Caroline Waters | Contributor
Listen, I’m not trying to say The Irishman was bad. Martin Scorsese is an extraordinary talent, and the majority of his films reflect that. Hell, this film reflected that. The editing is immersive and tight, the performances are layered and earnest, and the dialogue is quippy and entertaining. The Irishman is not bad. But is “not bad” the new standard for best picture nominations? The Irishman is yet another example of a film that was nominated not purely because of its cinematic superiority, but because of the Academy’s bias. The Irishman’s lack of complex female characters, reliance on overused gangster tropes, and overall inadequacy compared to other 2019 films made it the wrong choice to be nominated for the most prestigious Academy Award. More than that, though, The Irishman’s success points to a bigger problem deeply embedded within the Academy. The nomination is analogous for Hollywood’s tendency to neglect important, socially relevant themes for cookie-cutter, patriarchal ones. The industry places more value on money and connections than on telling pertinent, envelope-pushing stories.
The best film of the year should do right by women, by giving them complicated, layered characters to dissect. One of The Irishman’s biggest problems lies in its lack of female representation. For context, The Irishman centers around Frank Sheeran (played by Robert de Niro), an ex-truck driver turned hitman who begins working for Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino), a powerful American labor union leader, in 1950s Philadelphia. Over the course of Frank’s decades-long career, his daughter Peggy sits silently by and watches her father descend into immorality. Anna Paquin plays Peggy who, despite being The Irishman’s most central female character, says just seven words throughout the film’s entire three and a half hour runtime. By stripping Peggy of her voice, Scorsese strips the audience of any opportunity to get to know her. What could’ve been a nuanced and multi-faceted portrayal is reduced to a passive one. The film diminishes Peggy into a one-dimensional narrative device.
Male characters receive the opposite treatment. We get smacked over the head with Jimmy’s personality. Scorcese makes space for his gun-versus-knife speech, his dress code for meetings, even his hatred for watermelon. What do we know about Peggy? She disapproves of her father. Her unapologetic renouncement of her father’s actions posits her as the film’s moral compass. While, at a first glance, this doesn’t seem too disempowering, the weaponization of Peggy leaves her no space to be an actual character. She only exists to enhance Frank’s character arc. Scorsese reduces the film’s only significant female character to fit conveniently into a man’s storyline. Confined, voiceless, and sidelined, Peggy is only given enough narrative space to reinforce Frank’s immorality.
Peggy isn’t the only woman neglected in The Irishman. Frank’s separation from his wife doesn’t get any more than a two sentence explanation in a voiceover. Female characters are otherwise reduced to chatting about petty gossip or filling in silent moments with contextual speech. The female perspective is effectively absent from the film. Frank’s other daughter, Dolores, brings this up to him: “Daddy, you had no idea what it was like for us.” Aside from the jarring fact that Dolores, a secondary character, has more lines than the film’s top-billed female actress, she’s right. Frank, like the audience, is clueless to his daughters’ perspectives because they were never elicited. If the lack of a female presence in Frank’s life was woven throughout the film in a more meaningful way, this moment could have hit home on something thematic. This single line, however, is simply insufficient to convince the audience that the lack of female perspectives was anything other than a failure on behalf of the filmmakers.
This failure took me by surprise, because Scorsese has successfully portrayed complex female characters before. In Goodfellas, for example, Lorraine Bracco plays Karen Hill, the main character’s wife and accomplice. Her “character arc is perhaps the most profound of any actor in Goodfellas,” according to Robert Silva, an editor and commentator from HBO. In contrast to Peggy, Karen gets a voice to air her grievances about the mafia in the form of narration. She gets the chance to shape and tell the story in a more equal balance with her male counterparts. Casino is another example of a Scorsese film that got it right. Anthony Morris, a freelance film and TV writer who reviews films for The Big Editor, describes the film’s most important female character, Ginger, as “more than a match for the men.” He continues, “Ginger is something new: a mob wife who can hold her own, a character with her own needs and desires, someone who can take Scorsese’s icons and twist them around her little finger.” Ginger’s agency and power combine to make her an unforgettable female character.
Unlike the opinionated Karen, or the story-driving Ginger, Peggy has no “needs and desires” beyond those that involve male characters. Scorsese’s goal of creating a “moral compass” for Frank means that Peggy isn’t given the opportunity to do anything besides silently react to the action happening around her. His choice to remove Peggy’s voice constrains her ability to influence the series of events in any meaningful way, and does injustice to the great potential that this character had. She is diminished into a narrative tool, blown in whatever direction Frank’s story takes her.
Unfortunately, The Irishman wasn’t the only male-centric Best Picture nominee in 2020. In fact, Little Women was the only Best Picture nominee to list a woman, Saoirse Ronan, as the top-billed actor. The Academy Awards ceremony is notoriously exclusive. Eliana Dockterman, a staff writer for TIME in New York City, says in an article, “In the Academy Awards’ 92-year history, only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director, and only one — Kathryn Bigelow — has ever won.” She cites that this problem partly stems from the fact that “there just aren’t that many women choosing the nominees”.
A voting process determines Academy Award wins/nominations. Ethan Sacks, a former entertainment editor/film editor for the NY Daily News, unpacks the Academy Award voting process in his article, “Who makes up the academy? A breakdown of the exclusive Oscars club.” He mentions how prospective voters, otherwise known as Academy members, must be “sponsored by two academy members” and considered by a board of filmmakers before getting approved or denied. So, of course, there are barriers to entry. The Academy is 32% female and 16% people of color, meaning that these perspectives are in the minority. The Oscar nominations are essentially decided by white, male industry leaders. This explains why the poster child for the white-savior complex, otherwise known as The Green Book, won Best Picture over Spike Lee’s nuanced and pertinent Blackkklansman in 2019. This lack of equal representation also explains why The Irishman, a film skewed towards the white-male-experience, beat out a slew of other, more inventive films for the nomination.
Each Academy Award nomination/win is fueled by politics. According to Alissa Wilkinson, a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and Vox’s resident film critic, “In 2016, Variety estimated that studios spend anywhere from $3 million to upward of $10 million to lobby Oscar voters during each Oscar season.” Studios spend this money on “events and endorsements and advertising” to construct a narrative surrounding a film that is “Oscar-worthy” . Like political campaigns, the amount of money a studio spends largely dictates the results of each awards ceremony. Netflix, The Irishman’s distributor, spent “well over $100 million” on campaigns for Marriage Story and The Irishman, according to New York–based News Editor at IndieWire, Zack Sharf. This amount has since been disputed, but it still suggests that The Irishman had an above-average campaign budget. It’s not surprising that, with its large campaign budget, The Irishman was nominated. After all, more money means more “events and endorsements and advertising”. It’s also reasonable to assume that Scorsese’s notoriety, based on his proclivity towards producing top-notch gangster films, also had a hand in The Irishman’s Oscar success.
The Irishman is a classic Scorsese gangster film. That’s to say it contains lots of guns, booze, and white men. This combination has worked at the Oscars before. The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, The Departed, and LA Confidential are just a few examples of white-male dominated gangster movies that have been nominated for Best Picture. So this begs the question, why nominate another one? The Irishman represents a genre that has gotten more than its fair share of recognition from the Academy. The genre in question, too, is outdated. Gangster movies have notoriously relied on gratuitous violence, toxic masculinity, and Joe Pesci to get their frankly uncompelling narratives across. In this day and age, another film about white guys in trouble adds nothing new to the conversation. Unlike The Irishman, many other films made in 2019 broke outside of the box, crafting unique narratives that will long be remembered for their creativity and symbolic complexity.
The Irishman’s nomination speaks to a bigger problem embedded within the Academy. Matthew Jacobs, a movie critic and reporter for Huffpost says it best, “No matter how many A-listers wax poetic about the power of great art on Oscar night, the Oscars are never really about great art, not exclusively at least.” At the Academy Awards, money, power and bias supersede true artistic merit. No matter how groundbreaking Pain and Glory, Midsommar, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are, they didn’t fulfill the Academy’s most fundamental requirement: nominees must primarily appeal to white men. Their average budgets, unique subject matters, and less popular directors took away any chance they might have had at getting the recognition they deserved. Until the Academy represents all filmmakers, repetitive and problematic films like The Irishman will continue to overshadow true best pictures.