Who Is Martin Scorsese?
Born November 17, 1942, in Flushing, New York, Martin Scorsese is known for his gritty, meticulous filmmaking style and is widely considered one of the most important directors of all time. Scorsese’s passion for films started at a young age, as he was an 8-year-old, pint-sized filmmaker. In 1968, he completed his first feature-length film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, but it wasn’t until he released Taxi Driver nearly 10 years later that he skyrocketed to fame for his raw formula of storytelling. He proved that the film wasn’t a fluke with a lengthy string of successes that included Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed and Hugo.
Acclaimed director and producer Martin Charles Scorsese was born on November 17, 1942, in Flushing, New York. Raised by Italian-American parents in the Little Italy district of Manhattan, Scorsese later remembered his neighborhood as being “like a village in Sicily.” Scorsese’s parents, Charles and Catherine, both worked part-time as actors, helping set the stage for their son’s love of cinema.
Because Scorsese was afflicted by severe asthma, his childhood activities were limited; rather than play sports, he spent much of his time in front of the television or at the movie theater, where he fell in love especially with stories about the Italian experience and films by director Michael Powell. By the time he was 8 years old, Scorsese was already drawing his own storyboards, often complete with the line, “Directed and Produced by Martin Scorsese.”
Scorsese was raised a devout Catholic and even entertained the idea of entering the priesthood before deciding to pursue filmmaking instead. Although his parents “didn’t get” his mania for movies, Scorsese felt he was headed in the right direction when a 10-minute comedy short earned him a $500 scholarship to New York University.
After completing his MFA in film directing at NYU in 1966, Scorsese briefly worked at the university as a film instructor. His students included Jonathan Kaplan and Oliver Stone. In 1968, Scorsese completed his first feature-length film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? While working on that project, he met Harvey Keitel, whom he would go on to cast in many future projects, as well as Thelma Schoonmaker, an editor with whom he would collaborate for more than 40 years.
In 1973, Scorsese directed Mean Streets, his first film to be widely acknowledged as a masterpiece. Revisiting characters from Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, the film showcased elements that have since become trademarks of Scorsese’s filmmaking: dark themes, unsympathetic lead characters, religion, the Mafia, unusual camera techniques and contemporary music. Directing Mean Streets also introduced Scorsese to Robert De Niro, sparking one of the most dynamic filmmaking partnerships in Hollywood history.
Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Scorsese directed hard-hitting films that helped define a generation of cinema. His gritty 1976 masterpiece, Taxi Driver, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and fixed De Niro’s status as a living movie legend. Apparently, it also inspired an unstable John Hinckley to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan five years later. “I never thought in a million years there was a connection with the film,” Scorsese later recalled. “It turned out even my limo driver was FBI.”
Scorsese and De Niro struck gold together once more in their 1980 picture Raging Bull, based on the life of troubled boxer Jake LaMotta. Expecting it to be his last feature film, Scorsese decided to “pull out all the stops and then find a new career.” Although initial reactions were mixed due to the picture’s violent nature, Raging Bull is now widely considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time.
Abandoning thoughts of leaving the industry, Scorsese continued to make films through the 1980s, directing his first huge box-office success, The Color of Money, in 1986.
The 1990s saw the release of two of Scorsese’s most important Mafia movies to date: GoodFellas, a 1990 film based on the life of former gangster Henry Hill, and Casino, a 1995 film about the rise and fall of the gambling underworld during the 1970s. Although he has joked that he should make “another film about Italian Americans where they’re not gangsters,” Scorsese also believes that “there is no such thing as pointless violence” on-screen. “Deep down you want to think that people are really good—but the reality outweighs that.”
A Living Legend
In an American Express print ad, Scorsese once revealed that his “wildest dream” was to write music. While he seems unlikely to become a rock star or conduct an orchestra, he did use his filmmaking talents to make his mark on the music industry. In 1978, Scorsese made an acclaimed documentary called The Last Waltz, showcasing the farewell performance of The Band, with guest performances by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters. In addition to being hailed as one of the greatest concert movies of all time, The Last Waltz was then spoofed in Rob Reiner’s landmark 1984 mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap.
Since the turn of the millennium, Scorsese has renewed his on-screen exploration of his musical passions. In 2003, he completed an ambitious, seven-part documentary series called The Blues; the accompanying boxed set won two Grammies. Two years later, his Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, aired on PBS as part of the American Masters series. Using archive footage from a 2006 concert, Scorsese then directed a Rolling Stones documentary in 2008 called Shine a Light.
Pairing with DiCaprio
The past decade has also highlighted a renewed vigor in Scorsese’s feature-film offerings. Leonardo DiCaprio has become Scorsese’s go-to actor for lead roles, starring in Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006)—which won Scorsese his first Best Director Oscar—and Shutter Island (2010).
Many have drawn parallels between the pair’s blossoming film dynamic and the one Scorsese once had with De Niro—and audiences aren’t the only ones who are grateful. “He saved me,” DiCaprio said. “I was headed down a path of being one kind of actor, and he helped me become another one. The one I wanted to be.” Scorsese worked with DiCaprio once again in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), which gained the iconic director another Oscar nomination.
In 2011, Scorsese released his first film shot in 3D, the fantasy adventure epic Hugo. Although not a huge box office hit, the beautifully rendered feature wowed critics, garnering 11 Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe for Best Director.
Following the acclaimed historical drama Silence (2016), Scorsese rekindled his screen partnership with De Niro—along with other old collaborators like Keitel and Joe Pesci—for the Netflix feature The Irishman. Scheduled for a 2019 release, the project has reportedly torpedoed Netflix’s budget with production costs of over $140 million, due in part to the expensive special effects being used to de-age many of its actors.