Life would be a lot worse without Martin Scorsese. From The Last Waltz to Goodfellas, the American director has given us many of our favourite cinematic moments since he first broke onto the scene with 1973’s Mean Streets. One of the finest auteurs at exploring profound themes such as guilt and redemption, many of the characters and narratives he’s delivered have gone on to become cultural institutions, a testament to his uncompromising creative vision and discerning take on the world.
Notably, the majority of Scorsese’s work has been made within the habitual and complex Hollywood studio system, which is strange, as on paper, his films are the antithesis of blockbusters. More often than not, they’re violent, gritty and dense in concept, and works such as Goodfellas and Casino could not be further away from The Avengers or Jurassic Park.
There’s an uber-realism underpinning Scorsese’s titles that has instilled them with a timeless essence. Unsurprisingly this sense of reality has brought him into direct conflict with studio executives at many points across his career, as striving for artistic integrity within the machine of Hollywood is a Herculean task. Once upon a time though, this constant battling nearly drove Scorsese to walk away from cinema for good.
Speaking to the New York Times in 2020, the New York native revealed that whilst he was making 1995’s Casino he was seriously considering his future as a filmmaker, wondering whether he’d taken his skills to the limit. In the years following, he trudged on, making a concerted effort to elevate his craft by working in genres that he wouldn’t usually, but in the early 2000s, things would finally come to a head.
After Casino, in 1997, Scorsese released the historical biopic Kundun, which tells the story of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Whilst it was critically acclaimed, this sentiment was not ubiquitous. The film failed commercially and even got him temporarily banned from China for its support of the Tibetan spiritual leader.
This bleak period continued when Scorsese switched back to the feature film for 1997’s Bringing Out the Dead, the psychological thriller starring Nicolas Cage and Patricia Arquette. Again, reflecting the inherent conflict between art and commercial viability for Scorsese, the film was a critical success but a financial failure.
Famously, following this, 2002’s Gangs of New York, which was a lifelong passion project of Scorsese’s was nominated for ten Oscars but was deemed something of a commercial flop, grossing $194 million from a $100 million budget, a small revenue to Hollywood executives.
Fast forward to 2004, and Scorsese’s lengthy Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator proved to be the title that pushed the filmmaker to the brink.”The last two weeks of editing and mixing The Aviator I had left the business from the stress [of dealing with studio executives],” Scorsese revealed to the New York Times. “I said if this is the way you have to make films then I’m not going to do it anymore.”
Luckily for Martin Scorsese and us, though, he would bounce back, and in the best of ways, with 2006’s crime thriller, The Departed. Enlisting Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg, the film was a critical and commercial success, reaffirming that Scorsese is one of the finest auteurs of his generation and that cinema isn’t done with him yet.