Do you know how Martin Scorsese came to cast Ray Liotta in Goodfellas? At the height of the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ, the director took his film to the Venice Film Festival, and one morning, walking out of his hotel on the Lido, he saw Liotta across the lobby. The actor’s audition tape had just arrived at his office back in New York. “I got the tape!” he called out. “I haven’t been able to view it yet!”
As Liotta came towards him, one of Scorsese’s bodyguards grabbed the actor’s arm and Scorsese noticed something interesting: the actor held his ground with the bigger men, but made them understand he was no threat. “Oh, he understands that kind of situation,” he thought. Goodfella.
If masculinity were a product, then Italian-American masculinity—florid, violent, hungry for respect, as thin-skinned as Italian sausage—would be the brand leader, thanks to the movies. What does it say that a generation of men, asked to pinpoint a film that speaks to them as men, will quote lines from The Godfather or Goodfellas? A certain butchness has always attended the inner circles of auteur theory, which allowed the boys’ club of the nouvelle vague to swoon over the ritualized violence of Hitchcock and Hawks without embarrassment. Somehow, it’s harder to think of critics today wanting to apply the term “greatest living director” to one of our feminized beta males—a Spielberg, say, or a Woody Allen.
Real auteurs don’t care about pleasing the crowd, or fantasy, or jokes. They give you a piece of their mind. They get their films off their chest, hewing them from the rock face of their impenetrable psyche. Goodfellas is convincing on so many levels—from the thrust and parry of the wiseguys’ talk to the flora and fauna of their clothes and apartments—that it’s easy to forget that underneath it runs a piece of wish fulfilment as plangent as that of Spielberg’s desire to be visited by aliens. As Scorsese put it: “It’s what I thought of these guys when I was six.” Underneath all the carpeting and double-breasted suits is a dream of what it is to pass muster with thugs.
The body language Scorsese recognized in Liotta was his own, growing up on the streets of Little Italy, New York: antennae attuned to the first sign of trouble, anxious to avoid another beating from his elder brother, making everyone laugh by talking very fast, turning his nerves into comedy. And beneath the laughter, beneath the nerves? Humiliation. It was a “humiliation” for Scorsese’s family to move back in with his grandparents on Elizabeth Street after an altercation with a landlord. Humiliation, too, was what he saw on the street; good men turned into nervous wrecks by their work for the rackets.
It is the thing the protagonists of his films fear the most, certainly in those he made with Robert De Niro, that kettle drum of thin-skinnedness, who turns Taxi Driver into one long trawl for potential insults and affronts to Travis’s dignity: he picks them up like radio signals. It is the great Scorsese paradox, the source of so much comedy as well as tragedy in his work, that men capable of unleashing such violence do so at the daintiest of provocations: a misunderstood word (“mook”), a glance, the number of blueberries in a muffin. “It was outta respect,” says Henry Hill (Liotta) as he torches a parking lot in Goodfellas, and when Scorsese lost the Best Picture Oscar to Dances with Wolves in 1990, the thing that hurt him the most? “They put me in the front row with my mother, and then I didn’t win”—the ultimate slap to an Italian male.
And the women? Let’s start with his mother, in fact, as she is the source of so much, not least the cascading torrents of talk that spill from Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, or Sandra Bernhard in The King of Comedy. “Why are you sitting over there?” asks Catherine Scorsese of her husband, Charlie, seeing him perched on the end of the sofa at the start of Italianamerican, Scorsese’s 1974 documentary about his parents. “This man, after 42 years of marriage, and he sits over there!” Voluble, quick-witted, with a flair for self-dramatization that explains why she found it so easy to slip into the ensembles of Goodfellas andCasino (she has 13 acting credits), Catherine is star material. She was also the inspiration for Ellen Burstyn’s Alice in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese’s outlier about “emotions and feelings and relationships,” for which Burstyn won the Oscar for her sparky, rebellious, humorously self-martyring mother.
The movie is a gem—easily Scorsese’s most underrated film, blithe and funny and heartbroken. It was made at that point in his romantic development when even his disappointments felt fresh, too absorbed with what the critic Manny Farber called “a visceral apprehension about an eager-messy world” to know yet what a “Scorsese film” was, or what subjects it should confine itself to. In fact, if you set Taxi Driver to one side, the number of these early films of his which are about “emotions and feelings and relationships”—Who’s That Knocking at My Door; Boxcar Bertha; Mean Streets; Alice; New York, New York—outweigh the films hewing at the rock face of the impenetrable masculine psyche by a margin of five to one. Sometimes I wonder what Scorsese’s career might have looked like if he hadn’t met De Niro and stuck with Harvey Keitel—so supple a presence, so full of sprezzatura, with a touch even of the ladies’ man. “He would be much more comfortable around new people, or new women,” Scorsese noted, a little awed by attributes he felt he lacked. “He was a little more fearless.”
No. He would give himself over to the tetchy, saturnine genius of De Niro, mining the actor’s volatility in four films, back to back, by the end of which even Scorsese was wondering if the actor would ever let him go. They shot 19 takes of Raging Bull’s climax, in which Jake LaMotta delivers Brando’s “I could have been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront to a mirror. De Niro favored the more emotional take. Scorsese wanted it flat. So they watched both, back to back, but failed to change each other’s mind. “I still think the one I have is best,” said the director. “All right,” said De Niro, “let it go.” Which one was right? We’ll never know. It’s a measure of just how angry Scorsese was back then—with Hollywood, with the audience that had, as he saw it, deserted him on New York, New York—that he refused to give them an inch. No tears. No redemption. Just survival.
Both men have now mellowed, De Niro tearing up in Silver Linings Playbook, and also while promoting his recent HBO documentary about his father. Scorsese not so much—Hugo notwithstanding, The Wolf of Wall Street had the snarling, scary life of someone falling off the wagon; Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance seemed fashioned entirely from muscle, sinew and will, bending himself to his master’s bidding. Maybe he venerates the director too much ever to give him a truly great performance—De Niro and Scorsese used to bicker like brothers. Silence, the director’s long-gestating adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel about Christian missionaries in Japan, feels like suitable atonement. Then it will finally be time to say goodbye to De Niro, who will appear alongside Pesci, Keitel and Al Pacino in Steven Zaillian’s script about a retired hitman, The Irishman. If it comes down to the wire in the editing suite again, this time I hope De Niro wins.
This story was originally published on The New Statesman.