Mob wives in Martin Scorsese films always end up being a drag on their husbands. It’s just a fact of life: these are guys who are defined by their appetites, and once they’ve had their fill they move on. Nobody else around is really real to them, and once you stop being useful to them they don’t want to know about you.
This is largely why Scorsese isn’t someone thought of as a woman’s director, though he’s had more than a few great female characters in his films over the years: may I direct your attention to the perpetually underrated Age of Innocence, where both Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder give performances close to career-best.
But in Scorsese’s most famous films the focus is always on the men. He made his reputation with mob movies – they’re going to be what he’s remembered for a hundred years or more from now – and what makes his mob movies so memorable is the relish he brings to their unbridled masculinity. A Scorsese mob movie is a movie about men who see themselves first and foremost as hyper-masculine Men, taking what they want, dominating every situation, ruling their world with a combination of force and charm, and loving every minute of it – until it all goes wrong.
And Casino is the pinnacle of Scorsese’s mob movies: it’s not surprising he hasn’t made a movie like this since, because where is there left to go? It’s a film about what happens when the mob wins, when mobsters get all they want and more, and how that keeps driving them on - even after they have gained the world and everything in it. Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) runs Las Vegas: it’s not enough. Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) could have been the king of crime in the city: again, it’s not enough. And both DeNiro and Pesci are playing the ultimate versions of characters they’ve played for Scorsese before: DeNiro is the tough guy who thinks just a little too much for his own good, Pesci is a foul-mouthed whirlwind of violence who’s never going to live long enough to retire. If a Scorsese movie is always about men, then Casino should be as Scorsese as a Scorsese movie gets.
But Ginger (Sharon Stone) steals the whole movie out from under them. If everything else in Casino – the mob, the men - is 'a Scorsese movie' distilled down to its essence then magnified a hundred-fold, Ginger is something new: a mob wife who can hold her own, a character with her own needs and desires, someone who can take Scorsese’s icons and twist them around her little finger – until she can’t, because while she might be disrupting the movie she’s still in the movie, and mob movies only ever end one way.
Casino was based on a true story (Goodfellas author Nicholas Pileggi was writing 'Casino' the book and the script at the same time), and both DeNiro and Pesci’s characters are based on real guys who acted like Scorsese characters: Ginger is based on a real person who acts like someone real. She’s gorgeous in a world that only values women for their looks, she’s still in love with the man (James Woods) who used her then pimped her out, she accepts a marriage proposal that’s closer to a business deal and then turns to Nicky (of all people) for comfort when it all goes wrong.
I saw Casino in a cinema when it was first released: I can still remember the audience’s gasps of horror at her scenes with Nicky. It wasn’t so much the idea of Sharon Stone having sex with Joe Pesci: Pesci is looking pretty sharp in this film. But getting involved that way with a Pesci character is… not a great idea; again, bad moves are how things go in the third act of mob movies.
For all the deftness in scripting Ginger – the seemingly countless scenes where she’s fighting and pissing off Ace are all subtly different, each one charting another stage in a relationship that only ever had the briefest moment in the sun – it’s Sharon Stone’s performance that makes her soar. Stone had been a long-time Hollywood B-lister before Basic Instinct made her a star (though she was excellent as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s evil wife in Total Recall), but it was already clear that Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with an actress like her.
She was tough in a way that even now seems unusual, a rare combination of beauty queen looks and a been-around-the-block attitude that could crack rocks, and while Ginger is in many ways the opposite of today’s idea of a “strong female character”, Stone’s performance is as gutsy as they get. Even if you think you’ve had enough of big screen machismo, she makes Casino unmissable. Ginger is more than a match for the men, someone who’s needs can never be sated. That’s why she can survive and thrive in their world – until finally, like everyone else in this epic tale of characters doomed by their own desires, she can’t.
Casino screens on SBS this week.
Follow the author here.