Martin Scorsese will be 72 on the 17th of November. His impact on cinema is huge, his style is constantly copied but never perfectly replicated, the amount of Joe Pesci we have watched is largely due to him. Age has not mellowed him nor has success jaded him. Whenever a work bears his name, it’s usually going to be something a bit special.
So here’s to you, Marty. For your birthday, we put together the ABCs of your career, themes, movies, and collaborators. Many happy returns.
A is for Academy Awards: Unfortunately, any talk of Scorsese and the Oscars will mostly focus on the many times he has been nominated and snubbed. He has been nominated for an Oscar twelve times and won only once when he took home the award for best director in 2006 for The Departed. I don’t want to dwell on the other times that he lost (including in 1990 when he didn’t win for Goodfellas because Kevin Costner won for
Dances with Wolves, a movie with narration so bad it sounds as though English isn’t Costner’s first language, so I will look at the positives.
He has directed actors/actresses to twenty-two Oscar nominations (with five winners), and overall his movies have received eighty nominations (with twenty winners). With eight best director nominations he is the second most nominated director in history (tied with the incomparable Billy Wilder), and continues to create innovative and thought-provoking work, even if sometimes the thought that is provoked is: will this be the movie that wins Leo DiCaprio his Oscar?
B is for Boardwalk Empire: Martin Scorsese is the top dog when it comes to telling mob stories in the film medium. In that sense, it only makes sense for him to have a hand in the creation of one of the great crime TV shows.
Though his input in the series was limited, and he only directed the a single episode, it’s impossible to ignore the markings of Scorsese’s work. You have Nucky Thompson, a good intentioned man falling down a winding path of greed and self-deception. The use of catholic guilt plays heavily into several characters arcs throughout the series. But my favorite recurring Scorsese theme for the series? The rise of a man who started with nothing, only to fall ungracefully into his own personal hell. Al Capone plays a large part in the series (and was often the best thing about it) and an exchange between him and reporters speaks perfectly to the show’s thesis:
Al Capone: Tell ’em why you’re here, George.
George Raft: We’re doing a crime picture.
Capone: Set in Chicago.
Paul Muni: That’s right.
Muni: Kind of a Shakespearean drama. Man’s rise and fall.
Capone: And he gets it in the end, right?
Raft: Ah, that’s how they have to do it.
If all that still isn’t good enough for you, Executive producer/creator Terrence Winter and Martin Scorsese teamed up to make The Wolf of Wall Street. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of this duo.
C is for Cinematography: Cinematography—and perhaps visual style and formal technique more broadly—is part of what makes Scorsese such an auteur. I mean, he did attend NYU for film in the 1960s, after all, and everything he’s made from then on has showed varying degrees of complex and sophisticated cinematographic choices. From color choices (like the use of red in 1973’s Mean Streets and 1990’s Goodfellas) to dolly zooms and tracking shots; or who could forget the shot of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in The King of Comedy (1983) isolated in a surreal and haunting shot. Scorsese’s cinematography has remained a fascinating fixture of his filmmaking, even in some of his more mainstream, big budget Oscar fare.
D is for De Niro: Robert De Niro has been in eight Scorsese movies. It isn’t as high a number as I expected but those eight movies, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Cape Fear, Casino, King of Comedy, Goodfellas, and New York, New York, contain some of De Niro’s best work outside of his acting masterpiece, Godfather Part 2.
Scorsese seems to bring out the fearless crazy in De Niro, letting him craft huge performances that feel lived in (Robert Pupkin in King of Comedy), or allowing De Niro to engage in method madness (Travis Bickle) to form a classic character. De Niro also has the skill to make unlikable characters (Jake LaMotta) seem tragic and deserving of pity. And he can do tiny performances too. De Niro’s portrayal of Jimmy in Goodfellas is all nuances and microscopic movements that succeed to showing that this character is someone to fear and respect, without needing to do much to show that.
However, De Niro has not been in a Scorsese movie since 1995’s Casino, and more recently Leonardo DiCaprio has taken up the role of Scorsese’s go to actor. There have been some sporadic moments of greatness since Casino (Heat, Ronin, Jackie Brown) but I would like to think De Niro has another great Scorsese performance in him somewhere just waiting to get out.
E is for Evils of Excess: Money, sex, violence, attention, and drugs—Martin Scorsese’s films have often dealt with characters whose greed and lust have proved to be their downfall as well as the downfall of those around them. Scorsese’s criminals and innovators are perversion of the American Dream, those for whom the word “enough” is never in their vocabulary. His films follow the traditional “rise and fall” narrative of the early 1930s gangster movies. Like those films (Howard Hawks’s Scarface in particular) Scorsese has received his share of criticism for allegedly celebrating lifestyles of greed and crime. But if you look at how Scorsese’s narratives work, he is condemning the lifestyle of excess while producing honest human portraits that can’t be simplified into pure villainy. In each of Scorsese’s films where excess becomes the central character’s obsession (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Aviator, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street) we see those characters take a fall, sometimes through being humbled and other times through death. Scorsese’s films make it clear that while crime does pay, it also comes at a great cost. Scorsese operates under the notion that people themselves are not evil, rather they are driven to evil acts by their unquenchable desires.