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

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear