You’re probably sitting in your chair at home crying “blasphemy!,” livid that someone has the gall to compare a modern moviemaker (even one as respected as Fincher) to a true maestro of the moving image. I could rattle off about their mutual affection for violent and misunderstood characters, the work they’ve done to aid up-and-coming filmmakers or their recent/upcoming forays into small screen entertainment, but I’ll cut to the chase as this equation is based purely on the lack of awards-season love that the two have received throughout their careers.
It’s no secret that Scorsese’s Best Director Oscar win for The Departed in 2007 was a long time coming. After six previous nominations and countless classic films produced beforehand, it felt more like a lifetime achievement award than an honor for his work on the star-studded gangster pic. Though he’d won accolades from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, BAFTA, Cannes Film Festival and Independent Spirit Awards (among others) in the years leading up to it, the Academy Awards eluded him for nearly 30 years. But why?
Competition is certainly one explanation: the New York-bred virtuoso lost directing kudos to the likes of Robert Redford in 1981 (Ordinary People), Barry Levinson in 1989 (Rain Man), Roman Polanski in 2003 (The Pianist) and Clint Eastwood in 2005 (Million Dollar Baby)— all phenomenal filmmakers, all excellent films. However, that isn’t the reason why Scorsese was denied a statue time and time again. The answer lies in the kind of stories that he chose to tell.
Look back at the movies directed by the fore mentioned filmmakers that beat out Scorsese’s own: all are heart-tugging tearjerkers with an emphasis on relationships between one or more characters, and some come with a fair share of schmaltz that Academy voters seem to get high on. You’ll be hard-pressed to find that quality in Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Last Temptation of Christ, even though they’re all armed with a crushing emotional punch.
That brings me back to Fincher.
The music-video-director-turned-feature-filmmaker makes movies that are similar in content, tone, style and subtext to that of Scorsese’s. From the dark and sinister Se7en to the psychologically explorative and brutally physical Fight Club to the beautifully morbid Benjamin Button, Fincher’s narratives have generally appealed to a minority of moviegoers, but the quality of his authorship always demanded the attention of audiences and critics around the globe. His movies are at times hard to watch, but once they catch your gaze you cannot take your eyes off of them.
Still, even his most celebrated works, Button and The Social Network, failed to net him an Oscar win, and I attribute that to the material as opposed to his direction. I thought (and know that I’m not alone in this sentiment) that his delicate, yet precise handling of the expansive fantasy at the heart of Benjamin Button was unmatched in 2008, but Academy voters placed their ballots in favor of Danny Boyle’s uplifting Slumdog Millionaire instead. Just last year, voters rewarded the rousing but stuffy British drama The King’s Speech over the morally ambiguous The Social Network. I am a fan of all four films, but Fincher’s was the true achievement in directing in both cases.
And that, my friends, is where this story comes full circle. David Fincher IS the new Martin Scorsese, in that he’ll continue to make controversial masterpieces worthy of awards-season glory that voters simply won’t endorse. He doesn’t make movies that are an easy sell to the casual theater patron, let alone the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’ll probably be years before his tremendous talents and provocative films are blessed by the aging Academy, but in the meantime we, the fans, will reap the benefits of his flair. And after all, Scorsese’s late win proves that good things come to those who wait.