Martin Scorsese’s Leading Lady

Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Catherine Scorsese in Goodfellas (1990). The four are sitting around a small dining table in a family home, an assortment of pasta, bread, fruit, and condiments filling the table. The three  Italian American men all wear dress shirts and have similarly cropped brown hair. Mrs DeVito (Scorsese) sits in the middle, she is an elderly woman with very curly short white hair and large 80s-style glasses, wearing a blue dress. She addresses the boys in conversation.
Warner Bros.

In Goodfellas she is warm and welcoming. That’s how Mrs. DeVito (Catherine Scorsese) greets her son Tommy (Joe Pesci), James Conway (Robert De Niro) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as they walk through the doorway to her house, waking her up in the middle of the night while covered in the blood of Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) who is unconscious in the trunk of Tommy’s car outside. Mrs. DeVito instantly recognises the potential of her son being hurt, asking him if he is OK and lamenting on how long it has been since she has seen him. After greeting Conway and Hill with their own kisses on the cheek, she drops everything to cook them a full-course meal, unbeknownst to what they have gotten in to, so much so that she lets Tommy take one of her kitchen knives that would ultimately become a murder weapon. 

In Casino she is stern yet compromising. While her son Artie (Vinny Vella) rants on and on about “business,” unaware of the bugs the FBI planted that are listening in, Mrs. Piscano (Scorsese) admonishes him for his language in between counting money. 

Catherine had several small roles in her son’s films, including these and Cape Fear, The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. While her roles ranged from ‘woman on landing’ to ‘fruit stand customer,’ her starring in Goodfellas and Casino brings a meta-representation to Martin’s conception of the perfect mother. Unobtrusive, benevolent but still steely, Catherine Scorsese embodies working-class Italian motherhood and reflects the discontent and abrasive representation of main women and wives Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) and Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone). The latter wives’ association with mafia wealth, unhappiness and drugs relegates women to a role in his films where staying silent and permissive guarantees safety from abuse and other trouble.

A third-generation Italian American of Sicilian grandparentage, Scorsese’s identity has been touched on time and time again as a standard theme in his films. Starting about thirty years before the turn of the 20th century, Italian immigrants, a majority of which were from the south of the country, came to the United States after economic hardship had plagued the country (Casillo, 5). These newcomers settled in neighborhoods, like Manhattan for the Scorseses, where they forged a kinship with other Italians that moved there, especially those from the same region of Italy (Casillo, 9). With similar economic circumstances, senses of family, and roots in Catholicism and cultural tradition, this Italian American community laid the basis for dominant themes in Scorsese’s work and forged the relationships that women like Karen Hill and Ginger McKenna are not entirely privy to. 

Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas (1990). Henry and Karen Hill are at a dimly lit bar, sitting at a small table with four glasses of champagne sitting in front of them. Karen sits closely to her husband, who has his arm wrapped around her waist and clenches her hand, either protective or possessive. Henry, in a grey suit, is watching off-camera but Karen looks at him, her short dark hair is in a bouffant style and she wears glamorous makeup and gold earrings as well as a fitted black dress.
Warner Bros.

In the “Rich Wives, Poor Mothers: Can a Matriarch Be a Mother?” installment of the anthology Italian Motherhood on Screen, Giorgio Galbussera analyzes the status of upper-class women within the family in Luca Guagagnino’s Io sono l’amore (I Am Love, 2009). The cold matriarch Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), is portrayed as ‘the psychological and physical opposite of the stereotypical Mediterranean mother in all her variants within Italian cinema: from the self-sacrificing mothers (and often sinners to be redeemed on their deathbed) of Matarazzo’s popular melodramas, to the earthy, lioness-mother of many of Anna Magnani’s roles, to Sophia Loren’s conjugation of Neapolitan proletarian motherhood and sexualised bombshell body’ (Galbussera, 92). Henry and Ace’s status as being upper-class is complicated by their mafia involvement, but money, power and Italian influence inevitably build the foundation for a family structure that emphasises these sorts of traditional gender roles and power dynamics between husband and wife. 

The voiceover narration in both Goodfellas and Casino is not only a narrative device but also a critical examination of who gets to delineate the ingroup from the outgroup and how they are perceived in their familial relationships. Karen, though she eventually is included as a narrator in Goodfellas, is immediately described by her attributes that differ from Henry. She is a Jewish girl from the suburbs of New York, and her entrance about 30 minutes into the movie is distinctly placed after we see the conditions in which Henry grew up and came to be in the mafia fold. Her entrance into being taken as serious by Henry and his compatriots is after multiple dates of being stood up and crying full tears. She goes to publicly confront and humiliate him, which Henry takes as amusing but a pique of interest, leading him to ask her out formally. This event is how she breaks the mold to enter the fold — she’s no longer quiet and bashful but unwavering in pointing out how he wronged her, a distinct shift in behavior that would ultimately foreshadow later problems. 

While conforming to the standards of the cowboy-politician gatekeepers ends up being an overarching theme in Casino, Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a Vegas profiteer that slowly starts to build an empire, finds comfort in Ginger as a companion and partner. Coming from the midwest and California coast respectively, their mutual interest was not forged by background but by hustling, with which Ace could supply manpower, money and muscle, while Ginger knew which tricks to turn and how to end a night with thousands of cash and furs in hand. Their pasts do come to a head when Ginger’s former boyfriend Lester Diamond (James Woods) tries to con her out of thousands of dollars and ends up beaten to a pulp by Ace’s childhood friend and fellow mobster Nicky Santoro (Pesci). Both Ace’s and Ginger’s ties to the past would lead to the demise and success of their survival, but Ginger cannot forget Lester’s assault and turns away from her family and to drugs and alcohol to cope. 

Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone in Casino (1995). Ace and Ginger are lying together in a pink double bed with a fur throw in an ornate bedroom with gold adorning the wall and furnishings. Ace is lying behind Ginder and embraces her, kissing the side of her head. Ginger, a slim blonde white lady in a multi-coloured shift dress with a matching headband, is smiling and reaching forwards to handle the huge pile of gold jewellery that is spread out in boxes on the bed.
Universal Pictures

Casting is another critical element to how Karen and Ginger are represented. Both Bracco and Stone are beautiful, their physical appearances along with the trappings of high-fashion and jewelry that come with marrying a rich mobster clearly make them distinct from the other wives in their circle. While the audience is made privy to Karen’s direct thoughts about the appearance of other Italian American wives within the mafia family, commenting that they use too much makeup, Ginger’s blondeness sets her apart ‘from typical depictions of Italian motherhood, and can be identified by a general audience as shorthand for wealth and privilege,’ (Galbussera, 92) and multiple shots of her filling the room with an inordinate amount of clothing and jewelry, are more implicit. And though the women come from different roles and display certain but not exclusive core traits — reserved versus conspiring —  both are eventually relegated to the role of trophy wife. They are expected to take care of the kids and interact in normal social roles within the group while their husbands go on business or see other women, and not ask questions. Both Karen and Ginger increasingly reject this role, with Karen demanding faithfulness and honesty from Henry while rising to a certifiable cocaine dealer and with Ginger falling into so deep of depression and drug dependency that anyone, including her daughter, can be held at will until she gets what she wants. 

Unfortunately for the duo, in Scorsese’s depiction of Italian American family dynamics, ‘to be the perfectly poised and voiceless incarnation of a wife and mother are both parts of the job description in [their] social environment,’ (Galbussera, 99). For Henry and Ace, a rise out of their wives, or the potential for compromising the whole criminality of their life, is portrayed as the most potent threat to their life and lifestyles. Whereas the FBI or the local cop might “inconvenience” them on a particular occasion, an attempt for reprisal coming from Karen or Ginger is met usually with brutal physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. 

Though it might be chalked up to acting experience or not wanting to be too involved, Catherine Scorsese’s appearances in her son’s films are more so about the brevity of her scenes than possibly any other aspect. While she may throw in a quip about a character’s language or insist upon cooking a midnight meal for her son and his friends, she is there and gone in an instant, filing the role of what traditional motherhood, especially within this Italian American context, is meant to reflect. In every scene she is in, the overall plight of the men, specifically her “sons” or the other men involved in the mafia business, take a comedic but crucially dominating position. In contrast, Karen and Ginger grow to resist this sort of role, demanding respect on the part of their husbands and taking knowledge of the mafia’s activities, while this and their beauty is used as a means to not only put them on a pedestal but to further isolate them from one type of “acceptable” wife and motherhood. Because they cannot completely conform to the ideals that have been drilled into men like Henry and Ace from the beginning of their involvement with the Italian American mafia, the women are doomed to a fall from grace that is catastrophic for both and a means to completely devoid them of any lasting identity.

by Lauren Mattice

Lauren Mattice is a junior at the University of Southern California studying film and philosophy.

1 reply »

  1. I found your article to be enlightening and reflecting the conformity of roles that women are unfortunately endowed with to this date within all communities and nationalities. Your eye for the details in Mr. Scorsese’s films was the most pertinent point of your incisive writing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.