Oct 13, 2014

How The Films of Scorsese Made Me A Man

From my piece on Scorsese and masculinity for the New Statesman:—
'Do you know how 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!” Liotta came toward 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 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 boy’s club of the nouvelle vague to swoon over the ritualized 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 softer, feminized, 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 psyches. 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 fulfillment as plangent as that of Spielberg’s wish 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 and double-lock collars is a dream of what it is to be pass muster with thugs — be invited in, to feel their hands on your back, hear their praise in your ears. 
The body language Scorsese recognised in Liotta was his own, growing up on the streets of Little Italy: 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, the theme running subterraneously through Scorsese’s childhood? Humiliation. It was a “humiliation” for his family to have to move back in with his grandparents on Elizabeth Street after an altercation with a landlord. Humiliation, too, was what he saw visited on the men he occasionally saw on the street; good men, working for the rackets, who   “when the time came for them to do what they had to do, they couldn't do it,” so they just imploded. “They were humiliated constantly.”  It is the thing the protagonists of his films fear the most, certainly in those he made with 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.'   

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