The Image of Women in the Works of Martin Scorsese
Comparison of “Casino” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Term Paper 2015 16 Pages
Table of Contents
2.1 Who is Martin Scorsese?
2.2 Scorsese and Women
2.3 Feminist Film Theory
3. The Image ofWomen: Analysis
3.2 The Wolf ofWallStreet
Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese is known to reuse certain aesthetics, character traits and imagery in his movies. Religious symbols for instance can be found in virtually every one of his works. This is owed to the director’s background of a Roman Catholic education (Ebert la). What also stands out is the depiction of women in Martin Scorsese pictures. Next to the usually as dominant portrayed protagonist, the female characters often times feel like an appendage to the male lead.
It is portrayals like these - at least superficially - which give the impression of suppressed female figures in Scorsese’s movies. Quite commonly, this suppression even manifests in violent outbursts of the protagonists. But this understanding of Scorsese's women is too trivial.
The goal of this term paper is therefore to further examine the image of women conveyed in Scorsese’s movies and to enter into the question whether women only fulfill the function of a man’s accessory or if they hold a far more central position in Scorsese’s works. How dominant are the female characters really?
To outline a theoretical basis for this term paper, chapter 2 will attend to Martin Scorsese as a film maker in general but also in detail investigate his relationship with women. In addition, the main features of a feminist film theory will be elucidated. In chapter 3, the image of women respectively from Casino (1995) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) will be discussed. The development of the female as well as of the male characters will be analyzed. Chapter 4 briefly summarizes the results of this term paper. All sources used may be found in the bibliography.
2.1 Who is Martin Scorsese?
The importance of Martin Scorsese as a director in our culture cannot be stressed enough. His movie Taxi Driver (1976) for example can be seen as contemporary historical criticism. On the other hand, the movie survives as a self-contained piece of art until today. Therefore Marc Raymond recognizes Scorsese “first and foremost [as] an artist” (Raymond 166). Intertextual references to Scorsese’s movies can be found all throughout popular culture (Raymond 166-167).
Scorsese is also understood as one of the last representatives of the golden age of classic American cinema as well as he is commonly associated with the era of New Hollywood (Raymond 166-167). Nonetheless, he at the same time occupies the role of somewhat of an outsider. Despite the fact that he works within the formal structures of the Hollywood system, Scorsese was always able to maintain his “artistic integrity” (Raymond 167).
His movies were heavily influenced by his religious upbringing in an Italo-American milieu (Ebert 1a). Accordingly, gangster movies like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) can be regarded as particularly successful milestones in the director’s career. According to Andy Dougan, Scorsese’s works are a testament of what it means to be Catholic, of Italian descent and being emotionally suppressed in post-war America (Dougan 7). That being said, Scorsese never made a typical “Scorsese movie” (Seehlen 10). Yet, there are still many characteristic aesthetics one can detect: Like the constantly moving camera or the close relation of picture and music. Familiar motives of his movies include the rise and fall of the protagonist and the search for (divine) salvation [Taxi Driver, Bringing out the Dead (1999)].
Scorsese himself claims that a good director would never make the same movie twice (Seehlen 10). And so he always keeps adding new elements to an existing structure. In Gangs of New York (2002) for instance, although once again moving within the circles of a criminal milieu, the different gangs, in contrast to the Mafia, are politically motivated. At the same time, Scorsese tells stories in completely different genres. Examples would be Kundun (1997), in which he explores the spiritual world of Tibetan Buddhism, or Shutter Island (2010), a spectacular psycho-thriller.
Marty Pat Kelly recognizes that Scorsese’s “leadership style is equal parts structure and improvisation, reverence and irreverence” (Kelly). Not least because he grew up in a “neighborhood of contradictions” (Kelly). Scorsese himself once said: “I was raised with them, the gangsters and the priests. And now, as an artist, in a way, I’m both a gangster and a priest” (Rausch 1). In this context, Robert Casillo concludes that Scorsese’s “unique position in contemporary cinema” is due to his “manifest relation to his ethnicity” (Casillo 383).
2.2 Scorsese and Women
Contemplating about the question what Martin Scorsese’s attitude toward women is, a specific scene from Taxi Driver comes to mind. In this scene, Scorsese himself plays a cab passenger who talks about killing his unfaithful wife. He is quite explicit in his description of the planned murder (Seefilen 109-110).
In an interview right after the release of Taxi Driver, movie critic Roger Ebert talks to Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader about the movie itself but also about the female characters in Scorsese’s movies. Ebert recognizes the attitude towards women as “ambivalent” (Ebert b). In the context of Taxi Driver, Scorsese describes the relation between men and women as a “goddess-whore complex” (Ebert b): “You’re raised to worship women, but you don’t know how to approach them on a human level, on a sexual level” (Ebert b). This statement indicates that Scorsese simply struggles to fully understand women. Actress Meryl Streep even remarked in an interview once: “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” (The Talks).
Maria Miliora sums up the basic role of women in the works of Scorsese:
Consistent with Scorsese’s declaration that he makes movies of the world of men, the focal characters of his films are most often (heterosexual) men while female characters play secondary and supporting roles. [...] the women in Scorsese’s films are companions, sometimes mere appendages, to the men around whom the stories revolve. [...] On the whole, in their relationships with the more dominant male characters, the women are subordinate or submissive, often having no life of their own except in relationship to their husbands ofboyfriends. (159)
Of course, in a career like Scorsese’s - spanning over decades - there are exceptions. Strong female characters include “Bertha 'Box-car’ Thompson in Boxcar Bertha (1972), Countess Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence (1993), and Francine Evans in New York, New York (1977)” (Miliora 159). But the most prominent example is the character of Alice Graham Hyatt in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) for which Ellen Burstyn won an Academy Award (Ebert b). Ironically, many critics as well as audiences at the time understood Alice as a feminist movie. But as Georg Seefilen recognizes, the story of a woman who sets out to follow her dreams without a man is anything but feminist (Seefilen 89). Because although the female protagonist tries to emancipate herself, she in the end gives up on her dreams again for the sake of a secure relationship. Scorsese himself explains that “Alice was never intended as a feminist tract. At the end, she’s making the same mistakes. The first shot ofher in[...] [the] house shows her washing the dishes. A big close-up (Ebert b).
2.3 Feminist Film Theory
In order to properly examine the presented image of women in Casino and The Wolfof Wall Street, a feminist perspective on movies is needed.
Generally speaking, feminist theory “seeks to analyse the conditions which shape women’s lives and to explore cultural misunderstandings of what it means to be a woman. [...] Feminists refuse to accept that inequalities between women and men are natural and inevitable and insist that they should be questioned” (Jackson and Jones 1).
In regard to movies, a feminist theory is interested in “media representations as false images of women, stereotypes which damage women’s self-perceptions and limit their social roles” (Thornham 213). Anneke Smelik further explains that theories of such kind often resort to “theoretical frameworks” like “semiotics and psychoanalysis” in order to analyze “the ways in which sexual difference is encoded in classical narrative” (491).
In classical film narrative for instance, the male protagonist is often characterized as the powerful hero while the female figure is “passive and powerless” (Smelik 491). Both genders are of course idealized and therefore unrealistic but the characters are still presented as if they were real people (Smelik 491). Women are classically degraded to an object of male desire and - because women are depicted as powerless - traditionally there are only two endings available to the female character: “she must either die [...] or marry” (Smelik 492).
Overall, western movies tend to set a narrative into a male perspective. Usually, a “male gaze” (Smelik 494), not only in narrative but also aesthetically, is established. A “scopophilic instinct (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object)” (Mulvey 38) is evoked. This voyeuristic aspect further promotes an objectification of the woman. Smelik even assumes a general masulinization ofHollywood cinema (494).
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