On Thursday and Friday of this week, February 13 and 14, the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan hosts a unique event: a mini-retrospective of the work of director Martin Scorsese and actor (and sometime co-producer) Leonardo DiCaprio. Thursday's screenings will be The Aviator, The Departed, and the new The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf screening will be preceded by a conversation, moderated by Kent Jones, with DiCaprio, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and screenwriter Terence Winter. On Friday the films are Shutter Island, Gangs of New York, and again, Wolf. Information and ticket purchase options can be found here.
I recently completed a book on Robert De Niro that treats his career via ten discrete essays on ten movies; four of the essays are on De Niro/Scorsese collaborations. Certainly were Cahiers du Cinema, my publishers, to commission a similar book on DiCaprio, well, I can't think of one of the five above that I'd leave off of a list of ten. Alfred Hitchcock hit several career highs with Cary Grant and James Stewart, and vice versa, but what's unique about the Scorsese collaborations has something to do with the sequence. De Niro did not begin his work with Scorsese in the position of the director's surrogate: In Mean Streets that role went to Harvey Keitel, as Charlie. Johnny Boy, the De Niro character, was of course Charlie's secret sharer in a sense. With Taxi Driver, New York, New York, and Raging Bull the sense of De Niro speaking through and as Scorsese, or particular aspects of Scorsese, could be palpable; with King of Comedy, Scorsese's most intellectual film up to that point, a mode of detachment/examination sets in. It's only in the got-what-he-wanted-but-lost-what-he-had register of Casino that Scorsese and De Niro found that particular kind of tandem.
With DiCaprio the synergy can be equally strong but it's used for different ends, and it functions differently. DiCaprio is not Scorsese's surrogate but his instrument. In a sense the character of Amsterdam (as in "new") in Gangs of New York is almost a "My Back Pages" rumination for Scorsese, a young perspective on the old problems he's ever grappled with as an artist. One of the great misunderstandings of Shutter Island is the insistence on reading it as a (failed or successful) puzzle movie, when it's really an emotional exploration as acute and horrific and effective as Raging Bull or the short The Big Shave. If you're lucky enough to be able to see all five of the movies over the two days, what I think will be revealed about Wolf of Wall Street is its semi-perverse expansiveness; the tragic anti-heroes DiCaprio plays in The Aviator and Shutter Island replaced here by an unreliable narrator of bodacious braggadocio and decidedly shallow emotional affect. It's a virtuoso performance from DiCaprio that's also arguably a minefield of alienation effects.