Martin Scorsese has listed two of British director (and masterful film legend) Michael Powell’s films as primary influences: Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). Both of these wonderful films feature female leads, and deeply explore the female experience through superb characterization. Recently, Scorsese has been mildly criticized by Meryl Streep (whose work Scorsese has highly praised) for not featuring any female leads in his extensive career. This sentiment isn’t 100% true, as Boxcar Bertha (1972) did, in fact, have a female protagonist. The Age of Innocence (1993) also revolved strongly around two female characters despite being seen through a male protagonist’s perspective. The question remains, however, why does Scorsese shy from female leads?
I speak here as a film student, amateur critic, and film historian (I’ve been studying for 9 years both independently and at various schools.) Martin Scorsese, as I’ve noted previously on this blog, is my favorite director. The sense of innovation, the mixture of high art style with “low brow” stories, the flawless technique all draw me to him. I’ve seen most, although not all, of his work, and feel that I should comment on this issue.
Scorsese is not alone in the disinterest of women in film. Look at Akira Kurosawa, who wrote women as liars and manipulators. (Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Ran.) Or, if you must, watch the obscene misogynist films of Sam Peckinpah, who saw women as objects of brutal, needless violence. (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Straw Dogs.) What makes Scorsese so unique among these filmmakers is that he truly doesn’t see women as lesser than men. His eye for the women in his films are notable and they always command strong presence and power. (Look at how women, especially Cate Blanchett, steal the show in The Aviator!)
So why have there been no female leads? Is this sexism? Probably not, although I’ve seen the term “sexism by omission” come up in my brief research on this topic. My purpose is writing this is to explain that Scorsese may be making a genuine, artistic decision not to include female protagonists in his films.
It’s a common, albeit understandable, misconception that Scorsese works exclusively in the realm of the crime films. Sure, Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) put him on the map. Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006) garnered heavy attention from The Academy. But his pallet stretches far beyond gangs and New York. There is, however, in all his films an overarching theme. Masculinity. Not “machismo.” Masculinity, with all the insecurities and shortcomings that go along with it. In Raging Bull (1980),Jake LaMotta buries his jealousy, guilt, and insecurity under mounds of brutal violence. Travis Buckle, of Taxi Driver fame, sees himself as a knight in shining armor when he takes it on himself to “save” a child prostitute. (Note his existential malaise until he comes to this decision.) The Last Temptation of Christ (1987) brings Jesus Himself down to the realm of Manhood. He experiences self-doubt, masculine - and masochistic - resilience, and sexual temptation. Scorsese likes these stories. They relate to him. Growing up in Vatican I era, Italian Staten Island, Scorsese came to experience life as a surge of Catholic guilt. His films (notably Mean Streets) explore this inner level to his being. He is a man. He understands his inner-conflicts through the prism of masculinity. Does this mean he cannot relate to women? Of course he can! Men and women are not, contrary to popular belief, all that different. But there are some differences, and it’s the masculine side of things that draws Scorsese to a given story. Can he do a female character-driven story in the future? I hope he does. It’d be great to see what he can do with a female protagonist! But I cannot fault him, as some understandably do, for not trying such a story as of late.