From the time it was announced, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman seemed destined to dominate the Academy Awards. An epic film from one of Hollywood’s most revered filmmakers, which sees him reuniting with long-time collaborator Robert DeNiro? And Joe Pesci coming out of retirement? AND Al Pacino? Top all of that off with a screenplay from Steve Zallian, based off a book inspired by true-life events and it would seem to hit Oscar Bingo. And sure enough, when the nominations were announced, The Irishman was at the front of the pack, scoring 10 nominations, tied for the second most nominations of any film this year.
And it didn’t win a single one.
How did we get here? How does a sure-fire contender and early front runner for Best Picture become the only Best Picture nominee to not win a single award? And what, if anything can be learned from its performance? Let’s look at some possible factors.
The Film Itself
An annual tradition for websites like Variety and EW is the “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot.” In which anonymous voters speak freely about what they liked and, more importantly, didn’t like this year. Several of those articles showed that some voters just flat-out didn’t care for The Irishman. Its main criticisms – it’s too long, it sidelines any female characters – notwithstanding, The Irishman continues a long tradition of Martin Scorsese films losing at the Oscars. The only time Scorsese has won Best Picture or Best Director was for 2006’s The Departed (it won both), one of his most mainstream efforts. While revered by all, it is fair to say that Scorsese’s best films don’t play to a wide enough audience to garner the kind of support needed to win awards. Unlike his contemporary Steven Spielberg (who himself has only won Best Director twice and Best Picture once), Scorsese’s best works are darker, edgier and less broadly appealing than what typically gets considered Best Picture (though not this year – more on that in a minute). And if a guy like Steven Spielberg can’t muster up more than a couple of Oscars, what chance does Martin Scorsese have? Oh well, The Irishman can now sit amongst Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas as Scorsese-led films that went home empty-handed. That’s still some pretty good company.
The Rest of the Field
As we’ve said multiple times on this website and on our Oscar Spotlight podcasts, this was one of the strongest fields in years. While one could certainly see The Irishman winning any of the 10 awards it was nominated for, when looking at who it lost to, it’s hard to argue that it was robbed in any of them. I adored The Irishman and it was still number 2 on my Best Picture ballot behind eventual winner Parasite. Given the overall weakness of last year’s field, an Irishman sweep would’ve been much easier to justify for the 2019 ceremony.
Out with the Old
Beyond just the quality of the films, which is purely subjective, every Oscar season sees external factors at play when determining a winner. One of the biggest seems to be previous Oscar wins. The Academy is known for spreading the wealth, and as such, first-time winners tend to feel like either an anointing of a new star or recognition for someone who should’ve won a long time ago. In The Irishman’s case, all of its major nominees were previous winners: Scorsese and fellow Producer Robert DeNiro, Supporting Actor nominees Pacino and Pesci, Screenwriter Steve Zallian and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. In all of those cases, they lost to first-time winners: Parasite’s Bong Joon-ho, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood’s Brad Pitt, Jojo Rabbit’s Taika Watiti, and Ford v. Ferrari’s Andrew Buckland & Michael McCusker. Not only are all of those winners deserving for their respective films, but the narrative of celebrating new rising artists like Watiti or Joon-ho, or rewarding the career of a marvelous actor like Brad Pitt feel much better than adding another trophy to a previous winner’s mantle.
The Netflix of It All
As bad of a night The Irishman had, it was just one part of an overall disaster for Netflix. The streaming service entered the night with 24 nominations, more than any other studio, suggesting the digital war had ended. But when it was all said and done, Netflix walked away with only 2 awards, Best Documentary and Best Supporting Actress for Marriage Story’s Laura Dern. While on the surface, it’s easy to make the claim that the industry at large doesn’t want to award what it views as a threat to its very existence, there’s a little more to it than that. For all of the talk of the convenience of streaming films, one thing that Netflix has yet to be able to do is create the kind of long-term buzz for its films that are necessary for an awards show campaign. The two front-runners for this year’s Best Picture were Parasite, a movie that has had a slow, sustained roll-out aided by a mid-film twist no one dared to spoil, and 1917, a spectacle that demanded to be seen on the big screen and was making tons of money while voters were making up their minds. Meanwhile, The Irishman and Marriage Story’s initial buzz gave way to reductive memes. If Netflix is serious about winning Best Picture, they will need to find a way to keep their films in the cultural conversation once everyone has binged and moved on.
The Marvel Factor
Someone was bound to ask this, so we might as well address it one last time: was The Irishman’s chances doomed the moment Martin Scorsese stated that Marvel movies weren’t “cinema.” I refuse to open up that wound again, but it would seem incomplete to at least entertain this notion, which has a somewhat valid point. Given how many people in the industry have been a part of the MCU one way or another, and given how much money they have made for everyone in Hollywood, It might make sense to some that Scorsese’s pithy comment (which he later clarified) would’ve offended enough people to keep his Oscar hopes at bay. Personally, I don’t think that’s the case for two reasons. First, The Academy has a long history of ignoring comic book films, Black Panther and Joker notwithstanding. Even the grand finale of this era of the MCU, Avengers: Endgame only mustered one nomination and no wins, despite becoming the worldwide highest grossing film of all-time (it is the only film to reach that achievement and not get nominated for Best Picture). So it seems like a reach to say that The Academy doesn’t care much for comic book movies AND they don’t like Martin Scorsese for criticizing them. Second, one only has to see the standing ovation that Scorsese received during Bong Joon-ho’s Best Director acceptance speech to know that even if people didn’t care for Scorsese’s comments, they still greatly admire and love him, so subbing out of spite seems highly unlikely.
We’ll never know how much any of these factors specifically led to The Irishman getting shut out last night. And we may never know how much of this bothers Martin Scorsese. Eminem performance aside, he seemed to be enjoying himself as his fellow nominees kept getting called to the stage. He’s also stated that he made the film he wanted to make and he has every reason to be proud of the result, regardless of awards. As for the future, Scorsese’s next film on paper seems like another sure-fire Oscar contender. Killers of the Flower Moon, based off a book inspired by a true story, is set to star Oscar winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, and is once again produced by Netflix. Given the track record of all involved, it’d be hard not to get excited. But when it gets 10 nominations and zero wins, we shouldn’t be surprised.