In the annals of film history there have been some pretty major oversights by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the word “Snubs” might be more accurate if we want to split hairs): Clark Gable failing to receive an Oscar nomination for the 1939 classic film, Gone With the Wind; No nomination for Leonardo DiCaprio for Titanic; No Academy love for River Phoenix in two impressive, powerhouse roles: Dogfight and My Own Private Idaho. We can argue until the cows come home about headscratchers such as Saving Private Ryan losing out for Best Picture to the fun, yet ultimately empty calorie trifle Shakespeare in Love or Denzel Washington getting his Best Actor statue not for his superlative and transcendent work in Malcom X but, instead, for programmer B fare Training Day. But, at least in the case of those aforementioned two misplaced Oscars, these performances and films were at least honored with nominations. The former examples however were shafted, given the boot, left out in the cold and just straight up ignored in favor of Academy and Hollywood politics and their failure to perhaps wine and dine the right people in the industry (for more on some of the dubious practices in Hollywood, particularly around awards season, ye olde scribbler humbly suggests you check out the superlative Peter Biskind book, Down and Dirty Pictures). It’s a story as old as, well, Hollywood and for every film, performance, director, etc. that has been rightly recognized by the Academy there are a galaxy of stars that have become notable for their confusing omissions.
Such has been the most recent case with the not at all shocking absence this morning of film legend Robert De Niro from the list of nominees for the 92nd annual Academy Awards.
De Niro shined in 2019 with the best work he’s committed to celluloid in years: Director Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus, The Irishman. As a hitman and right-hand confidante of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, also in some of the best work he’s been involved with in some time), De Niro brought a quiet intensity to what easily could have been an indecipherable and one-note part. Under the guiding hand of master storyteller Scorsese however, along with his own considerable acting prowess, De Niro was a living example of the old adage of “still waters run deep.” Make no mistake, this is not the Bobby De Niro of Meet the Parents or Dirty Grandpa: Rather, in the role of “house painter” Frank Sheeran, De Niro is returning to territory he first staked out in such classics as Mean Streets, Godfather Two, Taxi Driver, This Boy’s Life, Heat and Marvin’s Room. The territory is still the same; high stakes, over the top drama that borders on comedy and drama and pathos. De Niro himself though is different: More intensity (this is saying a lot for an actor whose chief calling card has always been the word “Intensity”) that has grown even more still and quiet and in turn, even more weighted with meaning and layers. It’s a new Golden Age for one of America’s finest actors.
All of the above makes Robert De Niro’s exclusion not only by the Oscars but by such standard bearers as the Hollywood Foreign Press for The Irishman baffling; it’s akin to the New York Yankees winning the 1927 World Series and not recognizing the efforts of The Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth in the endeavor.
When watching the Golden Globes with my Better Half recently, I commented on De Niro’s absence from the nominee list for Best Actor. “This does not bode well for De Niro’s Oscar chances,” I noted to my wife as we sat down to watch the proceedings. This was no great insight into Hollywood on my part, just a commonly known bit of Hollywood lore: “As the Globes go, so goes the Oscars.” The Hollywood Foreign Press and their picks for Golden Globes have always been seen as a bellwether for the Grand Poobah of awards ceremonies, the Academy Awards. Their exclusion of one of the better performances by an actor for 2019 was simple foreshadowing of the Academy and their own announced nominations today.
There’s a brilliant bit in The Irishman where Joe Pesci’s mobster Russell Bufalino in a resigned manner lays his cards obliquely on the table for De Niro’s character regarding the fate of Jimmy Hoffa.
Bufalino: Listen, Frank. Things have gotten out of hand with our friend again. And some people are having serious problems with him. And, uh, it’s at a point where you’re going to have to talk to him and tell him, it’s what it is.
Frank Sheeran: What it is?
Bufalino: Yes. It’s what they want. It’s where it’s gotten…
This morning as I listened to Oscar nominations as I sipped my morning coffee, I was reminded of that now classic exchange between two master actors as De Niro’s name was bypassed in favor of other actors. Before I could spit out my coffee and gesticulate in aggravated fashion at my television set I took a deep breath. It was a major oversight by the Academy, yes. The role of Frank Sheeran was some of the best acting Mr. De Niro had delivered in quite some time, yes. De Niro’s acting was, in my humble opinion, better than that of one or two nominees who may have edged out one of our finest thespians, yes. But, to borrow a cinematic line from The Irishman, “It’s what it is.”