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The 10 Greatest Performances in a Martin Scorsese Film

10 January 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Joshua Price

taxi driver you talking to me

The movies of Martin Scorsese often reflect themes of violence and redemption and the actors that fill the roles of his characters are given the sometimes gargantuan task of humanising these traits and fleshing out the roles into sympathetic and compelling characters, and if you are familiar with the kinds of characters that usually permeate Scorsese’s films you will know that making murders, thieves, and gangsters so utterly fascinating and oddly compassionate is no easy task.

Of course Scorsese’s films are not always embroiled within crime, hence the reason why through his body of work as a director you can find numerous performances of depth, subtlety and brilliance. From exasperated word processors, eccentric stockbrokers and intense pool hustlers, a huge variation of acting is on display in the director’s filmography, with multiple awards being handed out to some of his actors in recognition of their work.

By evoking various emotions from the viewer and inspiring multiple levels of complexity as well as an endearing sense of humanity to their roles, even in the most reprehensible characters, these ten performances stand out not just in the filmography of Scorsese but in all of cinema history.


10. Griffin Dunne in After Hours

After Hours (1985)

Paul Hackett is a man wracked with frustration and anger as his seemingly normal night escalates into one series of misadventures after another. Griffin Dunne’s performance verges on the dramatic and horrific multiple times throughout these misadventures, yet never quite crosses that line and manages to keep the tone of the film as comedic, even with its darker elements.

The entire nature of After Hours seems to rest on Dunne’s performance and in almost every scene he finds the perfect emotional output to keep the audience enthralled and occasionally challenged but not to the point where it becomes jarring.

He is a man in a cycle of nightmares, all seem utterly random until they are revealed to be inexplicably connected and it is important not to underestimate the significance of Dunne’s reaction to these scenarios as it encapsulates the audience’s own reaction and without that one would find After Hours much more fanciful and less engaging film. His performance is sometimes stressed as he introduces just enough tension to make you fear for his sanity and safety, yet enough comedic talent to make you laugh at the events surrounding him.


9. Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets

mean streets

The main theme of Mean Streets is not one of crime, it is one of growing up and maturing but the environment in question just happens to be steeped in crime. As Charlie Cappa Keitel plays a man with pathological guilt complexes and is, above all else, a realist. Keitel’s performance exudes a sense of experience and world weariness, a man who has witnesses too many horrors to dream of anything better.

The fact that Keitel’s scepticism is only drawn into sharper contrast by the naïve and romanticised views of Johnny Boy, played by Robert De Niro (another excellent performance from Mean Streets) only exaggerates these characteristics and introduces an additional level to his character in the form of responsibility for Johnny. Charlie frequently has to calm and suppress the rage of his friend and the performance manages to convey the notion that if he does not fulfil this duty to restrain Johnny, they will both be killed.

As a devout Catholic Keitel has to balance another key aspect of the character in the form of his guilt. He is convinced he will suffer for his sins yet he continues to revel in his actions, not because he wants to but because he has to. The fact that he is in that postion is a constant source of pain for Charlie and Keitel captures that pain perfectly.


8. Jack Nicholson in The Departed

The Departed (2006)

Almost every character in The Departed is one of two roles, their public image and their private image. Even the most seemingly simplistic roles are revealed to have multiple levels of depth and gravitas, Jack Nicholson’s role as mob boss Frank Costello is no different. While there are numerous exceptional performances on display, the intimidating and threating nature of Costello alone is endlessly enthralling and frighteningly tense as he deals with murder and theft so nonchalantly.

But as with every other character in the movie, Nicholson’s performance is rife with inner conflict and hidden depth. Costello may appear to be a remorseless killer, but as the film progresses it becomes apparently obvious that he is also a man of unmatched intellect and tactical brilliance, playing a long game with everyone as he dabbles with powers greater than his pursuers could comprehend.

Not only that but Costello gradually gains a surprising level of compassion and humanity throughout the film as his true motives and real stance within this conflict become obvious. He evokes a surprising sense of empathy when it is revealed that he acts as insurance, not necessarily a man in control, but one who can only guarantee his own safety and when he can no longer do that, he has nothing left to offer to the powers above him. In more than one crucial moment Nicholson injects a small amount of fear into Costello’s character as a result.


7. Paul Newman in The Color of Money

The Color of Money (1986)

Though far from being one of Scorsese’s finest films, the sequel to The Hustler featured a stirring and intense performance from Paul Newman that won the actor an Oscar for the role he had first played 25 years prior. He plays an aged pool hustler who not only wants to harbour and home the talents of up and coming player Tom Cruise, he seeks to control his personality and build a character that will throw off other players and a mentality that will grant Cruise with an immediate advantage.

This turn allows Newman to become a much more controlling and manipulative character. He seeks to undermine his students confidence, regulate and shape his personality by gaining the trust of his friends and use their emotional ties to Cruise to manipulate him. He sees people as objects that can be warped and moulded to his specific image and the result is a scheming and sometimes devious persona but Newman’s performance is also one of principle and value, upholding what he believes in as well as his trade.

Not only that, but Newman is also able to include a sense of class and charm in the role. He is smooth and relaxed even in more intense moments as if he is always a man with a plan as well as his clear experience. The way in which he deals with each situation emphasises his knowledge of the world he inhabits and how it can be navigated.


6. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street


Leonardo DiCaprio himself once described the story of the man he portrayed as similar to the tale of Emperor Caligula, loathsome, self-obsessed and all powerful men that revel in their gain and rarely spend a second considering the immorality of their actions.

There are more layers to DiCaprio’s performance than one might initially perceive as he is able to maintain the repugnant and reprehensible characteristics for the entirety of the film, but he is magnetic enough in the role to keep the viewer fascinated with Jordan Belfort, and he even manages to turn that energy into a reflection of how a viewer can find their own fascination with him disturbing.

There are several occasions in which DiCaprio’s energy and exuberance are almost exhausting to watch. He bounces off of the walls, gives rousing speeches and consistently channels that adrenaline of his job into the role, you really understand that more than any other intoxication in his daily life, it is money that gibes Belfort a true high.

Whether the average viewer will like to admit it or not DiCaprio’s embodiment of Belfort tapped into a core aspect of the American psyche and displayed it at a raw and unrestrained level. The strive to succeed, the desire to be someone permeates his mind-set throughout the movie, Belfort not only wants to be rich, he wants the whole world to know about it, regardless of how much destruction he leaves behind him.



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  • Darren

    De Niro in King of Comedy

    • Abhishek

      Most definitely. This is the best i would say for De niro and they haven’t even kept it here

      • Craig Campbell

        yeah, realistically de niro should of at least got top 3 – taxi driver, raging bull and king of comedy. johnny boy in mean streets should be in the list too.

  • Ahmed

    Joe Pesci gives pretty much the same performance in Casino.

  • Harsha Raman

    Hey no Leo for The Aviator?! Unfair man, unfair.

  • Siggi

    The Dalai Lama in Kundun…

  • zak1

    Very well described list, regarding a great topic with no shortage of magnificent turns.

    Nice to see Harvey Keitel’s work considered in detail here – Scorsese’s original muse.

    I would not have put Joe Pesci’s famous turn so high on the list – he is very forceful and unpredictable, certainly, and exciting to watch, but the conception of the character is shallow – intentionally shallow, I should add – Goodfellas marked a shift in Scorsese’s filmmaking approach to rely more heavily on broad types in comparison with the greater sense of mystery and complexity in the characters of Scorsese’s early work – Mean Streets in particular. My own feeling is that Lorraine Bracco was the one who gave the richest, most powerful performance in Goodfellas – her scene where she holds a gun on Liotta is both funnier and scarier than anything Pesci does.

    Daniel Day Lewis was remarkable in Gangs – I wish that film had centered on him – in Scorsese’s earlier films the lead character is used to explore a particular mindset that reflects on their community as a whole – DiCaprio has been unable to achieve this, and pushing Day Lewis out of the center reduces the effectiveness of his performance and that of the film as a whole, compared to his turn in Age of Innocence.

    Scorsese’s films have been mostly male-centered, of course, and the cult of machismo that is increasingly tied to these films leads to the women’s achievements usually being overlooked. Besides Blanchett’s superb Hepburn, we have Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar winning turn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Liza Minelli in New York, New York, Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, Sandra Bernhard in King of Comedy, Barbara Hershey in Last Temptation of Christ, Winona Ryder in Age of Innocence, Juliette Lewis and Jessica Lange in Cape Fear.

  • Matthew Miller

    Good list. I might remove Nicholson in The Departed from the list and replace it with Ray Liotta’s performance in GoodFellas. Nicholson’s performance was compelling but tended to drift into caricature. Liotta’s Henry Hill convincingly ran the full gamut of emotions over the course of the film, and the role encompassed a long period of time in the life of the character.

  • Xanian

    DiCaprio’s place can be taken by De Niro for King of Comedy. Criminal omission. Or even his own work in the Aviator.

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    Sharon Stone in Casino is far more memorable than Blanchett in The Aviator.

  • shane scott-travis

    Too bad this list is mostly a sausage party because Sandra Bernhard was BRILLIANT in The King of Comedy. Also I think that Lorriane Bracco is the unsung hero of Goodfellas. 🙂