Martin Scorsese: From Dreamer to Director
By Jamie Hudalla | Psychology & English Literature and Writing Major
Director Martin Scorsese parades through the crowd, his five feet and four inches weaving between black-suited bodies. They applaud as he accepts the American Film Institute Award, an honor only the very best receive. Scorsese pauses at the podium to deliver a speech, but no words tumble out of his mouth as he scratches his quirky black brow. For once, he’s not shooting rapid-fire words like he does when he’s behind the camera. The crowd finally hushes and Scorsese thanks them in his East Coast accent, telling them how lucky and privileged he feels. He salutes all the directors before him that received the award, but after a pause he admits that he can never be one of them.
“I’m from another time and place, another universe altogether,” he says, waving his hand. “Whether I like it or not, I am the movies I make… And they’re certainly not to everyone’s taste. My old parish priest once told me that my work has too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday” (Dutka 1).
The joke earns him a laugh, but his mouth remains a straight line. In his films, Scorsese portrays a world of violence and backdoor deals that are authentic because he grew up in that world. The son of low-income Italian immigrants, Scorsese had to work hard to turn his passions into a paycheck. However, as Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success, points out, “The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot” (19). Scorsese, born in the 1940s to an Italian-American family, had a handful of unseen opportunities and desirable difficulties that ultimately led to his success.
Scorsese, born in the 1940s to an Italian-American family, had a handful of unseen opportunities and desirable difficulties that ultimately led to his success.
Opportunity reveals itself in a variety of ways. In his novel, Gladwell emphasizes the opportunity of correct timing. In his cryptic fashion, he asks whether there is a perfect year for a Jewish New York lawyer to be born (131). As it turns out, there is. Mort Janklow, a man whose father floundered in the same profession he did simply by being born in the wrong era, exemplifies this idea. In the 1930s, Janklow was born into a significantly small generation as a result of the Great Depression. Fast forward twenty years, and that generation is searching for work in a market that can provide a high supply of jobs for a low supply of people. Janklow and his fellow Depression babies had their pick of any school, which in turn allowed them to enter any profession. Gladwell writes, “The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside of us or from our parents. It comes from our times: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with” (137). Janklow worked hard to spin his straw into gold, but he also enjoyed the convenience of graduating from college at the right time. Janklow’s father, on the other hand, graduated at the height of the Great Depression. Despite being equally qualified, he had a markedly lower chance at success. This implies that success is one variable we can’t manipulate. It depends on something as trivial as the year we enter into the world rather than the effort we exert, which conflicts with the message society teaches us.
And Gladwell doesn’t stop there. He uproots the typical view of success by discussing the role of cultural legacy as well. Take, for instance, the Borgenichts, a family Gladwell uses to spell out the faultless formula: Right time plus right ethnicity equals victory. The Borgenichts immigrated to the United States in the 1890s from Poland. They, like other Eastern Europeans, acquired a skill important to the economy that other immigrants who came to New York didn’t have (Gladwell 148). Unlike the Italian and Irish, who reluctantly worked laborer and domestic jobs, the Eastern immigrants had already mastered the clothing trade in a time when New York’s garment industry thrived. In other words, “They bit deep into the welcoming land and worked like madmen at what they knew” (Gladwell 144).
This concept eerily resembles Scorsese’s philosophy: Make films about what you know (Skinner 2). Relate the tales of Janklow and Borgenicht to Scorsese’s story and another question arises: Is there a specific time period in which an Italian director would want to be born? Absolutely. As previously mentioned, Scorsese was born in 1942 in Little Italy, New York. He lived in a small but far from close-knit neighborhood. Plagued with crime, the streets were no place for a child to play, though even if Scorsese had wanted to his asthma would have prevented it. Smack the label of criminal onto the Italian community, and disadvantage smothered young Scorsese. As he began his career, “Italians encountered prejudice and negative stereotypes. Much of that was related to the Mafia. Often victimized by organized crime, Italian Americans found their collective reputation tarnished by organized crime” (Cannato 3).
So how did Scorsese overcome the fact that the times and his ethnicity weren’t in his favor? He did what several other directors in the 1960s did — he fed America’s mafia fixation through cinema. Unlawful Italian characters became a surefire way to win awards as “Americans became enchanted with the discovery and display of their own ethnic roots. Italian-Americans did not remain immune to this national physic contagion. In Hollywood, they took a leadership role. The ethnic revival influenced Hollywood in two main ways. First, Hollywood saw the commercial possibilities of ethnicity. Second, many filmmakers with strong ethnic backgrounds seized the opportunity to examine their own ethnic identities via movies” (Cortés 5). Movies like The Godfather sent the message that mafia films made money. Scorsese was a man who seized opportunities, and better yet, he had firsthand experience with criminality from the men in his neighborhood, namely his father and his uncle. His scenes were realistic because he’d lived them himself, or in other words he created what he knew. Suddenly growing up as an Italian visionary with a sketchy background wasn’t such an issue. It was an advantage. Like Janklow, Scorsese “Didn’t triumph over adversity. Instead, what started out as adversity ended up being an opportunity” (Gladwell 128). By that logic, even Scorsese’s asthma could be considered opportunistic. Because he couldn’t play with other children without having an attack, he started attending films at the local theatre, which in turn spurred his adoration of cinema. A road closed in his life, but it opened a detour that ultimately led him to success.
However, hidden opportunities don’t catapult people all the way to the top by sheer force alone. So, what makes Scorsese different from those who swim in pools of opportunity yet end up drowning? Scorsese succeeded rather than sunk because he found meaning in his work.
Once again, he owes partial credit to his cultural legacy. When each immigrant group came to the United States, “It possessed its own strategies for survival and success. For Italians, theirs rested upon two pillars: work and family” (Cannato 2). Scorsese largely incorporated his values, his family being one of them, into his films. His mother, Catherine Scorsese, is an Italian spitfire with unusually large glasses and a stern gaze. She made an appearance in Goodfellas, a movie starring a psychopathic killer who she labeled with an unworried hand wave “a little excitable.” In an interview at the University of California-Berkeley, Scorsese humorously recalls the experience of working with her.
“It was interesting having her around,” he admits. “It was a good device to knock the arrogance out of me when I was trying to work, you know? She would say ‘Did you eat? Where are you going? Oh Marty, you’re gonna do another take? How long is it gonna be? The actors are dying.’ That was the kind of thing that went on” (Trolander 11:50).
He shakes his head as he recounts the story, but a smile tugs at his lips. Scorsese may joke about her overbearing presence, but he later states that his most cherished films were the ones that included his family, his pillar of support (Nepales 1). Incidentally, these films skyrocketed in ratings. Scorsese excelled at what he did because it held importance for him. His 24 hour days were a blink of an eye, because instead of flipping burgers or sitting behind a desk, he was doing what he loved. This love translated into hard work, a clearly visible element in his award-winning films. Gladwell reminds us that at the end of the day, “It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It is whether our work fulfills us” (150).
The reason for Scorsese’s high aspirations can be traced back to his origin. Immigrants often teach their children that with hard work and imagination, people can mold the world to fit their desires. Remember the Borgenichts, who found meaningful work in the garment industry? Well, they produced a long lineage of successful offspring who listened to their advice. Coincidentally, Scorsese’s parents worked in the garment industry as well. From a young age, Scorsese’s parents taught him that the world belonged to him, so when he grew up he gave a piece of his world to everyone else in the form of motion picture.
The combination of Scorsese’s passion and opportunity has made him an unstoppable force. He doesn’t sit in the front row at the Oscars because he was a plucky immigrant kid who pulled himself out of the gutter and into the spotlight. He sits front row as the proud son of blue-collar Italians, thankful for the opportunities he’s been given. Many who declare themselves self-made men overlook the factors that they can’t control. Society broadcasts the idea that hard work equals success, but if anything hard work is a small footnote under a page full of opportunities and legacies. The ones that are truly lucky, though, are the ones whose struggles transform into blessings. As it turns out, Scorsese’s Good Fridays were Easter Sundays in disguise.
The ceremonial music softly begins to play in the background of Scorsese’s speech as he accepts his award. They’re kicking him off the stage, but he plants his feet behind the podium and ignores it; he’s not done reciting the long list of people who have helped him reach the place he’s in today.
“Without these people,” he announces, “My films wouldn’t be anything” (American Film Institute 7:10).
Cannato, Vincent. “What Sets Italian American Immigrants Off From Other Immigrants?” National Endowment for the Humanities. Corbis Outline, Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
Cortés, Carlos. “Italian-Americans in Film: From Immigrants to Icons.” MELUS 14.3 (1987): 107–126. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Dutka, Elaine. “’I Am the Movies I Make’; Martin Scorsese’s Passion and Commitment Earn Him the AFI’s Most Prestigious Honor.” Los Angeles Times. 22 Feb. 1997. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000. Print.
Martin Scorsese Accepts the 25tth AFI Life Achievement Award in 1999. American Film Institute. Online Video Clip. Youtube, 31 Aug. 2010. Web.
Martin Scorsese Interview- 2003, Brown University. K. Trolander. Online Video Clip. Youtube, 27 Aug. 2013. Web.
Nepales, Ruben. “Childhood ‘Isolation’ Inspired His Passion.” Inquirer. 3 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Skinner, David. “Martin Scorsese Biography.” National Endowment for the Humanities. Corbis Outline, Apr. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jamie Hudalla, a freshman from New Richmond, Wisc., would one day like to be a published author. Hudalla likes chicken noodle soup, turning the car bass up and rolling the windows down, and the wild slaphappy feeling that comes with staying up past 2 a.m.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED:
I’ve learned it’s not about what the reader wants to hear. It’s about what you want to write.
If you follow the formula you get the same results as everyone else.
Don’t be lukewarm. Be bold. Be neon.
A story moves people more than a statistic.
No one has the same definition of success.
Rags to riches isn’t a story anyone wants to hear until it’s over.
Don’t bother running if you’re going to be seven minutes late. Five minutes late doesn’t look that stellar, either.
If you mess up, laugh about it. That way when everyone else laughs about it you won’t care.
Aim to be happy and worry about success later.
When everyone listens to country, bring your own pair of headphones.
Even the crappiest of experiences make good stories.
Stay humble. Whether you can do long division in your head or you’re the heir to Prince’s fortune, there will always be someone doing grander things than you.
Don’t worry about whether your speech sucks. Everyone is too busy worrying about whether their speech sucks to listen to yours anyways.
Give credit to the people of your past and the places you’ve been.
One night at the beginning of the year I went in search of some alleged underground tunnels with my friends. After some searching we found them. They smelled like sewer and I thought I might catch a disease from the water pooled at the bottom, but I wanted to prove that I was adventurous. After passing the PRIVATE PROPERTY sign, we climbed over the fence and had a look around. I held up my phone light, which apparently wasn’t bright enough because I failed to see the jagged piece of rock that I jammed my toe into. My toenail came clean off and my phone went flying out of my hand. I ended up bloody with a cracked screen. Moral of the story: don’t try to be something you’re not.