Martin Scorsese (born 1942) is a director and writer of highly personal films about intense loners who struggle against their own inner demons and the violence of their urban environments. While many of his works reflect his experience as an Italian-American growing up in New York City, he has also made highly regarded movies of great works of literature and other stories.
Film director Martin Scorsese was born on November 17, 1942, in Flushing, New York to Charles, a clothes presser, and Catherine, a seamstress. They raised their son in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City. Plagued by severe asthma as a child, Scorsese was fascinated with movies. He watched films on television and attended local theaters frequently while his healthier peers engaged in sports and more social activities. After initially pursuing a career in the priesthood, Scorsese dropped out of the seminary after a year and entered the prestigious Film School at New York University. Scorsese's It's Not Just You Murray! won the Producer's Guild Award for best student film in 1964, and he also received awards for other film shorts that he made as an undergraduate.
Drew from Own Urban Experience
After graduating, Scorsese remained at New York University as an instructor in basic film technique and criticism while at the same time beginning his career as a director. His 1968 short film, The Big Shave, won Le Prix de L'Age d'Or at Ledoux's Festival of Experimental Cinema. Scorsese's first feature film, Who's That Knocking at My Door, was first screened in 1969. It was produced by Haig Moonigan, one of Scorsese's teachers at New York University. This strongly autobiographical film about an Italian-American youth also introduced the actor Harvey Keitel, who became a frequent participant in Scorsese's works. The director also frequently casts his mother, Catherine, in his films, and Scorsese himself has acted in some of his own films and those made by others.
Outraged by the killing of four Kent State Student protesters and the Vietnam War in general, Scorsese and some of his students formed the New York Cinetracts Collective in 1969 as a means to film student protests against the conflict. The result was Street Scenes, screened at the 1970 New York Film Festival, which called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam as well as an end to military ROTC activities on all U.S. college campuses.
Scorsese worked as a film editor before his directing career was established, most notably as a co-supervising editor of the documentary Woodstockin 1970. (Many years later his interest in music would lead him to direct a music video for pop legend Michael Jackson's "Bad.") He also had a brief stint with the CBS television unit covering Hubert Humphrey during the 1972 presidential election. In the early 1970s he moved to Hollywood and met the producer/ director Roger Corman, who asked him to direct a sequel to his Bloody Mama. Instead, Scorsese directed Corman's Boxcar Bertha, a 1972 gangster film somewhat resembling Bonnie and Clyde. According to Ephraim Katz in The Film Encyclopedia, Boxcar Bertha "gave the young director [Scorsese] the opportunity to work within the Hollywood system and paved the way to his phenomenal rise in the coming years."
Began Successful Collaboration with De Niro
Next on the filmmaker's career path was a return to familiar turf in Mean Streets, a 1973 release about a young Italian-American trying to get by in a low-life environment. Emphasizing character development over plot, Mean Streets featured a jumpy cinematic style of quick cuts that foreshad-owed Scorsese's later work Taxi Driver. It also marked the director's first creative pairing with the actor Robert De Niro, whom Scorsese had grown up with in Little Italy. Their partnership evolved into one of the most successful director/ actor collaborations in modern film. Years later in 1981, Taxi Driver gained some notoriety when John Hinckley, Jr. claimed that Jodie Foster's role in the film was his inspiration for trying to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
Scorsese also began directing documentaries in the 1970s. These included Italianamerican, a profile of his parents released in 1974, and American Boy, a 1978 account of a friend who had immersed himself in the drug culture of the 1960s. He veered away from his usual movie themes with Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore in 1975, a film about a recently widowed mother trying to find herself. According to Leslie Halliwell in Halliwell's Film Guide, the New Yorker claimed the movie was "full of funny malice and breakneck vitality." Scorsese followed with his major hit, Taxi Driver, in which he returned to his usual urban setting. Halliwell called it an "unlovely but brilliant made film" that "haunts the mind and paints a most vivid picture of a hell on earth." Taxi Driver was awarded the International Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The director's nostalgic look at his city after World War II called New York, New York proved a critical failure in 1977, despite having the star power of Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. Halliwell said that it was "hampered by gross overlength, unattractive characters and a pessimistic plot." Scorsese became depressed as well as physically ill and required hospitalization following the making of this film. A failed marriage and drug problems further debilitated him. He returned to documentaries in the late 1970s by directing a film of The Band's final concert entitled The Last Waltz. Then he got back on track in feature films after De Niro convinced him to direct Raging Bull, a saga of the boxer Jake LaMotta. The movie earned Scorsese the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director, as well as his first Academy Award nomination. Raging Bull was later named the best film of the decade in a movie critics' poll.
King of Comedy, a 1983 film about a failed comic who kidnaps a famous talk-show host, was one of Scorsese's less successful efforts. In Partisan Review, Morris Dickstein called it "a pointless and irritating film with a few brilliant touches." Accolades came his way again, though, for his direction of After Hours, an unusual black comedy about a mild-mannered New York City resident who gets involved in a series of late-night mishaps. "A film so original, so particular, that one is uncertain from moment to moment exactly how to respond to it," said film critic Roger Ebert about the 1985 release, according to Halliwell's Film Guide. Scorsese was honored with the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for this effort.
Box-office success greeted Scorsese's The Color of Money in 1986, a sequel to The Hustler starring Paul Newman. It represented one of Scorsese's few big-budget productions up to that time. Certain religious groups were outraged by his next release, 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ, which dealt with an alternative interpretation of Jesus' acceptance of his role on earth. Although Variety as cited by Halliwell called Last Temptation "a film of challenging ideas," its pre-release notoriety and long running time hampered its success at the box office. Scorsese returned to more comfortable cinematic ground in 1990 with Goodfellas, a violent tale of Mafia hoodlums in New York City that earned him Best Director Awards from the National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics, and Los Angeles Film Critics.
Showed Versatility with Period Piece
After the 1991 release of his remake of Cape Fear, Scorsese surprised the film community by his filming of Age of Innocence, the Edith Wharton novel set in nineteenth-century New York City. "I had the script in my mind for two years and wrote it in two and half weeks, with Jay Cocks," Scorsese told Interview about the film in 1993. Lavishly produced and slowly paced, it resembled nothing in Scorsese's directorial past. It proved not to be a trend, however, as Scorsese jumped back to modern times with a tale of greed and deception in Las Vegas with his 1995 release, Casino.
Scorsese showed his support of film history in 1990 by becoming president of the Film Foundation, an organization dedicated to film preservation. He has also been very active in promoting independent film makers, and in 1994 became a member of the advisory board for the Independent Film Channel on cable television. On October 9, 1996, the American Film Institute announced that Scorsese would be awarded its 1997 Life Achievement Award, which he accepted on February 21, 1997. In addition, he received the prestigious Wexner Prize in March 1997, for originality in the arts. His next film, Kundun, the story of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was released in September 1997. A director of 20 feature films and documentaries, he has also written a number of screenplays since his first film was released in 1968. His steady output as a filmmaker is expected to continue into the twenty-first century.
Further Reading on Martin Scorsese
Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper & Row, 1979, p. 1028.
Halliwell, Leslie, Halliwell's Film Guide, 7th ed., Harper & Row, 1989, pp. 22, 135, 560, 584, 665, 723, 994-995.
Interview, October 1993, pp. 62-63, 135.
Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1997, p. F1.
New York Times, March 8, 1997, p. A13.
Partisan Review, 1994, pp. 658-664.
"http://www.msstate.edu/Movies/search.html," in Internet Movie Database, 1996.