The Most Influential Director Of A Generation

May 26, 2014
Martin Scorsese was born into the febrile, fascinating world of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1940s and ‘50s. If you happened to have been walking in the area they called Little Italy back then, you might have glanced upwards in front of number 253 Elizabeth Street and seen the pale, watchful face of a boy peering from a fourth floor window, surveying the street below. Marty, the Scorsese’s youngest kid, was sickly, nervous, badly asthmatic and usually kept inside by a protective mother. From the window he watched vagrants fight and fornicate, the local gangs either battle each other or the surrounding ethnic outfits. It acted, perhaps, like a screen on which an endless film played. “I saw the dregs, the poor vagrants and the alcoholics,” the younger Scorsese would later tell Playboy magazine of his childhood years on Elizabeth Street. “I saw everything. Most mornings on the way to school I’d see two bums fighting each other with broken bottles. Blood all over the ground.” But aside from the window of his bedroom Martin had another screen to watch in those childhood days, and that was at the local movie-house. The Scorseses were not a particularly literary family, there were no books in the house apart from the family Bible – for a long while Martin was destined for the priesthood – and the entertainment of choice was the movies. Sometimes he would see five or six in a day. Like most boys he was entranced at first by the action and adventure, the gunfights and chariot races, but later, in his mid-teens, Citizen Kane became the turning point. marty5 “I became aware of what a director did,” he remembered of repeatedly viewing Orson Welles’s landmark movie. Dreams of the priesthood slowly faded to be replaced by another ambition, to create the images with which he was now mesmerised. He would become a film director. History does not record whether lightning lit up the sky when, a few years later, Martin Scorsese first cast Robert De Niro in a movie, but for cinephiles it may as well have done. They had in fact grown up within a mile of each other. De Niro, the middle-class son of a pair of bohemian artist-types, hung out over on Broome Street and they had crossed each other’ paths occasionally at dances and the like. De Niro, known even then for being distant and taciturn but for possessing an intimidating commitment to his craft, had had moderate success in fellow New York director Brian De Palma’s early films, and towards the end of 1972 Scorsese had dusted off an old screenplay, then called Season Of The Witch, and managed to raise the financing for a short and parsimonious shoot. Having been reintroduced to De Niro during his Corman-supported sojourn in Hollywood, Scorsese decided that as a fellow product of Little Italy he would be perfect and cast him and another relative unknown, Harvey Keitel. In what became the film Mean Streets, Scorsese miraculously amalgamated his two early influences: the violence and pervasive fear he remembered of growing up in Little Italy and the traditions and troupes of the classic gangster movies he had devoured at the local movie houses. Here was a crime film imbued with a documentary reality, one that reeked of the streets from which it had come. marty8 Its insistent note was tragedy and desperation rather than the glamour of the frankly sudsy Godfather – which Coppola was then shooting. Harvey Keitel and DeNiro shine as the small-time hoods whose attempts to forge a future for themselves are, in different ways, doomed, while the film’s theme – the struggle for survival among society’s human wreckage – was in contrast to a movie industry that was still rehearsing the moralistic cliches of the 1940s crime movie. MeanStreets was, then, a blisteringly original calling card to the movie establishment announcing the raucous arrival a new cinematic generation. The New Yorker’s legendary Pauline Kael, an acerbic and difficult to please critic at the best of times, declared it “ferociously powerful” and pinned Scorsese as one to watch. But it was Taxi Driver three years later that put a gun to Hollywood’s head and tensed a finger against the trigger; after that, American movies would never be the same again. Shot mostly on the fly in the blistering Summer of 1975 Taxi Driver is probably both Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s greatest achievement. A nightmarish excursion into both an urban hell and the tortured psyche of a madman, its influences reverberate in film and broader culture to this day. The Scorsese/De Niro partnership would continue for a further 20 years, throwing off masterpieces with dizzying regularity. Raging Bull (1980) charted the rise and catastrophic decline of boxing champ Jake LaMotta with De Niro establishing the fashion for extreme weight variation in pursuit of dramatic authenticity. marty4 The King Of Comedy (1982) took the white heat of Taxi Driver and twisted it into a black comedy, a satire on media culture while Goodfellas (1990) returned to the theme of organized crime, and showcased a trio of superb performances from Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and De Niro. In 1995’s Casino De Niro’s suits alone should have won awards and Sharon Stone gives a career best performance as his moll. Despite the cognoscenti recognising Scorsese for the watershed auteur he clearly was, for decades it was a case of him versus Hollywood. A continuing insult given the form of an inexplicable absence of an Oscar for direction. Despite helming nearly half a dozen of the key post-war American films, Scorsese continually went away empty handed from the Awards. Taxi Driver was K.O’d by Rocky in 1977, Raging Bull, inexplicably, lost out to Robert Redford’s unmemorable Ordinary People in 1980. A decade later in 1990 Dances With Wolves waltzed off with the statue leaving Goodfellas empty handed. His response was at first to ignore the slights and pursue his own idiosyncratic celluloid interests. The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), a fearsomely intellectual account of the crucifixion was unlikely to make him many Hollywood friends while Kundun (1997), a treatment of the early life of Tibet’s exiled Dalai Lama similarly courted controversy and alienated the risk-averse Academy voters. But at some point it seemed to get to him, and he launched an all out assault on Oscar. His weapons: epic scale and a bona fide star. marty6 Leonardo DiCaprio was a facile young actor whose fate as a floppy-haired matinee idol had been all but sealed by his appearance as doomed Jack Dawson in James Cameron’s 1997 global blockbuster Titanic. In a sense Scorsese and DiCaprio helped each other with Scorsese lending DiCaprio a credibility he sorely needed while the youngster provided Scorsese with Academy-friendly star wattage. Scorsese first casted him as gangleader Amsterdam Vallon in his slightly over-egged historical gangster epic Gangs of New York (2002), and then, in a full-frontal assault on The Academy’s conservative, self-obsessed sensibilities with 2004’s The Aviator. But it took the addition of Academy darling Jack Nicholson in The Departed (2006) to finally seal the deal. It’s more than half a century since Scorsese made those childhood pilgrimages to the movie theatres of Little Italy and since he stared from his bedroom window at the life erupting outside. But thankfully he shows no signs of slowing down. This year’s scabrous award-contender The Wolf Of Wall Street proved he still has the appetite to scandalise and shock, his tasteful Oscar-baiting period perhaps now behind him. “I love movies,” he once said. “They’re my whole life and that’s it.” Almost half a century after he peered through that bedroom window at life erupting outside, it’s our good luck that it's a passion - a passion for watching, for taking it all in – that he continues to share. marty7