Martin Scorsese: Cinema of Excess

Stars are not born, they are made. And during his more than forty-year career, legendary director Martin Scorsese has ignited some brilliant constellations. With such landmark films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and The Departed to his credit, he has rocketed some of Hollywood’s brightest stars into the heavens of motion picture immortality. He’s also made himself larger-than-life in the process, a feisty and formidable feature on the gilded landscape of Tinseltown, where he is as famous for his temperament as he is for his films. Scorsese has an obsession with perfection and a mania about achievement. “My problem is that I want to do everything,” he says.

There were times about thirty years ago when Scorsese felt he was losing his sanity. He began abusing cocaine during the filming of New York, New York in 1976 and says his life was in such turmoil during the editing of 1980’s Raging Bull that he almost died. “By some stroke of fate it all worked out and I didn’t die,” he says. “I was making this movie. I didn’t give a damn what was going to happen to the picture, I just wanted to put everything in it. And I was really angry—an anger that was very, very productive.”

For Martin Scorsese, anger is a tactic—a strategy that advances the moviemaking process. “It’s always there,” he says. “I can’t help it. There’s always a certain anger that goes into my work. [It] keeps the tension going when you’re lining up a shot or directing a scene.” It obviously works, because more often than not, the public has been absolutely mad about his movies. And the performers he directs tolerate and even welcome his rants and raves, because they lead to raves by reviewers and fans, which translates into money in the bank.

For many actors, inclusion in a Scorsese project has been a one-way ticket to mega stardom. And in no case is that more true than Robert De Niro’s, whose career has become inextricably connected to Scorsese’s. De Niro is a versatile actor who has often played troubled and conflicted characters. Gangsters have also become somewhat of a specialty.

His first pairing with Scorsese came in 1973 when he played a smalltime hood opposite Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets. Three years later he played troubled Vietnam vet Travis Bickle in the film that finally launched his career, Taxi Driver.

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De Niro has won two Academy Awards, one (his second) was for Best Actor in Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). He has garnered four other Best Actor nominations, two of which were for films directed by Scorsese: Taxi Driver and Cape Fear. To date, he has appeared in eight Scorsese films. In a 2006 PBS interview, De Niro told Charlie Rose that he and Scorsese have “a very special creative relationship. Any actor will tell you that Marty is just open to ideas, open to trying things. He’s very respectful of actors.”

Taxi Driver was also a breakout movie for then 14-year-old Jodie Foster, who has been quoted in the media as saying the picture “changed her life.” She received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a 12-year-old prostitute opposite De Niro. A year earlier she appeared in her first Scorsese project, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Actress Ellen Burstyn’s career has spanned four decades and generated 70 films, including Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (for which she won her only Academy Award, for Best Actress). Of Scorsese, she says, “He uses who the actors are. He sets the tone on the set so the actors can really contribute who they are. It’s a really high-powered, positive, creative environment. I can’t imagine anybody working with him not wanting to work with him again. He’s just a great sort of receptacle for all of your creative ideas.”

Actor Ray Liotta had Martin Scorsese in his corner when he was cast for the lead role of small-time gangster Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Scorsese wanted him, but the studio and even producer Irwin Winkler didn’t. “When I started getting interested in acting in college, Marty Scorsese’s movies meant a lot to me. He’s a very powerful and great filmmaker. Thank God he felt I was the one for the role, and it all worked out. It wasn’t even so much about what it could do for my career. It was wanting to work with [him],” Liotta said.

Producer Irwin Winkler has been working with Martin Scorsese for more than twenty years (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and many others). Winkler says Scorsese has a “controlled sense” of violence. “Even when he’s calm, he’s on the verge of high emotion. He’s very volatile. The volatility for me is always a chuckle when I see it happen and he also laughs. I think part of it is that he’s not very tall and he grew up in a very tough neighborhood so he found movies to be a refuge from the violence of the streets.”

His current actor of choice seems to be Leonardo DiCaprio, whose first film project with Scorsese was Gangs of New York. DiCaprio’s career shot into the stratosphere in 1997 with the release of Titanic (directed by James Cameron), and in the past few years he has continued to build on that success with two Scorsese vehicles, The Aviator and The Departed.

I just wanted to put everything in it. And I was really angry—an anger that was very, very productive.

Interviewed about the latter by Rebecca Murray for About.com, DiCaprio had high praise for Scorsese and the way he works. “It really brought me to different levels as an actor. I look at him as a mentor.” Some speculate that the younger DiCaprio will replace De Niro at the top of Scorsese’s list. Two more Scorsese films, Shutter Island (October, 2009) and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (2010) are on DiCaprio’s horizon.

Other actors who have penned their success stories with Scorsese include Daniel Day-Lewis, who has appeared in two of his films: The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York (he received an Oscar nomination, Best Actor in a Leading Role, for Gangs of New York), and Joe Pesci, whose first major film was 1980’s Raging Bull for which he was nominated for the Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar, and he took home the statue for Best Actor in a Supporting Role a decade later for Goodfellas.

The son of Italian immigrants, Martin Scorsese was born in November of 1942. He grew up in a heavily Italian neighborhood in Queens. His parents, Luciano and Catherine Scorsese, labored in the garment industry. The family was Roman Catholic and young Martin served as an altar boy at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. He gave serious consideration to entering the priesthood, going so far as enrolling in a seminary in 1956. But filmmaking was his passion and in 1964 he graduated from New York University as a film major. After graduation, Scorsese taught at NYU for a bit and helped fellow student Michael Wadleigh edit the Oscar-winning 1969 documentary Woodstock.

Martin Scorsese went on to become one of the most influential directors of the latter half of the 20th Century. “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else,” he told authors Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston for their 2004 book Finding God in the Movies.

For his themes, Scorsese frequently calls upon his Italian-American heritage. His movies often reflect the violence of organized crime or the sins of religious impiety. His first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was shown at the Chicago Film Festival in 1967, but it failed to garner distribution until a gratuitous sex scene was added. The movie centered on an Italian-American Catholic (played by Harvey Keitel) who categorized women as either virgins or prostitutes and seeks redemption. The sinner-in-need-of-redemption theme was reinforced by Scorsese in Boxcar Bertha (1972), a Depression-era saga that bears similarities to the story of Christ and Mary Magdalene.

Many of Scorsese’s films have been intricate and bloody examinations of the Italian-American underworld. They were inspired by “living in a working class environment [growing up], and part of that environment was organized crime,” he says, adding: “When you live by the street—it doesn’t matter whether it’s Boston, Chicago, New York, Miami, anywhere, it filters down to survival.” Scorsese believes that violence is now part of who he is and it channels itself into his films.

When he’s developing a script, Scorsese looks for certain qualities in collaborators and it depends on the project. With Taxi Driver, for example, the script didn’t need much tweaking. At the outset it was “very, very good and strong,” he says. “There were a couple of little improvisations that they did and that was it.” However, when he creates a script with another person, “the sensibility of the writer has to be attuned to the project. They can’t be afraid of anything,” he says. “I need a writer to say, ‘Marty, if you want this, this and this, you’re going to have to lose two of them in order to make this more powerful.’”

Gangs of New York is cited as an example: “I’m working with old friends Jay Cocks and Steve Zaillian and Kenny Lonergan. I said, ‘Don’t worry about the excess. This picture is meant to be excessive.’”

Director Scorsese elaborates: “I’m dealing a certain excess visually. It’s something that Casino has…It’s excess in the world they’re in, excess that finally explodes in everyone’s faces.”

He says some films just cry out for toughness, the way some steaks require a really sharp knife. The excess Scorsese speaks of spills over in Goodfellas and Casino, and to a certain extent in Age of Innocence, he says, but surely, he suggests, it is in Gangs of New York. “The frame would look as if people were falling out of the edges,” he says, proclaiming that the story “just gets sloppy and turned around.” Martin Scorsese says he loves going to Italy and looking at “paintings that take up the whole wall,” like frescos. “Things are in the corner and you can look at that fresco twenty times and still see something new,” he says.

“But on the other hand, there is something very powerful, very tough about the way Paul Schrader put together the script for Taxi Driver,” he goes on. “There’s the way Fred Zinnemann did The Day of the Jackal; even though it’s over two-and-a-half hours long, you can’t stop watching it.”

He also feels it’s important for a writer to cut to the heart of certain stories. “That’s what John Logan did on The Aviator,” he says, “because how do you tell the story of Howard Hughes? You might as well start as a boy and then go to when he dies. You can’t. You can do an infinite number of films on him. Well, this one [is about] him.”

Selecting actors for his films is also very subjective. He says it all depends on the subject. As a case in point, he sites Gangs of New York, for which he thought Leonardo DiCaprio was “perfect for the young boy who finally has to take over from his father, ultimately destroy his father, in a way.”

For Scorsese, life has always been an adventure in self-discovery—a constant, overarching drive to find new ways to express his insatiable need to make movies…great movies. After forty years and countless movie projects, the 66-year-old director/producer/writer/actor/genius is eager to find his next conquest. “I’m trying to find a way to…keep the energy going or to keep the interest going, or the curiosity going, to continue to make films,” he says, but not just any films. “They have to mean something to me. And that’s always a struggle, because the way the system is now in Hollywood, with independent cinema and that sort of thing, I’m still trying to find my way.”

The great Martin Scorsese was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003, and his films and the legions of actors who appeared in them have received countless honors. But the big one for him—the Best Director Oscar—had remained elusive for most of his career. He had been nominated seven times, and finally, in February of 2007, the Academy of Motion picture Arts and Sciences gave the coveted award to Scorsese for his tour-de-force The Departed, more than a quarter-of-a-century after his first nomination for Raging Bull. After quieting the crowd, Scorsese jokingly said, “Could you double-check the envelope?” The audience laughed, it was correct and the Oscar was his.