His identification with the Aviator may not extend to a love of flying, but Martin Scorsese has certainly risen high above the New Hollywood crash-and-burn. Even if his Miramax epic about a millionaire doesn’t land him that long-sought Oscar, the career of the man who made Mean Streets in ’73 has been no less upscaled over the years than the once quaint block of Little Italy on which he was raised. (Now the old neighborhood is known as . . . uh, Nolita.)
Mind you, this is a huge fan talking here. Looking back over the last half-dozen Scorsese pictures, I count no fewer than four masterful explorations of the matters that have most concerned him since the successful release of Cape Fear: privilege, desire, anxiety, isolation, social custom, world history, and cinema. Of these preoccupations, the last is the most clear (even his Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was shown to take solace in the screening room). Yet it’s the first—privilege—that has been the most striking, particularly for those who remember not just Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, but the lesser-known pair of low-budget docs that Scorsese made to serve as true companions to those down-and-dirty fictions.
Italianamerican and American Boy—oft paired in rep over the years, this week by Film Forum in apparent deference to The Aviator, the Academy, and the new wave of nonfiction—are nothing if not stories of real struggle. (So, too, incidentally, are Casino and Kundun and The Age of Innocence and The Aviator: The Italian American boy may have become a rich man, but he still invests himself in the work.) A post-Loud “family portrait” filmed entirely in his parents’ walk-up on Elizabeth Street, Scorsese’s Italianamerican (1974) literally puts Mom and Dad on the (plastic-covered) couch, recording their second-generation Sicilian-immigrant accounts of hard-earned Christmas trees and kids pilfering meals off fruit carts.
Like Italianamerican, American Boy (1978)—subtitled A Profile of Steven Prince—casually defies verité by including the filmmaker in the frame: Its first shot finds Scorsese sharing a Jacuzzi with his subject, a rail-thin, red-eyed ex-junkie whose near-orgasmic moans of pleasure compel the auteur to request a little space. That need for privacy appears an inherited trait for Marty as much as it was for Howard Hughes: The earlier film shows his father, Charles—in the face of Mrs. Scorsese’s playful protestations—favoring the far side of the sofa.
But as much as these docs reveal about the director’s psychology (and rhyme indelibly with one another), they also illuminate his fiction. The attraction-repulsion dynamic of Taxi Driver—wherein Prince’s gun salesman character makes even Travis Bickle look human—is mirrored in Boy‘s pained progression from stand-up comedy to horror and tragedy. As the first act of Prince’s routine features vivid recollections of doped-up run-ins with draft enforcers and silverback gorillas, Scorsese’s wide-angle shots of the “show” in actor George Memmoli’s Hollywood bachelor pad include the chuckling crew as an approving audience. But as the topics turn to heroin abuse and homicide in the second half, the laughs diminish and the camera zooms tighter, sealing the subject’s fate as God’s lonely man. (It’s not just in the hot tub that Scorsese wishes to separate himself from this guy.)
American Boy was made at a time when the director, like other movie brats, was battling some rather unhealthy addictions of his own. But while he seems to share with Prince the sort of creative tension that stems from having temperamentally opposite parents (both dads in the docs are characterized as hard realists, both moms as firm believers in the happy ending), Marty never lost his mother’s classy sense of familial duty and taste. Italianamerican famously concludes with Catherine Scorsese’s recipe for spaghetti and meatballs; Boy includes the well-fed filmmaker’s editorial comment on his subject’s claim that Mrs. Prince’s cuisine was “bland.” What kind of man, Scorsese suggests, leaning into the frame, doesn’t appreciate his mother’s cooking?