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Awards & Honors: 2013 Jefferson Lecturer

Martin Scorsese Biography

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Photo portrait of Martin Scorsese

March/April 2013

Martin Scorsese
Brigitte Lacombe
By David Skinner

In a number of interviews, on stage, in print, and on television, Martin Scorsese has already told his life story. The beginning sounds like a script in development, like a Scorsese project that hasn’t yet gone into production.

The family rented a two-story house in Corona, Queens, and lived there happily until Martin’s father, Charles, got into a dispute with the landlord. It involved various people and assorted grievances: brothers and money, and the way certain people act like they’re some kind of big deal. As he told the story to Richard Schickel in Conversations with Scorsese:

The landlord may have felt that my father was involved with underworld figures, which he wasn’t really, but he behaved maybe a little bit like that; my father always liked to dress, you know. And this guy was a man of the earth…. And I think also his wife liked my father. So all this resentment was building up. And then there was a confrontation.

Personal connections had helped the Scorseses move to Queens in the first place, and now they played a part in returning the family to live, as they had once before, with Martin’s grandparents on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, in a crowded apartment in the tiny neighborhood of Little Italy, the seven-year-old found himself with less space and less freedom. An asthmatic, he slept in a special tent. On the street he did not fit in. There was, he told Schickel, “an atmosphere of fear.” The local authorities did not wear badges, but they had the power to tell you what to do. And there were rules. The first one was to say nothing.

But it was possible to escape. From a young age, Scorsese was taken to the movies, where he developed a great fondness for studio pictures: westerns, war pics, historical dramas, and some of the greatest movies of the ’40s and ’50s, including Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden. Just as important was the family television and a program called Million-Dollar Movie, which showed British, French, and Italian films, and replayed them twice a night for a week, enabling the future movie director to watch and rematch great films from abroad.

At New York University—only a few blocks, but a world away from Little Italy—Scorsese began his formal training under Haig Manoogian, to whom he dedicated Raging Bull. There he began I Call First, with future collaborators Harvey Keitel in the lead and Thelma Schoonmaker editing. Finished and reworked after some prodding from Manoogian, it was later renamed Who’s That Knocking at My Door and released as Scorsese’s first feature film. After being rejected by a number of festivals, it was accepted into the Chicago Film Festival and seen by Roger Ebert, who called it “a marvelous evocation of American city life, announcing the arrival of an important new director.”

Ebert has noted that Scorsese received conflicting advice from his mentors. Manoogian told him, “No more films about Italians.” John Cassavetes, whose chatty, improvisational style did much to influence Scorsese’s scripts and production work, told him to “make films about what you know.” Scorsese’s own ambition was to make all kinds of films, like an old-school studio director zipping from one project to the next.

In 1971 Scorsese moved to Hollywood, where he hung out with some of the most promising young directors around: Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola. He directed Boxcar Bertha, a cut-rate Depression-era film for Roger Corman, the so-called “king of cult film.” Also in Hollywood, Scorsese made Mean Streets, a film about low-level wise guys starring Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, whom he had met some years back in New York.

Keitel’s character is guilt-ridden, striving, and in love; De Niro’s Johnny Boy is a violent goofball who seems to have learned how to behave from watching gangster films. One can see here the male camaraderie and tough-guy cross-talk that becomes so important in Scorsese’s later work. In 1976 he made the first of his most enduring films, Taxi Driver, a disturbing character study of Robert De Niro’s antiheroic Travis Bickle, a war veteran and loner whose reaction to the moral malaise of New York City turns increasingly psychotic.

In this period he also directed movies that, despite numerous qualities, seem less like his signature projects, including Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (for which Ellen Burstyn won an Oscar); New York, New York, an expensive homage to old Hollywood that failed commercially and critically; and The Last Waltz, a documentary of the final performance of The Band.

Personal and professional difficulties made this an especially hard period for Scorsese, who was still in his thirties and struggling with his own demons. As things went from bad to worse for the director, Robert De Niro pressed him to make the film that became Scorsese’s masterpiece: Raging Bull, a gorgeous, classic black-and-white film about the savage life and career of boxer Jake LaMotta. It won De Niro an Oscar and confirmed Scorsese’s standing as a great director.

In this hour of triumph, as Raging Bull was showing in film festivals, Scorsese began promoting the cause of film preservation. “Everything we are doing now means nothing!” he said, raising the alarm in one lecture after another, while showing clips to illustrate the damaged quality and fading colors of vintage movie reels.

For a long time the old-fashioned studio director who moved fluidly between genres, like Howard Hawks in the ’40s and ’50s, had been a distant memory. But Scorsese continued to develop a great variety of projects, always as if working out of the mental space of a film buff’s library, but with the conviction of a true artist.

In 1983 he made the artfully dark send-up of celebrity culture, The King of Comedy, in which Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard stalk and kidnap a Johnny Carson-type comedian and talk show host played by Jerry Lewis. There was in the next decade a sequel and a remake: The Color of Money boldly followed The Hustler, a beloved classic, 30 years after the original; and with De Niro in 1991, Scorsese remade Cape Fear, the 1962 thriller that had starred Robert Mitchum.

New York City, of course, remained a touchstone. In 1985 Scorsese made the offbeat cult classic After Hours, in which a computer dork played by Griffin Dunne pursues the bohemian Rosanna Arquette and ends up in a series of bizarre misadventures downtown. To the trilogy New York Stories, Scorsese contributed a tart short film starring Nick Nolte as an expressionist painter whose girlfriend realizes that, while serving as his helpmate, she has failed as an artist.

And Scorsese continued exploring new genres, as with The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, which proved controversial despite the film’s obviously reverent tone. Scorsese was raised Catholic, and in his youth he briefly considered joining a seminary. Father Principe, who had been a mentor to him as a young man, famously said about Taxi Driver, “I’m glad you ended it on Easter Sunday and not on Good Friday.”

In Goodfellas, released in 1990, Scorsese returned to form, creating a gangster movie that is widely regarded as one of the best ever made. Packed with famous lines and scenes, the film is a collection of cinematic jewel pieces stretching over decades of American culture, charting the rise of Henry Hill as a likable street-level operator to his messy decline as a drug dealer and out-of-control addict.

Also in 1990 Scorsese established the Film Foundation, which supports preservation and restoration projects at leading film archives. Several have involved films of personal significance to Scorsese, including The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which were directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and three of John Cassavetes’s films. As always, making his own films did not prevent him from championing the history of the entire medium.

Shame and moral boundaries have always been important in his work—he’s cited James Joyce and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as influences. In 1993 he directed The Age of Innocence, based on Edith Wharton’s scathing novel of manners. Taxi Driver was flecked with ideas from Notes from Underground, and Nicholas Cage in Bringing Out the Dead had enough of a Christ complex to fill out a term paper or two. Fans often remark on Scorsese’s feel for music; there is also a literary flare to his movies. Even Gangs of New York came from a 1920s true crime volume by Herbert Asbury, and The Departed, written by William Monahan, may be one of the most literary of crime films ever. Amid its rueful mix of old loyalties, false identities, fatalism, and betrayal, Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson, learns that someone’s mother is not well and unfortunately, “on her way out.”

“We all are,” says Costello, “act accordingly.”

Scorsese’s most recent feature film, Hugo, reminded audiences, however, of his great exuberance for the old Hollywood of high comedy, speeding trains, and achingly sympathetic characters. Shot in 3-D, Hugo was based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It tells the story of a young orphan who is reduced to making a life inside the walls of a Paris train station but begins to find his way after discovering a bond with a tinkering toy seller who also happens to be a pioneer of early filmmaking. A movie for children and adults, determined to leave you feeling protective of old movies, Hugo is a love letter to the history of cinema, a history in which Scorsese has for many years now played a leading role.