WOMEN IN CINEMA: And we’re back with part two in my on-going exploration of blonde females in the work of directors David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese. Part one explored the women of Russell’s filmography and I ended on a question: Whether Russell’s recent downturn in complex blonde female characters was his attempt to mimic Martin Scorsese? I hope to answer – or at least provide some ideas – in regards to that question, as well as explore how Scorsese films blond-haired females.
Scorsese’s work is more expansive than Russell’s, obviously the man’s career spans decades, so I was forced to winnow down the amount of movies featured for the sake of brevity and focus. I settled on exploring films Scorsese wrote himself as well as movies where Scorsese’s touch is perceived (the “essential Scorsese” works). However, if I skipped a film you believe proves my thesis better, I apologize.
In my original piece I argued David O. Russell started out crafting fully realized female characters who failed to conform to blonde stereotypes before his sharp turn into creating the towheaded female harpy. Scorsese isn’t better, but he provides more consistency than Russell as well as a darker analysis with regards to gender dynamics; neither director utilizes female point of view in their works; male protagonists remain front and center, nor do even ensemble pieces see a higher preponderance of male actors to females so neither director’s hit on providing any solid foundation for female positive films. While Scorsese does dip his toe into the same pool of “entertaining blonde bitches” as Russell, there is more diversity in their presentation and a grander connection to the narrative’s turn of events.
Scorsese’s blondes come with their own ingrained series of traits, generally crafted and shaped by the male characters. They are idealized, and thus the male’s downfall is a result of his failure to understand the female’s wants and desires. Scorsese’s scripts return, time and again, to men’s inability to respect and listen to women and thus they’re doomed to annihilation. In Scorsese’s earlier work, particularly Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, blonde women are perceived as angelic, pure, or life-changing. Robert De Niro’s characters self-destruct as the result of misinterpreting what he believes his blonde angel represents; Travis Bickle believes WASPY conservative Betsy (Cybill Shepard) is an angel, representative of the woman he deserves, only to be rejected by her. He then attempts to save troubled child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) turning him into an ersatz hero and further alienating him from society. Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull meets his wife, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) at a swimming pool. The underage nymphette – much like Taxi Driver, youth and purity go hand-in-hand – swings her legs into the water, emblematic of her vitality and transparency. Of course, Bickle and LaMotta fail to understand their women outside this paradigm resulting in their self-destruction.
If the woman isn’t a blonde angel, she’s an exciting hellion, a shock to the system to wake the male character out of his dull reverie. These women aren’t quite Manic Pixie Dream Girls (although the case is made in other works), as they’re more materialistic and evocative of the man’s personal worth. Ace Rothstein of Casino meets his soon-to-be wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone), as she’s skimming casino chips out of a mark, eventually causing a scene to make a quick getaway by flinging chips all around. Ace has conquered Las Vegas, and a woman like Ginger – who only sees life in diamonds and money – is the perfect emblem of his status and power. Conversely, Naomi Belfort (Margot Robbie) of The Wolf of Wall Street is listed as one of her husband, Jordan’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) possessions, alongside his cars and various houses. More so than Ginger, Naomi warrants sympathy, particularly once Jordan’s drug addiction gets out of control. With Ginger, she is a harpy obsessed with material things, going so far as to tie her daughter to her bedposts so she can go out and party. In a nod reminiscent of Russell’s Roslyn from American Hustle, Ginger abducts her daughter and practically ransoms her off in order to get money from Ace. Her eventual death at story’s end is a moralistic treatise about the consequences of being a gold-digger. Ginger is a caricature blonde; an ice queen whose death is a necessary result of her set of traits but she is an outlier. Scorsese generally injects some amount of sympathy into his females, whether they suffer from abuse or general neglect.
The exciting blonde hellion is a continued motif in Scorsese’s works, particularly with a contrasting to a brunette female; Jake LaMotta’s first wife is brunette as is Jordan Belfort’s. In this case, the blonde replacements are sexually exciting women whose beauty and promiscuity works alongside the male’s; Jordan explains that it isn’t simply Naomi’s beauty which grabs him, but the fact they can talk to each other. The contrast is most striking in Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence – one of two films utilized in this essay where he wrote the screenplay. The Age of Innocence is Scorsese’s sole foray into pure romance, and he diverges sharply from Edith Wharton’s original text by swapping the hair color of his females. In the original novel, May Welland (Winona Ryder) is a dewy-eyed blonde while Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a dark and exotic brunette. In the finished film, Ellen is an exciting blonde to May’s dour brunette. Brunettes in Scorsese’s world represent stability and settlement. Jordan’s first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) is mousy and emblematic of Jordan’s old life. Her name change from Denise in the novel to Teresa connects the character to the security, and prudery of religion, in contrast to Naomi who isn’t adverse to Jordan doing lines of cocaine off her breasts. In Raging Bull, Jake is forced to pour ice water down his pants because Vicki’s sexual nature is so pervasive contrasting with his nagging first wife who can’t even cook a steak. However, female sexual pleasure holds no water in Scorsese’s world. We never see Jake and Vicki have sex, although it’s implied they have a healthy one for a time; Age of Innocence’s Victorian ideals stress women seek no enjoyment in sexual pleasure; and Wolf of Wall Street continually shows Naomi’s lack of satisfaction in the bedroom.
Scorsese makes an effort in trying to cast an eye towards how male idealization of women is detrimental. The fact that none of the women above are sexually satisfied reminds the audience of how imperfect the man is. For all Jordan/Newland/Jake’s masculine power, they are deficient in sexual prowess which stunts them and transfers sympathy of the female. However, because the audience is never privy to the wife’s thoughts and the wife is not the focal point of the story, their lack of sexual satisfaction is a blip in the road and returns the audience towards witnessing the male character’s eventual downfall.
These women are boiled down to simple traits, but it is necessary to remember they are perceived as such by their male suitors. In the end, these preconceptions turn out to have disastrous results (Casino excepted). Jake LaMotta’s abuse drives his wife to divorce, Travis Bickle ends up murdering people and becoming a social outcast, Newland Archer ends up living a life of sterility, and Jordan Belfort ends up losing all his money. Their wives are not directly the reason for how the male characters self-destruct, instead domestic strife is the final nail in the coffin of the men’s loss of control. Scorsese follows the adage of never judging books by their covers (or their hair). Because the various male protagonists idealize their ladies, they are responsible for their own doom. They expect the female to change their staid existence, failing to understand the reason they’re stuck is themselves. It connects back to the lack of sexual satisfaction for women; the men fail to notice their women are unhappy, and thus must look to themselves for their failures.
This point is best exemplified in Scorsese’s 1985 comedy, After Hours. The plot follows office drudge Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) who goes to Soho in the belief that a connection with a woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) will pay off in some type of quick seduction and romance. The adventure ends up changing his life, and is one of the few times a woman is directly responsible for changing a male character directly. Marcy’s potentiality and the various ways Paul attempts to get home, put him on a grail quest to break out of his boring life. Along the way, he meets a series of blondes who end up making the audience realize how blind Paul is to the ways of women. Throughout the movie, Paul’s encounters with the various blonde women of the movie (played by Arquette, Teri Garr and Catherine O’Hara) end disastrously because he fails to listen to their problems, or truly attempt to make a connection with them. Paul is obsessed with getting home and uses these women for his own purposes and his inability to pay attention to their attempts to help alienates him from his eventual goal. The script comments on men’s failure to listen to women, and their constant wondering of why women are so difficult to deal with. After Hours is probably the most unique depiction of women in Scorsese’s body of work. Not only do the females outnumber our male protagonist, but they each provide additional context in understanding gender dynamics from a female perspective as well as working towards a common goal instead of clashing against each other.
Again, this isn’t to say Scorsese is infallible in his depiction of blonde females. Casino and Wolf of Wall Street continue to create characters revolving around the blonde harpy characterization as well as blondes being homeworkers; there’s a marked emphasis in the sexual allure of blondes, and his films are one-sided in gender depictions due to lack of female presence leading the films. However, his works present a broader spectrum of characters than Russell, partially aided by his longer time working in Hollywood and the fact that he’s only written a handful of scripts. I have to give this round to Scorsese for having screenwriters make the effort to put out a broad swath of blonde ladies to choose from.
Next week, we bring it all together to discuss Russell and Scorsese, and what their Oscar nominated films is doing for females in general.