Martin Scorsese once famously remarked that it was Robert De Niro who recommended him to work with Leonardo DiCaprio.
“I just did this thing called This Boy’s Life with this kid named Leo DiCaprio. He’s really good. You should work with him some day.” – De Niro
Coming from De Niro this was praise indeed and Scorsese knowing De Niro very well, knew that it was something to hold on to. At 23, Leonardo DiCaprio had worked in the biggest blockbuster of the time, Titanic. He was a pretty face who could act and he was forever going to be remembered as Jack from Titanic. In 1993, when De Niro mentioned about DiCaprio to Scorsese, he hadn’t yet worked on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; his performance in which still remains my favourite. The success of Titanic meant that there were producers who were willing to invest on an young A-lister such as DiCaprio. In early 2000s when Martin Scorsese was trying to pitch Gangs Of New York to the producers, they weren’t ready to see the grand scale of ambition that Scorsese had for the film. Word out on the street was that DiCaprio liked Scorsese’s films and would be interested in working with him, I mean who wouldn’t? The involvement of DiCaprio in Gangs Of New York made the movie happen and it also started a special relationship, similar to the kind Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have been sharing for almost 40+ years now.
The coming together of Scorsese and DiCaprio in 2002’s Gangs Of New York was not just a changing of guard for Scorsese but also a lease of new life. Allow me to explain why. Post Casino, Scorsese had only Kundun to his name and the movie is possibly the master’s weakest film to date. It was everything that the master is not known for. For 5 years after Kundun, Scorsese didn’t have a movie to show for. A small period of time if you compare it with Terrence Malick’s 20 years between Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line but Scorsese, the storyteller, had never been away from film-making for more than 3 years between successive releases. Gangs Of New York gave Scorsese an opportunity to work on an epic he had been wanting to make for some time and DiCaprio’s involvement gave him this new lease of life to go ahead with the project.
Scorsese and DiCaprio have worked together in 4 films now and if you discount Blood Diamond, DiCaprio hasn’t acted better in any other film but these 4 in the last decade. In Inception, he wore a constipated look that didn’t make much sense to me and in Django, I was once again seeing a Leonardo DiCaprio who enjoyed his acting. Some actors need a director to tap their reserve and push them to the depths of their acting well. There have been many great director – actor collaborations. Ingmar Bergman – Mark von Sydow, Akira Kurosawa – Toshiro Mifune, Satyajit Ray – Soumitra Chatterjee, John Ford – John Wayne, K. Balachander – Kamal Haasan, Billy Wilder – Jack Lemmon , Tim Burton – Johnny Depp to name a few. These are collaborations that have made some of the movies with the most important titular characters in films. When director – actor collaborations have lasted, the films have usually tended to be more psychologically stimulating, more ambitious and more soul searching on their part.
Scorsese has had two remarkable collaborations; De Niro and his heir in Scorsese’s line, DiCaprio. When Scorsese started working with De Niro, he was starting out himself. From Roger Corman, he had learned to do movies with a small budget and this meant that he could make movies about the gangsters in the community that he was brought up in. Scorsese’s early films were raw, the images were from the streets. In all the violence and energy that Scorsese brought to the screen, he didn’t forget the human side of things. It helped that he had a talent like Robert De Niro to work with. From Mean Streets to Casino, Robert De Niro delved into the psyche of the characters he played and he became different people, people whom Scorsese had envisioned.
It is interesting to note how Robert De Niro has never been a straight character in any of Scorsese’s movies. He’s always been a man with a shade of grey or in some cases pure evil. Compare it with the kind of work DiCaprio has done with Scorsese and you see a marked change in the characters. DiCaprio’s characters are people you root for. He is the man who has been wronged. Even in The Aviator, you are praying for a reversal of his derangement. De Niro’s characters rarely evoked sympathy. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull would be two movies where I rooted for his characters. In the rest, I was just awed by his ability to be a man of grey or black and still bring so much warmth to the characters he plays. Leonardo on the other hand has had characters that are more easy on the audience. You are not in a position to judge him, we are given a man who is good and is finding his way or bringing justice. He is your hero. The marked difference in the treatment of his lead characters is what I’ll call Scorsese’s change of roads or rather a start of a new journey.
Before working with Scorsese, DiCaprio had already worked with some of the acting greats of the industry. Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, De Niro, John Malkovich to name a few. During the time when he completed Titanic he was one of the promising actors around. There was a lot of promise but there wasn’t yet a director who had tapped all that potential. He still hadn’t worked with a director who was a master storyteller like Scorsese. The important thing is to see how Scorsese’s themes have broadened with his collaboration with Leo. Around the central themes of guilt, sin, ego, power and hope, Scorsese brought some equanimity and started placing themes like love, greed as he started working on a larger scale than before. The Scorsese of the 70s and 80s wouldn’t have done Hugo, a movie teeming with life. Yes, his earlier movies also teemed with life with the exception of The King Of Comedy, the frustratingly brilliant film that makes pain find a new home but they didn’t have the kind of innocence that Hugo has.
In Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas Scorsese explores poverty as a byline to the Italian neighbourhood in New York but in Gangs Of New York, he makes us see the stark reality that poverty is. He shows us the impoverished people from Ireland being dumped in New York. It is exploration of themes far more central to society that Scorsese started taking up in his second innings. The late Roger Ebert, the celebrated film critic said,
“I am fond of saying that a movie is not about what it’s about; it’s about how it’s about it. That’s always true of a Scorsese film.”
In Scorsese’s second innings, his films became more reflecting of himself, more pronounced of his beliefs and he started embracing who he is. Starting off as a young genius, he tasted success early into his career and then he retreated into a shell, trying to find his demons, fight them and he gave us some good films during the period but it was post Gangs Of New York that Scorsese started to be more expressive with his films. When I say expressive and more universal, don’t mistake it to be mainstream. Leonardo DiCaprio is the cloak that Scorsese has that makes his films seem mainstream of late but they still are inherently different to what everyone else offers on the screen.
The Departed, a gangster film, is far removed from the visceral quality of his Goodfellas and Mean Streets days. The Departed wouldn’t be a film where De Niro would have fit in. Even though the central theme is guilt, something that is present in every Scorsese movie and the actors are trying to find the inner image of themselves, there is huge difference to the way the movie would have been with De Niro in it and the way it turns out to be with DiCaprio in it. Scorsese’s beliefs and evolution as a film maker have meant that he has become more accessible to the general masses and this development is also thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio.
There has been only one film where I’ve felt that Scorsese became mainstream as a film-maker and it was during his remake of Cape Fear. Easily one of his poorest works, Cape Fear had very little that reminds one of Scorsese’s brilliance behind the camera. I pick on Cape Fear to highlight the difference between what I consider mainstream and pure Scorsese style of story telling. Consider Shutter Island and Cape Fear. Shutter Island is a universal take of a man’s fears. The movie had questions that were suitable in film noir or a Alfred Hitchcock thriller. It could have been a straightforward tale but Scorsese takes it block by block. He sets you up, pulls you in and then ambushes you with his story. There’s cause, there’s effect, there’s reflection and there’s understanding. That is the Scorsese way of storytelling. In Cape Fear, there’s cause (the setting up for the revenge), there’s effect(the deed), there’s understanding(the why and how of the things) and there’s very little reflection. This is the mainstream method of storytelling. The great storytellers have a lot of reflection in store in their films. Scorsese has his own method and it is a method that never fails. By the time Leonardo had started to make films with Scorsese, Scorsese had come to terms with who he is. This helped Leo’s understanding of cinema grow and master and apprentice had by then embarked on a wonderful journey together.
In his 30+ years in the industry, Scorsese has had very few people who could match him in his understanding of films. A cinephile or a movie brat, Scorsese drew inspiration from the movies he watched and from the people he was associated with. During his days of drug abuse following Taxi Driver’s failure, he came up with the masterpiece Raging Bull and after a few years tried to find an image of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. These are not movies which were received well in the box office. Even now, if we were to release the movies again, not many would turn up to see the movies and those who do turn up will herald them as masterpieces. These were days when Scorsese became a master craftsman. He became an artist of the same order as the people he admired, be it Kurosawa or Bergman or Ray.
In a recently held interview with The Guardian, actress Margot Robbie said,
“They’re telepathic. You’d be sitting there discussing a scene and they’ll be like, ‘Do you think…?’ ‘Hmm.’ ‘But what about the…?’ ‘Yeah.’ I’m going, ‘Hello? Did I miss something? Are we changing anything? I have no idea what we’re changing”
Leo’s close collaboration with Scorsese has meant that the two of them have come to understand each other very clearly and with this kind of understanding, Scorsese is in a comfort zone. In his second innings, Scorsese has found a person with whom he is as comfortable as he is with De Niro when it comes to filmmaking. Are they intimate friends? I don’t know. What they do have is the envious relationship where two people learn from each other, feed off each other and are totally comfortable with the knowledge of what the other has in store.
“Leo has a similar sensibility to me. I’m 30 years older than him, but I think we see the world the same way, meaning he feels comfortable with the characters I’ve dealt with over the years in movies,” says Scorsese.
Their fifth movie together is The Wolf Of Wall Street, due this year. If we look at the trailer, there are indications that this might be their best work to date. In his second innings, Scorsese has grown to be a more accessible filmmaker and not just a master story teller and craftsman. In some ways he has Leonardo DiCaprio to thank for. The second innings might reach a high point when the new collaboration releases but I hope that it isn’t the highest point they reach. De Niro and Scorsese had a relationship that two like-minded people of the same age have and the ideas bounced to create things that were beyond things people had foreseen. There’s a legacy in place. The legacy hasn’t stopped but is continuing and being expanded. Here’s to the second innings! Hope there’s more greatness in store.
Note- This article is part of the MAM 2nd Anniversary Week special that’s on for this week (Sep 1-8, 2013)