Martin Scorsese is tipped for the Best Director Oscar with 'The Aviator' but whether he wins or loses, injustice will be done, writes Donald Clarke
Whatever happens in Los Angeles's Kodak Theatre on February 27th, some sort of injustice will be visited on Martin Scorsese. Should he win the Best Director Oscar for The Aviator, a visually overpowering, emotionally sterile treatment of the early life of Howard Hughes, he will become one of those Hollywood legends who, late in their careers, receive what is essentially a lifetime achievement award for work that is not among their best. But should Scorsese lose he will retain his place alongside Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick as the greatest film-makers in the English language never to take home a Best Direc tor statuette.
It is only two years since we last had this conversation. In 2003, the diminutive Italian-American with the caterpillar eyebrows was nominated for the ambitious, but barely coherent, Gangs of New York, which, like The Aviator, required the presence of callow Leonardo DiCaprio to secure financing. Many felt that Scorsese, swept along by the notoriously rapacious publicity engine that is Harvey Weinstein's Miramax Pictures, was campaigning a little too vigorously for that award. "I think my friends, my family and Harvey want it more than I do," he countered in between supermarket openings. "I've sort of come to terms with the fact I'm not going to get it." Few believed him, but he gallantly began the standing ovation when Roman Polanski, somebody else who properly deserved the award 30 years earlier, won for the workmanlike The Pianist.
As he leapt to his feet and began banging his teeny hands together, Scorsese, moments earlier a nervous supplicant, seemed to turn back into the nation's most devoted film fanatic.
Raised in the bustle of New York's Little Italy, the setting for his breakthrough picture Mean Streets, the future director ate up movies as a child. A formative experience came when his mother (later to give touching, funny performances in several of her son's films) took the delicate, asthmatic boy to King Vidor's notorious 1949 western Duel in the Sun. "From the opening titles I was mesmerised," he later explained. "The burning sun, the overt sexuality. A flawed film, maybe. Yet the hallucinatory quality of the imagery has never weakened for me."
Despite this early intoxication, Scorsese's first ambition was to be a simple parish priest and, with that in mind, he entered a seminary after leaving high school. The director's biographers, like those of Stalin, tend to make a great deal of their subject's unfulfilled vocation and it is true that his early films feast on Christian iconography. But nobody so obsessed with celluloid could have been happy juggling baptisms and funerals. Scorsese, his Catholicism lapsing daily, duly enrolled in New York University film school in 1960 and quickly established a reputation as an urgent, original talent.
After finishing his début, no-budget feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door, Scorsese, who had always been as keen on exploitation pictures as art cinema, went to work for the great schlockmeister Roger Corman. The efficient 1972 road movie Boxcar Bertha helped prove that the young tyro knew his way around a camera. Mean Streets, in which Harvey Keitel and an obscure actor named Robert De Niro played two very different types of downtown wise guy, followed in 1973.
TODAY, WHEN SCORSESE'S influence so permeates American cinema, it is difficult to recall quite how original Mean Streets and its successor Taxi Driver once seemed. Directors such as John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and Dennis Hopper had been putting challenging subject matter before the public for some years, but Scorsese's films - energised by seamlessly integrated rock music - blended glum realism and the gaudily fantastic to create queasy new atmospheres. The young director, inspired by the films of the great English master Michael Powell, showed an unusual openness to the use of bold colours. While Francis Ford Coppola was turning the lights down on The Godfather and William Friedkin was making The French Connection as grey as cameras allow, Scorsese was seeking out cherry-red neon lights and brash yellow taxis.
And then there was that sense of spiritual ill-health that hung over the pictures. It was cruel of Scorsese (and De Niro) to allow us to identify with mad, homicidal Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and sad, obsessive Jake LaMotta in 1980's Raging Bull, but somehow we couldn't help ourselves.
As the 1970s progressed, Scorsese found himself being drawn into places as dark as those inhabited by his heroes. He had a complicated affair with Liza Minnelli while directing her in 1976's underrated New York, New York and then - this was wedding number four - married the actress Isabella Rossellini in 1979. You don't need any special psychiatric training to find something creepy in an obsessive movie fan romancing the daughters of both Judy Garland and Ingrid Bergman.
MEANWHILE, NEVER A particularly healthy fellow, Scorsese was tearing his insides out through levels of cocaine ingestion that would shame the average rock star. Things eventually came to a head at the 1978 Telluride film festival when, after snorting a rough batch, Marty began coughing up blood and then blacked out. De Niro came to see him in hospital and bawled him out. "What's the matter with you, Marty?" he said. "Don't you want to see if your daughter is going to grow up and get married?"
Still frail and nervous, Scorsese went on to direct De Niro to his finest performance in Raging Bull. Telling the story of the brief rise and lengthy fall of the boxer Jake La Motta, the film has an unforgiving, relentless cruelty unique to mainstream (if that's what it is) American film. It is hard not to imagine Scorsese constructing the story of LaMotta's decline as a warning to himself. The Oscar went to Robert Redford for Ordinary People.
Though there are no duds among Scorsese's films of the 1980s - The Last Temptation of Christ, The King of Comedy, After Hours - nothing he produced held any of the uncomfortable energy of those earlier masterpieces. It was not until 1990's Goodfellas, in which he cheekily tried to beat the fast-cutting 1980s brat pack directors at their own game, that he achieved a true return to form. The Oscar went to Kevin Costner, another actor turned director, for Dances With Wolves.
And then what? The Age of Innocence seems awfully decorous even for an Edith Wharton adaptation. Casino is just Goodfellas in the desert. Bringing Out the Dead was Taxi Driver in an ambulance. Happily married to literary editor Helen Morris since 1999, Scorsese, whose most invigorating recent films have been documentaries on Italian and American cinema, appears to be slipping into comfortable mediocrity.
There were stories of the director stepping blithely over dead bodies during the deeply troubled shooting of Gangs of New York, but the finished product engenders passion only in those infuriated by its narrative jumble.
Still, we don't begrudge him his apparent domestic happiness. And if The Aviator, which is shortlisted for 11 Oscars, finally brings Scorsese - currently an uninviting 4/9 favourite at the bookies - a tall, gold paperweight, no true film lover will complain too vociferously. Mind you, Marty must have shivered when he realised that his main rival, one Clint Eastwood, is an actor turned director.