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A Director's Artistic Masterpieces: 10 of Martin Scorsese's Greatest Film Characters and Five of the Worst

Updated on January 20, 2020
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Heather has a Bachelor's Degree in English from Moravian College and has been freelance writing for more than 12 years.

Since the start of his career, director Martin Scorsese has managed to create some of the most thought provoking films brought to the screen. They caused the audience to think, react and sometimes squirm in their seats due to long running times. Sure, some of his movies have caused some controversy because of the subject matter (Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ to name a few).

Basically, for one reason or another his films have continued to resonate to this very day. Partially, the main reason for this is because his films are filled with compelling characters that make moviegoers want to sit up and take notice (Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver). Certain characters are often talked about over and over again, while other performances tended to be overlooked. It was time to give some of those characters a chance at the spotlight.

Here is a list of 10 memorable characters/performances in Martin Scorsese films, and five not so memorable ones for various reasons. There were a few miscasting choices and the remainder were just sorely misused for the purposes of the movie itself. Whether they could have been used in more scenes, or simply had more dialogue to play around with. Read on to see if you agree with the list.

Goodfellas movie poster
Goodfellas movie poster
The Last Temptation of Christ Poster
The Last Temptation of Christ Poster
Taxi Driver Poster
Taxi Driver Poster

Supporting Ladies

Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) in Goodfellas- Whenever critics and moviegoers often talk about this 1990 Martin Scorsese classic film, they tended to focus on the male cast members who were good in their own rights. Joe Pesci was terrifying and magnetic to watch as live wire Tommy, but Lorraine Bracco's portrayal of Karen Hill deserved to be recognized. She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal. Bracco made Karen more than what could've been a throwaway role. She showcased Karen's toughness when she was stood up by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) on what would've been their second date. Karen got into her car and drove to where Henry and his mob associates hung out and gave him a piece of her mind. She got a second date and became a partner in crime for him. Bracco even got to narrate a portion of the movie by giving moviegoers a taste of what it was truly like to be a mob wife. Bracco gave Karen strength, vulnerability and made her a flesh and blood character. That says a lot, especially when you share the bill with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

Mary Magdelene (Barbara Hershey) in The Last Temptation of Christ- Basically, everything about this 1988 Scorsese picture was a lightning rod for controversy. The idea that Jesus (Willem Dafoe) would even potentially choose to live a normal life with Hershey's Mary versus being crucified was a shocking one to anyone religiously devout. It offended their sensibilities without really meaning to do so. Hershey's Mary was a beautiful and sensuous woman who could have given him everything he ever wanted, but it wasn't meant to be. She was only meant to be a loyal friend and follower, nothing more. Hershey gave Mary an earthy like quality that made her more than a mere background player.

Iris (Jodie Foster) in Taxi Driver- In this 1976 classic, Foster came into her own as the teenage Iris who went into being a teenage hooker due to circumstances beyond her control. She came across as a streetwise teenager, but she was just a kid trapped under way too much grown up attire and attitude that Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) took notice. Foster's performance was a representation of innocence lost in a growingly fast paced society that was often too brutal to let kids simply be just that. Sometimes, it took an act of extreme brutality to snap people out of complacency and that's what the final act was all act for the movie.

Mean Streets Poster
Mean Streets Poster
The Departed Poster
The Departed Poster
The Aviator Poster
The Aviator Poster
The Last Temptation of Christ International Poster
The Last Temptation of Christ International Poster

Out of the Box Performances

Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) in Mean Streets- With this 1973 flick, both Scorsese and De Niro were giving Hollywood an opportunity to sit back and take notice. De Niro's wild and out of the box approach to acting wasn't new, but it was still fascinating to watch. He gave it his all to portray the wild and out of control Johnny Boy who had no filter and was destined to be always in trouble. This performance and many others are a stark contrast to the real De Niro who rarely speaks much in television interviews and appeared to be much more quiet than his characters.

Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) in The Departed- Boston native Mark Wahlberg fit right in the landscape with this Scorsese picture from 2006. He fit in so well that he was even nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Wahlberg portrayed Dignam as the only one who truly told the truth. He always said everything that was on his mind, as well as the audience's, and he managed to deliver the final blow in a surprise last act twist that was worth watching.

Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) in The Last Temptation of Christ- Although his appearance was merely a cameo, Bowie played Pilate as an intellectual who wanted to talk to Willem Dafoe's Jesus. They engaged in an intense conversation that showcased that they could've been friends if they weren't enemies on opposing sides of this story. Bowie also didn't make audiences forget that he was helping to condemn Jesus to death. It was an undercurrent as they spoke to one another.

Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) in The Aviator- How do you portray a real life four time Oscar Winner and still give the role some credibility? Blanchett managed to do this and win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar by fleshing out what could've been a one note part. She gave her version of Hepburn the right amount of grit, substance and authenticity that made it her own.

The King of Comedy Poster
The King of Comedy Poster
Casino Poster
Casino Poster
The Departed Poster #2
The Departed Poster #2

Most Against Type

Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King of Comedy- Lewis' performance in this misunderstood Scorsese film was surprisingly overlooked at the time when it was released. He was literally the straight man in the whole film, which was rather ironic since he always played such over the top characters in other films. Lewis gave the film some moments of reality as he played a successful talk show trapped in the fantasies of a delusional man (Robert De Niro). Well, the whole character itself seemed to have inspired De Niro's portrayal of a talk show host in 2019's Joker who was the object of one man's desire for success.

Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) in Casino- Poor Sharon Stone. She will always be known for her role as Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct. She was never given an opportunity to play more than the lethal femme fatale. Okay, she does play a similar role in this 1995 film, but it does take a tragic turn in a sense. Stone played Ginger as a beautifully complicated supernova that was meant to burn bright and cause a lot of havoc as she faded away. In that case she didn't disappoint in that regard.

Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed- Damon's role as the honorable but corrupt Colin played a complicated game with his loyalties. He was sworn to serve and protect, but he was secretly devoted to being one of the many moles for Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello. Damon's Colin came across as the good guy with his appearance and affinity to live life a certain way, but it hid his true nature until it was too late to run from the truth. His role was modeled after the real life FBI agent who compromised himself in order to keep his prized informant Whitey Bulger out of prison.

Gangs of New York Poster
Gangs of New York Poster
The Irishman Poster
The Irishman Poster
After Hours Poster
After Hours Poster

Mismatched/Misused Casting

Jenny Everdeen (Cameron Diaz) in Gangs of New York- The role was good one, but Diaz was sorely miscast as the beautiful pickpocket who romanced DiCaprio's character. Her casting seemed a little bit like stunt casting to get someone marketable into the movie when the draw should've been to work with acting giants like Daniel Day-Lewis. Diaz seemed out of place and her ever changing accent made it hard to watch whenever she was on the screen.

Peggy Sheehan (Anna Paquin) in The Irishman- Don't misunderstand Paquin's addition to the list as the fact that she didn't fit in this movie. She did belong in it, but she wasn't given enough to do. Her character was one of Robert De Niro's on-screen daughters who always seemed to know more about her father's work that he ever let on. She was only given one line in the whole film, but she never had the opportunity to truly flex her acting muscles against De Niro. With all that was packed in the movie, the film could've used one more scene where Peggy really gave her father a piece of her mind. Audiences were robbed of that opportunity, which was a shame.

Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) in The Irishman- In another wasted opportunity, Scorsese film veteran Harvey Keitel portrayed real life mob boss Angelo Bruno, but he was basically in the film as a thrown away cameo. He should've been given a little more to do or not have been included at all.

Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) in After Hours- Don't misunderstand Dunne's inclusion on the list, because his performance was entertaining as the everyman who always found himself in trouble. The movie itself was a nice departure for Scorsese who managed to always direct dramatic features about men on the brink of losing something, whether it was their mind or their life. Dunne's performance seemed to just miss that make or break manic energy that this black comedy needed to go over the top. Sure, it could've been a gradual process to get to that point, but he never quite seemed to get there by the end of the film. Everything just seemed to be happening around him while he went about trying to escape it, instead of embracing it.

Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) in The Irishman- There was nothing really bad about Romano's appearance in this 2019 flick, but he just didn't seem to fit in with the rest of the cast. Scorsese had used comedic actors in the past in his films (Don Rickles in Casino to surprising affect.) To be honest, it was a major surprise when he first came on the screen opposite De Niro's digitally de-aged mobster. Romano provided the film some moments of levity, but his presence just didn't seem to gel with the rest of the film. It's a shame, because the film could've used some more comic relief ; especially towards the end.

In the end, Scorsese will always be a director that will cause us to think, debate and sometimes get antsy in our seats. He will never direct a Marvel film, which he has made pretty clear to the press in his more recent interviews for The Irishman. With the way his film career is still going, Scorsese will never need to go that route ever. As for his film themselves, he should focus on maintaining some classic characters who explore the hidden depths of humanity through darker means. Those moments always provided compelling cinema. After all, there will never be another film quite like Goodfellas, which explored the dark, the light and the in-between of being a mobster.

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