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Illustration by Carly Sloane. Photos: Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., and United Artists.
FILM ARTICLE

The 10 Best Female Performances in Martin Scorsese Films

Sure, Martin Scorsese loves himself a good, three-hour epic about a handsome, larger-than-life white man. But — let’s face it — behind every sad, downward-spiraling man in a Scorsese picture, there’s a crafty, complex, and irresistible woman who’s seamlessly anchoring these masterpieces from the sidelines. Here are the ten best female performances from Scorsese’s storied filmography…

Sandra Bernhard as Masha in The King of Comedy (1982)

Running along the edges of Scorsese's hilarious, underrated fame critique about a wannabe comic (Robert De Niro) and a late night legend (Jerry Lewis) is Sandra Bernhard’s Masha, an unhinged rich girl who fosters a pure, batshit passion for Lewis’s Johnny Carson-like luminary. The unimprovable Bernhard lends the character a poignantly surreal touch, keeping Masha on a precariously exhilarating scale between innocence and insanity in one of the funniest, fiercest, and most indelible supporting actress performances of the eighties. Her long-awaited moment alone with Lewis — complete with a side-slit dress and a seductive rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine” — will leave you gasping.

Ellen Burstyn as Alice Hyatt in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Lest we assume that Scorsese always made movies about men, this deliciously colorful character portrait won leading lady Ellen Burstyn a fully-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her sharp and vividly-shaded portrayal of the title character, a widow who relocates to Tucson with her precocious son and finds work, romance, and rapport in a local greasy spoon. Alice is the sort of rounded, revealing, everyday study of a regular woman that Hollywood just can’t be bothered to make anymore, but Burstyn makes a compelling case for why they should. She keeps a close, critical, and creative grip on Alice while bonding beautifully with all of her co-stars (including the inimitable Diane Ladd as spunky fellow waitress Flo), offering a flawlessly detailed depiction of warts-and-all womanhood at its most real and resilient.

Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill in Goodfellas (1990)

As Leonardo DiCaprio’s kept, carnal wife in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Margot Robbie earned some complimentary nods to Lorraine Bracco's scrappy rendering of real-life mob wife Karen Hill — but sorry, I just didn't get it. Robbie's Naomi Lapaglia is only ever a prop within Scorsese's scenery, crucially lacking Bracco's compulsive, unfakeable, flesh-and-blood authenticity in a superficially-similar role. With those throaty, tongue-tied deliveries and dark, imposing features, Bracco turns this seething bystander into a dim, deluded, but credible woman of wounded anger, ungratified vulnerability, and tentative culpability, supplying an invaluably persuasive feminine perspective into a distinctly male-focused feature.

Vera Farmiga as Madolyn in The Departed (2006)

Scorsese’s fast, febrile, Boston-bred re-envisioning of the Hong Kong policier Infernal Affairs could admittedly serve to be a tad more invested in Madolyn, the obliviously uncertain police psychiatrist who becomes involved with both Matt Damon’s duplicitous double agent and Leonardo DiCaprio’s brooding undercover operative. On the page, it’s a mechanical role that falls flat under any closer scrutiny. But on screen, in the hands of that spry acting sorceress Vera Farmiga, Madolyn becomes a different and deeper character creation entirely. Farmiga can up the erotic intrigue of an entire scene with just a well-timed flick of her piercing, laser-like stare, finding a rash, rattled, headstrong woman within a script that didn’t even know one existed.

Jodie Foster as Iris in Taxi Driver (1976)

Instantly iconic, hugely controversial, and wholly unforgettable, the casting of a then-13-year-old Jodie Foster in the pivotal role of Taxi Driver’s young hooker Iris is perhaps even further etched into film history and our wider pop cultural lexicon than De Niro’s peerless Travis Bickle and Scorsese’s cinematic touchstone are. We have a fair but unfortunate tendency to only recall the notoriety of Foster’s Iris: the nude scene, the shootout, the working girl wardrobe of crop-tops, hot pants, and clunky, plastic sunglasses. But it’s Foster’s performance that remains the real triumph. Those intimate, extended interactions with De Niro are pinnacles of ace movie acting: direct, delicate, and — pretend this isn't a cliché — wise beyond her years.

Juliette Lewis as Danielle Bowden in Cape Fear (1991)

An admirable roster of eight women have received Best Supporting Actress nods for Scorsese pictures, including The Color of Money’s Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, The Age of Innocence’s Winona Ryder, and The Aviator’s Oscar victress Cate Blanchett. Reigning supreme among this vivid, enviable list of ladies is Juliette Lewis' staggering and genuinely challenging depiction of curiously confused teenage girlhood in the middle of Scorsese's meticulous Florida suspenser. Cape Fear's peak — a ten-minute seduction between Lewis' defiant daughter and De Niro as the ex-con terrorizing her family — is a jaw-dropping master class in emotionally-exposed naturalism within what may very well be the most impressive onscreen performance by a young actor, ever.

Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans in New York, New York (1977)

Scorsese’s splashy, cynical, and masterfully-made postwar musical was egregiously cold-shouldered upon release, as was the singular star turn of Liza Minnelli, doing a grateful yet galvanizing variation on Mama Judy's legendary Star is Born role as Francine Evans, an aspiring singer who falls under the romantic influence of De Niro’s callous, captivating saxophonist. Minnelli is, of course, a stupendous, show-stopping singer-dancer, but it’s her tough-minded, deeply-felt emotionality that proudly places Francine Evans beside Garland’s Vicki Lester, Julie Andrews' Maria von Trapp, Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice, and Minnelli's own Sally Bowles within the eternal pantheon of preeminent, pitch-perfect musical performances.

Cathy Moriarty as Vickie La Motta in Raging Bull (1980)

Stuck early on with a series of lusty, libido-stoking poses as Jake La Motta’s (De Niro) smitten child bride turned infuriated ex-wife, Cathy Moriarty evades the heavy possibility of becoming an empty-headed sex doll with a performance that's self-effacingly loose and lived in. Scorsese & Co. don't afford her any Sharon Stone-in-Casino-sized tantrums or Bracco-level crack-ups, but Moriarty manages to make her Vickie La Motta into something much more impressive than an overwhelming scene-stealer: a woman of surprising, subdued intelligence and quietly calculated defiance. Her sly, sphinx-like silence in a hotel room row between brothers Jake and Joey (Joe Pesci) is more interesting to watch than the brotherly blow-up itself.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence (1993)

Has modern-day cinema ever found itself a more stunning romance actress than Michelle Pfeiffer? Scorsese once called her "the best we have" after seeing her in Dangerous Liaisons, and based on the evidence of Pfeiffer's dazzling, disgraced, deeply-felt Countess Ellen Olenska in Scorsese's lush Edith Wharton adaptation, it's hard not to take him at his word. Grappling wondrously with Daniel Day-Lewis as the betrothed, upper-crust object of her affections, Pfeiffer cuts right to the heart of Wharton's incisive, nineteenth-century social critique with all the exquisite tension and slow-burning emotion of an intense and impossible love deferred. Just looking at a still of Pfeiffer in this is enough to make you wish that this poignant, perceptive performer still worked at the rate at which we need her, which is always.

Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna in Casino (1995)

Casino, Scorsese's rote, real-life Las Vegas crime saga, has never been considered Scorsese's finest hour — or three. That plodding runtime doesn't help matters, but the film might as well last for an eternity whenever the superb Sharon Stone slinks into a frame or strides into focus. As Robert De Niro's hungry, hustling criminal wife, Stone is a striking, shapely element within Scorsese's keyed-up, seventies-styled imagery. She can take your breath away by just strolling into a shot with a beautifully beaded Bob Mackie gown clinging to her skin, but she's also playing a real and riveting woman: decadent and materialistic, sure, but also edgy, intricate, and emotionally voluptuous. Like all of Scorsese's women, you can barely take your eyes off her. As if you'd ever want to.

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