From Mean Streets to Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese has shaped modern cinemaby Clive James / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
The large format of this glossy new monograph about Martin Scorsese is a reminder that Thames & Hudson once did books about such people as Michelangelo. But times have changed, and a film director like Scorsese now has the reputation that you once got for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The book deals with all of Scorsese’s movies in chronological order, each chapter crowded with photographs. We see frames from the productions, candid shots of the productions being produced, and any number of portraits of Scorsese himself, looking either frantically active or deeply thoughtful, and sometimes both.
Often to be seen in the same photograph as the man with his name in the title, even such charismatic actors as Robert De Niro are hard put to generate as much charisma as their director. Scorsese was born in Flushing, Queens after the Second World War and grew up in Little Italy. Stricken with asthma, he did not grow up very far, and physically he is a small man. But throughout the book he stares out at you with a show-stopping intensity. The best way of describing his stature, as it were, is to say that his career of movie-making—try to imagine modern cinematic history without Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas—really does deserve this kind of hagiography. A hundred portraits of, say, M Night Shyamalan making profound faces suitable to the director of The Sixth Sense, would merely look as manufactured as his souped-up name. With Scorsese, the hoo-hah fits.
The volume is a glory to leaf through, but you could possibly do that in a bookshop: serially on different days, if not all in one go. What makes the book worth taking home, however, is the excellent text, fragments of which are sometimes visible among the illustrations. These words are by Tom Shone, a film critic worth reading whatever aspect of the industry he talks about. (His book Blockbuster is a must.) Talking about Scorsese, he speaks the language of admiration. Most critics are at their best when speaking the language of derision, but Shone has the precious gift of being carried away in a sensible manner, and of being celebratory without setting your teeth on edge.
“Celebration” of film directors, and indeed of all the key personnel involved in making movies, is an activity most highly developed in America, where Shone is based. He is however, British, and perhaps retains a touch of the tradition by which critics in this country’s upmarket press count it as poor form to overdo the hosannahs. To put the distinction briefly, in Britain the film stars, even when radiating the international fame conferred by success in Hollywood, are thought of as people, whereas in America they are royalty. By extension, a platinum brand-name like Scorsese is, in America, a god, perhaps even Jesus Christ. His birth in the mean streets of New York might as well have been a birth in a manger. Of Scorsese’s prentice work Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Shone says: “Scorsese’s Catholicism fumigates the film’s climax as overpoweringly as a thurible.” The axis of the book can be thought of as Shone’s attempt to reconcile Scorsese’s holy presence on earth with a deep interest in how gangsters blow each other’s heads off.
Much as we might value Scorsese’s less violent movies—I myself think that After Hours (1985) is a masterly effort—there can be no doubt that when we think of him we think of Joe Pesci kicking someone to death, or of Robert De Niro all tooled up like a one-man armoured division. We think, that is, of American gangsters, usually of Italian extraction, dropping the f-bomb every second word during the brief periods when they aren’t killing somebody. Shone takes it for granted that this strain in Scorsese’s work is generated by his childhood, although he doesn’t say much about how traumatic that childhood was, apart from the asthma. Scorsese’s excellent mother (in one of his more recent documentaries, the director captured her on screen) always forbade, we learn, any hint of foul language in the family home. Shone fails to explain how Scorsese, brought up in a house where it was forbidden to use the f-word, should have spent his entire adult life making movies in which it was forbidden not to use it every 30 seconds.
Still, perhaps he’s compensating: acting tough while acting tall. But the same was true of Joseph Stalin, who never made Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Those movies made Scorsese’s name, and made a poetic style out of low-life scunge. On the other hand, New York, New York (1977), the film that avowedly “celebrated” (alas, the right word) the wonders of his home city, was a dud. Made with a proper Hollywood budget, as opposed to the small piles of used bills that had financed his creative efforts up to then, it disappeared into the maw of an anomaly. It was supposed to be a homage (another bad word) to the New York the world had learned to love from musicals. It was also supposed to have “a loose, documentary, cinéma vérité feel” (Shone’s words). These two contradictory ingredients made for a failed vinaigrette. Scorsese, in search of a wider audience, had put in all the tough stuff that a nation of honest film-going citizens didn’t want to see, and had also put in all the corny uplift that his art-house fans were proud of avoiding. Shone calls the result a combination of barbed wire and a wedding cake.
Shone paints a picture of a man born to make movies, but not in Hollywood, whose rules he has always been keen to break. It’s a rule, for example, that you don’t monkey too much with the male star’s personal appearance, because the audience has come to see him as he is. In Raging Bull (1980), Scorsese shut down production so that De Niro could eat himself into fatness. De Niro had already put on 20lb of muscle training to be a boxer, but on top of that he put on another 60lb merely in order to look like a slob. Eddie Murphy probably did better: in The Nutty Professor he just wore a fat suit, instead of inhaling a thousand hamburgers. Raging Bull is an admirable movie on Scorsese’s pet theme, the self-destruction of the powerful; but De Niro damned near destroyed himself making it. One need hardly add that De Niro seems to have quite liked the idea: he is the kind of actor who, to play a burned man, would set himself on fire.
De Niro came back from his own outer limits to star in King of Comedy (1982), Scorsese’s disturbing study of fame’s ruinous effects. Abetted by the frighteningly batty Sandra Bernhard, De Niro, playing the giftless would-be television host Rupert Pupkin, kidnaps Jerry Lewis. For my money, however, the film’s best exponent of fame’s corrosion is Jerry Lewis himself, if only because he plays a reasonably sane character who has had to adopt paranoia for self-protection. The De Niro character is a nut, and therefore illustrative only up to a point. For someone who was brought up on the Italian neo-realists, Scorsese has a vision out of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The 1970s were a high period for Scorsese—no beginnings had ever been more brilliant—but the early 1980s were a low period, although we shouldn’t forget After Hours just because nobody went to see it. The late 1980s, however, saw him rise again, like his favourite character Jesus, about whom he had always wanted to make a picture. But first he made The Colour of Money (1986), at the request of Paul Newman, who wanted another shot at playing the Hustler, Fast Eddie Felson. If De Niro had played the role, he would have staked himself out on an ice-cap until he had aged 20 years. But Newman looked the part, and never acted better. Shone is surely right to call The Colour of Money the best movie Scorsese made in the 1980s. The Hollywood moguls loved it too: on a budget of $14.5m he brought the movie in for $13m, the sort of responsible accounting much admired by studio heads with two swimming pools and three mistresses each. It certainly helps that the film has a recognised star at the centre of it, working his way to the first Best Actor Oscar he ever received.
The same could not be said of Scorsese’s other film of the later 1980s, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Hardly anybody knew who Willem Dafoe was. You could argue that hardly anybody had known who Jesus Christ was, at the time: I can remember delaying my first look at the movie because the news had long ago reached me that the project was regarded as a joke throughout the business. But when I saw it, I could see that Scorsese, his writer Paul Schrader and his money-man Mike Ovitz had done something strange and wonderful. The miracles, in particular, are the work of an exalted imagination. Shone is right, though, to say that the film “is also, for long stretches, baffling.”
The main source of bafflement is that Jesus carries on like a man of action, thus reminding you that Scorsese had been, for a long time, making movies about men getting crucified, and didn’t need to make another. It lost a lot of money and he was lucky to get a chance to make Goodfellas (1990), in which Warner Bros wanted him to cast Tom Cruise and Madonna.
We got lucky too. Scorsese was able to film the script using De Niro and Joe Pesci from his old repertory company of f-bomb hoodlums, plus Ray Liotta, an actor so engaging that a suburban audience loves him even when he is beating one of his fellow thugs to pieces. Shone has a sentence that fits exactly: “Goodfellas has the bloom and decay of a plant or flower ripening in its own rot.” My favourite moment is Joe Pesci’s “Are you kidding?” look when he realises that he is about to be executed. But everybody has a favourite moment in a movie so rich in incident. The women, especially, are wonderful: dolled up to the nines yet tense with the strain of declining to recognise that their husbands earn all that money from death and torture. “As far back as I can remember,” says Liotta, “I always wanted to be a gangster.” Watching a movie in which violence is so normalised, I am almost convinced that I always wanted to be a gangster too, but got side-tracked into a less fulfilling field.
But only almost. Not even Scorsese really wanted to devote his entire career to the wise guys, although he has never yet found a comfortable escape route. After Goodfellas he went on to make Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993) and Casino (1995). In Cape Fear De Niro got a chance to be repellent instead of merely fat, but you had to be a worshipper at Scorsese’s altar not to think that the movie was a pointless remake. The Age of Innocence was a nice rest—19th century high society, with no guns—but as if by reflex he was soon back with the hoodlums again. Casino is often praised, but only by the tolerant. The main story, about skimming money in Vegas, is an incomprehensible mess: which of these heavies are the crooks? De Niro doesn’t do much more than model pastel jackets and tasteless shoes. Without the sharply realised character played by Sharon Stone, the movie would hardly be there. It’s pretty—the chips fall like coloured snow—but it’s all too clearly an exercise in a standard genre. As if realising that he couldn’t go on like this, Scorsese abruptly upped the spiritual level to the ineffable sublime.
In Kundun (1997), his movie about the Dalai Lama, the holy person doesn’t once pull a gun. Admiring the movie, Shone finds himself driven to borrowing the tones of Pauline Kael: “it may be Scorsese’s most underrated film.” But Shone also sees that when Scorsese manages to shift away from his usual beat, he seldom leaves his usual obsessions behind. Kundun, according to Shone, is “a paean to peace from cinema’s most caffeinated jitterbug.” Perhaps sharing the same opinion at some deep level, Scorsese didn’t stay all choked up with sacred reverence for long. Gangs of New York (2002) was more like him, even though it was a Hollywood movie with all the usual elements including constant interference from the mogul in charge, Harvey Weinstein.
Personally I wish that Weinstein could have interfered more. I find the movie barely watchable, and not just because I don’t like razors. Like the majority of civilised cinemagoers, I want to see the tough guys blasting at each other with guns, not cutting each other up. The feeling of “Why am I watching this?” was only increased by the range of prosthetics applied to Daniel Day-Lewis’s face. Daniel Day-Lewis would no doubt feel restricted if he were always obliged to look as beautiful as he did profiling beside Madeleine Stowe in The Last of the Mohicans, but he should at least look like Daniel Day-Lewis. Boys, beware of the false nose: it’s seldom a good idea, except when playing Cyrano de Bergerac.
Admiring of Scorsese’s brave seriousness but not in awe of him, Shone has a sentence that applies generally to the director’s later career. “If his early work felt electrified by its contact with red-hot reality, his later work can feel too cosily cocooned in film-buffery.” Scorsese has seen and re-seen too many movies, some of them his own. The urge not to repeat yourself is rarely the artist’s best path to a renewed originality. The Aviator (2004), a big film about Howard Hughes, might have been made in the same spirit as Hughes himself built the Spruce Goose: get the enormous thing done, and then who cares if it only flies a hundred yards? Leonardo DiCaprio did his best in it, but it would have been nothing without the women, especially Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn. Blanchett shows why she is a star in the great Hollywood tradition by which the audience comes flocking to see radiant people. DiCaprio’s main histrionic achievement is to grow his fingernails. By a cruel trick of chronology, the other big DiCaprio vehicle of the time, Catch Me If You Can, caught the star at his most charming. Directed by Stephen Spielberg—who had never rebelled against the studio system, merely taken it over—it gave me a DiCaprio I could watch for two hours without even once thinking of a fake iceberg, a fake ship, and a million gallons of water.
But DiCaprio was still keen to star for Scorsese. They all were: as the one-time interloper moved up to canonised status, every actor who wanted to be taken seriously was ready to take a pay-cut just to be in his next project. Out of this ocean of adulation emerged The Departed (2006), the movie that finally got him the Oscar he should have won half a dozen times already. The Departed is generally regarded as having set the seal on Scorsese’s eminence in an industry which his creativity had done so much to energise, so it is worth while asking whether it is really as good as its several predecessors in his gangster mode. Shone seems to think so, but his vocabulary slips in a revealing manner. On the whole it is not wise to trust any critic who calls Jack Nicholson just “Jack.” It means that the critic has been too close to the film people, and would like to talk as if making movies and criticising them were all the one world. It’s the wrong idea in a big way.
The truth about Jack Nicholson in The Departed is that he plays a major part—the part of a wrecking ball—in turning the movie into a heap of rubble. How could such a psychopath lead a team of crooks for even a week without being assassinated? We can tell he is a psychopath by his bared teeth. Nicholson has been doing weird things with his mouth since Prizzi’s Honour, which came out in 1985, but the movie that turned him from a great screen actor to a posturing monster was undoubtedly The Shining. With the help of Stanley Kubrick, Nicholson managed to convince himself that his true role in life was to tear a passion to tatters.
The Departed suffers only incidentally from the obtrusive fact that Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon could swap roles, and that the film might have been less formulaic had they done so every 10 minutes. But it suffers crucially from being dominated by a mad Godfather. You see the problem: Brando played it sane, so now everybody else has to play it hysterical. But hysteria is probably a mode that Scorsese will go on being stuck with, if only because he finds it such a strain to stay calm. Tied to DiCaprio in what was starting to look like a folie à deux, Scorsese went on to perpetrate his big-budget, high-earning, titanically overblown comedy The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). A movie about which Shone seems to be in two minds, although one mind should have been plenty, it was like Goodfellas minus the guns and with the whole cast carrying on like Joe Pesci. I saw a less entertaining movie once, but Hitler was in it.
At this point, near the ending of the book, one would have liked to hear more about Scorsese’s influence on the TV serial Boardwalk Empire, of which he directed the pilot. We are told no more than that, but it would be interesting to hear that he acted as guardian angel throughout the project, and perhaps had an influence on the most impressive performance in the show: Anatol Yusef as Meyer Lansky. As deadly as any of his colleagues and rivals, Lansky comes on like a gentleman. With a dead pan and a quiet voice, Yusef lets the audience deduce the menace. It’s the other way that Scorsese’s career might have gone. But perhaps we needed all those decades of coked-up insanity before self-control could look good again.