Marty versus Clint
Note: This opinion-piece was originally written to appear in a newspaper just prior to the 2005 Academy Awards; I have not updated it here. My evaluation of the subsequent careers of both directors has shifted several times since, and can be traced in the ongoing reviews on this website. (November 2020)
If the Academy Awards amounted to anything more than the mainstream American film industry congratulating itself, I would be deliriously happy if, come Monday night, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004) beat Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) for the Best Film and Best Director Oscars. [Postscript: It did.] Because whereas the former shows a director at the relaxed height of his artistic and storytelling powers, the latter reveals a filmmaker who has well and truly lost his way.
The careers of Eastwood and Scorsese make for a pointed study in contrasts. From the very start of his transition from acting to directing with Play Misty for Me in 1971, Eastwood has managed (through his company Malpaso) to rigorously control his budgets, crew, the right to final cut, indeed every single detail of the production process. (Rick Thompson wrote an iluminating article in 1987 bringing out Eastwood’s kinship, on this level, with Woody Allen.) Working steadily in such a manner, Eastwood has elbowed out the room to sometimes try new or odd things, to attempt something (for him) a bit different, while still keeping his career-show on the road.
Never once has Eastwood’s career been blighted by tales of studio or producer interference of the kind that Scorsese suffered, spectacularly and publicly, with Harvey Weinstein over Gangs of New York (2002). And never has the presence of a star – for instance, Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County (1995) – derailed Eastwood’s judgement the way that Scorsese’s current dependence on Leonardo DiCaprio has damaged his.
Of course, Scorsese does not have Eastwood’s stardom as an actor to back him up – only an auteur level of public-figure celebrity. But it is remarkable how, while Eastwood placidly makes a film each year, some great (Unforgiven, 1992) and others not so great (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, 1998) but all unmistakeably his, Scorsese’s career has regularly been bedevilled by charges of compromise and sell-out.
When one takes a hard, synoptic view of Scorsese’s achievement, there are really only four films on which his reputation as a celebrated auteur rests: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990). In other words, the key collaborations with Robert De Niro. These are not, in my opinion, Scorsese’s only outstanding works – I hold New York, New York (1977), The King of Comedy (1982), The Age of Innocence (1993), Kundun (1997) and especially Casino (1996) in high esteem – but those royal four are the ones in which his vision or sensibility is best and most frequently identified (and he may himself agree with that estimation).
In the eyes of critics and even many fans, the rest of Scorsese’s filmography is littered with so-so projects taken on essentially to stay afloat. Boxcar Bertha (1972) was an early exercise in genre filmmaking for B movie mogul Roger Corman, dismissed by its director as inauthentic – in a formative story oft-repeated by Scorsese, John Cassavetes counselled him that it was “piece of shit” and a path to be turned away from. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), however fine a movie in its own terms, was an uncharacteristic assignment: Scorsese’s only “women’s picture”, taken for the opportunity to work with the then-stellar Ellen Burstyn.
Twelve years later, the star-driven The Color of Money (1986), a curious sequel to the classic The Hustler (1961) featuring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman, helped Marty out of a career slump, as did, in a more modest “indie” vein, the ingeniously manic comedy After Hours (1985). And it is intriguing to note that, in 1980, Scorsese even referred to Raging Bull as a project belonging more to De Niro than himself!
The violent thriller Cape Fear (1991) was, for many observers (but not for me!), the nadir of Scorsese’s attempts to play by the rules of box-office-oriented entertainment. And as for the string of documentaries (on the histories on American and Italian cinema, and blues music) he has produced since the late ‘90s, they do nothing to dispel the growing image of Scorsese as an “elder”, a gracious cinephile-pedagogue-patron rather than a driven artist.
Even in his more personal and controllable assignments, like the uneven Bringing Out the Dead (1999) – scripted, like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, by Paul Schrader – Scorsese has had to face the inevitable charges that he is repeating his familiar mannerisms and obsessions, only at a lower voltage-level. This should bring up a disquieting, fundamental question for every diehard Scorsese fan. Was Marty ever really in control of the energies that shaped his best and most characteristic films?
Here’s what I mean by that provocation. Scorsese’s cinema is (like that of his younger twin, Abel Ferrara) an ode to neurosis, sometimes even to psychosis. When his films dive, with no clear or clean moral agenda, into the morass of masculine paranoia and possessiveness, anxiety and insecurity, they churn up powerful, largely unresolved contradictions. The Aviator, by contrast, is an antiseptic, over-extended, frequently flat fairy tale about a Fallen Great Man – a guy who (in its star’s words) “did it all and had it all” but paid the price with his sanity. Jake La Motta in Raging Bull was a far more captivating bundle of personal and social problems.
Anxiety has been the keynote of Scorsese’s professional history, and this has had both positive and negative consequences. An associate of his commented to me that, by the mid ‘90s, Scorsese was already gripped by the fear that, at any moment, he would be put out to pasture – turned into a figurehead of the industry, like an independent-maverick version of Charlton Heston, no longer given the resources necessary to make the films he wanted.
Whether or not this is actually the case, it is hard to avoid the thought that, at this point, Scorsese is clinging to the one person who can guarantee his foothold in a treacherous, youth-oriented industry: Leonardo DiCaprio. They have made two films in a row so far, and are currently starting on a third, an Americanisation (and condensation) of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs series, retitled The Departed (2006). This, too, seems like the kind of generic cop-out that turned Cassavetes pale in the screening room back in 1972. (2020 PS: I think, in the event and to date, it is Scorsese’s very worst film.)
As good an actor as DiCaprio actor (sometimes) is, does anyone truly think he has the stature and screen craft to rival De Niro in his immortal collaborations with Scorsese? DiCaprio is clearly in Seventh Heaven: The Aviator was a project he initiated with Executive Producer Michael Mann (who was very smart not to direct it), and he is revelling in his ongoing association with Scorsese. Who, in his situation, wouldn’t? But how convincing, varied or deep is DiCaprio, really, when playing Howard Hughes?
Scorsese, unlike such masters as Luis Buñuel or David Cronenberg, has found it very hard to move on from the chaotically productive anxieties of his younger self. His films can still exhibit the outward signs of manic energy – the frenetic editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, the nervy performances, the violent set-pieces, the impressionistic effects of mood and psychology changing every few seconds as in his splendid episode of New York Stories (1989) – but the inner fire, it seems to me, is gone. The Gangs of New York experience would appear to have broken something in him, with possibly traumatic after-effects.
Eastwood, by contrast, cultivated from the very beginning a more measured and distanced classicism; it has aged well into a serenity that is variously melancholic, whimsical and devastatingly wise. Million Dollar Baby manages to capture all these tones in one film.
In Hollywood, there is a well-known career formula that many fine filmmakers, from Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola to Jim McBride and Brian De Palma, try valiantly to follow: make one for the studio and one for yourself. That’s to say, a standardised assignment (usually of one genre or other), and then a personal project. Yet, as an ambition, this may ultimately be as unproductive as the equally famous notion that auteurs should plot their commercial assignments on two tiers: a first level of simple, vulgar entertainment for the masses, and a more subtly sophisticated level of references, allusions and signature touches for aficionados.
Scorsese’s career has suffered from attempting to implement both of these dubious strategies. Eastwood, by contrast, has never been compelled to play such games. He has made starkly different kinds of movies, but there is no sense that Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Bronco Billy (1980), Honkytonk Man (1982) or Absolute Power (1997) are any less personal to him than Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby.
Ultimately, Scorsese’s career shows the perils of having been a part of the so-called Movie Brat generation of the 1970s. Influenced by the Nouvelle Vague, by American outsider-rebels such as Samuel Fuller or Nicholas Ray, and characterised by an extreme self-consciousness about classic movies and genres, the work of Scorsese and his confrères has faltered in finding a workable path to maturity.
Eastwood began directing in the same period, but is tellingly almost never included in surveys of that particular “generation”. He chose a smarter, less fashionable but more durable orientation. Inspired by his mentor Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, 1972), he concentrated on developing his craft and finding inside the standard genres what most interested him.
He thereby slowly teased out his life-long themes – and the result is a masterwork like Million Dollar Baby that will endure, not a flash-in-the-sky like The Aviator.
© Adrian Martin 4 March 2005