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Everybody Loves Martin Scorsese—Except Maybe the Oscars

The movies by one of the greatest living American directors have been nominated for 71 Academy Awards, but they’ve won only 20 times. Then again, Scorsese’s films have never been people pleasers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Martin Scorsese’s most recent film, The Irishman, is up for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director—but if the oddsmakers and pundits can be believed, he won’t win a single one on Sunday night. It wouldn’t be the first time Scorsese walked away empty-handed. In a career stretching back to Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1967, Scorsese’s 25 narrative feature films have earned 71 nominations and 20 wins, an impressive achievement in raw numbers. Yet the number of trophies doesn’t tell the whole story. Many of his wins have been in technical categories; others have been acting awards given to performances in films that left Scorsese himself unrewarded. Nine Scorsese films have received Best Picture nominations; only one has won. He’s also been nominated for Best Director nine times and won only once. That win came for the same film that won Best Picture, The Departed, achievements that were widely regarded as long-overdue, Academy-sanctioned penance for decades of overlooking the director.

The Academy has hardly ignored Scorsese, but more often than not, it’s walked up to the edge of bestowing awards and then walked back. That reluctance seems like an odd way to treat one of the greatest living American directors. It’s a peculiar habit, without a single explanation. But it’s also one that makes sense over the course of a career with twin roots in a love of filmmaking and a willingness to use that love to unsettle and surprise.

When Scorsese first accepted an Oscar, it belonged to somebody else. Smiling nervously beneath a bushy beard and a head of long hair, he picked up the Best Actress prize for his Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore star Ellen Burstyn, who was in New York working on a play. Widely regarded as a New York actress, Burstyn wasn’t expected to win. A few days earlier, oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek placed her behind Faye Dunaway, Gena Rowlands, and Valerie Perrine, giving her 8-1 odds and declaring the race “virtually a dead heat” between Dunaway and Rowlands. Visibly nervous, and in a seeming hurry to get off the stage, Scorsese conveyed Burstyn’s thanks to others involved in the film, briefly chuckled after saying “She also asked me to thank myself,” then brushed past Jack Lemmon on his way off the stage.

Burstyn’s was one of the film’s three nominations. The others went to Diane Ladd for Best Supporting Actress and Robert Getchell for Best Original Screenplay, with no nomination for Scorsese’s direction. This can’t have been entirely unexpected. Just four features into his career, Scorsese had picked up a reputation as a young director of note after the critically acclaimed Mean Streets, but he was still a relative newcomer. In many ways, he’d been a director for hire on Alice. He’d chosen it carefully from the many studio offers that came his way after Mean Streets, but the film began as Burstyn’s project. Its success, however, opened up new possibilities, among them a Paul Schrader script about a sleepless Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving the streets of New York.

Taxi Driver attracted acclaim and controversy in near-equal measure. Columbia had little trouble filling full-page ads with glowing blurbs from critics as temperamentally dissimilar as Pauline Kael (“horrifyingly funny and then just horrifying”) and Gene Shalit (“Adults who want to see a well-made film with a brilliant performance by Robert De Niro… will hail Taxi Driver”). But the film, and its ambiguous morality, made even admirers uneasy, while many others found little to admire. In the Los Angeles Times, writer Thomas Thompson penned the editorial “Worse Yet, the Audience Cheered. An Outburst of Gratuitous Movie Gore,” recounting an attempt to see Taxi Driver that resulted in him fleeing during the climactic massacre but not before growing disturbed by the audience’s applause and cheers. To Thompson, such reaction negated any sort of “moralistic explanation” Scorsese could produce for showing such outrageous imagery.

On March 28, 1977, Taxi Driver walked away from the Oscars empty-handed. The film lost Best Picture to Rocky, Network’s Peter Finch posthumously beat De Niro for the Best Actor prize, and Beatrice Straight took home Best Supporting Actress over Jodie Foster. “Hollywood proved it was not ready for 12-year-old prostitutes,” Philadelphia Inquirer critic Desmond Ryan noted in his follow-up column, even though Foster was “the clearly deserving choice.” Taxi Driver might have been too undeniable an achievement to ignore, but the Academy felt more comfortable awarding scrappy boxers and verbose Paddy Chayefsky monologues. Again, Scorsese’s direction didn’t even receive a nomination. His follow-up, New York, New York, went without nominations as the Academy ignored even the deathless “Theme From New York, New York” in the Best Original Song category.

Instantly acclaimed upon its 1980 release, Raging Bull picked up eight Oscar nominations. Its two wins went to longtime Scorsese collaborators Robert De Niro (his sole Best Actor trophy to date) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Best Picture and Best Director both went to the same film: Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People. A good movie often unfairly maligned because it beat out Raging Bull, Ordinary People most likely also benefited from the process by which the Academy chooses nominations and winners. Nominations come from professionals in each field. That means Scorsese’s fellow directors, by experience more inclined to be attuned to his innovations and methods, deemed him worthy of a nomination. The entirety of the Academy, however, selects the awards, and what might sway directors might not appeal to the body as a whole. The Best Director field that year, for instance, also included Richard Rush, Roman Polanski, and David Lynch—the well-liked Redford undoubtedly felt like the most comfortable choice for many voters.

It’s probably worth noting that at this point in his career, Scorsese presented a much different public persona than the genial, loquacious Scorsese of today. Appearing alongside Brian De Palma on The Dick Cavett Show in 1978, he was content to let his pal do most of the talking, joining in as De Palma ribbed the host for trying to make some vague comparison between watching certain types of films and watching bubbling water. (“I just don’t look at the bubbling water,” Scorsese says. “I’m not a nature person.”) Clad entirely in black, the ex-seminarian looked intimidatingly monkish. Four years later, a similarly uncomfortable Scorsese made an awkward appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, smiling rarely and talking quickly but with little direction. It wouldn’t be hard to mistake him for the disturbing passenger he played in Taxi Driver.

Over the next decade, a different sort of Scorsese would emerge: the now-familiar friendly, scholarly auteur who could gracefully costar in a Coke Energy commercial alongside Jonah Hill. By the time of a later Letterman appearance in 1991, he looked perfectly at ease cooking Italian food alongside his mother and Bill Murray as he promoted Cape Fear and shared stories about making Goodfellas. But reputations can be tough to shake, and though Scorsese appeared to soften, his films didn’t. In the decades after Taxi Driver, the director and the Oscars fell into a familiar pattern: He remained noticed but unrewarded.

The ’80s found Scorsese producing some of his best work but also experiencing the sort of professional turbulence that rarely leads to Oscars. The King of Comedy and After Hours both went without nominations, and though 1986’s The Color of Money earned Paul Newman a long-overdue Best Actor trophy, it lost out in the three other categories in which it was nominated. (Scorsese once more went without a nomination.) He’d pick one up two years later for The Last Temptation of Christ, despite the controversy around that film—or perhaps as a display of solidarity because of it. Again, it’s hard to square the doting family man of the now 77-year-old Scorsese’s endearing Instagram account with a time when, for a swathe of Catholics and evangelical Christians, his name became more toxic than Anton LaVey’s. (That this came as a result of Scorsese making a film he considered a sincere act of religious devotion must have compounded his frustration.)

Released in 1990, Goodfellas awards experience played like a rerun of Raging Bull a decade before. It picked up six nominations but only one Oscar, a Best Supporting Actor award for Joe Pesci (who’d been nominated in the same category for Raging Bull). It lost out in every other category, including Best Supporting Actress (with Lorraine Bracco falling short, as Raging Bull’s Catherine Moriarty had before her), Best Director, and Best Picture. The winner in those latter two categories was Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. With Wolves widely predicted to win, this didn’t come as a shock. The day before the awards, the Los Angeles Times’ Jack Matthews was already treating multiple Dances with Wolves wins as a done deal, predicting that the film would win in six of the 12 categories in which it was nominated. He was wrong—it won in seven.

As one did after Raging Bull’s near misses, a lean time followed Goodfellas’ lowly night. Cape Fear picked up two nominations, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for, respectively, De Niro and Juliette Lewis. (De Niro and Lewis also picked up an icky joint MTV Movie Award nomination for “Best Kiss” for the same film but lost to My Girl’s Macaulay Culkin and Anna Chlumsky.) 1993’s The Age of Innocence won Best Costume Design but lost in three other categories; Sharon Stone’s Best Actress nod served as Casino’s sole nomination; Kundun received four nominations; Bringing Out the Dead received none.

Scorsese’s first 21st-century film, the sweeping Gangs of New York, released in 2002, started to reverse that pattern with 10 nominations, including in the Best Picture and Best Director categories. It was shut out, but his 2004 follow-up, The Aviator, won five of its 11 nominations, most notably a Best Supporting Actress prize for Cate Blanchett’s turn as Katharine Hepburn. Scorsese’s Best Director nomination and the film’s Best Picture nomination, however, came to nothing; both lost to the work of another actor turned director, albeit one with a few more reps behind the camera by then than Redford or Costner: Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.

By then, Scorsese’s perennial also-ran status had become an Oscars story line, and such story lines have a way of taking on a life of their own. “On this nomination and Scorsese’s last one, for 2002’s Gangs of New York, there had been a sense in Hollywood that he might win as a sort of career-achievement honor,” the Associated Press’s David Germain wrote at the time, noting that Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, King Vidor, and Clarence Brown had also been nominated five times without winning. Altman, Scorsese’s elder in years but contemporary in helping to reshape Hollywood in the 1970s, would have to wait for an honorary Oscar in 2006. For Scorsese, the sixth time would prove the charm. Yet whatever role momentum might have played, the film that broke Scorsese’s losing streak hardly looks like a gold-watch movie, the sort of nice-but-underachieving film that finally earns a director an award near the end of a long career.

A two-and-half-hour plunge into violence, paranoia, and twisted loyalties, The Departed is as edgy and unwelcoming a film as Scorsese ever made. Any comforting familiarity within it comes from recognizable Scorsese motifs, like a Rolling Stones song used to disquieting effect. Its violence, though generous, may not be as shocking as Taxi Driver’s bloodbath, but it does feature Jack Nicholson whipping out a dildo, so call it a draw. Either way, when Scorsese won the Best Director Oscar in 2007, it still felt like a fait accompli, a feeling driven home by the three directors handing out the award: Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, all old friends. Scorsese accepted the award to a standing ovation and, after asking the presenters to double-check the envelope, jovially thanked everyone he needed to thank, including all the strangers who’d said they’d hoped he’d win over the years, and left the stage. And that was it. Scorsese looked on from the side of the stage as producer Graham King accepted the Best Picture prize at the end of the night. The director hasn’t won an Oscar since.

Not that he hasn’t had more chances. Hugo picked up 11 nominations—including Best Picture and Best Director—and won five, all for technical categories. The Wolf of Wall Street earned five nominations, all in major categories, including Best Picture and Best Director, but once again, Scorsese walked away without an award. Scorsese had become an institution, and a now (relatively) younger Academy membership was less easily shocked by his work, but it remained disinclined to reward films that forced viewers that deep into the minds of destructive characters, even if they wreaked havoc with junk bonds rather than handguns.

Unless it prevails against all predictions, The Irishman will continue Scorsese’s second Oscars losing streak. Maybe The Departed’s win wasn’t Scorsese finally winning after a series of should’ve-been near misses. Perhaps the win—not the losses—is the aberration. Scorsese has become the face of artistically ambitious American filmmaking, but he’s also never really embraced the establishment. From one perspective, this past fall’s dust-up with Marvel fans looked like a member of the old guard unable to adjust to changes in the movie industry. From another, it looked like another example of Scorsese lashing out at a profitable status quo he saw as artistically barren and demanding more. And maybe it’s that sort of attitude that ensures that an Oscar win, however well deserved and long in the making, happens only once in a lifetime.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.