Nine Scorsese women: stories of survival and sacrifice

From cheerfully complicit mob wives to divorced Edwardian aristocrats, the female characters in Martin Scorsese movies offer lessons about motherhood, misogyny and the cost of male aggression, writes Christina Newland.

Christina Newland
Updated:

The Age of Innocence (1993)

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Martin Scorsese may never be the director of choice for those seeking odes to female friendship or empowering stories about daring women. His films’ most famous protagonists – the Jake LaMottas and Travis Bickles – are violent, macho and self-destructive. This privileging of masculinity at its most brutish is often cited as evidence that Scorsese has a blindspot when it comes to women’s experience. Yet Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), After Hours (1985), The Age of Innocence (1993) and others suggest that the picture is much more complex.

Critical distance is key, and Scorsese is rarely uncritical of his men. Few of his characters are left unscathed by the repercussions of their actions. Taken case by case, the director’s representation of women varies hugely, from the feminist positioning of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to the crass objectification in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). But they all bear out their own lessons about the price and perspective of womanhood – particularly when women suffer at the hands of men. His films have plenty to tell us about the consequences of male behaviour, especially for the opposite sex.

Scorsese is an artist who excels in conjuring contradictory responses. He plays with audience identification, repulsion and moral relativism. To ignore these layers – his innovative, unreliable use of voiceover, his mordant sense of black humour, and the way he trains his eye on the messes men make – is to rob his work of its richness and complexity.

Ellen Burstyn as Alice 

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

With a female lead in Ellen Burstyn and women’s liberation as its main subject, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is something of an outlier in Scorsese’s career. It tells the story of a newly widowed housewife who hits the road as an aspiring singer and takes her young son along.

Burstyn was heavily involved in the production, paving the way for Scorsese’s future long-running collaborations with editor Thelma Schoonmaker and producer Barbara De Fina. Alice looks at the women radical feminism forgot, working-class wives who lived the same kinds of domestic lives as their mothers. It’s a tender, intelligent film about the difficulties of learning independence and unlearning the confines of femininity.

Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans

New York, New York (1977)

Liza Minnelli as Francine in New York, New York (1977)

Liza Minnelli as Francine in New York, New York (1977)

Dysfunctional romances abound in Scorsese’s work and this maligned musical features one of the director’s most memorable. Liza Minnelli plays Francine, a successful singer being actively pursued by saxophone player Jimmy (Robert De Niro). Francine saves the day at an otherwise unimpressive audition when her singing lands Jimmy a job.

The two eventually marry, but the union is poisoned by his egotism and flakiness – she’s easily the brighter and more likeable of the pair. He resents his lack of success, but his pretensions to authenticity make him disdain her mainstream appeal, and he takes his unhappiness out on her.

At one point, when the two are struggling for dominance over their swing band, Jimmy humiliates her by smacking her backside. Browbeaten and bullied, Francine can no longer cope and the couple split up in perhaps the worst possible location: the maternity ward. After their divorce, her career soars. In her final, lush old Hollywood-style performance of the title song, Minnelli recalls the wet-eyed appeal of her mother Judy Garland’s stardom, and it’s pretty clear who has stolen the show.

Cathy Moriarty as Vickie LaMotta

Raging Bull (1980)

Cathy Moriarty as Vickie LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980)

Cathy Moriarty as Vickie LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980)

The films most characteristic of Scorsese are, of course, those set in the ethnic and religious enclaves of his Italian-American upbringing. Raging Bull depicts a violent world in which women survive in spite of the men in their lives. This is particularly true of the necessarily passive Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a Lana Turner-like youth whose beauty draws the gaze of admiring men at the Bronx swimming pool.

Robert De Niro’s LaMotta, a ferocious and successful middleweight boxer, persuades her to be his trophy wife, but after their marriage, he becomes consumed by sexual jealousy. She is styled as an old-school siren, but Vickie is the victim of Jake’s capricious mood swings. After she mentions in passing that one of Jake’s opponents is handsome, he takes his revenge in a subsequent fight by pummelling the man’s face until he “ain’t pretty no more”.

The real-life Vickie wrote that she was beaten savagely by LaMotta on more than one occasion, but Scorsese’s depiction of events builds up to this gradually, showing Jake move from verbal to physical abuse. It’s hardly an easy watch, but few sports films of the era had the nerve to depict a respected athlete as a terrifying, emotionally unhinged tyrant.

Rosanna Arquette as Marcy

After Hours (1985)

Rosanna Arquette as Marcy in After Hours (1985)

Rosanna Arquette as Marcy in After Hours (1985)

Scorsese’s cult classic of yuppie paranoia is rife with enigmatic, sexually voracious women who assume positions of power over the beleaguered Paul (Griffin Dunne), who is trapped in a Kafkaesque odyssey trying to get home after he loses his only $20 bill. Rosanna Arquette’s Marcy, who kicks off his ordeal by inviting him to her apartment; her flatmate, the eccentric artist Kiki (Linda Fiorentino); and barwoman Julie (Teri Garr) are freewheeling, liberated and therefore threatening.

Paul’s wild-goose chase through the city in search of Marcy, his rejection of lovestruck Julie and the mob she leads against him, and the papier mâché he is helplessly encased in by Kiki all have their frightening aspects, but After Hours can’t help but feel like a surrealist celebration of the forward-thinking bohemianism of 80s New York, and, by extension, of its women.

Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill

GoodFellas (1990)

Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco as Henry and Karen in Goodfellas (1990)

Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco as Henry and Karen in Goodfellas (1990)

Arguably no film achieves Scorsese’s balance between thrill and repulsion better than GoodFellas. In spite of her husband’s philandering, mob wife Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) is one of Scorsese’s hardiest and most multi-dimensional female characters. She and Henry make a twisted criminal team, and, much like Edie Falco’s brilliant characterisation of Tony’s wife Carmela on The Sopranos, Karen gets a contact high from the power. She speaks in voiceover throughout the film, offering her reasons for staying with Henry.

In a particularly memorable scene, as a newly married outsider, she meets the other mob wives and remarks, fearfully, on how tired and worse for wear they all look. It’s comic, but also acidly revealing about the vagaries of the criminal life. Later, Karen comments that FBI raids became so commonplace that she started to offer the agents a cup of coffee. Her perspective is key in helping the audience understand the quotidian side of the criminal lifestyle, and the cheerfully complicit role so many wives played.

Jessica Lange as Leigh Bowden and Juliette Lewis as Danielle Bowden

Cape Fear (1991)

Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear (1991)

Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear (1991)

Scorsese’s remake of the 1961 thriller Cape Fear rethinks the moral architecture of the original film to present a deeply cynical and subversive take on the wholesome middle-class family. Max Cady (De Niro) is a fearsome ex-con and rapist who torments the family of the defence lawyer (Nick Nolte) whose evidence put him away.

But the power struggle is framed from the perspective of the family’s teenage daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis). As Cady becomes increasingly sexually threatening, Danielle is both disgusted by and oddly attracted to the stranger, leading to a truly uncomfortable scene in which Lewis sucks De Niro’s thumb.

This has a disturbing psychosexual effect, not just on Danielle but on her mother (Jessica Lange), who is horrified by her teen’s burgeoning sexuality. Lange, struggling in her marriage to the unfaithful Nolte, seems to relate her daughter’s desires to the threat to herself from younger women. This embitters their relationship, even if they ultimately defend one another. Cape Fear’s final words go to the teenage girl whose life has been forever altered.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen and Winona Ryder as May

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence (1993)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence (1993)

Whenever Scorsese moves away from his own background, the world opens up for women. In his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, Michelle Pfeiffer’s spirited, nonconformist Ellen Olenska is determined to divorce her husband, making her persona non grata in the stuffy, intricately mannered Edwardian society of upper-class Manhattan.

Winona Ryder’s May is no pushover, either. She seems girlish, but she is shrewd and has few illusions about what she must do to hold on to her position and her prospective marriage to Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). Wharton’s elegant, cut-throat world has more in common with Scorsese’s traditional milieu than first appears. Just as in GoodFellas, this society has elaborate social rituals and firmly delineated roles – and the cosseted women who live in it must use all their quiet cunning to survive.

Sharon Stone as Ginger

Casino (1995)

Casino (1995)

Casino (1995)

Sharon Stone’s flashy hustler Ginger is an old-as-the-hills movie archetype: the amoral femme fatale who ruthlessly exploits a man’s love and cash for her own gains. She’s a gold-digging whirlwind, prowling Las Vegas looking for card games and/or men to manipulate. Despite the film’s rogue’s gallery of awful, violent men, it’s Ginger who comes off as the most villainous. Her husband, Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro), is so blindly besotted with her that he can’t help but gain the audience’s sympathy – particularly when she cheats on him with a close friend.

When Scorsese leans too heavily on his playbook of female archetypes, he can stray into unpleasant territory. Ginger’s pathetic drug overdose seems like the comeuppance of a film noir dame. As such – vividly depicted though she may be – she exists more as a two-dimensional movie stereotype than as a flesh-and-blood woman.

Motherhood on screen

Catherine Scorsese

Catherine Scorsese in Goodfellas (1990)

Catherine Scorsese in Goodfellas (1990)

Ever since her brief role in Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1967, Scorsese’s mother Catherine has been given occasional cameos in his films, even taking centre-stage alongside her husband Charles in the documentary ItalianAmerican (1974). A diminutive, white-haired woman, she has a sweetly genuine on-screen presence, as witnessed in her good-natured performance in the ad-libbed midnight dinner scene in GoodFellas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she usually takes the role of a goodhearted Italian mama, a recurring feature in Scorsese’s film work. While dads like Henry Hill go to prison, mothers like Karen dutifully bring the children to visitation days. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Naomi (Margot Robbie) runs out to protect her toddler when her husband crashes his supercar. By contrast, Casino’s Ginger is memorably awful because she ties her adolescent daughter to the bed while she goes out nightclubbing. It’s stereotypically Italian, perhaps, but mothers – and motherly types – have a solemn duty as saints and guardian angels in Scorsese’s films.

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