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Martin Scorsese Provides Unblinking Look at America's Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese's gritty and realistic films consistently earn top critical praise and helped define American cinema over the past four decades. Alan Silverman has more on the director who was just honored by the Kennedy Center for the Arts as 'a true original; a fearless artist who brings out the best and most inspired work in others and in the process continues to surpass himself.'

They are some of the most honored films of this generation: Taxi Driver and Mean Streets in the 1970's; in the 80's, what many still consider the best movie about boxing ever, Raging Bull; the 1990's brought the ultimate mobster drama, Goodfellas as well as a story of Tibetan spiritualism in Kundun; and in the new century, The Aviator and The Departed.

The man who created those lasting film images and many more, Martin Scorsese, was born in New York in 1942. Severe asthma kept him from sports or other activities, so he spent much of his youth in the inviting darkness of a neighborhood cinema. "I will never forget watching William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy with Jimmy Cagney when I was 10 years old a theater on a re-release," he says. "The brutal honesty of that film, the 'street' honesty of it, always stayed with me and that's a mark I always aim toward."

Perhaps it is not surprising that a 1931 gangster film made such an impression on the young Scorsese. It is a milieu that the Italian-American director has revisited often in his own films and that he says he knew first-hand growing up in New York of the 1940's and '50's. "It isn't that I met them," he explains, "it was more living in a working class environment. Part of that environment was organized crime, there is no doubt about that, but it's a difficult thing to talk about because the people who were trying to live a daily life and provide for their families always get offended by this sort of thing." He says, with a wry smile, his old friends always complain to him about the pictures that he makes.

As a teenager from a very devout Roman Catholic family, Scorsese entered a seminary to study for the priesthood; but film turned out to be his true calling and he switched to New York University where he studied the craft and even taught for a while. Among his students was a young Oliver Stone.

From the beginnings of his filmmaking career in the 1970's, actors learned to respect his passion for storytelling with characters audiences can believe are real. Leonardo DiCaprio, who worked for the director on The Aviator and The Departed, says "What I love about Mr. Scorsese's work is he not only gives the same appreciation to the entire film and the construct of the film, but he really lets the audience engage with every character, no matter how small they are. Each character is fulfilling."

His Departed co-star, Matt Damon, says that the world of a Scorsese film, while not necessarily a comfortable place to be, always seems real. "In all of his films there is an authenticity that you just can't fake. It's because he uses a lot of real people and because his actors have access to these real people to get as much understanding of people they are playing," he explains. "Ultimately it's a giant magic trick. We're just trying to be believable."

The world of a Scorsese film is often shattered by violence. The director says that comes from a reality he observed while growing up. "The violence in my own films ...I can't defend it, but I approach it the way I experienced and I know what I saw. I was very affected by it and, I can tell you, more than the physical violence it was the emotional violence around me. It's part of what I am and who I am ...and somehow it channels itself into the films. I see it sometimes as absurd, but that's just the absurdity of being alive."

What many consider absurd is that despite all the praise for and influence of his films, Scorsese had not been given Hollywood's top honor, the Oscar. That changed in 2007 when he took home the gold statuette as Best Director for The Departed.

"It's a good thing I didn't get it before," he admits, "because maybe it would have changed the kind of movies I made or something. I couldn't trust myself. I don't know if I was strong enough to have gotten it before, quite honestly. The incredible thing is I got to make these movies that I really wanted to make — Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull ...films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas." He concludes philosophically, "I mean, who can complain?"

A recipient of the American Film Institute Life Achievement award, he was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2007 for his cultural influence. When not making his own films, Martin Scorsese devotes much of his time to restoring classic works of cinema and preserving them for future audiences.

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