As soon as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood premiered at Cannes, there was a bit of a kerfuffle about how Margot Robbie’s part was so small — and by small that meant, not a lot of dialogue, no matter her screen time and impact. And now, as more and more people have seen The Irishman, there’s a bit of a low frequency take-down going on vis-à-vis Martin Scorsese’s so-called treatment of women in his films. Of course, anyone who knows Scorsese’s work well will see this as still steaming, freshly-dumped bullshit. What the wrong-headed criticism ofetne boils down to is that the female characters in his films are often not always model citizens, which of course makes those characters all the more fascinating.
Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver:
From Sandra Bernhard in King of Comedy:
To Jessica Lange in Cape Fear:
Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas:
Roseanna Arquette in Life Lessons:
Listen, I can give you a list of great roles for women in Scorsese movies — I really can, and so can the Oscars. And if you come back at me with a stopwatch and tell me Anna Paquin only has six words in The Irishman as if somehow proves… something? I’m going to say that’s a complete reductionist misread of the film and misses the key point of her character’s stoic presence.
Okay, so yes, I get how some people will watch the movie and not understand why she doesn’t say much. I can try to provide an explanation but it will requires that you think about it, contemplate the purpose of why he would make that choice, and try really hard not to clumsily apply it to your own confirmation bias against Scorsese.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that Robert De Niro plays a hitman in The Irishman. He also plays a family man. His daughter is played by Paquin. As the action unfolds, it so happens that the daughter is the only person in her family circle who seems to be sensitive enough to see what’s going on — that her father’s home life persona as a decent guy is nothing but a front to mask the fact that he’s a cold blooded murderer.
Scorsese is a brilliantly subtle director who knows more about cinematic nuance, I’d wager, than every other living film theorist combined. He understands the power of silence, and knows how to use it. He appreciates the power of a singular, accusatory gaze. Sure, he could give her scenes where she flips out — screams at him with strings of expository commentary, to explain in lengthy monologues that broadcast how she feels. But no, Scorsese lets her eyes say it all with a hard cold silent stare. As an artistic choice, it’s pure genius from a guy who really KNOWS HOW TO FUCKING MAKE MOVIES. Are we really having this conversation? Are we really going to lecture Martin Scorsese on how to improve his movies?
Likewise, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino lovingly memorializes what were to be the last hours that Sharon Tate’s presence graced L.A. Because he respects the memory of those moments, he isn’t going to sully her recreation by stuffing her character full of sassy Tarantino dialogue. He doesn’t even try because he wants to preserve our pristine memory of Sharon Tate. Of course, he does give the sleazy Manson murderers the full Tarantino treatment — with scenes of hilarious and glorious caricature, and one of the best moments on film all year. But for Sharon Tate, he simply allows us follow her through that fateful day, quietly observing her go about her spontaneous routine, as a meditative montage of her doomed vitality. Tarantino internalizes her experience on film because he wants to go deeper inside the real person, rather than fictionalize her with his brand. That way, we can share the simple pleasure she felt when she went to a movie theater alone to see herself on screen. We can feel the pang of watching her dance at a party like there’s no tomorrow — with no need to laugh at fabricated words coming out of her mouth — because she floats above the surreal rat-a-tat patter of Tarantino’s dialogue.
In both cases, these roles virtually wordless roles stand out — they shine brighter, in fact — because we’re being asked to watch them rather than listen, to commune with them more closely, to try and understand what they’re thinking.
Will these be Oscar-winning portrayals? It’s not typically the case. But I doubt that Anna Paquin (who already has an Oscar) ever thought to herself, “I’ll pass on this chance to work with Scorsese, because there’s no Oscar in it for me.”
While I guess I can understand people feeling baffled that A-list actresses like Paquin or Robbie would be satisfied to accept roles that lack wordy Oscar moments, I would hope that the fact that they decided to take on that challenge might lead to more thoughtful consideration of why they did. Maybe questioning our need to have expectations fulfilled will lead to deeper conclusions about the choices these sensitive filmmakers made and why they made them.