Scorsese finally joins the club

Having won the Oscar for best picture, "The Departed" will always, from here to eternity, have an aura of distinction, like a suave white-haired gent gliding into the Governors Ball in his tuxedo.

But once the hoopla dies — and in Hollywood, hoopla dies pretty quickly — a thornier question will surface: What will we think of "The Departed" 30 years from now? Will it be considered a classic like "Lawrence of Arabia" or a musty heirloom like "My Fair Lady"?

If "The Departed" outlives Sunday night's other nominees, it won't be because it was necessarily a better movie. It will survive because genre movies, be they thrillers, westerns or comedies, have a timelessness and a lack of pretense that tends to age better than films about topical subjects or social issues. If for example "Babel" had won, it would have spoken to a particular moment, but if history is any judge, its portrait of post-Sept. 11 anxieties will have far less resonance a generation from now.

Nobody knows this better than "Departed's" Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, a student and champion of genre filmmaking. As Scorsese has acknowledged, "Departed" is a kind of hommage to the great Warner Bros. gangster films of the '30s — just the kind of movie Oscar voters generally ignore and fans love.

"I'll never forget watching 'Public Enemy,' " Scorsese said backstage, referring to the seminal 1931 gangster film. "The brutal honesty. The street honesty always stayed with me. That's a mark I always aimed towards. This film had that kind of attitude."

It's a testimony to the academy's antipathy toward genre filmmaking that it took Scorsese six nominations to win best director and that some of his best movies, such as the boxing biography "Raging Bull" and the mob action flick "Goodfellas," lost best picture to lesser movies with weightier themes — "Ordinary People," and "Dances With Wolves" respectively.

"Genre movies age better because Hollywood is at its best working in fields it knows best, whether it's westerns, film noir or screwball comedy," says film historian David Thomson, author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film." "When good craftsmen tell the hell out of a story it has a better chance of lasting than when people try to make a grand statement. 'Casablanca' is simply a far better movie than some over-inflated epic like 'Out of Africa' or 'Dances With Wolves.' "

Screenwriter and author David Freeman believes that "all too often the academy mistakes seriousness of theme for the quality of execution. The voters, and I'm one of them, are often absolutely blind, unable to see beyond the sensation of the moment."

The movies that resonate the longest are often films from genres that aren't especially respectable, certainly not with academy voters. John Ford's greatest westerns never won an Oscar. Nor did a Marx Brothers comedy. Alfred Hitchcock's best films — "Notorious," "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest" — weren't even nominated for best picture. The film he made that won, 1940's "Rebecca," is an over-stuffed drama bathed in respectability by the presence of Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Dubbed "romantic-gothic corn" by critic Pauline Kael, it feels badly dated today while "Psycho," a pure Hitchcock thriller ignored by the Academy, still crackles with mischief and mayhem.

It's a reasonable rule of thumb that the more serious or sentimental the picture, the more its reputation crumbles over time. Leo McCarey's "Going My Way" won best picture in 1945 but today it is considered a trifle, drenched in sentiment. However a host of losers from that year, led by Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity," Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not," Edward Dmytryk's "Murder My Sweet" and two great comedies from Preston Sturges, "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "Miracle of Morgan's Creek," are viewed as classics, full of cracking dialogue and wonderfully drawn characters.

"Chariots of Fire," which won in 1982, is a high-toned snooze, especially compared with the rollicking vigor of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the sly sensuality of "Body Heat" and the buoyant lyricism of "Atlantic City," all losers from the same year. 1952 was a great year for movies, starting with "The African Queen," "Bend of the River" and "Singin' in the Rain." They remain vastly more absorbing than the year's winner, "The Greatest Show on Earth," which is virtually unwatchable today.

In fact, there's no easier way to infuriate movie lovers than to remind them of the long line of inexplicable Oscar injustices. From today's perspective, it seems impossible to imagine "Citizen Kane" losing to "How Green Was My Valley," "The Searchers" beaten by "Around the World in 80 Days" or "Goodfellas" being snubbed in favor of "Dances With Wolves."

If you're looking for villains, start with the Oscar voters themselves. . Any group that calls itself the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is clearly a sucker for pretension, hence its fondness for films straining to make big statements.

Hollywood has always been in thrall to posh Brits who lent class to the always desperately insecure movie business. So although the films of 1948 that we cherish today as bravura cinema are Ford's "Fort Apache," Hawks' "Red River" and John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," the academy dismissed them as popcorn pictures, giving the Oscar to Olivier's handsomely mounted "Hamlet."

Too often the Oscars see only a surface seriousness, not the more subtle themes circulating underneath. But posterity allows us to look inside a movie where the delight comes from crisp storytelling and performances that capture the triumphs and follies of real people. "There were a lot more new ideas in 'Some Like It Hot' or 'His Girl Friday' than dozens of supposedly important Oscar winners," says Thomson. "Those comedies are about human nature in a much more profound way than the big statement films."

To catch a glimpse of America in the tumultuous 1930s, when the nation's economy was in ruins, the best portrait of the times is from the comedies of the day, including "My Man Godfrey," "Twentieth Century" and "Easy Living," which capture the spirit of the age far better than the films awarded Oscar statuettes (though the academy did give best picture in 1934 to "It Happened One Night," a brash Frank Capra romantic comedy).

To understand America's post-World War II anxiety and paranoia, the place to look would be in film noir thrillers like "Panic in the Streets" and "Kiss Me Deadly," films ignored in favor of more conventional dramas in the best picture balloting. The Oscars tend to be referendums on the past, not portents of the future. In 1955, "Rebel Without a Cause," now seen as the first great film about the emerging youth culture, went unnoticed, with best picture going to "Marty." For 1967, a year that signaled the birth of a new filmmaking generation, the Oscar went to "In the Heat of the Night," a race-relations thriller, not to "Bonnie and Clyde" or "The Graduate."

The Oscar winners that feel the most timeless are the ones that tell us the most about ourselves without any storefront preaching. "The Apartment," a 1960 best picture winner, feels modern today because it captures mid-century American romance and ambition through its characters, not forced social commentary.

"That movie has great things to say, but it comes from the relationships, not from some overblown theme," says Freeman. "Here are these two wonderful characters in an impossible situation, and yet we're desperate for them to work it out. That kind of storytelling never goes out of style."

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