The Oscars are on Sunday, and all eyes are on the Avatar-Hurt Locker, Cameron-Bigelow death match. To give you a little perspective amid the hysteria, we’re taking a look back at a movie that didn’t win — one that, in retrospect, seems more deserving than the one that did. Time and the Academy so rarely agree: if you’re trying to predict which movies will be considered classics in two decades, skip the Oscar winners.
At the awards in 1991, a movie that was passed over for all but one statuette today appears not merely to stand above the competition but to stomp it into the ground. The movie is Goodfellas. The fact that it didn’t walk away with Best Picture and Director awards is a travesty: it lost to Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. The rest of the competition wasn’t much better.
Ghost? Awakenings? Only The Godfather: Part III and The Grifters (which wasn’t nominated) seem to belong on the same list as Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. There are few movies in the American canon bleaker than Goodfellas, which recasts the American dream as a cynical quest for money and power. Its world is a moral wasteland, its gangster characters rotten to the core. For them, redemption, much like working for a living or waiting in line at the bakery, is for suckers.
It’s a measure of Scorsese’s extraordinary gifts a filmmaker and storyteller that, despite being a profound downer, the movie is also eminently watchable, from the gee-whiz appeal of Henry Hill’s induction into the gangster lifestyle to the morbidly funny, deeply ironic final montage, all set to the AM-radio sounds of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las.
One of the best sequences is the one leading up to Henry Hill’s arrest, which begins with his chilling observation that a helicopter seems to be following him whenever he leaves his house. His narration remains cheerfully matter-of-fact, and the proceedings get even funnier: consider the scene where Henry’s drug mule announces she has to go home to get her lucky hat. Goodfellas‘ capacity for this kind of dissonance is what makes it extraordinary. Does Dances With Wolves offer anything remotely comparable?
The movie’s sole Oscar went to Joe Pesci, and it’s easy to see why: his Tommy is a hilarious loose cannon, and his “Funny, like a clown? I amuse you?” restaurant scene is an iconic moment in American cinema. Scorsese, on the other hand, got a raw deal. Though he has made some terrific movies since 1990 — not least, most recently, the beautifully creepy Shutter Island — he has never again attempted a high-wire act as virtuosic and daring as Goodfellas. It was good to see him finally get his due, for The Departed, but was he really being rewarded for a movie he made fifteen years before?
Which 2010 contenders will be revered fifteen years down the line? Probably not Avatar or The Hurt Locker. That distinction will likely go to Up, Pixar’s bittersweet adventure that has a whiff of timelessness about it. If there’s one thing Goodfellas teaches us, it’s that winning isn’t everything.