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SCORSESE, DICAPRIO AND DE NIRO: OBSESSIVE CINEMA

9 min read

INTRODUCTION 

The stunning and surprising success of James Cameron's Titanic (1997) had a huge impact on cinema. Earning over $1 billion worldwide and winning 11 Oscars, it convinced studios that there was a place at the box office for three hour epics, paving the way for The Lord of the Rings trilogy to sweep the board a few years later.

Titanic also turned its two leading performers, and Kate Winslet, into massive movie stars, but at a cost. They became so associated with the film, they found it hard to shake it off as their career progressed. While Winslet continued in independent productions, DiCaprio had to work harder to shed his image as a ‘teen heartthrob' and establish himself as a genuinely serious actor.

The years immediately following Titanic saw DiCaprio appearing in several diverse projects, including Danny Boyle's The Beach (2000) and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can (2002). These films were essentially playing on his good looks and charisma, not exactly stretching his obvious capabilities as an actor. He needed to make a movie where he could explore a darker image, where he could unsettle the audience, where he could be unlikeable.

Enter . The veteran director, known for making intense, psychologically challenging films and not conforming to the norm, required a young, talented actor to lead his most ambitious project to date: Gangs of New York (2002).

The film launched the most fruitful and rewarding partnership of DiCaprio's career- his collaboration with Scorsese has lasted for twenty years, spanning six films and two Oscar nominations.

So why has the DiCaprio/Scorsese partnership endured? And how does it compare to Scorsese's similar relationship with ? All three of them will be working together on the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, the first time Scorsese's two favourite actors have overlapped in a feature film.

Here, I'm going to be exploring the DiCaprio/Scorsese dynamic, examining the themes and perceptions of their movies together and whether they have any links to the classics of Scorsese's past.

AMSTERDAM VALLON: GANGS OF NEW YORK

The characters that DiCaprio play within the Scorsese universe tend to be men filled with obsessions, men who have a unique and driving passion for something and will stop at nothing to get it. In Gangs of New York, Amsterdam Vallon is desperate to avenge his father's murder at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), resorting to violence and brutality, ignoring the pleas of Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) to realise that he is in over his head and should back down.

Gangs of New York, as with a lot of passion projects, is a rather messy and bloated film and DiCaprio ends up in Day-Lewis' shadow for much of the running time but, in Amsterdam Vallon, he is playing a subverted version of Jack Dawkins. Both men come from the ‘streets', but while Jack is naïve and tender, Amsterdam is vengeful and harsh.

The most noticeable difference is in their final fates- Amsterdam buries his past and goes off with Jenny, Jack meets a watery end after saving Rose. DiCaprio's performance as Amsterdam at times suggests what might have happened to Jack had he survived.

Martin Scorses directs Leonardo Di Caprio in 2002 movie Gangs Of New York

 

HOWARD HUGHES: THE AVIATOR

The Aviator (2004) has DiCaprio starring as notorious recluse Howard Hughes, a successful aviator and film director whose life becomes crippled due to an overwhelming obsessive-compulsive disorder. At one point, Hughes locks himself away in his theatre room, which is full of jars of urine and scattered papers, refusing to come out despite being summoned for an investigation at the Senate.

The film is overlong and a bit messy and DiCaprio doesn't always have a firm grasp of Hughes, but his image as a ‘pretty boy' is subverted during this sequence, as he appears unshaven, unkempt, and increasingly unstable. The performance earned DiCaprio his second Oscar nomination, losing to Jamie Foxx.

THE DEPARTED: BILLY COSTIGAN

The Departed (2006) is the most successful of the DiCaprio/Scorsese projects, finally earning Scorsese his first Best Director Oscar after years of being snubbed. Once again, DiCaprio is cast as a somewhat volatile character, this time Billy Costigan, the nephew of a notorious mobster who goes undercover in the gang of Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

Costigan shares similar traits to an earlier Scorsese protagonist, Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990). Both men are heavily embroiled in the mob (although Hill does so by choice) and as the story progresses, both become increasingly paranoid that their house of cards is going to come crashing down around them.

Again, obsession dominates Costigan's personality. He is determined to prove to his superiors that he is unlike his uncle but is equally determined to show Costello that he is the perfect enforcer for his organisation. In contrast to Amsterdam and Hughes, Costigan's damaged psyche costs him his life. The Departed is arguably the one film DiCaprio has made with Scorsese that links most forcibly to the De Niro era- it's not difficult to imagine De Niro himself appearing in the film, either as Queenan or Costello.

TEDDY DANIELS: SHUTTER ISLAND

After a gap of four years, DiCaprio and Scorsese reunited in early 2010 for Shutter Island. Not one of Scorsese's crowning achievements, it nevertheless continues with themes prevalent in his other works with DiCaprio. Yet again, DiCaprio's lead character, Teddy Daniels, isn't all that he appears. Seemingly a humourless and grieving US Marshall, his motives for arriving on the island reveal a darker side to his personality. Teddy is obsessed with finding Andrew Laeddis, the man he is sure is responsible for the death of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in a house fire.

This obsession bleeds into the narrative of the film, as the audience comes to the realisation that Daniels is an unreliable narrator and the events that have transpired have come from his own mind, a mind that has been driven mad by hallucinations and guilt.

By this point in their partnership, Scorsese has moulded DiCaprio into a respected and ‘prestigious' actor, one who isn't afraid to take risks, who has convincingly shed his image as a ‘heartthrob' by allowing him to play characters who exist on the very edge of reality, characters who do not always have the sympathy of the audience, but who are nevertheless compelling because of their complexities.

JORDAN BELFORT: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

This sympathy is stretched to the limit in their most recent collaboration, 2014's The Wolf of Wall Street. Jordan Belfort is easily the most despicable and unlikeable of all the roles DiCaprio has ever played and is arguably Scorsese's cruellest protagonist. Belfort's obsessive, debauched lifestyle, in which he indulges in excessive drug taking, money laundering and sexual deviances, is exhausting and depraved and neither Scorsese or DiCaprio allow a let up in his behaviour, which develops over the course of three – sometimes excruciating – hours. There have been many unpleasant characters in Scorsese's films, but none of them quite like Belfort.

Of all their films, this is the one that has the hardest sell- is DiCaprio a talented enough actor to bring the audience along with Belfort through his uncomfortable and unsettling lifestyle? Is Scorsese the right sort of filmmaker for a movie that should potentially be made by someone younger? The answer to these questions depends on how individual filmgoers respond to the story they are trying to tell.

Some may find Belfort a strangely entrancing, hypnotic person, recognising his charisma while at the same time noticing his failings. Others may be appalled at what is happening on screen and believe Belfort has no redeeming features whatsoever, despite DiCaprio and Scorsese's best intentions. Whichever way The Wolf of Wall Street is viewed, DiCaprio's performance is courageous, astounding and totally committed. He may have won his Oscar for The Revenant (2015), but this is him at his most exposed.

Martin Scorsese gives direction to Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Wolf of Wall Street.

COMPARISONS WITH DE NIRO 

Killers of the Flower Moon will be the sixth film between Scorsese and DiCaprio, (a recently announced seventh collaboration, shipwreck thriller The Wager, is in pre-production) and his tenth with Robert De Niro. Many of the films Scorsese has made with DiCaprio share similarities with those made with De Niro.

De Niro's characters in Scorsese films have the same obsessive drive as DiCaprio's, whether its Travis Bickle and his desire to wipe the scum off the streets in Taxi Driver (1976), Jake LaMotta's explosive rise and fall as a boxer in Raging Bull (1980), Rupert Pupkin's stalking of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King of Comedy (1982), or Max Cady's brutal vengeance against Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) in Cape Fear (1991).

Like DiCaprio, De Niro's collaborations with Scorsese earned him the acclaim and integrity that he wanted as he sought a varied and unique career in the acting industry- working together on Mean Streets (1973) led De Niro to The Godfather Part II (1974), which won him an Oscar. Similarly, Scorsese tends to produce his best work when working with either De Niro or DiCaprio.

ROLE OF WOMEN

The role of women within Scorsese's films tend to be heavily scrutinised, especially within the De Niro/DiCaprio productions. Both Bickle and La Motta treat their wives/girlfriends very badly. Max Cady is a convicted rapist who brutalises Sam's wife and daughter, as well as subjecting Sam's co-worker to a horrific attack, and Henry Hill's descent into drugs leads to him assaulting his wife.

In the DiCaprio films, Howard Hughes's OCD pushes away Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, Costigan isn't sure he can trust his girlfriend, Teddy murders his wife rather than seek help for her depression and Belfort regards women as nothing more than sexual playthings.

Most of Scorsese's protagonists meet their downfall at the hands of the women in their lives, whether they end up being abandoned, betrayed, arrested or killed. LaMotta's belief that his wife and brother have been having an affair lead to both ignoring him and leaving him isolated and pathetic.

Cady drowns after Leigh and Danielle fight back, Naomi, despite being the one who seduced him and initiated their relationship, leaves Belfort after realising his only interest in her is sex, and Teddy's refusal to admit to killing his wife leads him to be committed to an asylum. Whether played by De Niro or DiCaprio, Scorsese's characters have to face some sort of comeuppance for their behaviour and it's often those closest to them that contribute to it.

SIX FILMS AND COUNTING: WHY DICAPRIO STICKS WITH SCORSESE

DiCaprio is a very choosy actor. Despite working with many of cinema's most respected directors, including Spielberg, Cameron, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan, he rarely reunites with them. The exceptions are Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino, with whom he has worked twice, as well as Scorsese.

Why is he so drawn to working with Scorsese, often described as the best living director? Most likely, it's because Scorsese pushes DiCaprio more than any other filmmaker, forcing him to confront the darker side of humanity, to tap into a cruelty and menace in a way no-one else can. Scorsese has spent most of his career operating outside the studio system, making films about fractured characters, planning projects that interest him rather than chasing box-office appeal.

He has made films that have been embroiled in controversy, have horrified and stunned audiences in equal measure and have rarely been mainstream or conventional. DiCaprio, much as De Niro was during his peak, is interested in the subtext of the roles he plays, the secrets that lurk beneath the surface and Scorsese gives him the chance to embrace them. Certainly, had DiCaprio not explored his dark side with Scorsese, he may never have played Calvin Candie in Django Unchained (2012).

CONCLUSION

The partnership between DiCaprio and Scorsese, and indeed De Niro and Scorsese, has been a defining one. It has allowed DiCaprio the opportunity to show critics and the fans who queued round the block to see him in Titanic that he could play mature, complicated characters, and it has kept Scorsese constant and relevant even as studios turn to franchises and superheroes to fill their coffers.

The cinema landscape has changed since the days of Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Scorsese may not draw in the huge audiences (which explains why his three-and-a-half-hour epic The Irishman (2019) ended up on Netflix rather than having a wide cinema release), De Niro may have become a shadow of himself, and DiCaprio better known for his environmental efforts nowadays, but the combination of one of the greatest modern directors with both his favourite leading men is hugely exciting.

How will Killers of the Flower Moon reflect the themes and values that have defined Scorsese's work? What sort of characters will DiCaprio and De Niro bring to the screen? Two things are absolutely clear- however the final product turns out, it will be as atypical as anything Scorsese has made and DiCaprio will continue to prove that Titanic was the exception, not the norm, in his career.

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON WILL BE RELEASED IN 2023.