Scorsese, Martin (1942—)

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Scorsese, Martin (1942—)

By the end of the 1990s, Martin Scorsese was recognized as one of the most significant of American film directors. His uncompromising cinematic examination of New York City's underbelly, beginning with Mean Streets (1973), has exerted a profound cultural influence on cinemagoers and filmmakers. Scorsese was initially one of a select group of innovative young filmmakers, famously dubbed the Movie Brats, who began making a mark during the 1960s and went on to secure major reputations. By the 1990s, Francis Ford Coppola, who had led the way for the Movie Brats, had become a venerable but unpredictable artist, veering dizzily between huge successes and dismal failures; George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, was long entrenched in trailblazing technology; Brian De Palma was committed to a controversial, individualistic and uneven course as a skillful specialist in screen violence; and Steven Spielberg reigned as the acknowledged eminence grise of the blockbusting commercial cinema. Of them all, it was Scorsese who, with Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and GoodFellas (1990) as the high watermarks of three decades of filmmaking excellence, had emerged as the most consistently powerful and provocative film director of his generation.

Scorsese's own background provided the fertile soil in which his filmmaking ambitions took root. Born in New York to a first generation Italian-American family, he grew up in Manhattan's Little Italy, the setting of his first full-length features. A sickly child, much confined indoors by asthma, he became addicted to movies at an early age. In the 1960s, he abandoned ambitions to become a Catholic priest and joined the New York University film school, where he wrote and directed several award-winning shorts, including The Big Shave (1968), while the ideas germinated for his first full-length feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1969). Starring the young Harvey Keitel, making his film debut, the story concerned an Italian-American trapped by his working-class background and ever present Catholic guilt, which would become characteristic Scorsese themes. Made on a very low budget, the film combined realistic street scenes with nouvelle vague techniques that revealed Scorsese's self-confessed enthusiasm for the European cinema of the time, and can be seen as a basic template for work to follow. He then hired himself out as supervising editor on Woodstock (1969) and Elvis on Tour (1972), and had a directorial breakthrough when Roger Corman gave him Boxcar Bertha (1972), a Depression-era tale of Arkansas misfits who turn to robbing trains.

It was, however, with Mean Streets that critics and the industry were alerted to the arrival of a major new talent. The film traversed similar territory to that of his first, dealing with the life of streetwise youth and petty crime in Little Italy, and once again starred Harvey Keitel. Pulsating with felt life (and a pounding rock soundtrack) in its depiction of friendship, betrayal, guilt, and casual violence, the film packed a punch and unleashed an electrifying Italian-American New York actor whose future collaboration with Scorsese would result in a handful of major films on which the director's reputation rests: Robert De Niro. After Mean Streets came the heavily contrasting Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More (1974), a studio picture for Warner Bros. and a tough, contemporary "slice of life" take on the Hollywood "woman's weepie," which won a Best Actress Oscar for Ellen Burstyn.

Then in 1976, came the most completely realized example of Scorsese's particular vision of New York as a hell-on-earth, and the first of his unsurpassed major films with De Niro. Moving away from the bonding of brothers, friends, and hoods that had characterized Mean Streets, Taxi Driver focused on an alienated, disturbed loner, the taxi-driving Vietnam veteran, Travis Bickle, whose abhorrence of anti-social behavior he encounters in the city sends him over the edge into psychopathic violence. Self-appointed to cleanse the city of its pimps, prostitutes, and other human detritus, Bickle embarks on a spree of organized savagery, calculated with impeccable logic from his point of view. As Bickle, De Niro gave one of the best screen performances of the later twentieth century, aided by Paul Schrader's penetrating screenplay and Bernard Herrmann's atmospheric and Oscar-nominated score. The film, which introduced a teenage Jodie Foster, Oscar-nominated as a drug-addicted whore, also received nominations for best picture and best actor. Director John G. Avildsen actually won the best picture and director Oscars that year for the highly commercial Rocky, but the signal failure of the Academy even to nominate Scorsese as director of Taxi Driver displayed a gulf in appreciation for Scorsese's work between the Hollywood powerbrokers who vote at Oscar time and respected critics and serious moviegoers—a gulf which, by the late 1990s, had still not been entirely bridged.

Scorsese and De Niro followed Taxi Driver with New York, New York (1977), a cynical musical in which De Niro, co-starring with Liza Minnelli, played a saxophonist. This film, much under-rated, was a box-office failure, as were two later excursions into new subject matter—that of ironic comedy—King of Comedy (1983, with De Niro) and After Hours (1985), both brilliant. After making the "rockumentary" The Last Waltz (1978), Scorsese began the 1980s with Raging Bull (1980), which many consider to be his masterpiece. Based on the autobiography of heavyweight boxer Jake La Motta, the film—shot in black-and-white—revealed the interior as well as exterior violence of the fight profession and its deleterious effect on the life and relationships of its protagonist. With an astonishing and authentic Oscar-winning performance by De Niro at its center, the film laid bare the brutality of its subject matter, both in the ring (the fights are filmed with uncompromising accuracy, grace, and alternating speed) and out; similarly, the performances are sheer rage, and the documentary style of the domestic scenes resonates with the verbal blows. The whole film, technically flawless, was enhanced by the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, an integral fixture of Scorsese's team. This time, at least, the Academy nominated both film and director, but the awards went to Robert Redford and his Ordinary People.

During the 1980s, continuing his attempts to vary his choice of material, Scorsese successfully entered more reliably commercial territory with The Color of Money (1986), a sequel to Robert Rossen's classic, The Hustler (1961), starring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman in a reprise of his original role. From there, Scorsese placed himself at the center of an international controversy with The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Adapted by Paul Schrader from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, the film presents Christ (Willem Dafoe) as a fallible human, a victim of circumstance, who longs to escape his destiny and live the life of a normal man. Overlong and verbose, but rich in ideas and striking photography (by Michael Ballhaus), The Last Temptation suffered from the welter of pre-release condemnation it drew, but its director did earn an Oscar nomination, and the film has continued to occupy a respected place in the canon of his work.

In 1989, Scorsese's New York joined that of Woody Allen (and Coppola) in the triptych anthology New York Stories, after which came GoodFellas (1990) and Cape Fear (1991). Adapted by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi from the latter's book about real-life Mafia hood Henry Hill, GoodFellas joined Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as a Scorsese masterwork. Starring Ray Liotta and a galaxy of America's finest character actors, including De Niro and Joe Pesci in support, the film graphically depicts the criminal sub-culture in all its shoddy vaingloriousness and misplaced devotions in a masterful blend of uncompromising violence and an exposure of the corruption it renders within the individual. As a piece of filmmaking, GoodFellas dazzles with its technique and control, enthrals with its plot, and entertains with its relationships, wisecracks, threats, and performances. It does not, however, neglect to make manifest the complexity of the moral issues that abound within the enclosed world it inhabits. Screenplay and picture were Academy Award -nominated; the director was not.

Opinion remains divided about Cape Fear. Once again technically expert, this remake of the 1962 film that had starred Robert Mitchum as a convict released from prison and seeking sadistic vengeance against the lawyer who got him convicted cast De Niro—covered in full-body tattoos—in the Mitchum role. An unqualified success in the delivery of tension and menace, Cape Fear bludgeoned its audience with shock tactics and conveyed an unmistakable voyeuristic nastiness that many found hard to swallow. The New York Times called it Scorsese's "worst picture—an ugly, incoherent piece of work."

The director—who also makes cameo acting appearances in several of his own films, and in some made by others (Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight, 1988, and Kurosawa's Dreams, 1990, among them)—having commenced both the 1980s and the 1990s with a masterpiece, now turned to a classic literary source to venture into his first period piece. The announcement that this tough chronicler of the sordid, the sleazy, and the violent would film Edith Wharton's stylish, scathing and poignant Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a love affair thwarted by the morals and manners of New York high society, was greeted with undisguised scepticism. However, The Age of Innocence (1993), set in the 1870s, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, and a starry supporting cast of British actors, marked a complete and impressive change of pace for Scorsese. He rose to the challenge of opulence, elegance, and oblique and disappointed passions with taste, style, and a sumptuous visual display at once seductive and powerful. The film was almost entirely overlooked at Oscar time, but Scorsese did, at least, receive a nomination as co-writer (with Jay Cocks) of the screenplay.

It was unfortunate that after such innovation, perseverance, and restraint, Casino (1996) turned out an overblown excursion back into Goodfellas territory, set this time amidst the rampant neon-lit greed of Las Vegas, and with De Niro's presence contributing little. Kundun (1998), however, signalled a return to higher ambition, as Scorsese made the leap into another culture, philosophy, and place to recount the early years of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. It is a stately film of poetic imagery, and for all the criticism it attracted for its "Western" view of the East, it is an epic—reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning The Last Emperor (1987)—of profound psychological and spiritual impact. Although Kundun won Scorsese another nomination for Best Director (he did not win) and the Academy seemed to look on his work with increased favor, it seemed possible that he might someday join the list of great directors, including Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, who never received Hollywood's supreme accolade, the Academy Award, for their incomparable contributions to the art of film.

—Stephen Keane

Further Reading:

Dougan, Andy. Martin Scorsese—Close Up. London, Orion, 1998.

Pye, Michael, and Linda Myles. The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood. London and Boston, Faber, 1979.

Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1988.

Scorsese, Martin, and Michael Henry Wilson. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. London and Boston, Faber, 1997.

Thompson, David, and Ian Christie, editors. Scorsese on Scorsese. London and Boston, Faber, 1996.