The director Martin Scorsese is just as perplexed as the rest of us as to why on earth he hasn't won an Oscar. The 62-year-old New Yorker, who has received five Oscar nods, takes a moment to compose his thoughts in an effort to shed some light on the dilemma. "I don't know how much it means to me any more. It's more about the movie at this point, because I'm too old for it," he finally says, with a trace of irritation.
"I think when you're young and have that first burst of energy and make five or six pictures in a row that tell the stories of all the things in life you want to say... well, maybe those are the films that should have won me the Oscar. When Taxi Driver was up for best picture, it got three other nominations: best actor (Robert De Niro), best supporting actress (Jodie Foster), and best music. But the director and writer were overlooked. I was so disappointed, I said: 'You know what, that's the way it's going to be.' What was I going to do, go home and cry?"
Speaking from his sunlit Beverly Hills hotel suite, Scorsese shrugs his shoulders and animatedly throws his hands up in the air. "Basically," he continues, "you make another movie, and another, and hopefully you feel good about every picture you make. And you say: 'My name is on that. I did that. It's OK.' But don't get me wrong, I still get excited by it all. That, I hope, will never disappear."
Like all Scorsese watchers, I was prepared to meet an excitable, bushy-eye-browed, stocky fellow who talks as if he has imbibed 20 cups of strongest coffee. And I wasn't disappointed. Not only are we the same height (both 5ft 3in), but Denis Healy has nothing on Scorsese's brows. He converses with such rapid fire that you feel that he's practically hollering at you, and though endearing, he is, at times, daunting.
You would think that he would have brought home an Oscar for his 1990 film Goodfellas, about the mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), which earned him some of the best notices of his career. And yet, Scorsese and his "Goodfellas" - thieves, thugs and cokeheads - were up against the noble Lakota Sioux and a white-knight Union soldier, in director/star Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. The Goodfellas producer Irwin Winkler acknowledged at the time: "The Academy doesn't favour violence that is too graphic. They like nice family films." Well, that didn't prevent the director from forging ahead, in 2002, with Gangs of New York, which was three hours of barbarism. Surely it can't be a case of losing Brownie points if your movie is too sadistic?
"I think a lot of it has to do with the nature of the community. I've lived here in Los Angeles, but I'm more of a New Yorker, and the nature of my films is regarded as somewhat violent and the language is considered tough," Scorsese muses, nodding his head. "As you grow older, you change. I make different films now. You don't make pictures for Oscars."
Scorsese's distinguished list of credits includes Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Casino and The Last Temptation of Christ. He has tackled many genres, from dark comedy to thriller to period drama to film noir to Michael Jackson video. His fascination with the grimy underbelly of Manhattan is in contrast to the rose-coloured tint that fellow-Manhattanite Woody Allen offers in his movies. This was especially the case with Gangs of New York, which failed to win any of the 10 Oscars for which it was nominated.
Like Hitchcock, Scorsese makes "blink and you'll miss them" cameo appearances in some of his films. He played a wealthy homeowner in Gangs, and a photographer in The Age of Innocence, but his dry humour was best displayed as the voice of Sykes, the puffer fish, in last summer's animated hit, Shark Tale. "One has to have a sense of humour," he says, grinning. "I have three daughters, one in her thirties, one in her twenties, and my youngest has just turned five. So my friend Jeff Katzenberg at DreamWorks said to me: 'Why don't you make a picture your kid can see?' Next thing I know, they're drawing up this character with the eyebrows... and I asked: 'So, how long will this voiceover take, two sessions?'."
Clasping his hands, Scorsese starts to laugh harder. "'No, Marty, this will take a year and a half.' So, I would be making my movie, and I'd have to go away for a couple of hours to be a puffer fish. But the kid liked it and now has puffer-fish dolls."
His latest offering, The Aviator, takes us away from his familiar home turf to the Hollywood Golden Era of the late 1920s to 1940s. Scorsese reunites with DiCaprio, who plays the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. He says of his leading man: "Leo and I have a 32-year age gap, but we seem to be attracted to similar characters and storytelling. He's not afraid to deal with characters that have a darker side. We get to see how the young Hughes falls, to the point where you feel for him and how he's being manipulated by his own disease of madness."
When Scorsese received the script on his desk, his immediate thoughts were that his peers were playing a prank as his fear of flying is widely known in industry circles. "The first two words I saw were "The Aviator", which, interestingly, is a term no longer used today." He chuckles. "But as I read on, I discovered that it was far from a joke. I turned the page, and there was this young man out in the desert making this crazy film, and I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's Howard Hughes directing Hell's Angels!'.
"I first became aware of him as a recluse who had his hands in everything when I saw his name on RKO pictures in the early Fifties. There are still stories coming out about his involvement in Watergate. But I always knew that Brian De Palma wanted to make a film on Hughes, so it was forbidden territory."
Scorsese doesn't come up for air. "I was fascinated by his plane crashes, which resulted in his head injuries, causing frontal-lobe damage and, later, paranoia. He was on liquid codeine for the pain, which probably led to his phobias."
Cate Blanchett plays Katharine Hepburn, who endured a tumultuous three-year relationship with Hughes, who died aged 70 in 1976; Kate Beckinsale portrays Ava Gardner, and Gwen Stefani makes a brief appearance as Jean Harlow. "Hughes was supposed to have been with so many women during his lifetime, we're talking thousands, that you either do 40 hours of film on that or you chose one area of his life," Scorsese adds, wide-eyed. "Ava Gardner was like a man, if you hit her she would hit you back. It's true that she almost killed him when she smashed him over the head with an ashtray. They took her for psychoanalysis, and when she returned to his mansion, Hughes had bugged the whole place. Those were very strange times."
As a child, Scorsese was plagued with chronic asthma and was often bedridden. Instead of playing outdoors with other children, he would observe life from his bedroom in Little Italy. In hindsight, his disability proved to be fertile ground for the budding director's imagination. After entering a seminary in 1956, he ultimately decided against joining the priesthood. "I wasn't very astute," he says, lowering his voice to a whisper for the first time. "I was finally asked to leave, because I had met some young lovely lady and I fell in love. The world changed for me."
His five marriages produced the three aforementioned daughters. Scorsese graduated from New York University as a film major in 1964. Often referred to as a "walking film encyclopaedia" by his co-workers, Scorsese, who uses New York as a recurring character in many of his films, appears intent on educating the world about American history. He is undecided about whether his graphic interpretations of the city that never sleeps will ever evolve into a film about contemporary Manhattan. "If I continue to make films about New York, they will probably be set in the past. The 'new' New York I don't know much about," he says, shaking his head.
"It's not that I'm against contemporary film. I'm open to it in general, but I find the new colours of the city, the new Times Square, kind of shocking. I guess I'm stuck in a time warp," he says, smiling and shifting his thick-rimmed black glasses back up his nose. "I rarely go to the area I grew up in, which they now describe as 'chic'. New York is very different from the place I knew and loved."
He pauses. "But having said that, after watching Gangs of New York over and over again, it's clear to me that the struggle that people have to go through to create a decent life for themselves hasn't changed. The world has grown smaller, and the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger."
It was during the filming of Mean Streets that Scorsese forged a creative collaboration with Robert De Niro, who continues to star in many of his films. Retirement is a dirty word, rarely used by Scorsese, who is currently in preproduction on another gangster drama, The Departed. Slated to shoot next May, with Matt Damon and DiCaprio, it's a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong hit film that revolves around the rivalry between the Boston police force and an Irish- American gang.
Shuffling in his armchair, Scorsese leans forward. "I'm in a different chapter of my life," he suddenly says, with an air of contentment. "As time goes by and I grow older, I find that I need to just be quiet and think. There have been periods when I've locked myself away for days, but now it's different - I'm married and we have a daughter who is in my office the whole time."
He adds, with a laugh: "So, it's bang, bang, 'Daddy?', 'Come on in, yes?', 'Why are you talking so loud on the phone?', 'Because I'm trying to make a movie'!"
'The Aviator' opens on Boxing Day in London's West End, and on 7 January nationwideReuse content