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The Five Stages of Scorsese

A decade-by-decade walk through the films of Martin Scorsese, the best 50-year director ever

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Fifty years. Imagine doing anything for 50 years. Imagine owning a hardware store or visiting the same bakery or keeping a T-shirt around for that long. Imagine the attrition, the boredom, the dangling threads, the sheer time spent. Martin Scorsese has been making movies professionally for exactly five decades next month. He’s stronger than ever.

His first film, the skittering Who’s That Knocking at My Door, was released in 1967 and instantaneously clarified something new in American movies. A 25-year-old Roger Ebert called it "absolutely genuine, artistically satisfying and technically comparable to the best films being made anywhere. I have no reservations in describing it as a great moment in American movies." Scorsese was 25. Ebert and Scorsese, then a recent NYU film school graduate who’d decided not pursue a life in the priesthood, were contemporaries of a sort, forging a new dialogue about cinema in this country. In Who’s That Knocking at My Door, the young director imparts lessons from the French New Wave and documentary-style technique, colliding them with ingenious bursts of musical interpolation, broad sex-comedy slapstick, and distressed Catholic angst. What a combination.

Fifty years later, his new film, the Christian missionary saga Silence, bears few specific similarities to that first movie. It is tense, serious, and free of pop music. But there is a determinism, a relentlessness that Scorsese calls "working out," coursing through the movie — and of course, that persistent Catholic guilt is there, too.

Despite his thematic consistency, across the decades, Scorsese’s work can be clearly demarcated into defined periods. There are several reasons for these divisions — professional success, personal setbacks, financial opportunity (or its opposite). Seeing his career — a difficult thing to overstate in its range, achievement, and influence — this way provides a framework for understanding some of the how and the why of his movies. Here are the five stages of Scorsese.

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

1967–75: The Come-up, aka "It’s All Bullshit Except the Pain"

Films: Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967); Street Scenes (1970); Boxcar Bertha (1972); Mean Streets (1973); Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974); Italianamerican (1974)

A lot can happen for a kid from the Lower East Side in a short span of time. After a five-year interim between his first feature and his next, Mean Streets came on like a shot, backfiring into the critical consciousness with force. Its path to theaters is sort of amazing, and with one false move in the chain of events, we might not be here doing this right now. After completing Boxcar Bertha for the exploitation producer Roger Corman, Scorsese was told by the great independent auteur John Cassavetes, "You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit." So Scorsese set out to make something closer to his debut — more personal, more groundbound. Corman reportedly offered to bankroll his script Mean Streets if Scorsese went with an all-black cast. Instead, the director persuaded Jonathan Taplin, a rock manager who’d worked with Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and the Band, to produce the movie (which would pay off in more ways than one).

Mean Streets was made with the cast he wanted in the way he wanted, and he was lauded as the next great American director. Within months he’d been hired by Warner Bros. to make Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore with Ellen Burstyn, who was coming off Oscar nominations for The Exorcist and The Last Picture Show. The movie — one part fever dream, one part fevered drama — earned Burstyn an Academy Award and threw critics off Scorsese’s scent. This was an unlikely follow-up for the hoodlum-sympathizing director of Mean Streets. It was derisively called "a women’s picture." A narrative arc came back into view with Italianamerican, a strangely winning, revealing, and altogether homey portrait of Scorsese’s chatterbox parents, Charles and Catherine. The director who started his career in the LES ended this phase there, too.

The Lesson: Don’t take the easy money.

The Signature Movie: Mean Streets

1976–83: The Fury, aka "Screwheads"

Films: Taxi Driver (1976); New York, New York (1977); The Last Waltz (1978); American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978); Raging Bull (1980); The King of Comedy (1983)

Maybe the single greatest five-movie run in cinema history? There isn’t much to be said about the string of films Scorsese pinned together in this time that hasn’t already been etched into stone — pure kinetic energy, delirious technique, risks in tone and violence and intensity. It’s a cocaine binge from the anxiety of Watergate’s end hurtling headlong into Reagan’s America. Political death, social death, romantic death, physical death, celebrity death. One important element: After this astounding collection — and don’t miss American Boy, a sympathetic doc about Prince, a good friend and heroin addict — Scorsese made a bid to adapt Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Following a run like that, who wouldn’t be emboldened. The production was ultimately scotched by Paramount’s Barry Diller, gun-shy after a series of protests against religious-themed films in recent years. The cancellation nearly destroyed Scorsese.

The Lesson: Stick to your guns.

The Signature Movie: Raging Bull

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

1985–89: The Wilderness, aka "Money Won Is Twice As Sweet As Money Earned"

Films: After Hours (1985); The Color of Money (1986); "Mirror, Mirror" (from Amazing Stories) (1986); "Bad" (Michael Jackson video) (1987); The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); "Life Lessons" (from New York Stories) (1989)

"I thought sure the studios should make sure that Marty always had the money to make the movies he wanted to make. He is one of these rare people, and we should just do that." Those are the words of one-time United Artists production head David Field while discussing The King of Comedy (and that movie’s relative failure) in Mary Pat Kelly’s book Martin Scorsese: A Journey.

Those words define this period, which at the time seemed like a series of savvy cash-grabs to build up equity in an effort to get Last Temptation back in production. But upon further reflection, these studio jobs and small-weight assignments amount to a productive and innovative period, including an era-defining music video that tangles with camp; one of the only truly good sequels ever made; his first dabble in series television; and a dystopian comedy set — where else? — in Scorsese’s old stomping ground of a (much-changed) LES. My favorite thing from this era is the operatic "Life Lessons," a somewhat forgotten short-story film about a Jackson Pollock–esque, middle-aged painter (played by Nick Nolte) working desperately to hold the attention of an assistant (Rosanna Arquette) who has grown weary of his advances and erratic behavior. If you haven’t seen it, seek out New York Stories immediately. It’s no surprise this is the last thing he made before taking on Goodfellas — they’re running sets from the same playbook.

The Lesson: Keep the faith.

The Signature Movie: The Last Temptation of Christ

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

1990–99: The Master Class, aka "I’m in Construction"

Films: Goodfellas (1990); Made in Milan (short) (1990); Cape Fear (1991); The Age of Innocence (1993); A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995); Casino (1995); Kundun (1997); My Voyage to Italy (1999); Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Watching Goodfellas now is like stumbling into my mom’s house — the furniture hasn’t moved. It’s safe and happy-making and also kind of absurd. I could close my eyes and find my way in no matter the entry point. It’s a lot like the other movies Scorsese made in this time, a cycle through film genres operating at the highest level — from gangster pictures to spiritual excursions; stories of wealth and exercises in the thriller; a pair of film-history documentaries, from the American archives to the Italian neorealists; a breathless period chamber drama that becomes something else; and a breathless modern procedural that becomes something else. At the height of middle age, Scorsese leaned into all of his interests across a decade, tempting the fates by returning to the ground of some of his best work and leveling up. He could have died after Raging Bull and still been sainted, but this decade provided the kind of second chapter and deepened filmography that puts him alongside just a few directors: Hitchcock, Ford, Kubrick, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini. Google "best directors ever." See?

The Lesson: Don’t worry about repeating yourself.

The Signature Movie: Goodfellas

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

2001-Present: The Busy Finale, aka "Sell Me This Pen!"

Films: The Neighborhood (short from The Concert for New York City) (2001); Gangs of New York (2002); "Feel Like Going Home" (from The Blues) (2003); The Aviator (2004); No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005); The Departed (2006); The Key to Reserva (short) (2007); Shine a Light (2008); Shutter Island (2010); A Letter to Elia (2010); Public Speaking (2010); "Boardwalk Empire" (from Boardwalk Empire) (2010); George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011); Hugo (2011); The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); The 50 Year Argument (2014); The Audition (short) (2015); "Pilot" (from Vinyl) (2016); Silence (2016)

A sexagenarian who gets more productive the older he gets. Nineteen projects in 15 years! This has been an interesting century for Scorsese, who has shown little fealty to the traditional feature-film form while exploring his early roots in documentary and short films. He’s like a student again. And a TV auteur. (Sort of.) That hasn’t prevented epic works for which he’s been angling for decades — particularly Gangs of New York, and now Silence, two major passion projects of his adult life. And, of course, he finally won Best Director at the Academy Awards for The Departed, which is sort of karaoke Scorsese in the best way possible. From this era, I’m particularly fond of the docs, especially Public Speaking, a portrait of his pal Fran Lebowitz, and No Direction Home, his examination of the Bob Dylan myth. Also: The Wolf of Wall Street, a pure comedy that was misunderstood by some as either GoodFidelity or a less-than-profound statement on American greed. Because Scorsese directs with such flair and control, the funniest script of the decade feels more like one of the most ridiculous and manic. I loved it.

For his next trick, he’s at work on The Irishman, a reunion with his original muse Robert De Niro — it’s their first movie together since 1995’s Casino. It’s a gangster movie that will reportedly utilize de-aging digital technology to make DeNiro look decades younger. How fitting.

The Lesson: Never retire.

The Signature Movie: The Departed

My Ranking of Martin Scorsese’s Movies (Feature-Length Only)

34. Shine a Light

33. My Voyage to Italy

32. Boxcar Bertha

31. A Letter to Elia

30. George Harrison: Living in the Material World

29. The 50 Year Argument

28. Who’s That Knocking at My Door

27. Shutter Island

26. Public Speaking

25. Kundun

24. A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

23. The Last Temptation of Christ

22. Hugo

21. Gangs of New York

20. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

19. The Color of Money

18. Bringing Out the Dead

17. Silence

16. The Aviator

15. Cape Fear

14. The Age of Innocence

13. New York, New York

12. The Departed

11. Mean Streets

10. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

9. "Life Lessons" (from New York Stories)

8. Casino

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

6. Raging Bull

5. The Last Waltz

4. Taxi Driver

3. After Hours

2. The King of Comedy

1. Goodfellas

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