Friday, February 7, 2020

An Over-The-Hill Irishman and a Raging Bull

Despite its ten Oscar nominations, I can’t pretend to be a fan of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Though some critics have praised this story of the mob-directed murder of Jimmy Hoffa as Scorsese at his violent best, I found it too over-blown and too meandering to warrant a 3 ½ hour run-time. But after struggling to watch The Irishman, I felt compelled to look back to the days when Scorsese—though much overlooked in the Oscar department—was truly at the height of his powers.

Scorsese pretty much moved into the big-time in the 1970s. Starting out as a teacher of film studies at NYU, with a handful of indie films to his credit, he fell under the tutelage of my former boss, Roger Corman, who knew talent when he saw it. Having shot the Bonnie and Clyde-ish Boxcar Bertha for Roger, Scorsese made the breakthrough urban drama, Mean Streets (1973), which introduced him to the talents of Robert De Niro. The 1976 collaboration of director Scorsese and star De Niro on Taxi Driver confirmed their artistic partnership. (One year earlier, De Niro had bagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in The Godfather Part II. Though he was nominated for Best Actor for Taxi Driver, and the film was named a Best Picture nominee, Scorsese’s directorial contribution to this powerful and still relevant study of all-American mayhem was somehow overlooked.)

Raging Bull became the movie that gave Scorsese his first Oscar nomination (though he did not actually win the statuette until The Departed in 2007). This down-and-dirty biopic of Jake LaMotta tells a small story—about a real-life boxer whose propensity for violence spills over into his private life—but tells it so brilliantly that it cannot be easily shrugged off. Dynamic black-and-white cinematography conveys a dark, edgy mood, and it’s complemented by the razor-sharp editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, whose work here won her the first of her three Oscars. (The other two, as well as her five additional nominations, are all for Scorsese-related projects.) Members of the Scorsese stock company who appear prominently in Taxi Driver include star De Niro and co-star Joe Pesci, who vividly portrays the brother LaMotta can’t always bring himself to trust.

If The Irishman seems like a valedictory of sorts, it’s partly because both De Niro and Pesci pop up in major roles, along with another Scorsese favorite, Al Pacino. (Yes, Schoonmaker was the film editor.) There’s also the fact that The Irishman takes as one of its big themes the passage of time: how hugely people change as the years go by. This is vividly brought home by scenes of De Niro’s Frank Sheehan character in a nursing home, exploring religion as a way to come to terms with the sins in his past. There’s been much discussion about how Scorsese, to make his stars’ younger scenes credible, used a digital de-ageing technique that many found distracting, in order to return his characters to a more youthful appearance. The irony is that Raging Bull too is built around the passage of time. The film starts with the tubby middle-aged LaMotta practicing a dramatic monologue that’s going to kick off an attempt at a stage career. Then we jump to an earlier era in which he’s strong, trim, and boasts a full head of hair. De Niro, ever the perfectionist, stopped production for four months in order to gain 70 pounds so that when he delivers his “coulda been a contender” speech he’s clearly over-the-hill. Too bad that for The Irishman that method doesn’t work in reverse.

Thanks to my radio pal Bob Morris in Fargo, North Dakota, here's a broadcast of me on KKGO, making my annual Oscar predictions. 

No comments:

Post a Comment