorsese’s best film. Not even close. But when you’ve made films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, you’re always going to struggle to outdo those masterpieces of cinema. But if The Departed was the film to finally earn him that insanely overdo Academy Award, it’s clearly nothing to complain about. For decades, the Academy’s bizarre ignorance of one of the greatest directors in the history of film was frustrating, baffling, and utterly ridiculous. While it’s true many a great director failed to receive an Oscar for Best Director including Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles, in the modern era, this was becoming an anomaly. often overlooked directors like Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski, and Clint Eastwood had finally received their dues. It was beyond time to honour someone like Scorsese.

But even without that narrative, The Departed was certainly a deserving winner of Best Picture. It may not have been Scorsese’s greatest work, but it was indeed a great film. Gritty, tense, thrilling, and downright entertaining, The Departed is a wicked-good time. Capturing the wildly different lives of two Boston cops, the film is a brutal and bloodthirsty portrayal of corruption, betrayal, deception, and honour. It’s a gangster film for the 21st century. It never once shies away from showing the savage and cold-hearted reality of a mobster’s life. Laced with biting humour and delicious wit, the screenplay is a goldmine of brilliant dialogue, and its narrative is gripping and enthralling, keeping you guessing right until the last shocking moments.

The film is cemented by the performances of its impeccable cast. Just look at the roster of actors only a director like Scorsese could gather – Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, and Ray Winstone. And every single one of them gives a firecracker of a performance, proving Scorsese is a director who gets the best out of his actors. DiCaprio’s Best Actor nomination should have come for The Departed, and not Blood Diamond. His work here is a triumph, expertly capturing the desperate desire of Billy Costigan to rise above his upbringing and challenge his bleak destiny. As a corrupt double agent, Damon has never been better, gifting Colin with so much charm and charisma, you almost want to see him succeed. As he always does when he plays the villain, Nicholson is having the time of his life here, chewing every piece of scenery in sight. But the real surprise is Walhberg, who is downright terrifying as the fiery and hot-headed detective. He earned that Oscar nom, and it was marked the arrival of Wahlberg as an actor we needed to start taking seriously. As much as I adore Little Miss Sunshine, it’s a travesty The Departed was not also award the SAG Ensemble award. This is ensemble acting at its finest.

With the typical style and flair we’ve come to expect from Scorsese (plus a brilliant soundtrack featuring pitch-perfect song selections), The Departed is a glorious piece of cinema. Its language and violence may be off-putting for some viewers, but it’s this authentic and genuine quality which makes it such a success. It goes for the throat from its opening moments, and never once lets go. Even at 150 minutes-long, the film flies along at a cracking pace, and never lags, thanks to its immense and heart-racing tension. Over a decade later, it’s still a wonderfully entertaining and captivating film. All in all, it’s just a damn good time, and films of this nature should win the top prize more often. We can, of course, celebrate The Departed as the one piece of cinema which finally broke the Scorsese curse. But, more importantly, we can equally celebrate The Departed as a truly deserving winner for of Best Picture.