Artwork by Sarah K
In a 2011 interview, Meryl Streep was asked, “Was there anybody you never had the chance to work with but still would love to?” She replied, “Yes, I would like Martin Scorsese to be interested in a female character once in a while, but I don’t know if I’ll live that long.” This poses an interesting prompt to take a look at Scorsese’s work and depiction of women. Is Martin Scorsese interested in women at all?
There is no denying that Scorsese is a cinematic genius that has directed some of the finest films of our time. He is most well known for his gangster films, or films starring his muses Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. From the nihilistic Travis Bickle to the tortured director Howard Hughes, Scorsese’s stories are almost always focused on men. The female characters, usually in supporting roles, are usually told in relation to men’s lives. The men are the center of the film’s universe the women just revolve around them. The women in Scorsese’s work are either abused or idealized (or both at the same time), a virgin and whore dichotomy with nothing in between.
Scorsese’s film work often deals with male psychology, the crises and struggle of masculinity, often tied into Catholic guilt or Italian American identity. Martin Scorsese’s 1967 film debut Who’s That Knocking At My Door establishes these themes that would later be a staple of his work. Harvey Keitel stars as a Catholic Italian-American man who gets involved with a girl, but he refuses to have sex with her because he thinks she is a virgin. He later finds out that a former boyfriend raped her. This, of course, taints the Madonna image of her in his mind and she is now ‘dirty’ and ‘used’ to him. He eventually decides to offer her marriage anyway, but when she refuses he calls her a whore.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is one of his few films that feature a female as the main character and protagonist. Ellen Burstyn, winning an Oscar for the role, stars as a single mother with dreams of being a singer, recently widowed by an uncaring husband. She falls into another abusive relationship, but later falls for another kind and caring man. Abusive relationships are explored in his later films, but this is the first and one of the only times it is from the woman’s POV.
ROBERT DE NIRO ERA
Having Robert De Niro as his muse led to a surge of acclaimed films during that period. While Mean Streets, inspired by Scorsese’s experiences in his New York neighborhood, first touched upon the gangster life, Goodfellas became his most iconic gangster film. Objectifying women unfortunately runs hand in hand with mob and gangster culture. So to depict that life accurately means to depict that sexism. The gangsters have very old-world views, rooted in their heritage, Italian-American pride and traditions.
Women are often referred to as “broads” or “whores”, and the men are in complete control of them. The women don’t dare go against their husbands, or they’ll be punished for it. The women aren’t human beings to them, something either disposable, or a trophy prize to display. This is signified in the tracking shot when Henry Hill famously walks with his date through the back entrance of the restaurant to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”.
Taxi Driver, one of Scorsese and De Niro’s most famous pairings, has two memorable female characters, specifically Jodie Foster as child prostitute Iris, but they are still supporting and serve little purpose then to show Travis Bickle’s tremendous personality problems. Women are the fuel of Jake LaMotta’s personality problems, Raging Bull, where De Niro plays the abusive and animalistic boxer. There are many scenes, most infamously the one where he accuses his wife of sleeping with his brother, where we see violent physical abuse against his wife Vickie. These violent scenes are paired with slow-motion close-ups of his first meeting with the blonde princess Vickie; the anatomical and seductive gaze as the camera pans over her young teenage body
Cape Fear is a bit more female centric of the De Niro era, where he plays a sexual deviant and violent psychopath. The film is, through voice over narration, told as the memory of Juliette Lewis’ character, a young teenager whose end of innocence is marked by Max Cady’s reign of terror. Jessica Lange also has a great supporting role as her mother, a strong woman who will fight for her family. Both of the women fight for themselves in the final showdown, the mother using her smarts to appeal to him and the daughter setting him on fire.
Casino features a lead female character, a role that earned Sharon Stone an Oscar nomination. However, ends up being more the villain of the story, vilified for her mental illness and drug addiction that puts her young sweet daughter in danger and defies the male protagonist who is just trying to do good. New York, New York also tells the story of a couple, with Liza Minnelli as the female lead. She and De Niro, playing singer and musician, are both equally important to the story, since it is about the pair of them as lovers and their relationship’s journey.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO ERA
Later Scorsese turns his eye to Leonardo DiCaprio as his new young male lead, and women mostly take another backseat. In Gangs of New York, Cameron Diaz plays Irish immigrant Jenny, who is also “tainted” woman with a past, as Amsterdam so lovingly asks her, “Is there anyone in the Five Points you haven’t fucked?” The Aviator is primarily Howard Hughes’ story, as an obsessive director dealing with OCD, and a fascinating one at that. Cate Blanchett did win Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn. She has a moving scene where she visits Hughes who has locked himself for months on end in his screening room. Although she does defy him by leaving him for another man in an earlier scene, she is shown as still caring for him.
Vera Farmiga has a memorable supporting part in The Departed, and her character bonds with Leonardo DiCaprio’s stressed character who is dealing with the chaos of double identities. But she ends up sleeping with the enemy, Matt Damon’s character, and eventually is unsure who the father of her baby is. She ends up serving as more of a vehicle for the twisty plot. Shutter Island has Michelle Williams as another dead wife that Leo cries about- but she is insane and murdered their children. Not much else is told about her character aside from that.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the most misunderstood of Scorsese’s films; many have debated whether or not is sexist. While it does have disgustingly misogynistic scenes throughout the film, I feel that the entire film is such an overdose of blatant sexism and abhorrent behavior that it has to be the opposite of misogyny. This is in no way normal or acceptable behavior. I believe Scorsese had a specific vision in mind, the excess of behavior was to be portrayed without a flinch, and that includes the behavior towards women. Unfortunately, many idolize Jordan Belfort for all the wrong reasons. They become swept up in the cushy and materialistic life that it presents that they completely miss out on the message and what the film is really trying to say. There is one scene, with Margot Robbie as Jordan’s trophy wife, which Hannah Ryan so wonderful dissects in her piece, is the message of the film that many overlook.
Yes, Scorsese primarily, (about 85% of the time) has male characters as his leads, and the female characters are few and far in between. If they are present, it is usually in a supporting way. There are few films where they are the main protagonist, and occasional ones where they are the equal leads. The supporting women usually defy their controlling man, the lead character (and often anti-hero) who the audience is rooting for, in some way. The women can be unbalanced, or fall victim to that crazy female jealously. There are several films where Scorsese does highlight the supporting women, however. They are established as more three-dimensional characters but we don’t get nearly enough time with them
Very often Scorsese is telling his stories through the lens of the male gaze, but it is a lens that he is specifically dissecting. That is what he is interested in exploring the flaws and crises of masculinity. He has a very particular world that he wants to portray- such as the Italian American and Catholicism that influenced his earlier work. Three-dimensional women are there in some of his work, but they are sprinkled throughout his filmography. Scorsese wants to portray what interests him the most, but seeing his work in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore leaves one to wonder what it would be like if he chose to have more pivotal female roles Or made a movie with Meryl Streep as the lead.