One of the reasons I wanted to see Million Dollar Baby was to understand how it could beat The Aviator for Best Picture last year. I had seen neither in the theaters--I am only now overcoming a decade-or-more-old reluctance to go to the movies--but had watched Scorsese's picture a few weeks ago on video, and found it hard to believe Eastwood's boxing-and-mercy picture could top Scorsese's take on the young Howard Hughes. The Aviator is a compelling movie, reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) in that both deal with World-War-II-era entrepreneurs who grin (Tucker) or grimace (Hughes) at their opponents, then dig in like starving men on opportunity and challenge. Exciting adventures in capitalism, with more than a touch of mania.
Having now seen both Scorsese's and Eastwood's pictures, I can make all kinds of guesses why Million Dollar Baby won the Oscar; but if I had to land on anything, it's Scorsese's insistence on mercilessly dissecting his characters' fearsome, fearful weaknesses while demanding our pity. The hard work of tragedy, in other words. And while Eastwood, as I note in my discussion of his film, also grabs us by the nape and refuses to let us look away, we somehow feel that the pain and loss of his world are part of an assertion; with Scorsese, though, it is revelation, and all the horrors that entails. Not the stuff of Oscar, who, if he allows horror to win, as with The Silence of the Lambs, prefers it washed down with a good kee-antee.
Simply put, we don't like Scorsese's protagonists. From Travis Bickle to Jimmy Doyle to Jake LaMotta to Rupert Pupkin, from Vincent in The Color of Money to Henry Hill in Goodfellas--jeez, even his Jesus gives us the creeps--Scorsese rubs our noses in our missteps, our venality, our obsessive-compulsive yearning for order--which Freud defined as the "compulsion to repeat" and linked it with the need for cleanliness--and in most of his films, including The Aviator, wraps loss tight like a baseball bat and comes at us with it like Joe Pesci pissed off.
I don't think they'll ever give out Oscars for directing such a reality--acting in it, sure; I like to imagine that every other actor was relieved that De Niro was the one willing to tear himself like strips of newspaper in Raging Bull. But I hope Scorsese continues making these pictures, which have so much pity for the pitiless--and isn't it easy to love those who deserve our love? (Where have I heard that before?) Poor Leo, having to pee in all those milk bottles, cut his hands while washing, shiver and shake like an addict at the mere thought of human contact. Lost in his cell, Jake LaMotta insists, "I'm not an animal." But he also chants, "I'm the boss." Twenty-five years later, Scorsese seems to feel the loss even more deeply, as Hughes inanely chants, "Come in with the milk." But he also knows "the way of the future," and I think it lies in our capacity to love Scorsese's madmen and sinners, even when they seem alien--if only because such seeming masks our reluctance to accept identification. If tragedy works, it is because we are fearful of and for the tragic hero--and not just fearful of him because he is so overwhelming, but because, as Pogo said so long ago, "We have met the enemy and he is us."