Is it possible we could be taking Martin Scorsese for granted? At November’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival tribute, watching Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” De Niro and Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” and “The Irishman,” and Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it seemed so clear that Scorsese, who is nominated for both a DGA award and the directing Oscar, is the greatest director of our time.
What he accomplished in “The Irishman” would be an extraordinary feat of filmmaking for anyone. It’s not like the Oscar-nominated performances from Al Pacino as driven labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (working with Scorsese for the first time) and Joe Pesci as mafioso Russell Bufalino (pulled out of retirement for one last go with the master), or De Niro (who was Oscar-overlooked for his more reactive, passive role as a mafia hitman) came out of nowhere. Scorsese worked hard with producer De Niro and writer Steven Zaillian on the script, and during production with his cast and crew, on creating seamless and compelling cinema that never lets you go over three-and-a-half hours.
The sprawling narrative spans 200 characters and 6,000 background actors on a 108-day shoot over 295 New York and New Jersey locations. Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell brought in a second designer to handle the scale of the period costumes that spanned four decades; De Niro himself had to go through 102 costume changes. Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker spent 40 weeks cutting the movie.
At the recent National Board of Review, where “The Irishman” won Best Film and Scorsese, De Niro, and Pacino shared the Icon Award, Bruce Springsteen pointed out that these three icons “have 27 Oscar nominations and four wins between them. And even with that, they’ve been screwed! Time and again! Royally screwed! Please! If a hold over the public consciousness is that measure, well, the public long ago told us how important the work of these three men has been to them.”
Springsteen described standing in long theater lines for “Taxi Driver” and “The Irishman,” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” “For me, it’s the depth of the storytelling,” he said. “It’s a death-defying trip among your emotional and inner life available in the dark to complete strangers. You’re on a tightrope and your commitment is what makes an actor or a filmmaker obsessively watchable.”
At the Santa Barbara Scorsese tribute, Pacino explained how Scorsese helped him. “He sets the stage for you, like a tightrope walker,” he said. “Marty is a net. He sets it up, and then he’s there. Things come out of you because he is there. He gets some of the greatest performances to film.” Of “The Irishman,” Pacino also said, “Marty had somehow expressed something about our world and about ourselves that is more than just a story. And that is one of his great gifts.”
Check out the maestro at work in this video, below, directing, among other things, the tour-de-force banquet scene which cuts back and forth among multiple reaction shots as the movie builds to its chilling denouement.