12 Best Performances In Martin Scorsese Movies

Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker's filmmaker. Watch him rattle off keen insights on "A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies" and "My Voyage to Italy," and you will emerge with a list of vital viewing and a valuable primer to understanding visual storytelling. As John Cassavetes, the godfather of independent cinema, once observed, "Making films is an obsession, and very few people can put everything they have into it. They have other gods, but I think Marty has one god, and that's film."

You'll also find out how much he loves actors. Having been mentored by an actor-director like Cassavetes, Scorsese has always cherished these brave folks who dare to stand in front of his camera. The most dazzling technique in the world falls apart if you don't pay close attention to your actors, and when you listen to Scorsese marvel over Abraham Polonsky turning John Garfield's face into a "battleground of moral conflict" on the Criterion blu-ray commentary for "On the Waterfront," you understand why he's gravitated to actors like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Leonardo Di Caprio throughout his career. The full range of humanity is accessible in their expressions. They can do so much with as little as a narrowed eye, and Scorsese can turn those nuances into a shot or a moment that will be forever seared into your memory.

There's a version of this list that is dominated by Scorsese's most frequent collaborators, which, I think, would be a boring read. So I've limited it to one performance per actor. You may know where this list is headed (and you're probably right), but along the way I'm going to single out some unforgettable portrayals that deserve more adoration than they typically receive. Let's get on with it!

12. Griffin Dunne as Paul Hackett in After Hours

"What do you want from me? What have I done? I'm just a word processor, for Christ's sake!" When Griffin Dunne's working stiff, Paul Hackett, strikes up a lively conversation with Roseanna Arquette's Marcy Franklin at a Manhattan cafe, the lonely, hard-up fellow views this as an avenue to, if nothing else, a potential one night stand. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about this. Or is there? How Hackett comports himself over one nightmarish evening seems, in the eyes of god, to be worthy of salvation or utter damnation. There is no in-between, save for the nine-to-five purgatory that defines Paul's meaningless existence.

"After Hours" was supposed to be a modest, get-right movie for Scorsese after the failure of "The King of Comedy," and it did nothing but make him more undesirable to studio executives. It was far from a roaring success with critics, and bottomed out at the box office. Scorsese might've been wondering what he'd done wrong in the eyes of the cinema gods post-"Raging Bull." If so, he couldn't have found a more simpatico protagonist than Dunne's Paul. Physically slight and easily frazzled, Paul earns our sympathies because, in the face of a mushrooming disaster, he just wants to go the hell home. Dunne is plenty affable, but every person he attempts to engage in normal conversation winds up being anything but normal. He is a man baffled by the actions of an inexplicably angry god, and this is a queasy joy to behold.

11. Paul Newman as Eddie Felson in The Color of Money

Scorsese was ice-cold coming off the commercial failure of "After Hours" when he opted to make this late-in-the-day sequel to Robert Rossen's "The Hustler." For a cinephile like Scorsese, mucking around with the narrative perfection of a widely-beloved classic was agonizing enough; hooking up with the star of said classic, who, at the age of 61, was keen to win his first Best Actor Oscar after six losses, only added to the highly-pressurized expectations. Newman wanted a trophy. Scorsese just wanted to continue to have a career as a filmmaker.

It worked. 25 years after the release of "The Hustler," Newman imbues the older "Fast" Eddie Felson with a bitter vigorousness. The former pool shark sees a sliver of himself in the obnoxiously talented Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), and takes a shine to his street-smart girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). It's a fascinating contrast in movie-star styles, and it's the game within the game that makes "The Color of Money" so enthralling. The film is as much about Newman and Cruise as it is about their characters. Newman was once the blue-eyed toast of Hollywood, a straight-up ladykiller who could've coasted on his looks, but respected himself and his audience too much to phone it in (with a few notable exceptions). The tension between Felson and Vincent is palpable, but, at an elemental level, this is Newman schooling Cruise in the fine art of motion-picture immortality. There's nothing in its class because only a celluloid-in-his-veins filmmaker like Scorsese could operate on this meta level.

10. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

The remarkably fruitful Scorsese-DiCaprio pairing was a tad ahead of schedule with "Gangs of New York." He's just too baby-faced for the hardened Amsterdam, which allows Daniel Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher to completely steamroll him. DiCaprio was a perfect fit for the brash Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," and even better as undercover Massachusetts trooper Billy Costigan in "The Departed." We've still got to wait a bit for "The Killers of the Flower Moon," so, until then, "The Wolf of Wall Street" stands as their finest collaboration to date.

DiCaprio is a coked-up dervish as Jordan Belfort, a madly ambitious boiler-room broker whose gleeful absence of ethics allows him to make the quickest of killings on the stock market. Belfort is a sweaty charmer. He works overtime to ingratiate himself into the lives of his clients/marks, and, because he is an uncultured cad, has no idea how to fill his life with anything meaningful aside from a family that largely proves a hindrance to his preferred lifestyle. Belfort is a terrible person, but, unlike De Niro's Jake LaMotta, we don't recoil from him. He's a child hellbent on the acquisition of toys; his style of extravagance may not appeal to you, but it's undeniably entertaining to watch him savor it for as long as it lasts. DiCaprio has never been more adroitly cast. The bright-eyed boyishness that seduced the world in "Titanic" curdles into a quaalude-fueled con job under Scorsese's direction. He's a natural-born winner who compulsively sells himself into oblivion.

9. Ellen Burstyn as Alice Hyatt in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

When people snipe at Scorsese for being a one-note director of gangster films, they are a) trolling, which means they are b) devoid of value as a cultural commentator, because they are c) disgustingly ignorant of the man's oeuvre. It's baffling to me. I have no issue with smacking down film bros, but why would you target Scorsese when, if nothing else (and there is plenty else 'cuz I'm just getting warmed up), he has Ellen Burstyn's lovely performance in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" on his resume?

The answer is that the film, despite being readily available on streaming, doesn't have the must-watch, distracted-viewing appeal of Scorsese's most accessible work. As a once-aspiring singer whose dreams have been cruelly thwarted by life, Burstyn conveys a tangible sadness. When her husband dies, she tries for California with her plucky 12-year-old son in tow, but stalls out in Tucson, where she finds work as a waitress at a diner. Does any of this sound like a Scorsese movie? Does it matter? Scorsese serves Robert Getchell's screenplay, and lets Burstyn bounce off a colorful array of actors including Vic Tayback, Kris Kristofferson and Diane Ladd. Burstyn holds the film together because we're never entirely sure Alice can hold it together. Her Alice hasn't given up on her dreams, but, in the end, she realizes life isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. It's just living. It's also the only Scorsese film that inspired a long-running sitcom.

8. Harvey Keitel as Charlie Cappa in Mean Streets

Robert De Niro earned raves for his breakout performance in Scorsese's first masterpiece as the self-destructive hoodlum Johnny Boy, but as the years wear on it's Harvey Keitel's portrayal of the guilt-ridden Charlie Cappa that lends the film its melancholy gravity. Keitel had served roughly the same function in Scorsese's formative feature debut, "Who's That Knocking at My Door," but neither artist was mature or skilled enough to do more than startle. They both wandered the wilderness for six years before returning to each other for this 1973 classic, and while it's largely celebrated as Scorsese's coming-of-age as a filmmaker, it's hard to imagine the film leaving this deep of a groove without Keitel.

From the moment we see a restless Charlie falling back into his pillow as The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" kicks up on the soundtrack (which runs neck-and-neck with "The Sound of Silence" in Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" as the most influential needle-drop cue in film history), the movie is dialed directly into Keitel's anguished frequency. Charlie is a far cry from Liotta's Henry Hill. He was born into organized crime, and seeks expiation for his crooked deeds. Charlie is boxed in, and Keitel thrusts us right into the pressure cooker that is his character's life. Again, De Niro provides the color, but Keitel is the film's soul.

7. Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence

Speaking of soul, Scorsese's symphony of repressed romance finds its heartbreaking center not in Daniel Day-Lewis's conflicted Newland Archer or Winona Ryder's shrewd May Welland, but in the sedulously managed misery of Michelle Pfeiffer's Countess Ellen Olenska. Pfeiffer was rocketing toward a career peak when she took on this finely nuanced part. Her performances in "Married to the Mob," "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" had established her as the premiere movie star of her era. Roiling beneath the glamorous surface of these characters was a fierce moxie that so wanted you to underestimate her, because she was going to shatter your world. Then came "Batman Returns," where, as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, she effortlessly skipped from victim to avenger.

Countess Olenska arrives in 1870s Manhattan as a ruined woman. Her marriage to a Polish Count has ended in disgrace, and she is now a social pariah. The scorn of upper-crust society can denigrate her all day long, but all the disapproval in the world cannot diminish her intoxicating beauty. Archer is taken with her immediately because he has eyes and a libido. Olenska reciprocates his affections, but theirs is a union that can never be. Day-Lewis gets his emotive moments, but it's Pfeiffer as a woman whose happiness runs a distant second to her family's desire to keep up appearances that destroys you. That final moment, that glint of light on the window, that Elmer Bernstein cue... we mourn for a love denied and a life stunted. We pity Archer, but we grieve for Olenska.

6. Jodie Foster as Iris Steensma in Taxi Driver

Jodie Foster was 12 years old when she played child sex worker Iris Steensma, and most days she was probably the most seasoned actor on set. She'd appeared in numerous movies and TV shows since 1968, so the idealized, make-believe quality of film production had been well spoiled for her — which is a blessed thing. Having been bitten by the acting bug so early, she was determined to make this her young life's work. Her co-star, Robert De Niro, recognized this, and mentored her throughout the shoot.

I think about this a lot because there are many sets on which a young woman asked to play such a troubling character might not receive the proper guidance. There are people who lament that a movie couldn't be made in the same fashion today, that an actor of Foster's age would never get a shot at creating such an indelibly tragic character. The casting and treatment of Foster was important to Scorsese. She spent time with a child psychologist, and was shielded from the ugliness of the project whenever necessary (although Foster expressed a born-filmmaker's fascination in the nuts-and-bolts execution of the climactic shootout). Foster plays Iris as a girl with the wisdom of a woman five times her age. Whenever I watch the film, I'm blown away by her nonchalance. There's nothing precocious about her performance. It's the only true element of a film brilliantly awash in delusion.

5. Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill The Butcher Cutting in Gangs of New York

Tragically, there's not a more timely image than that of Daniel Day-Lewis's nativist Protestant, Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, draped in an American flag, administering a bedside lecture to Leonardo DiCaprio's Irish-Catholic Amsterdam on the importance of fear. While he quietly boasts of the extreme measures to which he'll resort as a means of maintaining his mid-19th century dominance of Lower Manhattan, we know good and well Cutting is animated by his own fear of the city being overrun by Irish immigrants. He may lack the power to keep these people from flooding into America, but, through violence and intimidation, he can make it known to every outsider mulling an Atlantic crossing that they are not and will never be welcome in his New York City.

Cutting is an obscenely hateful creature, yet, in scenes like this, Day-Lewis manages to imbue him with a touch of pathetic humanity. Mostly, however, he revels in his villainy, conjuring a monster so hideous that the film's other two leads, DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz (badly miscast as streetwise grifter Jenny Everdeane), wither in his presence. This is largely an issue of writing. Scorsese and his screenwriters (Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan) are both aghast at and awed by Cutting, and you can't blame them. Perhaps he should've been another one of the filmmaker's problematic protagonists. Day-Lewis' career is loaded with legendary performances, but this collaboration with Scorsese is special. The film is ferociously alive whenever he's onscreen. Everything Scorsese is attempting to communicate about America's melting-pot origins flows through this beast of a man.

4. Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna in Casino

Call it sacrilege, but I believe this to the core of my being: Sharon Stone's portrayal of Catherine Tramell in "Basic Instinct" is the femme fatale equal of Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson in "Double Indemnity." Neither woman plays the protagonist, but they own their respective movies from stem to stern. They're the best kind of bad news, and they make fools of the seemingly savvy men who stray into their orbit. Her entrance in "Basic Instinct," where Tramell looks up to Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and takes one last disbelieving drag of her cigarette before flicking it away into the craggy elsewhere off her oceanside deck, is icy perfection. Stone was a certified movie star after this, but her next few films ("Sliver," "Intersection" and "The Specialist") were appallingly unworthy of her talent.

The stink was on Stone to such a degree that she had to audition for the role of Vegas siren Ginger McKenna in "Casino." As written by Scorsese and his "Goodfellas" collaborator Nicholas Pileggi, Ginger bursts into the movie with chip-flinging abandon; she's a formidable spitfire until we discover she's held in the intractably toxic thrall of her manipulative ex-boyfriend (a very well-cast James Woods). De Niro's Ace Rothstein is the film's narrative motor; he's a gambling savant who falls far too hard for Ginger. They feed each other's weaknesses, but it's Ginger's downward trajectory that stings the most. She's every bit the operator Ace is, but she can't cut the malignancy out of her life. Stone is as sharp as she is heartbreaking. It's a gangster film, so you expect everyone to pay for their sin, but in Las Vegas, her sin is the local currency. Stone's Ginger was a decade short of her moment, but Stone the actor was right on time.

3. Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas

Alas, we all know that guy. He might've been a classmate or a co-worker or, god forbid, a friend. He's a riot, who, at the merest provocation, will start a an actual riot. When you're in his company and having a blast, you foolishly overlook his propensity for wild outbursts. You tell yourself this time will be different, but it will never be different. Inevitably, the storm clouds will gather and the downpour of trouble will arrive. Someone might end up suspended, fired or in jail, and it probably won't be him. You curse yourself in the moment for hanging out with him, but, oh, the stories you'll be able to tell in the years to come.

Pesci's Tommy DeVito is that guy to the nth power. He's the live-wire best friend to Ray Liotta's comparatively sane Henry Hill, and, having known that guy, you understand why Hill is drawn to him. He's the life of the party, sure, but, most importantly, he's a good guy to have in your corner — if only because no one will move against you if they might have to deal with this maniac. Tommy is a scene-stealer's delight, and Pesci invests every scene with a maximum, madcap energy that makes James Cagney's Tom Power's look downright sleepy. His "How am I funny?" scene is easily one of the most quoted sequences in film history. He's a remarkably charismatic psychopath. We shouldn't be laughing when he busts a bottle over poor Sonny Bunz's head, but Pesci's Tommy is just that, well, funny.

2. Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in Goodfellas

Ray Liotta was not Martin Scorsese's first choice for the part of mobster Henry Hill. Prior to "Goodfellas," Liotta had left his deepest groove as Melanie Griffith's psychotic ex-boyfriend in Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild." Liotta had high-wattage, do-not-touch energy. He could charm your pants off, but to what end? If you were making a propulsive gangland epic that relied heavily on the main character's narration, was this really the guy to guide your audience through the ins and outs of scheming and whacking?

Liotta hounded Scorsese, and the filmmaker finally relented. Thank god he did. There may be some alternate universe where, who knows, Alec Baldwin does the trick as Hill, but Liotta, with his pockmarked visage and piercing blue eyes, projected a perfectly imperfect kind of hustler. His Hill muscled past his physical blemishes to earn the trust of men whose lives hinge on sniffing out the potential for betrayal. We live vicariously through Hill, all the way through the back entrance to the Copa, and it's a spectacular ride all the way to the Lufthansa heist. "Goodfellas" shifts into a minor key at this point, and risks harshing the high of all that's come before. That's where Liotta proves most valuable. When Hill hits his druggy, erratic nadir, Liotta's there to stick the landing, and if he has to break the fourth wall to drag the film over the finish line, so be it. God, he was good.

1. Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull

Ask a cinephile to assign a definitive performance to a great actor who enjoyed a long, successful career (e.g. Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, Denzel Washington), and, in almost every case, you're going to get a variety of answers. This is not the case with Robert De Niro. There is only his shapeshifting portrayal of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull."

De Niro's fierce, physical commitment to the role is legendary. LaMotta supervised the actor's boxing training, which went so well the former champ claimed De Niro would've been one of the 20 greatest middleweights of all time. Then the production shut down for several months so the star could take a four-month binge-eating tour of Italy, during which he packed on seventy pounds to play LaMotta as an older, heftier man. This is all technically impressive, but it's the interiority of the performance that both dazzles and terrifies. De Niro's LaMotta is all appetite, and he feasts primarily on conflict. He is exhausting, and so is the film.

Travis Bickel and Rupert Pupkin (of Scorsese's "The King of Comedy") were deep-tissue studies in derangement; they provided squirm-inducing insight into the lives of loners/losers. LaMotta is a winner, a tenacious fighter whose propensity for punishment, giving it and taking it, was publicly celebrated and privately feared. As embodied by De Niro, he is violence incarnate. There are few Bickels and Pupkins, but there are many LaMottas. Shorn of his facility for boxing, he's the abusive husband or father people suffer because they have no choice. What makes him tick? Hatred? Humiliation? A toxic combination of the two or more? Take your pick. All that matters is he keeps on ticking.

Sugar Ray Robinson never got him down. It took Father Time a hellacious 95 years to land the knockout blow. You tell yourself you cannot live a long life on nothing but hatred, but LaMotta lived... and lived... and lived to prove us wrong. De Niro captures the malevolence of this man with gutting precision.