Following the success of Boardwalk Empire, Paul Fennessy looks at the career of legendary director Martin Scorsese
Who is the greatest living American director? David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and Terence Malick can all certainly stake a claim to this title. Yet popular consensus would decree that Martin Scorsese is the man with the most convincing CV, especially when you consider how he is arguably the only enfant terrible of the new American seventies film-school movement to still be making consistently good films to this day.
As good an indicator of what makes a great director as any is one whose best film remains a topic of debate and this sentiment certain applies to Scorsese. The notorious motormouth has directed at least half-a-dozen films that could be considered as all-time classics.
For Quentin Tarantino, Scorsese’s best work is Taxi Driver – his mesmerising exploration into the dark recesses of the American soul as personified by Scorsese’s foremost acting collaborator, Robert De Niro and which Tarantino calls “the best character study ever done on film. It’s like a great novel, the way it tells its story.”
Meanwhile, Mark Kermode believes the honour of the legendary filmmaker’s best movie goes to The King of Comedy. In the Guardian, Kermode wrote engagingly on the film, affirming: “Perfectly pitched between satire and horror, The King of Comedy finds both its director and star working at the peak of their powers – the dramatic punch of the piece being strengthened by understatement, by the fact that neither director nor star are grandstanding.”
The film is also an insightful and prescient look at celebrity obsession and the dangerous ramifications which can arise from it, two years on from John Lennon’s death and decades before incidents such as Jill Dando’s murder or the onset of reality TV and the ever-growing plethora of desperate fame seekers afflicting modern society. And as with many revolutionary films, it was met with critical indifference upon its release.
In contrast, Roger Ebert declares Raging Bull to be his preferred Scorsese film of choice, writing: “Raging Bull is the most painful and heartrending portrait of jealousy in the cinema – an Othello for our times. It’s the best film I’ve seen about the low self-esteem, sexual inadequacy and fear that lead some men to abuse women. Boxing is the arena, not the subject.”
It also contains one of the most famous monologues in the history of cinema. DeNiro’s character Jake LaMotta’s boxing career has drawn to a close, and a fat, pale shadow of his former self stands pensively in his dressing room while preparing for a banal nightclub routine. In this scene, LaMotta invokes the equally famous scene from On The Waterfront in which Marlon Brando’s character complains: “I coulda been a contender.”
The scene was originally an extended Shakespeare analogy, yet Scorsese and Schrader elected to rewrite the dialogue and insert the On the Waterfront reference, as for them, films such as Kazan’s masterwork were their equivalent of Shakespearean tragedy. Hence, in one scene, Scorsese provides an astute character portrayal that demonstrates the pitiful depths to which DeNiro’s character has descended, while still incorporating his own personal foibles in the form of his immense love of cinema into this superbly executed moment.
Yet for me, it is unquestionably the film which The Sopranos creator David Chase refers to as “my Bible” which represents Scorsese’s finest work to date.
Goodfellas is like a Scorsese greatest hits collection incorporated into one film. It contains all of his hallmarks executed to exemplary effect; the gangsters of Mean Streets only more Machiavellian and nihilistic than ever, several scenes as memorable and chilling as the “Did you fuck my wife?” scene from Raging Bull (for example, the one involving Joe Pesci’s manic, persistent question: “I’m funny, how?”) and of course, Scorsese’s renowned love of rock music exploited to full effect with classical songs by the likes of The Rolling Stones pulsing through the film. Tellingly, Scorsese also directed a film of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, which is routinely cited as one of the greatest concert movies ever.
Scorsese’s detractors claim the director is currently well past his sell-by date. However, this claim ignores the criminally overlooked Citizen Kane-aping tour de force The Aviator and his slightly overrated but still brilliant return to the gangster genre, The Departed, in which he finally secured his long overdue Oscar for Best Picture. Meanwhile, his most recent venture, in which he directed the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, received near-unanimous critical acclaim. And all his other recent works, while not retaining the impossible standard of his seventies and eighties peak period, are always anything but uninteresting.
Scorsese is a director who has rightly been adjudged a filmmaking genius by all but his most rigorous critics. His legacy stands up to that of any other filmmaker before him and contemporary directors such as Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan all cite him as a significant influence. He revolutionised onscreen violence and gave a voice to the disaffected youth of 1970s America, before remarkably becoming a kind of latter-day elder statesman of cinema. Yet still, despite radiating such god-like grandeur, he must be content to live the rest of his life like a schnook.