Thugs with thick skins: in Goodfellas (1990) De Niro boils over with conflicting emotions. Photo: Moviestorecollection.com
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Mythical, merciless butchness: Martin Scorsese’s men

From De Niro’s snarl to DiCaprio’s sinewy wildness, no director has explored masculinity as acutely as Scorsese, writes Tom Shone

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 ritualised 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 feminised 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 recognised 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-dramatisation that explains why she found it so easy to slip into the ensembles of Goodfellas and Casino (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 favoured 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. 

Tom Shone’s “Scorsese: a Retrospective” is newly published by Thames & Hudson (£29.95 paperback)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era