Martin Scorsese’s first feature film in 1967, Who’s Knocking at My Door?, would introduce him to Harvey Keitel and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker who he would continue to work with throughout his career. Before he made his breakthrough with Mean Streets, Scorsese tuned his skills and ‘business’ knowledge by making Boxcar Bertha for the legendary Roger Corman the man responsible for launching the careers of James Cameron and Francis Ford Coppola among others. Mean Streets burst on to the scene in 1973 featuring Scorsese’s signature themes of Catholicism and redemption along with what would later be referred to as his trademark style; gritty backdrops, raw camera work, rapid edits and a stylish rock soundtrack were merged to great effect which also featured a standout performance by a young Robert De Niro who would become a long term collaborator.
After Scorsese directed Elyen Burstyn to an Oscar in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, he would again team up with De Niro in the controversial Paul Schrader scribed Taxi Driver. Charting the breakdown of Travis Bickel, the film featured the now immortal “you talking to me?” line and a young Jodie Foster as a prostitute. The film was criticised for its graphic violence, especially during the climatic sequence, and the fact thirteen year old Jodie Foster portrayed a prostitute and was on-set during the violent conclusion. Along with a host of other nominations, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes film festival and solidified Scorsese as an established director.
The following years were tough for Scorsese, after the financial failure of New York, New York he had developed a bad cocaine habit and entered a deep depression. He managed to make a pair of documentaries; The Last Waltz, following the final concert of musicians The Band, and American Boy in 1978. It is widely suggested that Robert De Niro insisted Scorsese kick his drug habit so the duo could bring the story of boxer Jake La Motta to the screen in Raging Bull. The story of the middleweight champion is one of, if not the greatest, of Scorsese’s career. Filmed in high contrast black and white it is visually stunning and it is obvious Scorsese put everything he had into it utilising a range of stylised camera techniques, it is widely considered a masterpiece. The film captured two Academy Awards including Best Actor for De Niro, however Robert Redford picked up Best Director.
Scorsese followed up Raging Bull with his fifth De Niro collaboration, The King of Comedy, a satirical look at celebrities and the media. Although not considered a commercial success, De Niro’s performance as aspiring comedian, Rupert Pupkin, is heavily praised by critics. Scorsese had hoped his next project would be an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel The Last Temptation of Christ but due to pressure from religious groups the project was pulled by studio bosses right before shooting was to set to begin. Dismayed at Paramount Pictures decision to halt The Last Temptation of Christ Scorsese stayed away from studio pictures; going back to basics by filming the independent After Hours before venturing into music videos shooting the iconic Bad for Michael Jackson, eventually making a return with his first real mainstream attempt, The Colour of Money in 1987. A sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler in which Paul Newman reprises his role from the original, it also features Tom Cruise as a young pool player who is taught the ways of hustling by veteran Fast Eddie. Newman would go on to win an Oscar for the role; he missed out 25 years earlier for the same character in the original. The success of the film would give Scorsese the freedom to finally make his personal project The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. Paul Schrader would pen the screenplay while Willem Defoe took on the role of Jesus Christ. The backlash from Christian groups was unprecedented with violence erupting during protests; Christian fundamentalists would firebomb a cinema screening the film. The anger came mainly from the sexual elements of the film and the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute; however Scorsese and Schrader set out to portray Jesus as a human being, rather than in the divine terms written in the Bible, showing his struggle with the temptation to sin like every regular man. Although not a commercial success the film was well received and continues to rightly win critical acclaim.
By Richard Bodsworth.