By JOCELYN NOVECK
NEW YORK — Yes, ‘‘The Departed’’ was smart, highly entertaining moviemaking. But nary a critic would say it was Martin Scorsese’s best film — not by a mile. Yet nobody but a heartless grinch would begrudge the masterful director his hard-won Oscar, the first in six nominations. It just points to a simple rule of Oscar history: An award isn’t always about the actual work at hand. Often it amounts to a statement: that someone has finally arrived, or, in Scorsese’s case, is long overdue. In other words, when Oscar comes calling, it’s not always for the right film.
Many fans thought it a crime when Scorsese didn’t win the director prize for ‘‘Raging Bull’’ in 1981, losing out to Robert Redford for ‘‘Ordinary People,’’ or for ‘‘Goodfellas’’ in 1991, when he lost to Kevin Costner for ‘‘Dances With Wolves.’’
‘‘Yes, 'The Departed’ is not a film that history will rank up there with 'Raging Bull,’ ’’ says Jonathan Kuntz, a professor of film history at UCLA. ‘‘But sometimes these awards are like lifetime achievement awards.’’
(And sometimes they ARE lifetime achievement awards: Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman are both legendary directors who never won a directing prize and instead won special awards — Hitchcock in 1968 and Altman last year, months before he died.)
Ask any film buff, and they’ll name a litany of actors and actresses who won for roles that even the performers themselves considered unworthy. Bette Davis was passed over in 1935 for ‘‘Of Human Bondage,’’ so was rewarded for ‘‘Dangerous’’ the next year — a role that film historian Leonard Maltin calls ‘‘rather cheesy.’’ And Elizabeth Taylor didn’t win for ‘‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’’ in 1959, but two years later for ‘‘BUtterfield 8’’ — a film she freely disparaged, Maltin says.
More recently, how about Al Pacino? Nominated seven times for acting awards, including for ‘‘The Godfather’’ (parts one and two) and ‘‘Dog Day Afternoon,’’ he didn’t win until ‘‘Scent of a Woman’’ in 1993.
‘‘The last thing they’re voting on at the Oscars is the best work of the year,’’ says Tom O’Neil, columnist for The Envelope. ‘‘It’s about passing out hugs.’’ And sometimes, he says, the hugs come not too late, but too early.
‘‘When Nicole Kidman won for ’The Hours,’ it was all about her becoming a superstar,’’ O’Neil opines. And when Russell Crowe won for ‘‘Gladiator,’’ he continues, ‘‘It was about welcoming him into the Hollywood colosseum.’’
Is a system where people get rewarded retroactively or prematurely all that bad? Don’t blame the academy, says Maltin, who also covers film for ‘‘Entertainment Tonight.’’ The problem Oscar voters face is that they have no advantage of hindsight,’’ he says. So when people say, 'How could so-and-so never have won,’ ’’ well, it’s all about timing and luck of the draw. Why did Peter O’Toole not win for ‘‘Lawrence of Arabia?’’ Because he happened to be up that year against Gregory Peck for 'To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ’’
At least one analyst says the system is wrong. ‘‘I think Scorsese’s win is absolutely payback to a person who deserved it for his other work,’’ says Richard Walter, head of the screenwriting program at UCLA’s film school. Walter calls this year’s best-picture winner ‘‘Scorsese’s most uninteresting film in years — a bunch of men talking on cell phones, and occasionally a woman talking on a phone.’’
‘‘They should honor the person when they make a really good movie. Otherwise, why should the other nominees have to stand around and see a lesser film win?’’
It’s worth noting there apparently is no ‘‘payback’’ Oscar for certain categories — or at least it takes a whole lot longer. Sound engineer Kevin O’Connell was nominated for the 19th time this year, and still didn’t win — a record for Oscar losses. (He was nominated with two others for sound mixing on Mel Gibson’s ‘‘Apocalypto.’’) ‘‘I’m already checked into therapy tomorrow,’’ he quipped before the show.
For film buffs worried that their favorite has been passed over for the wrong reason, it’s worthwhile heeding the carefree attitude of the late Katharine Hepburn, herself a four-time best actress winner.
‘‘Don’t worry about not being nominated,’’ she said in a telegram to Audrey Hepburn, who’d been passed over for ‘‘My Fair Lady,’’ according to ‘‘Inside Oscar’’ by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona.
‘‘Someday,’’ she wrote, ‘‘you’ll get it for a part that doesn’t rate it.’’