Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill Honor Martin Scorsese at MoMA Film Benefit

Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Museum of Modern Art
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio

The acclaimed director delivered an impassioned speech on the current cinematic landscape and the necessity of film preservation.

At the Museum of Modern Art's 2018 film benefit on Monday night, Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Emily Mortimer and more stars honored Martin Scorsese for his contributions to the art of film.

"Some people grew up with pictures of superheroes on their wall. I had a picture of Marty on my wall," said Hill, whom Scorsese directed in The Wolf of Wall Street. Citing Scorsese as a huge influence and key advisor on his recent directorial debut, Mid90s, Hill told his mentor, "You might not even understand how often just the image of you creates young people who want to be filmmakers every single day."

When DiCaprio took the stage, he described how, after his father took him to see Goodfellas at the age of 15, "I made it a goal, I made it a relentless ambition" to work with its director.

"I was lucky enough to fulfill that dream in 2001 by working alongside Marty on Gangs of New York," said DiCaprio, who has since collaborated with Scorsese on four other films and will soon start production on another, Killers of the Flower Moon. "That experience is where I witnessed firsthand the indelible effort he made in the creation of his movies, how he shaped and created characters alongside his actors. But also, unexpectedly, I realized I was gaining wisdom from a master teacher, a professor of the history of cinema."

The final tribute of the night belonged to De Niro, who has starred in eight of Scorsese's films to date and will play mobster Frank Sheeran in Scorsese's The Irishman next year.

"Marty's first career ambition was to be a priest," De Niro said. "My theory is that he changed when he realized that being a priest meant serving God, while being a director meant being God." On a more serious note, he continued, "Marty's very priest-like in his approach to directing. He's open and kind and generous. He has such sensitivity and respect for the artists and artisans he works with."

After a compilation of clips from his films were screened, Scorsese himself stepped up to the podium to speak about MoMA's film preservation efforts and the current state of cinema.

"Of all the arts, [film is] the most fragile," Scorsese opined. "Very often we do find ourselves having to make the case for it — make the case that film is art, make the case to preserve the past and support the artists of the present."

Scorsese then described some of the challenges facing today's filmmakers. "The art-house circuit is disappearing," he said. "There's a gradual disappearance of films of ambition — in other words, the cinema that we know, the cinema that's inspired us and enriched our lives. There's a gradual disappearance of these films of ambition from the multiplexes. And in many places, the multiplexes are gone, too."

Stressing the role MoMA has played in preserving and spreading film culture, he added, "The film department here not only needs support, but unqualified support. We should be taking it for granted that the work done at MoMA's film department — curation, restoration, preservation — will all be supported just as we take it for granted that Monet's Waterlilies will be cared for."

Through The Film Foundation, which he created in 1990, Scorsese has funded 111 MoMA film preservation efforts. He has also donated selections from his vast collection of film memorabilia to four MoMA exhibitions, including this past February's Martin Scorsese Presents Republic Rediscovered: New Restorations from Paramount Pictures.

As part of their celebration of Scorsese, MoMA hosted Scorsese in New York, an 11-part series focusing on the director's New York-set films, earlier this month.