Unless things change dramatically (and no, I’m not referring only to environmental chaos and apocalyptic wars), 30 or 40 years from now Martin Scorsese is going to be the best-remembered name of the current top-five Oscar directors for actors. (The others being William Wyler, Elia Kazan, George Cukor, and Fred Zinnemann.)
In addition to having the most recent career — cultural amnesia is invariably a factor — Scorsese is the single director among the top five whose films can been categorized as belonging to a particular genre. Better yet, Scorsese’s forte is that much-revered tough-guy cinema.
And ain’t Scorsese’s men tough.
His first male muse, Robert De Niro, becomes a hero after slaughtering unsavory figures from the New York underworld in Taxi Driver. In 1980, De Niro was back as brutish boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, in my humble opinion one of the most overrated movies of the 20th century. And in 1991, De Niro was it again as a psychopathic ex-con in Cape Fear.
Add to that list Paul Newman’s jaded pool shark in The Color of Money, Joe Pesci’s deranged mobster in Goodfellas, Daniel Day-Lewis sociopathic street thug in Gangs of New York, and Jack Nicholson’s foaming-at-the-mouth mafia kingpin in The Departed. Plus borderline-psycho toughies Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets and Mark Wahlberg in The Departed, and Scorsese’s new box office friendly male muse, Leonardo DiCaprio, in Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, and Shutter Island.
Even Jerry Lewis comes across as a tough guy in The King of Comedy, while Matt Damon and Tom Cruise almost come across as such in, respectively, The Departed and The Color of Money.
Willem Dafoe’s conflicted Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ and Griffin Dunne’s hapless office worker in After Hours are a couple of exceptions to this rule.
As for the quality of the performances of them tough guys, those range from the terrible (Nicholson in The Departed) to the terrific (Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York).
Women, when they actually have roles in Scorsese’s films, can be either highly effective (Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Vera Farmiga in The Departed, Catherine O’Hara in After Hours) or highly ineffectual (Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York, Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence, Kate Beckinsale in The Aviator).
On the bright side, the actresses’ generally underwritten roles leave them less room to ham it up à la Nicholson, De Niro, Keitel, et al. A glaring exception to this particular rule, however, is Cate Blanchett’s mimicry of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.
Scorsese’s performers earned a total of twenty Academy Award nominations, including five wins. Somewhat surprisingly, ten of the nominees and two of the winners are women. But then again, of those ten female nominees, eight were in supporting roles, whereas seven of the male nominees were leads.
Robert De Niro was nominated three times and Joe Pesci twice for their Scorsese films: De Niro for Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Cape Fear (1991). Pesci, in the Supporting Actor category, for Raging Bull and Goodfellas (1990). De Niro won for Raging Bull; Pesci for Goodfellas.
Scorsese’s six Oscar nominations for Best Direction: Raging Bull, 1980; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988; Goodfellas, 1990; Gangs of New York, 2002; The Aviator, 2004; and The Departed, 2006. He won for the last film.
It’s unlikely that Scorsese will ever beat William Wyler’s record (36 acting nominations), but in the next few years he could easily become No. 2 on the list.
Note: A version of this Martin Scorsese article was initially posted in January 2007.