Is Martin Scorsese All That?

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The extended coronation of Martin Scorsese as the greatest living American moviemaker reached its climax with his Academy Award for Best Director for The Departed. As a minority of one, I have a confession to make: I'd much rather listen to Scorsese talk about movies than sit through one he directed.

Part of my disregard, I admit, stems from a distaste for grisly violence and my limited enthusiasm for the permutations of betrayal and revenge among gangsters. But you can't pin it all on squeamishness. I'll watch Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II every couple of years -- and be enthralled and devastated every time -- but I feel no need to endure Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York or The Departed ever again. The Coppola films are mature, multilayered portraits of human nature, and unmistakably the work of an artist. Scorsese's jittery carve-'em-ups are the output of a talented craftsman capable of discerning only his characters' simplest motivations.

You may say that I'm cheating by singling out Marty's mobsters, but I'm doing him a favor. Look at the rest of his oeuvre, and he comes off even worse. Consider the dearth of strong female characters in his movies, and tell me how a director who essentially ignores half of the population can be called a great filmmaker.

Women were a central focus of two early Scorsese movies, Boxcar Bertha (1972) and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), but it's been slim pickings since. On those rare occasions when Scorsese lets women into the center of the frame -- I'm thinking of Liza Minnelli in New York New York (1978), Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York (2002) -- they're defined in terms of the male lead rather than as equal protagonists.

The women we remember most from Scorsese movies got even worse treatment. (Coincidence? I think not.) They're typically presented (again through the eyes of the central male character) as the object of desire and eventually as a source of disappointment. That hit parade includes Taxi Driver (Jodie Foster as an adolescent prostitute), Raging Bull (Cathy Moriarty as a beaten wife), Casino (Sharon Stone as a beaten moll), and The Aviator (Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn). A 35-year career and five wives, yet that's the extent of Scorsese's onscreen portrayal of the female experience.


The great director John Ford, an idol of Scorsese's who's best known today for a slew of memorable Westerns he made with John Wayne, was likewise preoccupied with the way that men of action (read: violence) behave when women aren't around. Scorsese is singularly fluent at analyzing Ford's films, and pointing out the ways in which they reflected broader currents in American society, but he seems not to have applied the lesson to his own brutish movies.

Hence my preference for Scorsese's riffing about other people's films to experiencing his own. The exceptions are those rare occasions when he does both. If you can get your hands on A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies (1995) or Il Mio Viaggio in Italia/My Voyage to Italy (1999) -- or the rare Hollywood Mavericks (1990), which he didn't direct but graces with wonderfully affectionate commentary -- you'll encounter a man of remarkable wit, warmth, humility and insight. Scorsese's gifts as a guide are such that you'll fall in love with movies all over again. Needless to say, that's generally not the effect his films have on me.