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Scorsese makes movies about men but they speak to women too

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‘Women are not capable of understanding Goodfellas is a headline clearly designed to get clicks. But could readers really expect anything more nuanced from Kyle Smith, the man TheAtlantic Monthly once anointed “the most cantankerous film critic in America”?

In his 2015 article for The New York Post, Smith declared Goodfellas a “boy movie” that “takes place in a world guys dream about.” Women are positioned as “the sensitivity police” unable to enjoy the film because watching men sit around poking fun at each other, while drinking and conducting extramarital affairs, offends us. Men will buy into the fantasy; women will universally be repulsed. You get the picture.

What to do then as a woman and a fan of Goodfellas and Scorsese’s films overall? There’s plenty to be offended by in Smith’s hollow criticism: the presumption that women should only be watching certain genres of films; that there’s nothing in Scorsese’s films that speaks to us; that if we enjoy them then maybe there is something wrong with us; that a film can only ever mean one thing; and that all men engage with Goodfellas in exactly the same way. I could go on.

But that was 2015. Ancient history as far as online outrage goes. Yet the conversation started by Smith’s article still feels relevant. Since I’ve been watching and thinking and writing about Scorsese over the past few months, I’ve encountered a number of men very keen to explain his work to me, without invitation, as though my understanding must naturally be incorrect simply because I’m a woman. Perhaps Smith was onto something about how some men think about Scorsese’s work and especially about where they position women in relation to it. Perhaps it’s related to where Scorsese’s films position us.

Scorsese directing Kris Kristofefferson and Ellen Burstyn

Part of the wider critical conversation around Scorsese is that his films represent a world that privileges the experiences of men; that Marty generally doesn’t do very well by women. Scorsese has made over 30 films (features and documentaries) and only one of these has featured a female protagonist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Meryl Streep has even quipped, when asked if there are any filmmakers she would still like to work with, “I would like Martin Scorsese to be interested in a female character once in a while, but I don’t know if I’ll live that long.”

So there’s no point arguing that Scorsese’s films aren’t mostly about men. The argument should shift then to questioning whether this is in and of itself a bad thing and is it the only thing worth focusing on in his output. An auteur director crafts a body of work that is the visualisation of a series of concerns and questions that usually preoccupy them their entire creative life (Ingmar Bergman’s films, for example, were mostly about religious doubt). For Scorsese, this has included, among many other interests, a preoccupation with male psychology and male bonds.

The argument against Scorsese’s limited representation of women points out that women appear in mostly supporting roles, relegated to the sidelines of the action, standing in the shadows as he investigates the thrills and ills of American manhood. It continues that Scorsese mostly offers women roles that inhabit one of two divergent poles – either Madonnas or whores, idealised or sexualised, with little middle ground. Mean Streets (1973)and Taxi Driver (1976) were early films that saw women this way. More recently, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) courted controversy for its proliferation of naked, silent women, exacerbated by a debate around whether Scorsese’s satire was a condemnation of or celebration of the world it represented, and if a celebration then relentlessly sexist.

Scorsese De Niro and Sharon Stone on the set of Casino

Maybe Scorsese’s male fans see these images and wonder, what could a woman possibly be attracted to here. But that’s part of a view that also purports that a Scorsese film is only about a couple of things – violence, crime or the trappings of the gangster life – when they are actually about much more. And it’s also a view that implies women and men should only be interested in stories about us or that support our particular view of the world.

Does the fact that Scorsese’s films are mostly about men render them unworthy of my time, interest, or understanding? Luckily, like most women, I am interested in much more. An informal conversation with other female cinephiles and critics confirmed that Scorsese’s gender disparity is not our primary point of connection (or disconnection) with his films. Some openly love violent, gangster films. Others relate to his treatment of experiences that can be called universal, such as loneliness and jealousy. Women, also unsurprisingly, are interested in men, and find Scorsese’s exploration of masculinity, toxic or otherwise, fascinating. There are his Italian influences, the exemplary art and production values, the astonishing casts, brilliant use of music, and his working relationship with Thelma Schoonmaker. I concur with all this. Scorsese is an intelligent filmmaker and his work is an entry point for many to approaching cinema intellectually, as art. His mastery of the form is second to none.

Scorsese on the set of Taxi Driver with Robert De Niro and Cybill Shepherd

There’s also a through line for many fans with Scorsese’s own cinephilia, his passion for film history, and his work on film preservation through his Film Foundation. And it can’t be denied that Scorsese has collaborated with great actresses, giving them some of the most impressive and memorable roles of their careers: Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar-winning performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Liza Minnelli in New York, New York (1977), Sharon Stone in Casino (1995), Cate Blanchett in The Aviator(2004), and both Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence (1993). They may not be at the centre of these films but they are often what are most memorable about them.

I’ve loved film much longer than I have been a critic. In the end, I have watched and will continue to watch Martin Scorsese’s films because they are always provocative, often beautiful works of entertainment and art. And really, that’s the only reason that matters.

Joanna Di Mattia