‘Women are not capable of understanding Goodfellas’ is a headline clearly written to collect clicks. But could readers really expect anything more nuanced from Kyle Smith, the man The Atlantic Monthly once anointed “the most cantankerous film critic in America”?
In this 2015 article for the New York Post, Smith declared Goodfellas a “boy movie” that “takes place in a world guys dream about”. Women are positioned as “the sensitivity police” unable to enjoy Goodfellas because watching men sit around poking fun at each other, while drinking and conducting extramarital affairs, offends us. Men will buy into the fantasy; women will be repulsed. You get the picture.
What to do then as a woman and a fan of Goodfellas and Scorsese’s films in general? There’s plenty to be irritated by and offended by in Smith’s hollow criticism: the presumption that women should only be watching certain genres of films; that there’s nothing in Scorsese’s films that speaks to us; that if we enjoy them then maybe there is something wrong with us; that a film can only ever mean one thing; and that all men engage with Goodfellas in exactly the same way. I could go on.
That was 2015 — ancient history as far as online outrage goes. But the conversation started by Smith’s article still feels relevant. Since I’ve been watching and thinking and writing about Scorsese over the past few months, I’ve encountered a number of men ‘in real life’ very keen to explain his films to me, without invitation, as though my understanding must naturally be challenged or incorrect because I’m a woman. Perhaps Smith was onto something about how some men think about Scorsese’s work and especially about where they position a female viewer in relation to it. Perhaps it’s related to where Scorsese’s films position us.
Part of the wider critical conversation around Scorsese is that his films represent a world that privileges the experiences of men; that Marty’s films generally don’t do very well by women. Scorsese has made over 30 films (features and documentaries) and only one of these has featured a lead female protagonist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Meryl Streep has even quipped, when asked if there are any filmmakers she would still like to work with, “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.”
I don’t see any point having long arguments about why Scorsese’s films are mostly concerned with the trials and tribulations of men and masculinity. I’d rather argue, calmly and intelligently, whether this is in and of itself the problem so many paint it as, or the only thing worth repeatedly, incessantly focusing on when talking about his work. Scorsese is not the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to craft a body of work that is the visualisation of a series of deeply personal questions that have concerned him his entire creative life (Ingmar Bergman’s films, for example, were mostly about religious doubt in the face of God’s silence). For Scorsese, this has included, among other things, a preoccupation with male psychology and male bonds.
The argument against Scorsese’s limited representation of women begins that women appear in mostly supporting roles, relegated to the sidelines of the action, standing in the shadows as he investigates the thrills and ills of American manhood. It continues that Scorsese mostly offers women roles that inhabit one of two divergent poles – either Madonnas or whores, idealised or sexualised, with little middle ground. Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) were early films that presented women this way. More recently, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) courted controversy for its proliferation of naked, silent women, exacerbated by a debate around whether Scorsese’s bold satire was a condemnation of or celebration of the world it represented, and if a celebration then relentlessly sexist.
Maybe Scorsese’s male fans see these images and wonder, what could a woman possibly be attracted to amongst all this. But that’s part of a view that also purports that a Scorsese film is only about a couple of things – violence, crime or the trappings of the gangster life – when they are actually about much more. And it’s also a view that implies women and men should only be interested in stories about us or that support our particular view and experience of the world.
Does the fact that Scorsese’s films are mostly about men render them unworthy of my time, interest, or understanding? Luckily, like most women, I am interested in much more than just seeing myself on screen. An informal conversation with other women confirmed that Scorsese’s gender disparity is not our primary point of connection (or even disconnection) with his films. Some women openly love violent, gangster films. Others relate to his treatment of experiences that can be called universal, such as loneliness and jealousy. Many women, also unsurprisingly, are interested in men, and find Scorsese’s exploration of masculinity, toxic or otherwise, fascinating. There are his Italian influences, the exemplary art and production values, the astonishing casts he assembles, his repeatedly brilliant use of music, and his enduring working relationship with Thelma Schoonmaker. I agree with all this. Scorsese is an intelligent filmmaker and his work is an entry point for many to approaching cinema intellectually, as art. His mastery of the form is second to none.
There’s also a through line for many fans with Scorsese’s own cinephilia, his passion for film history, his promotion of younger female directors including Joanna Hogg, and especially his work on film preservation with the World Cinema Project and The Film Foundation. And it can’t be denied that Scorsese has collaborated with great actresses, giving them some of the most impressive and memorable roles of their careers: Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar-winning performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Liza Minnelli in New York, New York (1977), Sharon Stone in Casino (1995), Cate Blanchett in The Aviator (2004), and both Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence (1993). They may not be at the traditional ‘centre’ of all these films but they are often what is most memorable about them.
I’ve loved film for much longer than I have been a critic. In the end, I’ve watched and will continue to watch Martin Scorsese’s films because they are always provocative, always beautiful works of entertainment and art. And really, that’s the only reason that matters.
A version of this essay was first published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in 2016 for their exhibition ‘SCORSESE’ and its accompanying season of screenings ‘Essential Scorsese’