News and Commentary – Martin Scorsese: The New Hollywood Years
Martin Scorsese turned seventy-five on November 17, a milestone that naturally lends itself to looking back at his remarkable career. (Though, we hasten to add, not in a valedictory way—he is currently working on one film, has another in pre-production, and plans are already taking shape for the one after that.) Given that Scorsese’s overflowing oeuvre now stretches across more than fifty films and fifty years, we will limit ourselves here, as is our wont, to the New Hollywood years (if with a slight extension of our usual endpoint for the period).
Depending on how you count, Scorsese is in the first or second generation of New Hollywood filmmakers. An older cohort, represented by figures like Arthur Penn (born in 1922) and Sidney Lumet (1924), served in the army during World War II, learned their craft in the Golden Age of Live Television in the 1950s—and were about forty years old when the Beatles arrived in America. Scorsese, born in 1942, ran with a different crowd, as one of the “movie brats” who came of age as obsessive cinephiles, learned how to make movies in film schools, and whose formative years were shaped by post-war Americana—and, notably, by rock and roll. This latter, essential influence is particularly pronounced with Scorsese. “The music was always very close to me,” he once explained, “I am almost reverent to it.” That devotion, that sensibility, informs his entire career, and is seen with ever greater clarity in the context of his more recent non-fiction films centering on Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and George Harrison.
A child of Little Italy (by way of Queens, we will note with pride), Scorsese attended film school at NYU, where he was caught up in what Phillip Lopate aptly dubbed “The ‘Heroic’ age of movie going,” when college age urbanites descended in droves on thriving art-house theaters screening wave after wave of sensational new foreign films and revivals of old Hollywood classics. As Scorsese would later recall, “The French New Wave . . . the Italian Art Cinema . . . What these movies gave us film students was a sense of freedom, of being able to do anything.” His first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (which we have discussed here), plainly reflects these influences, as well as the clear imprint of the freewheeling, real-people-on-the-streets style of trailblazing American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes.
After Knocking, Scorsese’s career was not quick to gain traction. He shot some of the footage at Woodstock and then worked as one of the editors on the film that would immortalize the festival; in 1972 he directed the Roger Corman exploitation feature Boxcar Bertha (not much there, but reviews were kind and fans of Barbara Hershey should catch up with it at some point). Scorsese screened Bertha for Cassavetes, who responded with that rarest of gifts—a selfless act of friendship. “You just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit,” Cassavetes told him, and urged him to work on a personal project he believed in. Following this advice, Scorsese withdrew from the next Corman assignment he had lined up and dusted off his old screenplay, "Season of the Witch." That would become Mean Streets, with Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Amy Robinson—and it was indeed an effort “to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived.” It was also a critical sensation. Pauline Kael lauded the film as “A true original of our period, a triumph of personal film-making”; Roger Ebert’s four stars praised a movie that “feels like life in New York”; Vincent Canby called it “thoroughly, beautifully realized.” Scorsese had arrived. (Do we owe it all to Cassavetes? It’s pretty to think so.)
On the strength of Mean Streets, Ellen Burstyn hired Scorsese to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. A change of pace for the director, Alice features strong performances (Diane Ladd, Harvey Keitel, and Kris Kristofferson are among those in supporting roles), and engages, with thoughtfulness (and to some contestation) issues associated with the then-highly-politicized women’s movement.
After Alice, Scorsese returned to the streets of New York City—with a vengeance. Taxi Driver, a landmark of the New Hollywood, captured the essence of the City at its most . . . lawless, desperate, drop-dead, garbage-strewn, shattered-hot-summer of an urban nightmare. A collaborative effort – it was Paul Schrader’s script (and story), is impossible to imagine without Robert De Niro’s defining performance, and reflects the important contributions of cinematographer Michael Chapman and the last score composed by Bernard Hermann (Citizen Kane, Psycho) – Taxi Driver was also enormously controversial. Vilified by some critics for its attitudes about women, minorities, and for purportedly glorifying guns and gun violence, our position is that although Travis is undoubtedly a racist and misogynist character, there is an important distinction between the pathologies of the character and the morality of the film—which, as we have discussed here, is more than anything a study in loneliness and alienation. (It is also a cinephile’s feast, with exquisite, elegant references to Hitchcock, Godard, Melville, Ford, Malle, Bresson and others.) But above all, and whatever else it may be, Taxi Driver is a soaring masterpiece.
The balance of the 1970s were more difficult for Scorsese—and drugs were certainly a factor in this less fertile (and personally precarious) interlude. New York, New York has its advocates, but we are not among them. On the other hand, in the midst of this haze Scorsese did manage to direct The Last Waltz, the essential concert film/documentary about the last performance of The Band, spectacularly assisted by legends on stage (including Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters)—and behind the scenes as well, with Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs among the seven camera operators filming the proceedings.
Scorsese would resurface in 1980 – thanks to the persistence of Robert De Niro – with another masterpiece, Raging Bull. De Niro’s all-in performance (alongside Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty) has, understandably, dominated the way most viewers remember that movie—but it is another master-class in filmmaking from Scorsese, once again in collaboration with vital partners (Chapman, Schrader, here writing alongside long-time Scorsese affiliate Mardik Martin, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker). With Raging Bull, Scorsese closed his New Hollywood years with another film that must be counted among the enduring achievements of American cinema.
Martin Scorsese: The New Hollywood Years
Who’s That Knocking at my Door? (1967) *
Boxcar Bertha (1972)
Mean Streets (1973) **
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) *
Taxi Driver (1976) ***
New York, New York (1977)
The Last Waltz (1978) *
Raging Bull (1980) ***
Who's That Knocking at my Door (Harvey Keitel with Zina Bethune)
Mean Streets: "You Don't Make Up for Your Sins in Church"
Charlie (Keitel) on the run with Johnny Boy (De Niro) and Theresa (Amy Robinson)
The Man Who Wasn’t There – Scorsese’s chilling cameo in Taxi Driver
Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull
Jake Gets Some Friendly Advice From Gangster Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto)
Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) Has Had Enough—Again