Watch: The Unique Storytelling Power of a Martin Scorsese Cameo
When Martin Scorsese appears in his films, it's more than just a mere cameo.
Spotting director cameos is like playing the cinematic version of Where's Waldo. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for appearing in his own films, but others like John Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez, and M. Night Shyamalan have also done so in most of their work. While these cameos are mostly trivial in nature, or an entertaining continuation of a cinematic tradition, there's one director that has brought great significance to his time on the other side of the lens: Martin Scorsese. In this video essay from Fandor, Leigh Singer explores how the director uses his appearances on screen to add dimension and complexity to his characters and stories.
Scorsese has appeared in many of his own films, including Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and even The Wolf of Wall Street as one of the people Leonardo DiCaprio's character dupes into buying penny stocks over the phone. But perhaps his greatest cameo, or at least the one most people remember, is as the man who gets into Travis Bickle's cab and talks about killing his wife in Taxi Driver.
Scorsese wasn't supposed to play the role. In fact, the actor that was hired to perform was injured in an accident, which forced the director to step in at the suggestion of Robert De Niro. His lengthy monologue, which was largely improvised, reveals less about Scorsese's character than it does about Bickle's, a man bent on revenge with a warped idea of morality and justice.
As Singer suggests, "Scorsese's onscreen identity [is] the film's instinctual id," which means that despite his limited screen time, Scorsese's character is actually one of the most important characters in Taxi Driver. As an extension of Travis Bickle, this character gives the audience an inside look at Bickle's instincts, desires, and inner thoughts. It's Bickle unfettered by societal pressures to appear and behave in a certain way; it's Bickle as he appears to himself when he looks in the mirror.
This kind of character is, of course, quite common in filmmaking, but when it comes to director cameos, it's quite rare. Scorsese doesn't seem to appear in his films just for the sake of tradition, vanity, or entertainment, but to also add complex layers and authority to his stories.