Scorsese and DeNiro


Director, producer, and sometimes bit player in his films,  Martin Scorsese was born in 1942 in New York the son of a Sicilian immigrant clothes presser.  Raised in the tenements in New York's Little Italy, he was a sickly youth with physical handicaps which meant that he was excluded from playing the sports that the other kids in his tough neighborhood engaged in.  He entered the seminary to become a priest but left after one year because he decided he would pursue his first love….movies!


He attended New York University's Film School where he got his B.S. and M.A. and became an instructor.  He started making films and teaching until he was able to make films on a full-time basis.  Many of his films have autobiographical undertones and an emphasis on character study rather than on dramatic plot.  He has had a number of his films, including some of his most successful films, star DeNiro (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, New York New York, Goodfellas). 


He also directed The Color of Money, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Mean Streets. 


"Despite his enormous prestige and frequent commercial success, Scorsese never became part of the Hollywood establishment, which is likely the reason for his never having won the industry's Oscar.  Based in New York, he pursues his own path (with Hollywood money), continually turning out films that are utterly personal and often deeply autobiographical.  He has interspersed his commercial product with occasional nonfiction films…In addition, he is active in film  preservation…Bold, inventive, versatile, and uncompromising, Scorsese is one of the most intelligent and provocative filmmakers working in cinema today.  His second of four marriages was to screen writer-director Julia Cameron.  In 1979 he married actress Isabella Rossellini; they divorced in 1983.  In 1985 he married Barbara DeFina, a filmmaker" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 1225).   (Rossellini is Ingrid Bergman's daughter and DeFina was the producer on The Last Temptation of Christ.)


For me, the movie that is his greatest achievement is The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  This is a project of his that he wanted to do for years.  "Adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the film drew fire from religious groups scandalized by its portrayal of Jesus as a vulnerable, sensual man, tormented by inner conflict, self-doubt, and all-too-human desires.  But it went on to win the Film Critics prize at Venice and earned Scorsese another Academy Award nomination" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 1225).




Like Scorsese, DeNiro grew up in New York.  Unlike Scorsese, his parents were artists and their paintings today hang in some of the finest museums.  Most of the following information about DeNiro comes from the Actors Studio Interview of DeNiro.  He was taught in his acting classes that the talent is in the choices you make.  You have to earn the right to do the character---you research and get to know the material.  For his breakthrough role in Bang the Drum Slowly he went to Georgia and taped the language of the people there so that he could be comfortable with the dialect of his character in the movie.  When he prepared for his role in Godfather II, for which he earned the Academy Award, he went to Sicily to study for the part.  For his role in Taxi Driver he drove cab for a couple of weeks in New York.  One of the most famous scenes in movies is from this movie where he is talking to himself in the mirror and says: "You talking to me, you talking to me?"  The script simply said: "Travis looks in mirror."  The words were improvised by DeNiro because that is what he felt his character would say and do.  He sees this character as alone, isolated.  For his award winning portrayal in Raging Bull he gained 60 pounds after first getting into very trim shape in order to better understand what the great boxer Jake LaMotta went through.  DeNiro also spent time with LaMotta getting to know him and won another Academy Award for this portrayal.  Joe Pesci, who plays Jake's brother in the movie, is the one who recommended Cathy Moriarty to play the role of Jake's wife.  She was only 16 at the time and says that DeNiro taught her one of the greatest lessons for an actor and that is TO LISTEN!  (This is a lesson you will find most of the great actors relating as the greatest key to their craft.)    DeNiro has worked on seven movies with Scorsese and has great rapport with him.  They are very honest with one another.  One of the key things Scorsese asks him when they are shooting a scene is: "Does it feel right?"  They are trying their best to give us reality and they both work hard at first understanding what they are trying to portray.  In A Bronx Tale DeNiro plays the father, which is not the principal role, because he also directs the movie---which he dedicated to his father who had passed away a few months earlier.  This is one of the few movies where DeNiro plays a decent human being!  He often plays crooks who may be "nice guys" that we positively identify with---BUT they are crooks, sometimes murderers, almost always unrepentant.  (He also can play comic roles and just about any other type of character, as he is a fine actor.)  However, when you look at the roles where he has been most successful, they are by-and-large not very nice persons.  That is why I feel that his greatest role is that of Rodrigo in The Mission.  Here he once again plays a murderer; however, this time he is repentant.  Thus this time out his character has a message worthy of learning, unlike most of his other roles.  The ironic part of the interview done by the Actors Studio is that they never ask about this film.   In the interview it is almost like pulling teeth to get much of a response from DeNiro.  He is uncomfortable in talking about his craft.  This great actor is not able to play the role of the great actor being interviewed about being a great actor.  (Apparently he didn't have time to research the part…; )…)  When you are interviewed as part of the Actors Studio program you are asked a series of questions towards the end of the interview.  DeNiro answered as follows: His favorite word: "Refinement."  His least favorite word: "Boorish."  If he were not an actor, what would he like to do?  "Sing.  Music."  What would he not like to do?  A 9 to 5 job.  If Heaven exists what would he say to God when he arrived?  "He's got a lot of explaining to do."  Although he is great at improvising and is a very creative actor, he builds this upon a solid foundation of hard work preparing for the role.  Also, he believes that rehearsal can be a very important part of the process as it can lead to discovery---by going over and over the material you learn things about it, discover things about your character, that you might never know otherwise.


The Last Temptation of Christ


It is interesting that Scorsese utilizes Harvey Keitel instead of DeNiro in The Last Temptation of Christ.  Keitel, like DeNiro, is one of the key actors that Scorsese regularly uses, and like DeNiro, he is a very effective actor.  In this film he plays Judas Iscariot, whose name has come to mean a person who cannot be trusted, one who will kiss you while stabbing you in the back.  Ironically, in the Kazantzakis/Scorsese version, Judas is anything but a "Judas" in his behavior.  Instead, Jesus calls upon him to make the greatest sacrifice possible.  Symbolically this means that Judas is a gift giver.  Another way of looking at this is that those individuals who are our enemies, those who harm us, can also be seen as a person who is giving us a gift.  If you accept that life will deliver unto you hard times, then the trick is for you to take those hard times and turn them into useful opportunities.  Every night I pray that those I have in any way hurt in my life, will be able to transform that injury into a lesson that will benefit them.  I pray also that I will do the same with any injury that is done unto me.  This may sound ridiculous or impossible---I assure you that it is neither.  It is rather one of the most powerful ways that you can go about living your life. 


In the movie version of Christ's life, Jesus makes crosses that the Roman soldiers use to crucify the condemned so that God will hate him and leave him alone.  Jesus is tormented by God, he is in great physical and spiritual agony because he is resisting the call of God.  He has loved Mary Magdelene since childhood and Mary is now a prostitute because Jesus deserted her for God---so she hates both Jesus and God.  Mary accuses Jesus: "You're the same as all the others but can't admit it."  She says he is not a real man, he hangs on to his mother, then on to her, and now on to God rather than growing up and being independent. 


Jesus goes into the desert and acknowledges there to others who are committed to following God that he is fear driven.  His god is fear.  At the same time he realizes, after having a vision of snakes, that: "Everything is from God.  Everything has two meanings."


When Judas comes to execute him Jesus says that he has pity (love) for everything---the lowest of creatures, even the ants, and he also has pity for even the oppressors---the Roman soldiers. 


In one of his many arguments with Judas, who wants him to take up arms against the Romans, Jesus says that you have to break the chain of evil, that you must love one another first, only then can you make a better world.  If you try to change society first, then you just end up with a different society of unloving persons. 


One of the tricky things about the messages of Jesus is that they are often inconsistent.  One moment he wants to love everyone and then he states that he wants to take up the sword.  This confuses Judas.  Jesus explains that: "God only talks to me a little at a time.  Now I understand."  Yes, the message is love.  Yes, we also have to change society.  But, first he has to make the ultimate sacrifice; he has to be willing to give his life to the cause.


This is a very important message in the movie.  We are all frail, tempted, confused, and have difficulty understanding just how best to live a spiritually meaningful life.  


What is the cross for you and me?


Scorsese and DeNiro


Why do they get along so well?   Why do their collaborations often result in some of the finest movies ever made?


They are both willing to do the hard work necessary to deliver outstanding creative work.  They are both willing to make the sacrifices and the commitments to their work, just as Rodrigo made the sacrifices and commitments in The Mission, just as Christ and Judas are being called to make the sacrifices and commitments in The Last Temptation of Christ.  This is the most important message of both of these great films and this is the most important message from the lives of these two great talents from the world of cinema.


Don't view any great movie as just a story about other people.  It is a story that you can use to learn more about yourself.


Kazantzakis and Scorsese are not trying to rewrite Christian/Biblical history .  They are exploring human spiritual motivation so that you can better understand what it takes to build a more spiritual, more creative, more powerful life.


 In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus wants to come down from the cross as he begins to doubt God.  He asks God why God has forsaken him?  We see him then lead a normal happy family life.  This all is in his mind, this is the temptation he experiences when he doubts God, when the ambivalence floods back into his mind, body, and soul.  Students often come to me and ask how much a social worker can earn.  What they are saying to me is that they want to live a normal happy life.  They want to avoid the struggles that have the potential of making their lives more meaningful---yes, harder, but more meaningful.  Jesus is tempted in this direction and this happens in one millisecond before he realizes that he does have the strength to overcome the temptation and make the ultimate sacrifice.


If you are going to live a full, creative and spiritually profound life, then you are going to have to step off the edge and make the commitment.  This is frightening.  Our society does not usually support those who are committed to change just as Jesus was recognized as dangerous by the establishment forces of both Rome and the Jewish leadership.  Ambivalence will plague you, distractions and life's pleasures may undermine your will, but if you really want to live that fully joyous committed life, then you are going to have to leap off into the unknown, make choices, take risks, be committed.


Saul was committed and killed people until he was converted and became Paul.  So one of the key things you have to pay attention to is just what is it that is worthy of your unambiguous commitment?  You must develop your awareness, your knowledge of life so that your commitments are worthy ones; ones built on lasting values and principles.  Saul thought he was doing the will of God when he was killing people.  So thinking you are doing right is not enough.  Christianity is an inclusive religion.  The  message of Christianity is not just for some cultures; it is for the entire world.  2,000 years ago that was a rather novel approach to religion.  Most religions were designed to support the established order of a particular group of individuals.  I would contend that if you are going to commit your soul and energies to a particular goal in life, then it needs to be one related to love, love of all peoples, an inclusive love.


When you go on a diet, the biggest enemy is that you get tempted by that big, dark, rich piece of chocolate cake (put in any food item of your choice).  You give in to the temptation, eat the "cake", feel guilty, and then go off your diet.  You will slip in your efforts to be committed to a diet or to a life that is more meaningful, more creative, more fulfilling.  Don't forget St. Francis and the message to go slowly.  Take a step at a time.  Another reason people fail in losing weight is that they start off a super-vigorous exercise program and get quickly burned out.  As the saying goes, A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.  Make that step, then another, then two more, then speed up your pace and soon you will find that you have developed the stamina of a long distance runner.