As a director, enthusiastic world-cinema champion, determined advocate for visual literacy, and the most famous critic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Martin Scorsese is indisputably one of cinema’s most important figures. But his acting work has received comparatively little recognition. Since his first onscreen appearance as an uncredited gangster in his debut feature, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door, Scorsese has amassed an impressive career full of thoughtful cameos, self-parodic bits, and genuinely effective dramatic work. He started with several gifts most thespians dream of: a commanding presence, comfort in front of the camera, and a keen understanding of how a director utilizes actors. These qualities are all on display in his appearances in his own documentaries, including his recent Netflix documentary series about Fran Leibowitz, Pretend it’s a City. But he has also continued to push himself as an actor, crafting performances that rebel against his public persona and demand to be taken seriously.
Perhaps inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese frequently shows up in small roles in his own films. Unlike Hitchcock, however, his roles seem chosen with purpose, as he often plays parts that hint at his function behind the camera. Sometimes he’s a photographer (Hugo, The Age of Innocence) or a director (The King of Comedy). In Raging Bull, he appears in the final scene as the stagehand who interrupts Jake LaMotta’s backstage monologue. He is the sarcastic voice of the EMS dispatcher in Bringing out the Dead, literally directing his protagonist into various scenarios. In Mean Streets, he plays the enforcer brought in during the last act to finally kill Johnny Boy and end the movie.
As his legend has grown over the years, he’s also been asked to cameo for other directors, often as himself, and Scorsese consistently delivers thoughtful performances even in these small roles. In Albert Brooks’ otherwise-forgettable The Muse, Scorsese is hilarious as a manic, overcaffeinated version of himself who can’t help confessing to a perfect stranger his new idea to remake Raging Bull. (“Only this time with a real thin guy. Can you see it?”) He basically walks away with the movie in a single scene.
His cameo in Curb Your Enthusiasm, however, shows he’s just as comfortable as the straight man. As the weary director of a fictional Larry David, Scorsese takes to the improvisatory process, entering into an easy rapport with David and even revealing much about his on-set process. He suggests doing two takes in a row (“no slate”) to keep up the energy, and merrily debates whether a bag filled with a dead man’s testicles — David’s idea — will “read as balls.” It feels as if the scene was designed for Scorsese to be one of David’s many frustrated antagonists who boil over into anger, but the director is just so warm and empathetic, it veers off in a more pleasant direction.
Scorsese is at his best as an actor when his easy charm and affability plays in contrast to a tense situation. A few directors have figured this out. In Irwin Winkler’s Guilty by Suspicion, featuring Robert De Niro as David Merrill, a director targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Scorsese plays another filmmaker who, faced with the same dilemma, simply skips town to Paris until the controversy dies down. Whereas De Niro’s character is anguished, Scorsese faces the quandary with a grin. “It’s nothing noble either,” he says, as he casually explains his decision to flee. “I’d have to stay out of rooms with mirrors for the rest of my life. I can’t do that. I like looking at myself too much.” He’s a counterpoint to Merrill that elucidates his struggle; unlike his easy-going friend, Merrill can’t simply shrug off this historic moment.
His charm is deployed to chilling effect in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, playing Martin Rittenhome, the president of the company who sponsors the rigged game show. In the key scene, when Rittenhome is confronted by Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), Scorsese is a vision of unfettered strength, so impervious to Morrow’s sweaty inquisition that he’s comfortable cracking jokes, playing rhetorical games, and offering Goodwin fatherly advice about his professional future. Another actor might have chosen to interpret Rittenhome as a heavy who intimidates the young staffer at every turn. Scorsese plays him like the head of a crime family, so ensconced in power that he has no reason to demonstrate it.
Still, the jewel of Scorsese’s acting career remains his one-scene performance in Taxi Driver. According to legend, it wasn’t even supposed to happen. The actor Scorsese had cast in the role became unavailable at the last minute, and Scorsese chose to play it himself mostly for convenience. There was never any better choice. As the cuckolded stranger who confesses his violent revenge plot to taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Scorsese unfolds the layers of his rage, displaying his vulnerability and yearning for connection, his strained nerves, and the racism and sexism that underpin his violent urges.
It’s a compelling five minutes that could stand alone as its own short film, but Scorsese’s performance also plays a key function in Taxi Driver’s overall narrative. The stranger in the back seat expresses all of the nervous rage that Travis has been suppressing, and in voicing his murderous thoughts, he gives Travis license to do the same. Because he already has a natural rapport with De Niro, his performance adds to the feeling that Travis could easily become this person. The path before him becomes clear. “Do you think I’m sick?” the stranger asks Travis over and over. Travis doesn’t answer, and given Scorsese’s profoundly human performance, the answer isn’t clear.
Like most great actors, Scorsese has a few missteps: figuring out his strengths was likely a process of trial and error. He’s profoundly out of place as Vincent Van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, but it’s easy enough to forgive; no director would say no to Kurosawa at that point in his career, even if they thought he was making the wrong choice. Similarly, his performance as an abrasive jazz club owner in Round Midnight is admirably unlikeable, but it fails to leave much impression. These roles, however, are simply evidence of an actor who’s willing to take chances and push the boundaries of his talent, just as he has done as a filmmaker. It suggests that if Scorsese had never figured out the whole directing thing, a career as one of his generation’s best character actors was there for the taking.