F is for Female Characters: The age old debate— does Scorsese write/direct weak, underdeveloped female characters? I think the answer, at least, is complicated, and that a lot of his female characters get a lot more flack than they deserve. Are they met with misogyny and sexism and sexual objectification from male characters in his films? Yes, often times they are, that is undeniable. But, some of them also have a lot more spunk than they’re given credit for. Cate Blanchett’s performance as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004) is a standout, and Lorraine Bracco’s Karen in Goodfellas (1990) certainly holds her own to some degree. So, no, they’re not the most well-rounded or strong representations of women they could be. I mean, let’s not forget Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). This film was almost feminist until it took a turn for the ridiculous at the end, when our would-be inspirational single mother’s struggles are erased by choosing to be with a basically abusive man. But, to say Scorsese’s females are all always one-dimensional is to simplify things in an equally unfair way, I think.
G is for Gangsters: Scorsese used to be known especially for making films about what he knew best— Italian-Americans living in New York City. But specifically, Scorsese first found his niche with modern day gangster films: portraits of Italian mobster life like Mean Streets and Goodfellas (in which Ray Liotta as Henry Hill says: “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”) Later, Scorsese would branch out and take his gangster formula to Las Vegas in Casino (1995) and to the Irish-American mob in Boston with The Departed (2006). Arguably, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) takes a similar approach to the financial gangsters of today. It is still a topic that, as flexible and permeable as it clearly is, remains a tried and true subject area for Scorsese.
H is for Historical: Another way that Scorsese both deviated from and refashioned his norm was by making a few historical dramas. These include The Age of Innocence (1993), based on the book by Edith Wharton, Kundun (1997), and Gangs of New York (2002). The first, with its restrained romantic tone definitely seems like a stretch for him, but then again, the way the camera and narrative both focus on the food and customs and societal hierarchies is thematically in line with a number of his other films. It just happens to be packaged in a very different way. Kundun is a biopic about the 14th Dalai Lama— thus one of his most different films to date. Gangs of New York is a gangster flick that I decided to save entirely for this letter because it is so rooted in its time and place— the gang wars of the Five Points area of Manhattan in the 1860s. It is his most beloved historical film, I’d say. Obviously Scorsese is a skilled and adventurous filmmaker who knows how to apply his interests to a wide array of genres and topics.
I is for Insanity: Many of Martin Scorsese’s male characters are psychologically vulnerable, to put it lightly. From Cape Fear (1991) to Shutter Island (2010), this insanity is manifested in really overt, obvious ways, and our perceptions as an audience may also be played with in order to convey such insanity. Then, there are the paranoid characters—Henry Hill (Goodfellas) and Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street). My personal favorites, though, are Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) and Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy, 1982). Both of these characters are insane in really particular ways that are hard to define. Travis’ insanity comes from his experience as a Vietnam vet, and it manifests in delusional pretend scenarios played out alone in his apartment and later played out in the streets and brothels of the filthy city, a violent response to the scum he believes must be cleaned up. Then, there’s Pupkin—also delusional, he’s a stalker turned kidnapper, all for the sake of achieving undeserved fame (which he truly believes he does deserve). These insane men are some of Scorsese’s most compelling characters; so don’t let Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator) and his OCD—repeating himself saying things like “Show me all the blueprints” or “The way of the future,” oh and of course urinating-into-milk-bottles— unnerve you too much to invest in these brilliant, crazy films.
J is for Joe Pesci: When I first saw Goodfellas, I had only seen Joe Pesci in two other movies: Home Alone and Home Alone 2. I was shocked to say the least. Pesci’s portrayal of mobster Tommy DeVito is one for the ages. He is a five foot four inches tall stick of dynamite with a microscopic fuse. Every time he is on screen there is a tension, like a great horror movie right before you know the killer will jump out from a hiding place. The ‘funny, how?’ speech in Goodfellas is a work of art, made better by the fact that it was mostly improvised and conceived/directed by Pesci himself on Scorsese’s request.
Even though in Casino Pesci pretty much replays his Goodfellas character it works, especially when you consider Casino as Goodfellas’ stylistic sequel (see T is for Trilogy).
Raging Bull gave us something else though. Pesci as the level-headed (to a point) character with De Niro as the tightly wound lunatic. Pesci does well to hold his own in the whirlwind of De Niro’s performance and took away an Oscar nomination for his work (he lost but would win in 1990 for Goodfellas)