There's something about Marty

A cinema legend who's never won an Oscar. An auteur who casts Hollywood stars. A choirboy whose work outrages the Catholic Church. As 'The Departed' opens to acclaim, Ed Caesar brings Martin Scorsese into focus
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The Independent Culture

Scorsese... and the Catholic Church

"My whole life has been movies and religion," Scorsese once told reporters. "That's it. Nothing else."

Born to Italian-American parents, Scorsese was once an altar boy at the old St Patrick's Cathedral in New York. He seriously thought about entering the priesthood, and briefly attended a seminary in 1956, but the movies proved a greater calling. Scorsese attended church regularly until his objection to, and the Catholic church's support for, the Vietnam War led him into agnosticism.

His spiritual life, though, permeates his films. The "passion" that his lead characters are forced to endure has its origins in the Catholic narrative of redemption and sin, and from the Bach St John's Passion that plays over the opening credits of Casino, to the near-sacrificial bloodletting that has coloured his films throughout his career, and his leading characters' frequent falls from grace, Catholicism is everywhere.

He explained: "I'm a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic - there's no way out of it."

Scorsese ... and the team

Just as Scorsese loves to return to certain actors, and certain themes, he loves to keep his team together. The editor Thelma Shoonmaker, who has won two Oscars, for The Aviator and Raging Bull, is a mainstay of that posse. Elmer Bernstein, Howard Shore and Robbie Robertson worked with him on the music for Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Casino, and Gangs of New York. Elaine and Saul Bass designed the opening credit sequences for four movies.

Scorsese ... and his boys

Marty's boys - Bob, Harvey, Joe and Leo - are as much a part of his pictures as a gory death or a whip-smart one-liner. Robert De Niro is, perhaps, the actor most associated with Scorsese, having collaborated on eight pictures, including Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Casino. Scorsese and De Niro have remained great friends. It is rumoured they are working on a screenplay about their childhoods in New York, and the director still shows almost every prospective script to De Niro, even if De Niro ultimately has no involvement. Scorsese admits that Raging Bull was made purely on De Niro's suggestion, and that he knows nothing about boxing.

Two other actors known for their involvement with Scorsese, especially during his early years, are Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci. Keitel's collaborations with the director led to some of his most memorable big screen moments - as the pimp, "Sport", in Taxi Driver, and as "Judas" in The Last Temptation of Christ. Meanwhile Pesci's "Funny How?" monologue in Goodfellas remains one of the more hilarious studies in psychosis that anyone could ever wish to witness.

It is clear, though, where the director's affections currently lie. Leonardo DiCaprio, once just a pretty face in Titanic, has become Scorsese's new front man: in Gangs of New York; The Aviator; The Departed; and as the eponymous lead in his proposed biopic The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. On set, Scorsese has taken DiCaprio under his wing, even lending him his collection of obscure early 20th century DVDs to enhance the star's film education.

Scorsese ... and the Academy

Scorsese has made 20 feature films. And, although he has been nominated for a Best Director Oscar five times (for Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator), he has never won. He has also been shortlisted for two Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars (Age of Innocence, Goodfellas), but has fallen at the last hurdle with these awards too. Scorsese's record puts him in hallowed company. Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman had five nominations for Best Director each, but never carried home the statue, while Stanley Kubrick and Federico Fellini were only marginally less unfortunate, with four each to their names.

Scorsese, though, is sanguine about his relationship with the Academy, as he explained after yet another Oscar near-miss: "I think when you are 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, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Music. But the director and writer were overlooked. I was so disappointed, [but] I said: 'You know what, that's the way it's going to be.' What was I going to do, go home and cry?"

Scorsese ... and Vietnam

In 1967, Scorsese made a dark, allegorical short called The Big Shave, which was a shocking indictment of America's role in Vietnam. The film featured an unnamed protagonist cutting himself while shaving. He continues to cut himself until he is bleeding dangerously all over his face, before slitting his throat.

Vietnam caused Scorsese's rupture with the Catholic Church, and plays like a organ pedal-note in the background of Taxi Driver. His main protagonist, Travis Bickle, is a Vietnam vet, and to watch Bickle's deterioration is to watch the state of a post-lapserian America. The theme largely evaporated from Scorsese's pictures after 1976.

Scorsese ... and women

In 1974, Scorsese was slated to direct the feminist-leaning pictureAlice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, after Francis Ford Coppola had suggested his name to the lead, Ellen Burstyn, right. When Burstyn and Scorsese met, shortly before shooting commenced, the actress was said to have asked Scorsese what he knew about women. He replied: "Nothing, but I'd like to learn."

Although Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore won Burstyn a Best Actress Oscar, it turned out to be an anomaly in Scorsese's film career. Men have been the major subject of his gaze ever since. Indeed, in Scorsese's world, women are portrayed either as angels or whores (for an example of which, see Taxi Driver, where one lead character is a kind of angel, and the other is an actual whore), and claims have been made that the director's portrayal of women is stereotyped.

The director has been married five times: to Laraine Brennan in 1965; to Julia Cameron, in 1975; to Isabella Rossellini in 1979; to Barbara De Fina in February 1985; and to Helen Morris in 1999. He has three children.

Scorsese ... and New York City

Having grown up in a poor Italian neighbourhood in Queens, Scorsese went on to make his beloved New York City a star. The Apple drove his gritty, early forays, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver; provided the eponymous hero in New York, New York and the more recent Gangs of New York; and landed a best supporting credit in many of his subsequent projects.

Despite spending much of his professional life in Los Angeles, Scorsese has remained a fiercely partisan New Yorker. And he is willing to admit that a certain nostalgia has crept into his view of his hometown since his early career.

"If I continue to make films about New York," he said recently, "they will probably be set in the past. The 'new' New York I don't know much about ... I find the new colours of the city, the new Times Square, kind of shocking. I guess I'm stuck in a time warp."

Scorsese ... and his trademarks

Scorsese is the king of the tracking shot. It is a technique that reaches its glorious zenith in the much-pastiched Goodfellas scene that follows Ray Liotta through the kitchens and back corridors of a night club to his favourite table.

The director's other calling cards include, but are not exclusive to: opening his picture with a section taken from the middle of the narrative (Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino); filming his leading ladies in white in their first scene (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino); the voiceover by the lead character (Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York); and fast-cut, montage sequences set to rock music (almost everywhere).

Scorsese ... and violence

Although Scorsese says that "any sensible person must see that violence does not change the world and if it does, then only temporarily", his films contain scenes of buttock-tightening brutality. But it is a strange story that surrounds the most gruesome scene he has ever committed to film, the infamous "head-in-a-vice" brainfest in Casino.

Scorsese admitted, just before the movie was released, that he had filmed the vice scene knowing there would be immediate demands for its removal from the cinema version, and hoping that it would draw fire from some of the other violence. But, as it turned out, the American Film Classification Board turned a blind eye, and it has, no doubt, haunted casino cheats ever since. Scorsese, though, entirely rejects claims that he uses violence gratuitously.

"There is no such thing as pointless violence," he has argued. "City of God, is that pointless violence? It's reality, it's real life. It has to do with the human condition. Being involved in Christianity and Catholicism when I was very young, you have that innocence, the teachings of Chris. Deep down you want to think that people are really good - but reality outweighs that."

Scorsese ... outside cinema

Scorsese directed the music video for Michael Jackson's 1987 hit single "Bad". The full version of the video runs to 16 minutes, and contains an all-star cast, which includes a young Wesley Snipes as Mini Max. The action moves past a photograph of Scorsese on a subway poster. His contentious Last Temptation of Christ was playing in cinemas at the time.

Scorsese has directed Eric Clapton and the Band's video for "Further up the Road", and Robbie Robertson's video for "Somewhere down the Crazy River". He continued the geographic theme with the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home. He has directed adverts for Armani, Revlon, Johnnie Walker and American Express.

Scorsese ... and cameos

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese loves a minor role in his films. He appears as "Homicidal Passenger in Travis' Cab" in Taxi Driver; as "Barbizon stagehand" in Raging Bull; and as "Wealthy Homeowner" in Gangs of New York. He is also not averse to using his own voice, providing voiceovers in The Colour of Money and The Aviator.

Until their deaths, his parents (below), Charles and Catherine Scorsese, also had regular slots. Catherine covered everything from "Tommy's Mother" in Goodfellas to "Fruitstand Customer" in Cape Fear. Charles was also included as a "Fruitstand Customer" in Cape Fear.

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