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Martin Scorsese’s five most underrated characters


In his recent eulogy of cinema, Martin Scorsese declared: “Movies touch our hearts and awaken our visions 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.” If those glowing words hold true, then it is through the characters that parade around them that the connections are achieved. 

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As ‘Marty’ also stated: “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more of a tendency to look for people who live by kindness, tolerance, compassion, a gentler way of looking at things.” Often his violent movies represent this in a paradoxical sense, holding a mirror to society and the characters he crafts are the central part of this. 

Below we’re diving into the minds of five of his most underrated muses. These lesser-known characters really tie the movies together, from the comical Masha in The King of Comedy to the wig ruffled Morrie played by Chuck Low in Goodfellas. We’re looking at this smorgasbord, looking at what makes them tick and how they prove vital to Scorsese’s cinematic tapestry. 

Martin Scorsese’s most underrated characters:

5. Morris ‘Morrie’ Kessler from Goodfellas

The despicable folks in Goodfellas aren’t often presented as such. This is a classic Scorsese trope to depict people without any inherent judgement. The vile actions of the heathens on screen are presented without any undertones, they simply unfurl like an expressionist piece of art. 

When the wig mogul Morris ‘Morrie’ Kessler appears in a scene that wasn’t actually directed by Scorsese in order to achieve the classic cheap commercial effect, he brings a humanising touch. So even when a chuckle is raised as he gets his wig knocked off and a telephone wire wrapped around his neck, we relate to his affable ways. 

In many ways, Morrie is the everyday face of the movie that shows how the violence of society impedes upon everyday lives with a cloak of almost laughable equanimity. The poor guy is being extorted and threatened and it’s somehow all a joke. Morrie is the brushstroke of realism that the masterpiece of Goodfellas requires. 

4. Chuck Aule in Shutter Island

The brilliance of Shutter Island is in how obvious the twist is when you watch it the second time around. A cacophony of hints howl the truth home throughout, but thanks to a fantastic straight role portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, it remains shrouded until the end. 

Scorsese once said: “There is no such thing as simple. Simple is hard.” That is a mantra worth remembering when considering any straight second fiddle role that any actor is tasked with. There is a simple coolness and likeable appeal to Chuck Aule that adds a little buddy movie undercurrent to the dark action and keeps the whole thing from feeling a bit too claustrophobic and needlessly overbearing. 

The fact that this lighter touch ultimately has a very serious edge reveals a great complexity to Ruffalo’s character. There is a genuine tenderness there and a sense of kinship that under the surface hints at a sort of fascinating truth to the facsimile of reality. 

3. Masha from The King of Comedy

The King of Comedy is undoubtedly one of Martin Scorsese’s greatest films ever, and in the words of Chris Morris, “that’s a fact, there’s no evidence for it, but it’s a scientific fact.” With a screenplay that has been ripped off a thousand times but never bettered, Scorsese has never captured life and society with as much encompassing scope. 

The beauty of Masha is that she simply doubles down the desperation of De Niro’s lead character, Rupert Pupkin. She strolls into proceedings with a mania that makes you think ‘Dear God, there’s two of these lunatics!’ Then the humbling truth reveals itself that they’re essentially just an amplified version of an army of people we all know. 

Sandra Bernhard expertly plays Masha with a magnificent lack of self-awareness (which is surely among the most difficult things to achieve in acting). Topped off with a brilliant soliloquy that stands out as some of the finest scripting that Scorsese has ever handled, the dark humour unspools with a brisking sense of the absurdity of delusional individualism, which seems to be catching on in society

2. Marcy from After Hours

In Scorsese’s spiralling Kafkaesque nightmare of New York City, a lynchpin is required not to tether the action but as a touchstone for where the slip-slide began. Rosanna Arquette’s Marcy is that fateful missed connection and she remains as constant as the northern star as the protagonist Paul Hackett slips ever deeper into the darkened depths of despair in the New York night. 

As Scorsese later remarked: “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”. 

Sadly, it is a film that has been shrouded by the brighter lights in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but it’s one of his thematically most alluring and Marcy is central to that captivating appeal. Arquette is understated, which on this occasion, proves to be perfectly beige in the same startling sense that sometimes a certain tone of chino can make you think someone isn’t wearing any pants for a fleeting second. 

1. Donny Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street

Once again, with The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese returned to depicting truly despicable people without any irony or judgement. In fact, there are scenes whereby Jordan Belfort is even portrayed as heroic for gifting money to a single mother even though the sum is a fraction of what his unpaid tax could contribute to the underprivileged masses of America. 

The dual beauty of the film exists in the hilarious gaudy surface that plays out like a gripping thrill ride of debauchery and the undercurrent mantra of being uncompromising without ever venturing into cynicism. As such, the mass misinterpretation of the film and its characters upon release stood as a signifier for the gaping flaws in society whereby so many of us can be fooled into thinking these guys are funny loonies who valiantly grip life by the balls owing to a few simple high-jinks and forget they are the same fat cats that fucked the world over in the very same narrative. 

Donny Azoff is not only masterfully played by Jonah Hill in a performance that warranted an Oscar and a heap more recognition, but he is a paradigm for our times. He spots a plush car in a parking lot and despairingly thinks ‘I want to be like him’ in a manner akin to a working-class denizen so beleaguered and disenfranchised by the system that many poor American’s somehow saw salvation and representation in the Billionaire Donald Trump.