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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Martin Scorese

Martin Scorsese with his two favorite actors.
Scorsese's fifth film, his first
critical masterpiece.
From time to time I like to single out exceptional works of art in cinematic format, exploring the lives and livelihood of the outstanding producers and directors who will go down in the history of art as the greatest artists of this century and the one before. In choosing a film and filmmaker to highlight, I sometimes run into the quandary of having so many excellent efforts to choose from, choosing just one does a grave injustice to all the others. The work of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg come to mind. Today I encountered the same problem in looking at the films of Martin Scorsese. I first pondered Raging Bull, then Goodfellas, before considering Taxi Driver. Any of those three and maybe a couple others are among the top films every made by Scorsese or any other producer/director alive today (or dead yesterday, for that matter). The solution was not to choose any of those...or more precisely, to choose all of them and several other very honorable mentions from Scorsese's impressive filmography. Officially, Scorsese has made twenty-seven films, not counting a couple dozen documentaries and short films (the most recent, directed by George Clooney, titled Martin Scorsese Eats a Cookie).

Another subject Scorsese knew well.
If Martin Scorsese has a "secret to his success," it has to do with the fact that he was first a writer, then a director (even an actor a few times) and then, and only then, did he become an award-winning producer. A couple days ago I ranted that every painter should first master the art of drawing. Scorsese's career in films would suggest that every producer should learn to write before trying to direct or produce movies. In lieu of that skill, as Clint Eastwood's career would suggest, acting in movies is also a good preparation for moving on up the ladder to directing and producing. Scorsese has almost as many writing credits among his many films as he does in directing and producing, especially in his early years. His first major award was a nomination from the Writers' Guild for his screenplay, Mean Streets in 1973 (only his third film).

Scorsese at work on Hugo, 2011
Scorsese's first feature-
length film, 1967
Born in 1942 in Queens, New York, Scorsese was just twenty-five when he wrote an directed his first film, Who's that Knocking at My Door, starring Harvey Keitel (also his first film). The topic was Catholic guilt, a subject both men knew well. Scorsese was raised in a devoutly Catholic Sicilian family, his parents second generation immigrants. As a boy, he suffered from asthma so instead of playing sports, he went to the movies where he was impressed by the actor, Victor Mature, and the films, Black Narcissus, Land of the Pharaohs, and El Cid. He also came to love the Neorealist Italian movies such as Bicycle Thieves, Paisà, and Rome, Open City. He idolized directors, Roberto Rossellini, Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Federico Fellini. It would seem Scorsese started film school at the movie theaters of Little Italy in lower Manhattan, where he grew up. From there, after first flirting with the idea of becoming a priest, Scorsese continued his education at NYU’s University College of Arts and Science where he obtained a degree in English. (There he no doubt learned a thing or two about writing.) Two years later, in 1966, he earned his M.F.A. from NYU’s School of the Arts as a film major. While still at NYU, Scorsese made several epic shorts such as the 1963 "blockbuster," What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

De Niro and Scorsese in the early days, on the set of Mean Streets.
Scorsese's first box office hit.
Having a strong academic background and comparable depth in the moviemaker's art, Scorsese thus came by two vital prerequisites for success as a producer--recognizing good screen material (or writing it himself) and an instinctive recognition of outstanding acting talent. Keitel he found first, followed by Robert De Niro. Keitel Scorsese used in five films, De Niro in eight. In more recent years, Scorsese has established a similar working relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio, whom he's starred in four films, most recent being The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Quite apart from his obvious skills as a director/producer, it would be hard to overstate the importance these three men have had in the making of Scorsese's most important and successful films. Yet, despite their talent, it's also important to note that he chose them, then directed them. Seldom is an actor any better than his or her director.
Cruise and Newman in a "set shot" from The Color of Money.
Ellen Burstyn, the actress
who "hired" Martin Scorsese.
Strangely, in 974, actress, Ellen Burstyn, turned the tables on Scorsese. She chose him to director her in her Oscar-winning performance in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. For his effort, Scorsese received a nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) as best director. Taxi Driver with De Niro followed, winning Scorsese an Oscar and several other nominations recognizing him as one of the top directors in Hollywood.  In 1977 Scorsese tried his hand at a musical New York, New York, and despite the best efforts of De Niro and Liza Minnelli, it was something less than an overwhelming success (I liked it, but then, I've always had a weakness for musicals). From that point on however, the hits simply came rolling in, Raging Bull (and a second Oscar), The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money (above, pairing of Tom Cruise and Paul Newman), and The Last Temptation of Christ.

Jesus marries and starts a family.
Scorsese's Jesus, crucified
naked, as was the practice
at the time.
Although Scorsese has never been one to shy away from controversy, Last Temptation brought down upon him the righteous wrath of religious groups as varied as the Catholic church, and Christian fundamentalist groups. In making the film, unlike virtually all previous efforts to film the life of Christ, Scorsese based his portrayal not upon the gospels but on Nikos Kazantzakis's 1960 book by the same title. Even before it was released Universal Studios was receiving hate mail. After its release in August, 1988, evangelist, Bill Bright, of Campus Crusade for Christ, tried to buy the negative to destroy it. In Paris, a theater showing the movie was attacked with Molotov cocktails. At another theater, the attacks came in the form of stink bombs. Nonetheless, the film was lauded by critics as the first attempt by a filmmaker to humanize Christ, portraying Him as tempted by Satan (a character in the film) like everyone else. The film was budgeted at $7-million and grossed nearly $9-million

DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
Lotta, De Niro, and Pecci--more mob.

The Five Points gangs, mid-1800s.
Despite the controversy, Scorsese's career continued to skyrocket. In 1990, Scorsese came out with Goodfellas, his most critically acclaimed film to date, which won him his third Academy Award nomination as Best Director (he lost to Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves). Roger Ebert called Goodfellas the best mob movie ever. From this point on, any discourse on Scorsese's films begins to sound like a laundry list of good, sometimes great, movies like Gangs of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004), both starring DiCaprio), as well as The Departed, Shutter Island (again with DiCaprio), The Family, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street. See what I mean about the laundry list. And, as with any laundry list, it continues to grow with numerous other projects yet in early stages of development. Scorsese is still a relatively young man as producer/directors go. He's a few years older than I am, but that still makes him young in my eyes.

Martin Scorsese's laundry list of great movies.


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