Martin Scorsese 1942–
American filmmaker, screenwriter, and actor.
The following entry provides an overview of Scorsese's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.
Of the American filmmakers who gained prominence in the early 1970s—notably Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—Scorsese is widely considered the most consistently successful on artistic grounds. Many critics argue that such films as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1981), The King of Comedy (1983), and Goodfellas (1990) examine American culture and the nature of masculinity by reworking the conventions of classic film genres. Scorsese's films also reveal an autobiographical concern with religious issues and with his Italian-American ethnic heritage.
Scorsese was born and raised in predominantly Italian neighborhoods in New York City. The early onset of asthma limited the time he could spend with his friends, and the resulting isolation encouraged his introspective temperament and the indulgence of his love for movies. Brought up with strong religious convictions, Scorsese believed for most of his childhood that he would become a priest. He was expelled from a junior seminary, however, and later failed the entrance examination to the divinity school at Fordham College. In 1960 he enrolled at New York University and began his formal study of film. Under the guidance of professor Haig Manoogian, his mentor and the man to whom Raging Bull is dedicated, Scorsese made two award-winning short films, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) and It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964). After graduating with a Master's degree in 1966, Scorsese worked for several years as an editor and director in British and American television. In 1968 he returned to NYU to teach classes in American film history. During this time he extensively reworked one of his undergraduate films, variously known as "Bring On the Dancing Girls" and "I Call First." With the addition of newly filmed scenes, including a nude sex scene demanded by the film's distributor, the new version was commercially released in 1969 as Who's That Knocking at My Door? The film features Harvey Keitel in the lead role and was photographed by Michael Wadleigh, director of the documentary Woodstock (1970), which Scorsese helped to record and edit. After Woodstock he made his own documentary, Street Scenes (1970), and then directed Boxcar Bertha (1972) for independent producer Roger Corman. This quickly-made film about Depression-era bank robbers, based as much on the exploits of actual persons as on Arthur Penn's film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was a modest commercial and critical success, and it allowed Scorsese to make Mean Streets (1973), a film with themes of greater personal significance to him. Mean Streets is noteworthy both as Scorsese's first major work and as his first featuring Robert De Niro, who has appeared in nearly all of Scorsese's major films. After making a documentary called Italian-American (1974), in which he interviews his parents about their lives as immigrants in New York City, Scorsese was asked by actress Ellen Burstyn to direct Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975); the film was very popular with audiences—Burstyn won an Academy Award for her performance—and Scorsese became known to Hollywood producers as a dependable, "bankable" director. His subsequent career—including the financial failure of his downbeat homage to the musicals of the 1940s entitled New York, New York (1977), the controversy stirred by The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Age of Innocence (1993), his adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920 novel—has been marked by increased critical esteem and much commercial success. Additionally, Scorsese has been an active supporter of efforts to safeguard classic American films, promoting the preservation of old or otherwise deteriorating films by transferring them to stable film stock, and preventing, by official government recognition, the alteration of classic films through colorization, frame-size reduction, and time compression—processes usually associated with the commercial interests of television.
Mean Streets was originally conceived as the third installment in a trilogy of films. The first film, tentatively titled "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," was never made, but elements from it were incorporated into Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets. Mean Streets concerns a young Little Italy hoodlum named Charley, played by Harvey Keitel, who has delusions of saintliness. The fragmentary, digressive narrative presents scenes that convey the essence and rhythm of Charley's life—hanging out with street-corner toughs and small-time mobsters, getting into fights, drinking, picking up "broads," sleeping with his girlfriend Teresa, and confessing his sins in church. The emerging plot involves Charley's attempt to establish a career in the Mafia through his mobster uncle, Giovanni, while he also tries to educate and protect Teresa's cousin Johnny Boy, played by De Niro as a dimwitted, free-spirited, and possibly psychotic loner who repeatedly antagonizes the local loan shark, Michael. The film reflects Scorsese's affection for and sociological fascination with New York—specifically its underworld and the Italian-Americans who live on its periphery—and inaugurates, in his major films, the exploration of his contradictory feelings toward the Catholic Church and his thematic interest in the notion of redemption. Scorsese, De Niro, and screenwriter Paul Schrader expand on this latter theme in Taxi Driver, in which a psychotic cabbie named Travis Bickle, disgusted by all the varieties of crime and pollution he sees, becomes fixated on the redemptive potential of violence. With a hallucinatory, hyper-realistic style—produced by such techniques as the expressionistic use of shadowy low-key lighting saturated with primary colors, unmotivated camera movement, and an eerie musical score—the film follows Travis on his nocturnal journeys through the roughest areas of the city and chronicles the mental disintegration that occurs as he focuses and tries to express his rage. Travis befriends a child prostitute named Iris, and, after an aborted, halfhearted attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate, rescues her—in the film's climactic bloodbath—from her sordid life. Scorsese's next film, New York, New York, features De Niro as an egotistical saxophone player and Liza Minelli as a talented band singer and actress, a character bearing many similarities to Minelli's actual mother, Judy Garland. Portraying the rise and fall of their relationship in the style of a 1940s backstage Hollywood musical, the film, consistent with the genre, includes several elaborate production numbers and many Big Band-era songs. Unlike the films that inspired it, however, New York, New York offers a penetrating study of repressed male violence and a decidedly downbeat ending. Raging Bull elaborates on the theme of male violence and repressed sexuality and, like New York, New York, plays against the expectations of its putative genre. Although it is based on the autobiography of boxer Jake La Motta, the film does not attempt to explain its main character, again played by De Niro. Rather, the film focuses on La Motta's relationship with his wife Vickie, whom he loves but abuses and suspects of infidelity, and with his brother Joey, whom he loves but for whom he also possesses intense feelings he can express only as rage. The film is a portrait of La Motta's primitive emotional life and his need for the violence of the ring, both as an outlet for his inchoate, barely controlled desires and as a means to redeem himself through extreme physical punishment. The King of Comedy has been described as both an essay on the emptiness of pop culture and a Freudian critique of patriarchal society. Rupert Pupkin, an untalented, nebbishy autograph-seeker who dreams of fame as a comedian on late night talk shows, kidnaps Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like host, and blackmails his producers into letting him perform a monologue on the show. Played by De Niro, Pupkin is portrayed as a desperate, delusional, potentially violent character whose only talent is for ignoring those who would dissuade him; Scorsese's critique of pop culture fame lies in the fact that Pupkin ultimately succeeds. Seeing Langford as a symbolic father—with Pupkin and his friend and accomplice Masha as "children" in an oedipal triangle—film scholar Robin Wood has described The King of Comedy as "one of the most rigorous assaults we have on the structures of the patriarchal nuclear family and the impossible desires, fantasies, frustrations, and violence those structures generate." The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, tells the story of Jesus in straight-forward, realistic detail. The film's main variation on the Biblical story is to suggest that, as he died on the cross, Jesus imagined what his life would have been like if he rejected his role as savior; the film presents a dream sequence in which Jesus lives and raises a family with Mary Magdalene. That he is shown to reject this imagined retreat into humanity and to embrace his fate as the son of God did not, in the eyes of many Christian fundamentalists, compensate for the film's presumed irreverence. Goodfellas is based on Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction book Wiseguy (1985), which presents the life story of Henry Hill, an Irish-Italian thief and loan shark with close ties to the New York Mafia. The film dramatizes many events from the book, including the notorious "Lufthansa heist" of the late 1970s, during which millions of dollars were stolen from a New York airport. Similar to Mean Streets in its evocation of time, place, and character, Goodfellas has been noted for its innovative use of such techniques as voice-over narration by more than one character, freeze-frames, slow motion, and the use of popular songs.
Scorsese is widely considered one of the most important filmmakers in the United States. Critics argue that in his best films—incisive portraits of modern life that examine the dynamics of intimate, destructive relationships—Scorsese challenges audience expectations by manipulating genre conventions. For example, commentators have noted that while Taxi Driver is realistic in many details, it employs a number of highly stylized elements from familiar Hollywood genres; notably, the film's expressionistic lighting and music, as well as its attempt—through camera movement, set design, and other aspects of the mise-en-scène—to visually manifest the central character's madness, can be seen as influences from 1930s horror movies; similarly, critics have argued that Taxi Driver reworks, somewhat grotesquely, the Western's trademark theme of the loner-hero, adrift in hostile territory, who must save the innocent woman from the clutches of "savages." Robin Wood has written that Scorsese's work involves a "drastic re-thinking of the Hollywood genres, either combining them in such a way as to foreground their contradictions … or disconcertingly reversing the expectations they traditionally arouse." This latter strategy, it is argued, accounts for the uniqueness of such films as New York, New York and Raging Bull, where the former subverts the happy, rags-to-riches formula of the 1940s backstage musical by charting the personal and professional misfortunes of two musicians; and the latter, with its circumspect time frame and lack of biographical information and analysis of motivation, offers a depiction of paranoid physical and emotional violence in place of the standard biopic overview of a life and career. Ironically, these aspects of Scorsese's films have also been used in arguments against the value of his work, with critics suggesting that the clash of genres, or their "incomplete" rendering, is a manifestation of his confusion and misunderstanding of his subject matter. Scorsese has also been accused of lacking a sense of narrative structure; some critics fault such films as Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas for being confusing and blame their digressive, nonlinear, vignette-laden narratives for inhibiting viewer identification. Perhaps the most stinging criticism leveled against Scorsese and his films has to do with a presumed relationship between the views of his characters and his own beliefs. While some critics have faulted Scorsese for glorifying the macho ethos and racist attitudes of many of his characters, most argue that it would be disingenuous to portray such individuals in anything but their full ugliness. Wood concludes that "Scorsese is perhaps the only Hollywood director of consequence who has succeeded in sustaining the radical critique of American culture that developed in the 1970s through the Reagan era of retrenchment and recuperation. Scorsese probes the tensions within and between individuals until they reveal their fundamental, cultural nature."