Celebrate the legendary filmmakers birthday with his less-celebrated work.
Martin Scorsese is 74 today, one of the most revered and acclaimed film directors not only in America but the world. His most celebrated films – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz, Raging Bull, Goodfellas – are, likewise, some of the most celebrated of all. Even those entries in his filmography that receive slightly less critical and/or commercial exaltation are still pretty well received and/or successful (see: his maximalist 21st century blockbusters), so what follows here is less a claim at “deep cuts” than it is a simple observation that “hey, these pictures are pretty good too.”
Without further ado:
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
In which Ellen Burstyn, looking to follow up on her heat from The Exorcist, makes the inspired choice to hire Scorsese, himself hot from Mean Streets. The result is vibrantly alive, paradoxically singular yet familiar, the story of recent widow Burstyn’s attempts to restart the life she’d abandoned before getting married. Burstyn’s terrific in it, Kris Kristofferson’s fabulous, the soundtrack (per usual for Scorsese) is excellent. If anything, as great as Mean Streets was, this was the movie that made it clear Scorsese was going to be able to sustain a career.
New York, New York (1977)
While it requires a considerable amount of patience on the audience’s part, not to mention the ability or even desire to reconcile the conflicting modes in which it operates, New York, New York still has Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, it’s still a glorious wallow in romantic doom, and it’s got one of the greatest theme songs of all time. (I was born in New York a year after this movie came out, and until I was almost an adult I thought the song had been around since the 40s, that’s how immediately and thoroughly it became part of my hometown’s DNA.) An example of Scorsese’s ambition being more compelling than the result, but the result’s pretty great too.
The King of Comedy (1983)
The template for the tradition of the notorious, widely-mocked flop that later, upon further reflection, is recognized as a legitimate masterpiece. (No, Heaven’s Gate doesn’t count.) De Niro has never been weirder, in a fascinating way as the brutally unfunny – to such a dire extent that he actually closes the loop and becomes funny – aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin. As a mea culpa, it took me years to actually watch this because I always hated Jerry Lewis and was always a bit mystified as to why Sandra Bernhard had a career, but this movie was all it took to completely and irreversibly change those wrong opinions. Scorsese himself has one of his funnier cameos, as the director of Lewis’ TV show.
After Hours (1985)
I grew up in New York and lived there for many years, about 85% of which were spent going to a second bar at 3am to keep the night going, and I can testify that After Hours will go down in history as Scorsese’s greatest documentary. Crazy shit happens in this movie but that’s what the fuck New York is like in the middle of the night. (“Or,” he said, old, “more accurately, that’s what it was like . . .”) There’s a reason Scorsese won Best Director at Cannes for this joint. That reason is: it owns.
The Color of Money (1986)
Has the honor of being perhaps the most unnecessary sequel of all time, and yet it’s still an utter delight. Paul Newman finally won an Oscar for this, because the Oscars were legally required to cease operations and go sit in a corner unless they stopped being assholes and did what was right at long last. The plot concerns Paul Newman’s efforts to tutor Tom Cruise in the fine art of being a criminally underrated actor who should have won an Oscar already, in which he succeeds splendidly. The concluding line and sound cue may indeed be the most masculine artifact in the history of film, and not in a toxic way either. This film is essentially Martin Scorsese showing up and punching a clock, but it’s Martin Scorsese showing up and punching a clock. Very good pop movie.
The Age of Innocence (1993)
An immaculate piece of film craft that manages to convey the intensity of repressed emotion better than just about any other movie ever made. There has also simply never been a love triangle with three sexier actors than Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Michelle Pfeiffer, each of whom is at their absolute peak here. I’d say more but all it’d be is gushing praise. Of everything on this list, this is the one picture I’d say belongs in Scorsese’s all-time top 5.
No Direction Home/Shine A Light/Living in the Material World
Scorsese’s connection to music spans his entire career, from his liberal use of pop and rock ’n’ roll on his soundtracks to the very fiber of his cinema. Scorsese/Schoonmaker is the cinema’s equivalent of Jagger/Richards, minus (some) drugs and (one hopes) feuding. The energy generated by director and editor in Scorsese’s films is the ineffable heart of rock n roll itself. So, it stands to reason that when Scorsese’s subject is music itself, the results would compel. His subjects in these three docs are titans of popular music, respectively (now Nobel winner) Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones (whose body of work had already enriched Scorsese’s soundtracks for decades), and George Harrison, the Beatle with the best solo career and who put in the best performance in A Hard Day’s Night (these are facts, not to be debated).
None of this is particularly enlightening, nor a revelation. But it’s still all true. Happy birthday, sir. Looking forward to Silence.