The 10 Greatest Performances in a Martin Scorsese Film

5. Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York


Is it hardly surprising that Daniel Day Lewis offered one of the finest performances ever to come out of a film directed by Martin Scorsese? As one of cinema’s most accomplished method actors he committed himself to the role of Bill Cuttings as he dominated the New York crime scene in the 1840s in Scorsese’s gangster epic to such an extent that he risked contracting pneumonia rather than break character for modern treatment.

Day Lewis brings an intense level of ferocity that is almost unparalleled in recent cinema as Cuttings exudes a sense of intimidation and rage. His performance is fearsome in every sense of the word, both physically as he seems to strut comfortably among even the most nefarious characters as well as his stature of excitement during moments of intense violence, but also in his voice as he brings a commanding and threatening presence to every scene through his exuberant pronunciation and elongation of his already ominous choice of words.

But yet again Day Lewis manages to bring out the softer side of this seemingly irredeemable character. He evokes some amount of sympathy, especially as the plot of the film rolls forward and we, along with the film’s protagonist Amsterdam played by Leonardo DiCaprio, delve deeper into the world Cuttings inhabits and his own psyche as he recounts his past, motives and emotions. But his sheer brutality means we never feel at ease of at comfort when Day Lewis is on screen.


4. Cate Blanchett in The Aviator

The Aviator

This was yet another Scorsese film in which Leonardo DiCaprio was on hand to deliver a fine performance as Howard Hughes, yet this meant it was essential for an actress that could match his calibre to play Katherine Hepburn. The reason is the simple fact that in their relationship they were of equal importance and dominance in every way. It fell upon Cate Blanchett to portray the legendary actress and her amazing portrayal earned her an Academy Award and marked her as a legend in the making.

Hepburn’s role in The Aviator was far more than simply supporting the titular subject Howard Hughes, Blanchett radiated a range of emotions and complex interactions with Hughes as she felt a dose of excitement for his achievements as well as an enthusiasm for his passion, but simultaneously there was a clear tone of worry and nervousness within her performance.

Blanchett made it obvious that Hepburn cared deeply for Hughes and was highly perceptive to his growing eccentricity and fall into obsession. She is quick to square up to him concerning the issue and when she does Blanchett holds all of the commanding and authoritative presence necessary to hold her own and forge a strong personality of her own.

Any lesser actress may have portrayed Hepburn as nothing more than a caricature, simply to provide context to Hughes’ story. But Blanchett’s portrayal was a fully fleshed out performance, full of delightful mannerisms and independent spirit as well as deeply opinionated, embodying so many of the traits Hepburn displayed that she ultimately steals the show.


3. Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

The core of Taxi Driver relies on the audience’s belief of Travis Bickle’s complete and utter islolation from the rest of the world, he must be seen as a man separated from the norm and unable to readjust to daily life. Without that aspect Travis’ cause has less of an impact and the plot of the film relies so heavily on it that one could hardly imagine it being as engaging without it. This falls directly to Robert De Niro’s iconic performance that has gone down as one of the most complex and harrowing character studies in cinema history.

Such a level of intensity and involvedness would appear difficult to sustain as Taxi Driver rarely strays from its personal and intimate view of Travis, and views the world around him from his highly subjective viewpoint. There is a permanent sense of frustration and pent up rage as he witnesses the immorality of a city soaked in corruption and can only watch as his own sense of principle and morality is regularly violated right in front of him.

What Robert De Niro achieves in Taxi Driver is something that few actors have ever done as thoroughly as he does here, his performance allows us to see the world through Travis Bickle. We feel his pain and isolation to an extreme extent, his emotions are channelled in the most subtle of glances and gestures and we start to develop fears concerning his own mental state not because we are terrified of him, we are terrified for him.

There is a distinct reason why his iconic line ‘You talkin’ to me’ has gone down in history, it is because the performance makes it so distinctly obvious that what he says next, ‘I’m the only one here’ is so utterly true.


2. Joe Pesci in Goodfellas


We all remember that famous monologue Pesci gives very early on in Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece, where he asks Ray Liotta what he finds funny about him. In less than a minute Pesci demonstrated his ability to take the character’s personality and flip it in an instant, going from playful and casual to the most intimidating presence in the entire film. The way he erupts into such explosive acts of aggression is truly shocking and leaves the viewer speechless with every senseless murder and moment of tension.

It was odd how Pesci’s physical stature was able to lend itself so perfectly to the role as the real Tommy DeVito was above average height, yet Pesci’s shorter build and pent up rage just screams a napoleon complex and adds another level of depth to the portrayal. Not only that, but Pesci allowed his character to revel in the acts he commits, to treat them with a nonchalant, almost casual, nature and never feel any remorse for them.

His arrogance also seeps through in every scene as it becomes apparently obvious that not only is DeVito a complete psychopath when it comes to his acts of violence, he is proud of them, he sees them as a sign of his own importance and significance and is never afraid to display that power in whatever way he wants, from needlessly slaughtering an innocent man to making the unfortunate mistake of murdering a man infinitely more powerful than he. Volcanic seems too gentle a word to describe his explosive and sudden force.


1. Robert De Niro in Raging Bull


De Niro famously gained 60 pounds to portray the middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta in what many consider to be Scorsese’s magnum opus but his psychical transformation went as far as changing his entire stance, the way he talked, moved and spoke to capture to physicality of the man. What makes this transformation more remarkable is how Raging Bull is less of a film about boxing and more of an exploration of a man plagued by crippling anxiety, insecurity and animalistic aggression.

It was here that De Niro cemented his status as one of the finest actors of his, or any, generation as the astonishing thing about this performance is not just the intensity of his emotions, it is the range and variation of these emotions that leaves a viewer awestruck. It was simultaneously one of the most painful portrayals of paranoia in cinema history as well as one of the most explosive displays of aggression that an audience had ever witnessed on the big screen.

However perhaps the most remarkable achievement is that despite the ugly emotional turns he takes De Niro’s performance somehow provokes empathy in an otherwise reprehensible human being with such a twisted sense of judgement. His journey is a tragedy that few others can equal, as we are constantly reminded of how LaMotta is on a path where he is helpless to stop himself destroying everything he values and everyone who loves him.

Author Bio: Joshua Price considers himself more of a fan that happens to write near insane ramblings on movies and directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Fellini, Kubrick and Lumet rather than an actual critic and other insane ramblings can be found at