The creative partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro has produced some of the most memorable cinema of the last half-century. From Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Irishman (2019), their movies “can be hard to watch and hard to shake off,” said film historian Max Alvarez. Alvarez presented his survey “DeNiro and Scorsese: An Intense Collaboration” last week as part of New Plaza Cinema’s highly entertaining lecture series.
Scorsese, a born New Yorker, grew up in Little Italy in a family where all four of his grandparents were immigrants from near Palermo, Sicily. Scorsese wasn’t a particularly good student, but he was fascinated by the movies. He has said the only college he could get into was NYU, where he eventually attended the Tisch School of the Arts. There, he started making short films, and his first feature-length film—1967’s Who’s That Knocking on My Door—signaled the start of another long-time collaboration, this one with Harvey Keitel.
Robert DeNiro, also a lifelong New Yorker, has a more ethnically diverse background. He was the only child of two artists, who separated when he was two. He grew up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods, in what Alvarez called a “cultured and cultivated household.” He was sent to private schools and knew many artists of all types, who were friends of his parents, including Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. He began studying acting in high school and went on to study at the Stella Adler school.
Interestingly, despite the cultural touchstones many of their movies have become, few of them actually made money. The exceptions were Taxi Driver (1976)and Goodfellas (1989). By the time that was made, DeNiro had already won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II fifteen years earlier.
Scorsese’s films pioneered many techniques common today; the pop music soundtracks, the profanity that was uncommon previously, the film noir touches, especially in lighting, through the introduction of fast editing and CGI (used to de-age DeNiro in the early scenes of The Irishman, for example).
But even as he tried different projects—a musical, a comedy or two, a religious drama, a couple of psychological thrillers, a costume drama—and even though he’s worked with many other top stars—including Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman—he keeps coming back to DeNiro. Maybe it’s that trust that allows the frequent use of improvised (or improvised, then polished) dialog that you sometimes see, as in Goodfellas. Scorsese says that DeNiro is gifted at bringing humanity to “characters who ordinarily would be villains.”
For a treat: Watch this YouTube video of Scorsese and DeNiro have dinner with Don Rickles (who played a straight role in Scorsese’s movie Casino, shown in the photo alongside).This filmed dinner was Rickles’s last performance.