When Martin Scorsese premieres his latest film, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’, at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20, it will return Scorsese to a festival where he remains a key part of its fabled history.
Scorsese premiered his masterpiece of urban alienation, ‘Taxi Driver’, in Cannes in 1976. Its debut was one of the most fevered in Cannes history, drawing boos and some walkouts for the violence in Scorsese’s tale of the disillusioned New York cab driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). The playwright Tennessee Williams, then the jury president, condemned the film.
“Films should not take a voluptuous pleasure in spilling blood and lingering on terrible cruelties as though one were at a Roman circus,” Williams said.
Yet ‘Taxi Driver’ nevertheless won Cannes’ top honor, the Palme d’Or. Having heard of Williams’ disapproval, Scorsese and company had already flown home, with dashed hopes of any big award.
“I got a call from (publicist) Marion Billings around five in the morning saying, ‘You’ve won the Palme d’Or,’” Scorsese later recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. “We thought we might get screenplay or best actor for De Niro, so it was very surprising.”
‘Taxi Driver’ wasn’t Scorsese’s first time in Cannes. Two years earlier, he had premiered his breakthrough feature, ‘Mean Streets’, in Directors Fortnight, a selection of films typically from up-and-coming directors that plays outside Cannes’ main stage, the Palais des Festival.
“Cannes was the international platform for ‘Mean Streets,’ a film I didn’t think would even get distributed,” Scorsese said in a 2018 Cannes talk commemorating the film’s debut.
“My visit was almost the best time, in terms of anonymity. And trying very hard to change that!” he said. “I was able to go from table to table on the Croisette and meet actors, directors, and so many others. It was still a period of discovery, not just for new filmmakers but older, neglected filmmakers.”
Between ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Taxi Driver’, Cannes played a pivotal role in announcing Scorsese’s arrival as a major filmmaking talent. He has ever since maintained a close relationship with the festival, though it’s become rarer for Scorsese to launch a film there.
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’, his much-awaited adaptation of the David Grann bestseller, is his first new film to premiere in the Cannes official selection since ‘After Hours’ in 1986. That film, a darkly comic nocturnal New York escapade, won Scorsese best director.
His latest, which Apple, in partnership with Paramount Pictures, will open in theaters October 6, isn’t playing in competition in Cannes. Festival Director Thierry Frémaux, in announcing this year’s lineup, said he urged Scorsese to put it into competition for the Palme d’Or but was rebuffed.
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’, with a 206-minute runtime, is about a series of murders of Native Americans in 1920s Oklahoma and the FBI investigation that followed. The cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion and Tantoo Cardinal.
In between, Scorsese has often attended Cannes in other capacities. He was president of the jury in 1998 that chose Theo Angelopoulos’ ‘Eternity and a Day’ for the Palme. He also chaired the Cinéfondation jury in 2002.
And Scorsese has regularly been connected with other films at Cannes, either as an executive producer (for, among others, Joanna Hogg’s two-part ‘The Souvenir’) or to unveil newly restored classics by the Film Foundation, the film preservation nonprofit he founded. This year, the Film Foundation, with the Walt Disney Co., will debut a stored ‘Spellbound’, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller.
Before a Cannes screening in 2009 of Film Foundation’s screening of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece ‘The Red Shoes’, Scorsese said restoration only matters if people see the work.
“The more audiences see these films, the more they want to see other films like them, and then what happens is the audience changes which means the movies that are being made change,” Scorsese said. “There is an audience for special movies, and good movies, for a different way of looking at the world — and not just blockbusters.”