Special Thoughts for FILMS FOR TWO®
by Alan Waldman
I consider Martin Scorsese to be one of the four greatest living American directors (with Robert Altman, Spike Lee & John Sayles), & I can well understand why many critics consider him the clear number one. He is our boldest auteur, imaginatively bringing his unique style & unerring moral compass into a wider range of categories than anyone. Scorsese’s highly distinctive 30-plus movies have spanned the genres of gangster film, historic epic, genteel comedy of manners, sports
bio-pic, splashy musical, documentary, thriller, exploitation flick, concert film, black comedy & religious epic (both Christian & Buddhist).
Although he has written & directed many great films, for me his towering achievement is 1990’s GOODFELLAS—which won five of the seven BAFTAs it was nominated for (including Best Film & Best Director), one of the six Oscars, 21 other major awards & seven nominations for Golden Globes, WGAs &
DGAs. [I believe Sayles’ masterpiece was
CITY OF HOPE, Lee’s was MALCOLM X & Altman’s was either
M*A*S*H, NASHVILLE or
GOSFORD PARK.] The greatest thing about GOODFELLAS—& there are many, many aspects of it to love, marvel at & revel in—is the way it once & for all demolished the myth of the noble Mafiosi that was perpetrated by the
GODFATHER pictures & all their pathetic imitators—by realistically & powerfully portraying gangsters to be the ignorant, foul, petty little punks they are.
A dozen years after being blown away by GOODFELLAS, I am still astonished by two of its groundbreaking sequences. One is the long early tracking shot where cocky, young
mock-bigshot Ray Liotta sashays into a nightclub, showing off for his date (Loraine
Bracco) as he interacts with everyone he meets from the kitchen to their table—while the camera actually seems to be strutting too. The other is the amazing sequence where, demented by too much cocaine, he has to deal rapidly with a number of threatening problems—& the entire nightmarish sequence is so brilliantly shot, cut & scored that you viscerally feel his jittery, coke-crazed paranoia. I believe that enduring this sequence is as close as one can come to being snow-blind without actually snorting the stuff.
A 1992 Sight & Sound poll of international filmmakers voted Scorsese’s RAGING BULL the second-best movie ever (behind Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE). That film,
AGE OF INNOCENCE, KUNDUN & ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE are the favorites among his works of my adorable wife Sherry, who explains: “Martin Scorsese is a brilliant director who sincerely believes in his projects, which are always vibrant with energy & style—although I find his view of the world pretty bleak. I loved
GANGS OF NEW YORK for dramatically re-creating the history of a fascinating era, but I found it unnecessarily gross & violent. However, ALICE influenced my life positively by showing a woman making her way on her own, against all odds.”
The highly principled, hugely talented, Sicilian-American writer-director’s works have won him an AFI lifetime achievement award, three
BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, a WGA, the Golden Palm & Best Director at Cannes, two of Denmark’s Bodil awards, Venice’s Golden & Silver Lions, une Cesar, due David Di
Donatellos, 17 film critics’ society honors & 17 other major statuettes. He has earned four directing & two writing Oscar nominations—two for GOODFELLAS & one each for GANGS, BULL, AGE & THE LAST TEMPTATON OF CHRIST—but like fellow giants
Welles, Stanley Kubrick & Alfred Hitchcock, he has never won one. Although many expect him to nab at least one (& maybe three) Academy Awards this
month—GANGS OF NEW YORK is up for 10—Scorsese has wryly predicted that he “will go zero for lifetime.”
Over a 34-year span, Martin Scorsese has married actress Laraine Brennan, writer Julia Cameron, actress Isabella
Rossellini, producer Barbara di Fina & book editor Helen Morris & has been romantically linked with singer Liza Minelli & actress Ileana Douglas. Because he vividly portrayed the Chinese destruction of Tibet & mistreatment of its fourteenth Dalai Lama in
KUNDUN, Marty is one of the 50 people barred from entering Tibet.
One of the world’s most dedicated film preservationists, Scorsese has lobbied Congress to protect filmmakers' rights, sweet-talked Kodak into creating more durable film stock & received the John Huston Award for Artists’ Rights. He fought to direct
GANGS OF NEW YORK for 25 years & ultimately had to return half his $6 million salary, because of cost overruns. He once said that Hollywood was as difficult as the tough streets of New York’s Little Italy—where he grew up—the only difference being “that instead of guns there are contracts, & the knives are in the back, instead of in the chest.”
Though adored by cinéastes & critics, Scorsese has always been an outsider in Hollywood, because his quirky pictures have not always raked in the bucks. GANGS, which had domestically generated $75 million by mid-March, 2003 (& was shot for about $90 million), is on the verge of surpassing his top-grosser, the 1991 remake of CAPE FEAR ($80 million).
Born in Brooklyn on November 19, 1942, Martin was the second child of garment workers Luciano Charles & Catherine Cappa
Scorsese. From age three to about 40, Martin suffered from asthma, so he was kept home as a child, rather than being allowed to play outdoors with other children (or run with the local street gangs). He would spend hours staring out the window of the family apartment on Elizabeth Street, in Lower Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood (which was later the setting for several of his pictures), at the colorful activities swirling around below. “I saw a great deal of physical, emotional & psychological violence—as well as various bodily functions & people having sex—& things like that tend to leave an impression on you,” he has noted.
Scorsese spent lots of time at his local movie palaces, falling in love with cinema—particularly Westerns. When Marty was five, the family got a television, & he was captivated by Friday-night broadcasts of Italian-neo-realist films. “My parents & grandparents, watching in the room with me, were crying, because these people in the movie were speaking the same language as they did,” Scorsese has said. “And I realized: that's me; that's where I come from. There’s no doubt that early on I drifted more toward the European cinema. I was attracted to a style of film-making, a certain kind of truth, that was different from Hollywood’s.”
After attending high school in the Bronx, Martin decided to enter the priesthood & spent a year at a Catholic seminary, before dropping out. While earning a B.A. in English at New York University, he was drawn to its excellent film school, where he was greatly influenced by the cinematic realism of French & Italian New Wave films & the works of American independents like John
Scorsese began making provocative short films of his own, several of which won awards & got into the New York Film Festival. From 1964-1966 he earned a Masters in Film at NYU & then taught film there, where his students included Oliver Stone & Spike Lee. He made some commercials in New York & England, then lensed his first full-length feature, 1968’s WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, starring unknown Harvey
Keitel. It got a limited release & some critical raves, including one from young reviewer Roger Ebert.
Always deeply influenced by music, Martin was an editor &/or assistant director on rock flicks such as WOODSTOCK (1970), MEDICINE BALL CARAVAN (1971) & ELVIS ON TOUR (1972). After being fired after his first week on THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, Scorsese was hired by legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman to direct his 1972 sex- & violence-heavy exploitation flick, BOXCAR BERTHA, starring Barbara Hershey, David Carradine & “Chicken”
Holleman. Cassavetes berated Scorsese for “wasting a year of your life making a piece of shit,” & Marty took these words to heart, vowing to make a film about something that mattered to him.
That became his raw, powerful 1973 classic MEAN STREETS (starring Keitel & then unknown supporting actor Robert De
Niro, who would star in another eight great Scorsese movies). STREETS won Marty a Writers Guild Best Original Screenplay nomination—& put him, De Niro & Keitel on the map.
“I don't particularly care for the shooting process; I like to get into the editing as soon as possible,” Scorsese has confessed. “You come in, day after day & shoot something that you have already planned on paper. Bit improvising with my actors adds a bit of interest to something that would otherwise be unbearable. That's one of the reasons why I like working with Bobby De Niro so much. He'll come onto the set & build the character as he goes along. He's not afraid to take chances, he's extremely inventive & if a character that he's playing looks ugly then he looks ugly—& Bobby's not afraid of that.”
Ellen Burstyn won a Best Actress Oscar for Scorsese’s 1974 ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, his first commercial & critical hit. He topped it two years later with his utterly engrossing drama
TAXI DRIVER, the quintessential statement on crazy loners. Scorsese followed that with his dreadful mega-flop musical, NEW YORK, NEW YORK but bounced back with his great documentary of The Band’s final concert, THE LAST WALTZ, & then topped that with his searing 1980 drama RAGING BULL—which was nominated for eight Oscars (winning Best Actor for Di Niro & Best Editor for Thelma
Schoonmaker). Next followed two strange black comedies, AFTER HOURS & THE KING OF COMEDY, which have remained cult favorites ever since.
To get studio backing for his controversial 1988 Bible epic, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Scorsese agreed to direct his first mainstream
pic, THE COLOR OF MONEY. It cost $10 million, earned $52 million domestically & made Paul Newman the third actor—Daniel Day-Lewis will probably be the fourth, for
GANGS OF NEW YORK—to win the Best Actor Oscar in a Scorsese flick.
LAST TEMPTATION, which daringly sought to humanize Jesus, was nearly shuttered by howling fundamentalist Christians (most of whom hadn’t seen it) & was vilified by many in the media, although it earned Marty a Best Director Oscar nom. Five years earlier, fear of fundamentalists forced Paramount to cancel production of LAST TEMPTATION in mid-shoot, despite Scorsese’s paring the budget to the bone, taking no salary & “promising to make Flashdance II” or anything else the studio wanted, if they would let him finish it.
In 1990—around the time of GOODFELLAS’ critical success & awards bonanza—Steven Spielberg was preparing to shoot a remake of the 1962 thriller CAPE FEAR & Scorsese was getting ready to do
SCHINDLER’S LIST, when they decided to swap projects. Marty felt that a Jewish fellow would do a better job on SCHINDLER’S. (Spielberg took that year’s Best Picture & Best Director Academy Awards, & the film garnered five others too.)
Scorsese took a radical departure with 1993’s white-linen period piece THE
AGE OF INNOCENCE, followed it with 1995’s striking Vegas mob-violence-fest CASINO & then radically changed directions again with 1997’s
KUNDUN, a patient, philosophical epic about how Tibet’s Dalai Lama coped with Chinese government repression. China was so pissed by Disney’s KUNDUN & Sony’s similarly themed SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET that it threatened to stop distributing their films—so both studios hired perennial global diplomatic poseur Henry Kissinger to try & calm the Sino-censors down.
Scorsese’s most recent triumph is the visually stunning
GANGS OF NEW YORK—crowned by the decade’s finest acting turn, by Daniel Day-Lewis—although I found the film way too slow & violent. Moreover, I thought that Leonardo Di Caprio & Carmen Diaz were absolute ciphers as the leads. (Interestingly, Robert Di Niro—infuriated by his nine hours of grilling by French gendarmes, who accused him of consorting with a global hooker ring—had dropped out of the pic early, rather than risk filming in Italy [which is actually quite near to France.])
Although a fraudulent Miramax ad pushing Marty for an Oscar may result in his seventh through ninth consecutive losses, he would certainly get my vote for Best Director. I have not always liked all of his films, but I have loved a whole lot of them—& none of them has ever bored me. They have always offered imaginative overall conceptions, deep character insights, thoughtful consideration of serious issues, great performances & wonderful visuals. Sherry & I salute this 5-foot-3 cinematic giant & wish him the opportunity to create many more magical movies—& the eventual recognition he so richly deserves.
MY SEVEN FAVORITE
MARTIN SCORSESE MOVIES:
2. Raging Bull
3. Taxi Driver
4. The Color of Money
5. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
6. The Last Waltz
7. Mean Streets
© Alan Waldman (4/5/03)