The RP’s Five Worst Oscar Robberies of Italian-Americans

OK, so it’s not Oscar season. Not even close.

But wandering this week through the back alley ways of Italy reminded me of the extraordinary contributions of Italian-Americans to our modern cinema: Scorsese, Coppola, Tarantino, Brando, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Travolta, Poppy from Seinfeld (seen at left with Italian-American (?) Cosmo Kramer), yaddio, yaddio, yaddio…

Maybe it’s the Italian air — or my own conspiratorial fantasies — but I’ve concluded that too many of the above greats have something quite compelling in common: the tragedy of losing an Oscar award that they manifestly deserved, to a much inferior, non-Italian-American film/director/actor.

So in the spirit of my consistent desire to provide the RP Nation with the most bellissimo Half-Letterman pop culture lists (Check out my past forays: Favorite Breakup SongsFavorite Hoops Books, Most Jew-ish GentilesFavorite “Docs” who Weren’t DoctorsPretty Boys I Begrudgingly Admire, Guilty PleasuresPop Music LyricsAwful TV Shows with Terrific Theme Songs and Most Romantic Screen Scenes in the Rain), I now present to you the Five Worst Oscar Robberies of Italian Americans:

5.  1974: Al Pacino (Godfather, Part II) loses to Art Carney (Harry and Tonto)

Godfather II is my favorite movie, period. Probably because of the entry of politics into the narrative and the focus on the Jewish mafia’s powerful role (via Lee Strassberg’s portrayal of Meyer Lansky stand-in Hyman Roth), Part II ekes out Part I for the greatest movie of all time.  And throughout the magnificent duology (I choose to forget the very good, but not closely comparable Part III), Al Pacino is simply sublime as the lead protagonist, Michael Corleone.  His oh-so-subtle and delicate embodiment of the young idealist family man who transforms into a furious, violent mobster is to me the greatest acting of his generation.  That the Best Actor nod went to Marlon Brando in Part I is forgivable if only due to the legend’s common ancestry.  But losing to Art Carney because of the Academy’s sympathy for a long career and a signature role on The Honeymooners (of all shows!) is tragedia of the highest form.  The only redemption came in 1992, when Pacino most undeservedly got the same career honorific Academy treatment when won his first Oscar for his strident over-acting in the forgettable Scent of a Woman.

4.  1976: Robert DeNiro (Taxi Driver) succumbs to the late Peter Finch (Network

While Robert DeNiro did pick up the Best Supporting Actor for his brilliant work in Godfather II (speaking almost entirely in Sicilian-Italian), two years later he was robbed of his first Best Actor statue for the finest acting of his long, incredible career — his portrayal of the deranged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.  Deniro’s maniacal energy was palpable in every scene, yet his most indelible work was opposite the young Jodie Foster: DeNiro showed the romantic humanity deep inside a very disturbed man. DeNiro’s method in this movie has inspired a generation of actors — and, unfortunately, John Hinckley as well — but again, the overly-nostalgic Academy selected a guy whose death preceded the award ceremony by only a few months. When I remember this Oscar theft, I become as MAD AS HELL AND I JUST CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE!  Sorry about that…You talkin’ to me?!?  You talkin’ to me?!?

3. 1980: Martin Scorsese’s Oscar for Raging Bull is stolen by Robert Redford (Ordinary People)

While DeNiro finally won the Best Actor nod that was rightfully his a few years earlier, the picture in which he starred, Raging Bull, was outrageously robbed of the Best Picture award by the maudlin, effete, and treacly Ordinary People, and worse: Martin Scorsese’s masterful directing was eclipsed by Robert Redford’s Hallmark special orchestration. I’ve made clear in an earlier post of my self-awareness toward an “anti-pretty boy bias,” but while Redford’s acting was always under-rated, and his film festival hosting and environmental activism are quite admirable; when it comes to direction, he does not belong in the same league as Scorsese.  And worst of all, it would be precisely a decade later when another pretty boy with environmental inclinations would steal yet another Best Picture and Best Director nod from the much more deserving Scorsese…

2.  1990: Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas gets bamboozled by Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves

This crime ranks slightly more heinous than the Raging Bull robbery because Goodfellas is Scorsese’s true masterpiece; and, in my humble opinion, the best directing job in modern film. Scorsese’s brilliance is encapsulated in one climactic scene when the protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta’s finest role — by far — thanks, I believe, to Scorsese’s direction) is furiously driving his car in a conspiratorial mania fueled by mountains of cocaine. The way Scorsese uses the camera to make the viewer feel the same discombobulation as the protagonist is one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in a theater. (And if you haven’t seen Goodfellas on a theater-sized screen, please do yourself a favor and go the next time it graces your nearest cineplex.) Scorsese defiantly disproves the argument that DVDs and Netflix will put the neighborhood theater out of business.  And yet, he lost to a turgid, seventeen-hour (or at least it seemed that way) indictment of the American western myth.  Sorry, Costner, I liked you better as the unseen dead guy in The Big Chill.

1. 1994: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is brutalized by Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump

This felonious abomination tops this list not simply because of Tarantino’s extraordinary work in one of my five favorite movies of all-time, but also because I believe that Forrest Gump is the most over-rated movie in history. Yep, I said it.  I’m a huge fan of Tom Hanks’ comedy chops and dramatic acting (LOVED Philadelphia); I’m an eager student of American history, with a special interest in the post-WWII years; and, of course, I love pop culture.  So I was devastated when the film not only failed to meet my expectations, but that it transpired as a one-note, ultra-gimmicky, self-indulgent film version of Billy Joel’s worst-song-ever, We Didn’t Start the Fire.  It was as if the film’s auteurs (like Joel) pulled out a World Almanac and decided to interpose Gump into every major event they could find in that book.  How creative is that?  As the movie droned on to its inexorable conclusion, I turned to whomever was sitting next to me and asked “I wonder who is going to die of AIDS? No one has died of AIDS yet.”  And of course — SPOILER ALERT — someone dies of AIDS.  Meanwhile, Pulp Fiction is the most innovative, creative, and franticly alive film of my generation. And if it was too violent and too modern for the tender, nostalgic eyes of the Academy, at least they could have given the award to the slightly less-deserving, but still powerful and wonderfully-acted romantic tear-jerker, The Shawshank Redemption. But Nooooooooooooo. Had to pick the stalest, sugariest piece of candy from the box of chocolates.  Like my mamma said: “And I will strike down upon thee with GREAT VENGEANCE and FURIOUS ANGER those who would attempt to poison and destroy my Italian-American brothers by denying them their deserved Academy awards.”

All right, RP Nation, have your say.  What did I miss? What did I get wrong?

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