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6 incredible performances in Martin Scorsese films

An influential pioneer of modern cinema, Martin Scorsese has brought some of the most iconic stories to the silver screen, including The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, Raging Bull, After Hours and many more. A lover and purveyor of all things cinema, Scorsese can be sentimental in his recollection of the importance of the medium, having created 2011s Hugo as an ode to the power of the film experience.

Scorsese even once said: “Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime, we need to keep them alive”. 

Filling such stories with narrative riches and characters galore, Scorsese is also responsible for having crafted some of the most intricate and elaborate roles ever put to screen. Often collaborating with the great Robert De Niro in films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Cape Fear and Goodfellas, Scorsese is well known for bringing some of cinema’s darkest characters to vibrant life. 

Having also worked with the likes of Joe Pesci, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pachino, Willem Dafoe and Nicolas Cage, Martin Scorsese is a master of characterisation, with each one of his films featuring a standout performance.

With multiple roles of note throughout his filmography, let’s take a look back at six of the most incredible performances under the director’s eye.

6 incredible performances in Martin Scorsese films

Robert De Niro – Taxi Driver

Truthfully there are multiple performances from Robert De Niro that could’ve taken this spot, including in Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Cape Fear. Most notably though, his iconic role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is arguably his very finest.

Terrifying and engaging in Scorsese’s searing investigation of masculinity and disillusioned aggression, Bickle is a rebel against the emptiness of the universe. Scorsese praised De Niro, saying in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “Bob (De Niro) was very instrumental because he pointed out to me that the first line of dialogue was ‘Turn off the meter.’ And I did one take, and he said to me, ‘When you say – Turn off the meter – make me turn it off. Just make me turn it off”. 

Rosanna Arquette – After Hours

Nominated for a BAFTA in Martin Scorsese’s Palme d’Or nominated film, Rosanna Arquette’s performance as Marcy is a neglected masterwork in Scorsese’s excellent comedy romp that follows a man’s spiralling exploration of New York City.

A Kafkaesque nightmare, Scorsese later reported in an interview with David Ansen, “I like that movie a lot. It’s the only movie of mine that I can watch over and over again. It’s so funny to me. Someone called it a ‘farce of the subconscious.’ That’s what it is. Like a French farce. Here we have the timing down to psychological elements and sexual dread”. 

Playing Marcy, the object of protagonist Paul Hackett’s desires, Rosanna Arquette is a playful, seductive individual forever evading the grasp of Hackett. Her performance would be one of the many shining lights in Scorsese’s underrated film. 

Willem Dafoe – The Last Temptation of Christ

The role of Jesus Christ is a testing one for any actor. Having to portray an individual with immense power yet with a sentimental grace that permeates through the screen is a daunting task. This was exactly the case for the performance of Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ. 

Scorsese’s thesis on religion is an indispensable exploration of the duality of faith and doubt. While Christian fundamentalists were enraged by Scorsese’s ambiguity, others continue to find spiritual solace in the vital questions that the film raises. What made the film so much more enthralling was the central performance from Dafoe that elevated the material into something far more captivating by fully committing his mind and body to the role. 

As the actor revealed in an interview with Time Out: “So much was required of me. Actors want to be challenged, to be put in a position where the heat is turned up. And we had a master filmmaker. Look, it was a low-budget movie. People forget that. We were healing the blind in the afternoon and up on the cross in the evening. That’s not a complaint – it was kind of a blessing.”

Sharon Stone – Casino

An ambitious attempt to capture the glamour of the 1970s, Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama stars Robert De Niro as a gambling expert and gangster who oversees the workings of a Las Vegas casino. Sharon Stone stars as De Niro’s wife, an alluring streetwise hustler who steals many of the scenes they share. 

A grand exploration of how flourishing wealth can corrupt an individual’s personal life, there is no better character who displays such poisonous frivolities than Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna. Greedy, manipulative, cunning and devious, Stone is a joy to watch, embodying the role of Ginger with obvious passion and enthusiasm. As the actor recalls in a Guardian interview, “I think for a long time people just did not know what to do with me…And finally, I got together with Marty and Bob and they were like, ‘Give it all to us, baby, just let her rip if you’ve got it, we want it, let’s see what you can do’”.

Joe Pesci – Goodfellas

In perhaps Martin Scorsese’s most celebrated film, and certainly one of the most celebrated films of the crime subgenre, Joe Pesci delivers a standout performance amongst a crowded ensemble cast that included Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and more.

An intriguing meditation on the redundancy of morality in the mafia underworld, Goodfellas is a film pumping with frenetic energy and a restless experimental core. As Scorsese explained in an interview with Gavin Smith, “I was interested in breaking up all the traditional ways of shooting the picture”. Menacing and snarling, Pesci’s Tommy DeVito commands the room as a man caught in between moral responsibilities. It’s a fascinating character and a tremendous performance. 

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street

In a role seemingly made for the iconic actor, Leonardo DiCaprio excels as the repugnant Jordan Belfort, turning the character from something of sheer arrogance into something far more endearing. 

Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who hit the big time, Scorsese’s film is a somewhat overblown sage of sex, drugs and financial crime that features DiCaprio in one of his most enjoyable roles. Rightfully earning an Academy Award nomination for his stellar performance, DiCaprio relishes every minute he has on-screen with a dizzying portrayal of the real-life banker who lived life at 100mph. 

Reflecting on his experience working with Scorsese, DiCaprio noted in an interview with The Independent: “As a young actor standing beside him during the creative process of making a movie, I discovered that just like a painting, a sculpture, music or theatre, film was just as essential, relevant, as a matter of fact, the most integral art form of our time. I felt I could truly own the term artist by working alongside him”. 

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