Director, producer, editor, writer, actor, historian, movie buff, film preservationist and champion of artists’ rights, Martin Scorsese has left his mark on virtually every aspect of the motion picture. He is among the finest and most influential of American directors, past and present.
Scorsese considered becoming a priest, but after a year in a seminary, decided to approach the issues of guilt, faith, redemption and love from another angle — as a filmmaker. He attended NYU Film School in the 1960s, and it was obvious from his first short films that Scorsese possessed formidable knowledge of and facility with film technique as well as a uniquely truthful sense of character and place. His preoccupation with loyalty, violence, religion, crime and the movies, evident very early on, continues to reverberate throughout his body of work.
Indeed, many of his films contain autobiographical elements culled from his youth in a tough neighborhood in New York’s Little Italy. The violent, troubled obsessives who people Scorsese’s films are not only compelling in and of themselves — he may have some of the most relentlessly unsympathetic characters in the history of the cinema on his roster — but are imbued with the extra dimension of humanity that comes from an artist’s observation and memory.
Scorsese directed his first low-budget feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? (1969), while teaching at NYU. This character study about freedom and guilt — Catholic and otherwise — led to assignments as an editor on WOODSTOCK (1970) and as post-production supervisor or MEDICINE BALL CARAVAN (1971). His interest in music has remained an integral part of all of his subsequent films and led to the thoughtful and exuberant rock documentary of his own, THE LAST WALTZ (1978), as well as the baroque and original Big Band-era musical, NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1978), which manages to celebrate the achievements of artists like Vincent Minnelli while turning those conventions on their ears.
It’s easy to think of Scorsese as a kind of poet of the underworld. He has explored the dark, violent and underside of urban life with precision and understanding in powerfully unsettling classics like MEAN STREETS (1973), TAXI DRIVER (1976), AFTER HOURS (1985), GOODFELLAS (1990) and CASINO (1995). But his characters have also wandered far from the jungle of the city and lives of organized crime: they are beleaguered single mothers and frustrated singers (ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, 1974); obsessive show business wannabes and jaded celebrities (THE KING OF COMEDY, 1983); angry ambitious boxer (RAGING BULL , 1980); and tortured artists (NEW YORK STORIES, 1989). Scorsese has examined the agonies of a very human Jesus Christ in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and peeled away the stifling layers of 19th-century New York society in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993). No matter the setting or the plot, no matter whether he is shocking us with shattering violence or moving us with tender emotion, Scorsese always seeks the truth within his characters and their worlds. If it is impossible to admire his Jake La Motta, a brilliant fighter but a less than evolved human being, we come away from RAGING BULL knowing him, understanding him. Similarly, the mobsters of GOODFELLAS, the gamblers and hustlers of CASINO, the surreal oddballs of AFTER HOURS, and the obsessive fans of THE KING OF COMEDY are always more than they appear to be. Scorsese paints on one with the broad brush of total good or complete evil. He rarely expects us to like them only to recognize all the many facets of their personalities.
While Scorsese is without doubt one of his generation’s most brilliant and acclaimed filmmakers, he is also among its most passionate and knowledgeable students and lovers of film history and technique. His work with the Film Foundation has championed the cause of film preservation, he has brought attention to neglected American masters, and he has introduced important films by great foreign directors to American audiences.
Therefore, the American Film Institute celebrates tonight not only a powerful and influential body of work by one of the masters of the cinema, but the love, energy and enthusiasm that seeks to keep our cinematic heritage alive for future generations. Because of his own formidable achievements, his affection and appreciation for the great filmmakers of the past, and his determination to continue breaking new cinematic ground in the future, Martin Scorsese richly deserves this Life Achievement Award.