Martin Scorsese – Part 4 (Mid to late 90’s)
1991 brought Cape Fear, a remake of a cult 1962 movie of the same name, and the director’s seventh collaboration with De Niro. Another foray into the mainstream, the film was a stylized thriller taking its cues heavily from Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955). Cape Fear received a mixed critical reception and was lambasted in many quarters for its scenes depicting misogynistic violence. However, the lurid subject matter did give Scorsese a chance to experiment with a dazzling array of visual tricks and effects. The film garnered two Oscar nominations. Earning eighty million dollars domestically, it would stand as Scorsese’s most commercially successful release until The Aviator (2004), and then The Departed (2006).
The opulent and handsomely mounted The Age of Innocence (1993) was on the surface a huge departure for Scorsese, a period adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about the constrictive high society of late-19th Century New York. It was highly lauded by critics upon original release, but was a box office bomb. As noted in Scorsese on Scorsese by editor/interviewer Ian Christie, the news that Scorsese wanted to make a film about a 19th Century failed romance raised many eyebrows among the film fraternity all the more when Scorsese made it clear that it was a personal project and not a studio for-hire job.
Recently, it has started to come back into the public eye, especially in countries such as the UK and France, but still is largely neglected in North America. The film earned five Academy Award nominations (including for Scorsese for Best Adapted Screenplay), winning the Costume Design Oscar.
1995’s expansive Casino, like The Age of Innocence before it, focused on a tightly wound male whose well-ordered life is disrupted by the arrival of unpredictable forces. The fact that it was a violent gangster film made it more palatable to fans of the director who perhaps were baffled by the apparent departure of the earlier film. Critically, however, Casino received mixed notices. In large part this was due to its huge stylistic similarities to his earlier Goodfellas, and its excessive violence that garnered it a reputation as possibly the most violent American gangster film ever made.
Scorsese still found time for a four hour documentary in 1995 offering a thorough trek through American cinema. It covered the silent era to 1969, a year after which Scorsese began his feature career, stating “I wouldn’t feel right commenting on myself or my contemporaries.”
If The Age of Innocence alienated and confused some fans, then Kundun (1997) went several steps further, offering an account of the early life of the Dalai Lama, the People’s Liberation Army’s entering of Tibet, and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent exile to India. Not least a departure in subject matter, Kundun also saw Scorsese employing a fresh narrative and visual approach. Traditional dramatic devices were substituted for a trance-like meditation achieved through an elaborate tableau of colourful visual images.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999) was a return to familiar territory, with the director and writer Paul Schrader constructing a pitch-black comic take on their own earlier Taxi Driver. Like previous Scorsese-Schrader collaborations, its final scenes of spiritual redemption explicitly recalled the films of Robert Bresson.
(It’s also worth noting that the film’s incident-filled nocturnal setting is reminiscent of After Hours.) It received generally positive reviews, although not the universal critical acclaim of some of his other films.
With a production budget said to be in excess of $100 million, Gangs of New York was Scorsese’s biggest and arguably most mainstream venture to date. Like The Age of Innocence, it was set in 19th-century New York, although focusing on the other end of the social scale (and like that film, also starring Daniel Day Lewis). The film also marked the first collaboration between Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who since then has become a fixture in later Scorsese films.
The production was highly troubled with many rumors referring to the director’s conflict with Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein. Despite denials of artistic compromise, Gangs of New York revealed itself to be the director’s most conventional film: standard film tropes which the director had traditionally avoided, such as characters existing purely for exposition purposes and explanatory flashbacks, here surfaced in abundance. The film still received generally positive reviews with the review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 75% of the reviews they tallied for the film were positive and summarizing the critics by saying “Though flawed, the sprawling, messy Gangs of New York is redeemed by impressive production design and Day-Lewis’s electrifying performance.”
Gangs of New York earned Scorsese his first Golden Globe for Best Director. In February 2003, Gangs of New York received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, however it did not win in any category.