MARTIN SCORSESE WAS IN A coldblooded fury one day last summer because the newspapers kept describing him as a short, sensitive asthmatic. He had a towering, insensitive fit. For laughs. The movie director, age 34, spirals, ratchets, thrusts his chin like Mussolini. A director-friend watched him rocket around the stage for his movie, New York, New York, and the friend was riveted: “Inside, he’s John Wayne. There’s just this part of him that’s seven feet tall, big as a house, and wants to rifle-butt everybody around. ‘He knows better than they do what’s good for them.'”
Scorsese, always invigorated by a lot of yelling, was having a friendly hollering session with his old Armenian pal, Mardik Martin. Scorsese told him: “I wanted to create an aura of being a nasty old bastard who’s got this violent nature.”
Years ago, driving around in his car, the two conceived a corrosive movie, Mean Streets, and this sounded like one of the plots. “He’s tired of hearing all this what he considers nice things about him,” Mardik said. “It’s the guilt thing! He doesn’t see himself as a nice person. He’s got to make it up somehow, and he wants somebody to say something about his craziness, and his outbursts, and his inconsistencies, and his driving people to craziness. ‘Why don’t they write about that? That’s part of me!'”
Mardik Martin giggled. “It’s all bullshit, because he is a nice person.”
A nice person who understands violence and guilt. After all, he was raised on Catholic guilt—a double shot of it, with a garlic chaser.
Martin Scorsese hasn’t minded putting his demons in the public stockade, but he just wanted to have a good time with this film. His movie sets are usually windstorms on Mars, bared teeth and conspiracies behind locked doors. Mean Streets was filmed literally on the run, hiding from Teamsters whose union rates would have killed the movie. While they staged murder scenes for Taxi Driver, real human bodies were getting riddled just around the corner, and Scorsese didn’t know if all these cops were in costume, or on a case, and by that time he couldn’t care. The scum on the streets, the blood on the walls …
No, this would be about his old New York home, all shot “in Hollywood U.S.A… . with costumes … music … could be fun,” he said. Nothing more violent than two ambitious people on the make, a saxophonist (Robert De Niro) and a singer (Liza Minnelli). He gets into hard bop, she gets into the movies. They have a baby, have a fight, make up and break up. Movie ends with a whoopee production number, “Happy Endings.” Scorsese hung two Variety headlines on his office wall: WATCH GUTTER LANGUAGE, BOYS and YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE VIOLENT TO BE A BOX OFFICE SMASH.
An innocent man could drown in the sentimental undercurrents of this picture. A big musical-drama on the Metro lot, bringing a little life to a haunted location. It’s not what it used to be, the MGM lot, once “the Baghdad of filmdom,” as Frank Capra called it. The famous back-lot next door, which once helped churn out 50 films a year, was sold off to investors. The Waterloo train station molders in the sunlight, and tumbleweeds roll down the “New York Street.” One day last summer, Vincente Minnelli returned to the grounds where he once rebuilt the world for Meet Me in St. Louis and Gigi, where he once directed Judy Garland in The Clock, during which they conceived their daughter Liza.
On stage 29, where he once made An American in Paris, the small fretful-looking director found 500 people celebrating victory over Japan on the panoramic Moonlit Terrace, dancing to what appeared to be the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra swinging “The Song of India.”
There was his daughter Liza, rouged and bewigged in the best 1940s MGM look. Then he heard his daughter sing in her new Big Band voice, and two puddles formed in his eyes and he said to a bystander: “Gosh, you know, she looks so much like Judy.”
It was more than a sentimental undercurrent.
It was the fact that Hannah the script girl worked on Touch of Evil, Mel the assistant director could tell you about High Sierra. It was Barry Primus, the band’s pianist and the love story’s Other Man, wearing a border-town smile because the wardrobe department gave him John Garfield’s old suit. It was Jack Haley Sr., Liza’s father-in-law, the Tin Man dragged out of retirement for a cameo role, shrugging off any suggestion of glamour from putting that “metal Tin Man goop” on his face 37 years ago in The Wizard of Oz. It was gravel-voiced Lionel Stander, who in the Thirties was always the insinuating wise guy (“Now I seen everything“), and now he sits in his dressing room testifying that 99% of those movies were antipeople and reactionary, but he likes it here because this Scorsese fellow is a cultured man.
This whole scenario could come from the 1940s MGM story department. Liza Minnelli’s early steps were taken here when she and the other studio brats replayed their parents’ movies between the sound stages. Now she has her own dressing room, the same curvy ocean-liner stateroom that served her mother. Her hair was attended to by a tall, erect gentleman with a three-pointed hankie on his chest, Sydney Guilaroff—who cut Judy Garland’s hair for The Wizard of Oz, who was intimate with Greta Garbo’s scalp since Camille, who ran the styling department in the days when MGM style was the style.
When Liza Minnelli asked Scorsese to please come meet Daddy, the young director’s reaction was to run and wash up. After all, Mr. Minnelli was a man of respect. Then he sat with the wise elder while before them cameraman Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider, Paper Moon) rigged up the time-consuming sliding-camera gymnastics.
“You know,” Mr. Minnelli said easily, “this used to happen constantly. I did a movie called Meet Me in St. Louis, and there was a scene where we had to turn off some lights …”
Scorsese commenced to froth. Yes, yes, the gas-lamp scene, extinguishing them one by one … he recounted the scene’s every frame. “Why, yes,” Mr. Minnelli replied. “That scene took three days to set up, four minutes to shoot.”
Scorsese had to face a vast, humid set packed with jitterbugging soldiers and their dames, and he raced around like his life was parked in a towaway zone. He traded grins and shot out imaginary punch lines to unsaid jokes. He paused. “This is a combination of all those places from movies of the Forties and Fifties. The color, the deco. We called in 100 extras, but it wasn’t enough, so now we’ve got 500. We’re getting familiar with the geography.” He pointed to the camera boom, big as hinged telephone poles, on which he established God’s point of view. “All these shots are moving, so each time we punch into the band, the camera is moving. Like in Woodstock.”
He saw me staring.
“Well, not like Woodstock …”
S CORSES GIVES THE IMPRESSION that all hell could break loose any second. The wallet strapped around his neck looked like a shoulder holster. His alter ego in this picture is Robert De Niro. They are a perfect pair, like Dietrich and von Sternberg, Brando and Kazan. Both have had couch-time in analysis, both go through obsessive examinations of character. Directors often play up an alter-ego character. In 1973, Harvey Keitel was another alter ego, all in religious conflict and Lowereastside disagreement. Mardik Martin agreed that in that movie De Niro and Keitel could have represented both sides of the Scorsese coin: “One is the guilt-ridden nice guy who’s basically a coward. The other is a crazy doer who doesn’t care how he destroys himself.”
It was eventually seen in New York, New York that De Niro borrowed very heavily on Scorsese’s personality to shape the character Jimmy Doyle. The crazy side of Scorsese, the comedian. Doyle, when frustrated, throws tables around the dance hall. Scorsese’s been known to throw telephones around the room. He keeps a couple of breakaway chairs, the kind stuntmen smash over heads, to splatter against his office wall.
When De Niro walked onto the stage, a cloud of tension moved up. His eyes darting like a pair of forked tongues, he slithered into view. Suddenly he was there. Quiet like. He had the bearing of the blood-splattered guy sitting across from you in a subway car, too late at night, half-looking at you, a tilted nonstare.
Here, with Vaselined hair and a semidignified zoot suit, he carried his tenor saxophone to the corner of the sound stage holding the Harlem Club scene. In the dim-bulb darkness, a tall tape machine honked into his face a mad sax solo which he was to mimic in the upcoming jam scene. De Niro flubbed along and finally asked the soundman for a rematch.
All around him the recruitment of Hollywood’s black extras studied him. Ermines and pearls on everyone. De Niro appeared bandylegged, uncomfortable, distracted. Just what’s the big deal? To use an old Howard Hawks expression, the camera loves him. He had a simple scene one day, just standing by the bar and talking into a pay phone, looking at the bandstand. His words weren’t even being recorded. He was just reacting. As the scene was filmed, it looked like a wall full of nothing.
Watching the scene in the next day’s rushes, I saw on his forehead millions of flickering people. The eyebrows, the asides, a scene loaded with stealthy mannerisms.
His work is total immersion, and the fetish for privacy continues on the sound stage. When filming, he’ll clear out whoever’s in his line of sight, or else have a friend stand there. As he practiced in the gloom, one man was watching him who was very impressed that the actor actually learned to play a saxophone. He was Sonny Olvera, the musical coordinator, a spindly, white-haired fellow behind Mr. Peepers glasses who in his 35 years of musicals played drums behind Judy Garland, rode the cranes with Busby Berkeley. Never before had Olvera seen the leading man’s hands being filmed at an instrument.
It was nothing at all like, say, John Garfield in Humoresque, the violinist triumphant at Carnegie Hall, you remember, while Joan Crawford, listening to all that soaring Wagner on the radio, hurls her glass into the fireplace and commits suicide … all this intercut with Garfield weaving and lamenting upon the violin….
Actually, Garfield’s hands were tied behind his back. One man’s arms came out of the darkness to pull the bow, another man hunched behind him and fretted the strings. Garfield just wore a sensitive face.
This shadow play was not necessary here because De Niro went through the migraines of learning a bop solo finger-by-finger, and Sonny Olvera didn’t mind saying that this was a hell of a note.
ROBERT DE NIRO SEEMS TO BE A Dr. Jekyll who shifts into an endless number of Mr. Hydes. He doesn’t imitate people, he stages an Inquisition. Already famous is his work method for The Godfather, Part II, re-creating Brando’s role in the younger version: he constantly replayed a videotape of Brando’s Don Corleone; went to the same dentist for a cheek-stuffing dental plate; went to Corleone, Sicily, and had people read aloud script passages into a tape recorder. With less than a page of English dialogue, he took an Oscar.
Before, as the Italian bike racer in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (“My first big-deal movie,” he said), he blew all his bit-part pay on a trip to Italy, getting the clothes, the accent. He did it so well, everyone thought he was just off the boat and didn’t know English. Didn’t help keep him in gainful employ.
To do the Southern tobacco-chewing ballplayer in Bang the Drum Slowly, he set up in a Georgia town, took his tape recorder into bars and gas stations and got script readings for the old boys. Again for Taxi Driver, he took out a hack license, drove a cab nights and shot off guns by day. He also had 25 Midwestern guys read the script into a tape recorder.
Somewhere in this Inquisition comes the “transformation.” Five days before the start of Taxi Driver, he suddenly lost 15 pounds, was gaunt, moody, an assassin. During The Last Tycoon, he showed up at the producer’s black-tie party, an occasion to normally give him rigor mortis. But now he was in his element, he was the tycoon among his children.
These stories were reprised on New York, New York as he stalked the sidelines during the first two weeks. That was all Liza’s time, for “Happy Endings.” De Niro was holed up in Greta Garbo’s dressing room, practicing. He leaned over Scorsese for advice, endless advice. He was quiet, nervous, forbidding. An assassin. Then one day he breezed through the sound stage in a loud Times Square novelty shirt, chewing gum, hair slicked back, cracking wise. His agent saw him and recognized that De Niro had just “locked in.” Turning to a bystander he said, “There he goes. He’s off. A metamorphosis right in front of us.”
The same guy who coaxed script readings out of Sicilian barflies (who in turn demanded to know why The Godfather wasn’t filmed in their town) wilts when asked questions about his own life.
Scorsese acknowledged De Niro’s self-protective superstitions. “His whole thing is concentration. There could be a war going on, you know, he could be in the middle of the DMZ, and he’ll be like this–[in a trance] ‘Are you ready?’ ‘Huh? Yeah, I’m ready.’ ‘I mean, go, now you go first.’ ‘No, no, after you.’ ‘You sure?’ ‘No, I’m fine.’
“Bobby. It’s incredible, we have a shorthand. We have a longhand too. We talk a great deal. Very often we talk about the same thing over and over.”
When Scorsese stops for a moment’s gab, he gives full attention. It might be gone after a few moments’ automatic fire, but at least he’s there. De Niro seems the opposite. In this hot house of Official Circumstance, anyway. It’s onscreen he has the concentrated eye juice. It keeps your attention riveted with that same distraction in Greta Garbo’s eyes when she turned away after one mad kiss because this love cannot be. In person, De Niro just looks shifty-eyed.
De Niro was raised on 14th Street, and he was vaguely aware of Scorsese and his crowd. (They met officially Christmas Day 1970.) He was the son of an abstract painter, Robert De Niro Sr. (once described by art critic Thomas B. Hess as “tall, saturnine, given to black trench coats, his face as sharp as a switchblade—with a temperament to match…. The theme of Greta Garbo in Anna Christie has run through his oeuvre for decades, in images based on movie stills…”).
An indifferent student, De Niro the younger dropped out of high school at 16 and spent three years in Stella Adler’s acting workshop. This was followed by Brian De Palma’s first feature, The Wedding Party.
“And there were many years of not doing anything,” he once said. “You know, going out on auditions. All that. After that, I didn’t want to act for a while, because … I was afraid that I would get wrapped up in it so much that I wouldn’t have time to do what I wanted, like travel. Travel around Europe, which I did. So I spent a few years doing that, hitchhiking around Europe. Lived in Paris for a while. And then when I came back, I didn’t do anything for a year or two. And then when I was around 24 or 25, I committed, started to look for stuff. Go out on auditions, sent out resumés, the whole thing.”
He kept to the East Coast actor’s life, playing off-Broadway and dinner theaters, avoiding Hollywood because that meant television. Still, in Manhattan, he slipped into Search for Tomorrow.
One night after filming had finished, he finally agreed to talk. We agreed we would get to know each other before committing our intelligence to anything. His studio dressing room was spare, trimmed only with a clock mounted on petrified wood, a record player, a few swing-band albums and a radio playing the news. He wore brown corduroy jeans and a sport shirt. Indicating the couch, he explained that he liked his room simple and didn’t want any posters to get in the way of his concentration. He apologized for all the delays. I said there was always lots to do around the lot.
“Yeah, it’s like high school,” he nodded. “That’s what I think of… the cafeteria, seeing people that you know. I’ve been doing this for some time. Look, do you want a Coke, some coffee? I don’t know how good this coffee is. It’s old. I’ve only got Cremora.”
He had an uncertainty in his manner. He would give a little, then retreat. His neck muscles and face seemed to be flushed, and I realized that he’d just been working out in the gym in preparation for the next picture, in which he’d be prizefighter Jake LaMotta. So I said: You’ve been working out?
He caught this and weaved a little. Headlines flashed before his eyes. “I don’t even want to talk about that,” he complained. “I mean, like, ‘He had just come from the gym …’ I just don’t want to get into that.”
He looked over his coffee cup, nodded toward the door. “We spent a lot of time on this movie, got a lot of material, which I like, because I had a lot to deal with. It was more frenetic….
“I made two movies, The Godfather and the Bertolucci movie , where I was on it like eight months or so, and there was a lot of time spent outdoors, waiting for the weather, with a lot of time to think. But this, it just depended on … it wasn’t waiting on the weather, it just depended on us. If we were ready.”
Bertolucci has a lot of camera work.
“Yeah.” He gave it deep reflection. “Lot of camera work. Not so much … well, he’s all right. Not so much set shots, but dollying in and out, in and around, so you had to do it just right, you had to be right there.”
The Conformist is a favorite.
“Yeah, it’s one of mine too. I like it a lot. Bertolucci is good, he’s good with actors. Like, Kazan is very good with actors—he was an actor at one time. And a lot of young directors really don’t understand actors, how to work with them. They’re into techniques, effects. But Kazan really knows. He’s schooled. He’s–as far as I’m concerned–the best schooling.”
We were slumped in our chairs, feet on the coffee table, and the small talk was easing into the technical. Seemed a good time to ask about pulling out a tape recorder. But he froze. “No, let’s, ah, get to … let’s not. I don’t want to make your job difficult for you. And I don’t want to be conspicuous by my absence. Like, I’m the only one you didn’t talk to.”
We made all kinds of promises. He was good at making promises.
Scorsese is of a generation of moviemakers whose history seems to be composed of the movies they’ve watched. They celebrate other filmmakers’ memories. Especially that old New York crowd. Maybe New Yorkers were the original archivists of filmdom; they live with history in their streets. This was Scorsese’s first chance to use the old film language of photography, editing and the forgotten “Technicolor” shades. No dirty words, no close-ups except for love scenes, and no hand-held camera. This is the first time he had the money to do it.
Scorsese credits the inspiration of John Cassavetes, who in 1960 finished directing a three-year ordeal called Shadows. The show could have been subtitled “We’ll Show Them.” Said Scorsese: “This was the first picture we saw that proved that you could make a film … and keep making film. First, get a camera, and move it.”
That New York film crowd included Brian De Palma, Paul Morrissey, Robert Downey and James McBride. In time, Scorsese would handle lights for the Maysles Brothers; then he’d be camera assistant for John Avildsen; then he’d teach film at New York University, which provided a financial base for his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, which was photographed by Mike Wadleigh, who in turn became the director of Woodstock, which was part-edited by Martin Scorsese.
He lived on Elizabeth Street, in the insular Italian neighborhood just south of Greenwich Village. His mother will point out her window to her birthplace across the street. Here is the son’s influence, the silver-haired woman’s voice that rises with ringing drama, all trumpets and fanfare. She makes regular cameo appearances in Marty’s movies.
Charles Scorsese was a clothes presser with lots of spare afternoons to take his son to the Loew’s Commodore theater. At age six, Martin saw Duel in the Sun. Before each of numberless doctor’s visits for asthma, he got a Classics comic book. Still has them today, wrapped in plastic. They would go to the Paramount and the Strand to see the likes of Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman. He stepped over the Bowery drunks on the way to St. Patrick’s school. Later he took a few steps toward the priesthood, but was given the boot. His hoodlum past. A student at NYU in the Village, he was halfway to becoming an English teacher when the Movie Jones took hold. He and Mardik Martin stayed their ambitions by teaching film there. Scorsese, married and living in Jersey, cooled his heels for two years, doing “Johnny Carson monologues” for his film students. He plotted the plots with Mardik Martin while both the wives were up in arms.
They were so hungry, so ambitious, so crazy with failed film projects that they considered titling a picture This Film Could Save Your Marriage. Instead, Scorsese spent three years filming Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, which was his own diary, and a sketchbook for Mean Streets as well. It starred Harvey Keitel as the repressed Scorsese figure who’s fascinated by a worldly blond, but then smashed to find she’s a virgin. It was The Neighborhood.
While the film now gets art-house screenings, in 1969 he couldn’t sell it to save his soul. Now he knows why. Now he can laugh: “At that time it was all ‘open sexual expression.’ We were talking about repression—we didn’t know what we were saying, aside from expressing personal feelings.”
So well had he chronicled The Neighborhood that maybe now you’ll hear of “Scorsese’s old gang.” Only he was always the guy who arrived after the dust cleared. “It wasn’t my gang. I wasn’t even in the gang. They used to fight the East Side Italians, or the West Side Italians, or whatever. Some guys had ridiculous reasons for actions. One guy always wanted to fly through plate-glass windows. You know—” he clasped his hands like a lawyer “—I just decided that wasn’t in my line of work.”
But he got off on portraying it. When he saw The Wild Bunch in 1969, the slow-motion death finale put him in shock, and he told friends that he fell with each of the 250 federales. He’d already done slow-motion terror in Who’s That Knocking, a guy with a gun scaring people at a party, no shots fired, but faces all frozen: “It gets slower and slower, it goes to 120 frames a second. It gets very violent, and the violence is in slow motion. There’s no dialogue in the scene, it’s only a Ray Barretto song, ‘Watusi,’ which is a very dangerous song. Which is a song I love.
“I get a lot of ideas listening to music. The scene, the idea, is based on something that’s real, but the progression of it came from an old Jan and Dean record.”
Said Mardik Martin: “Marty told me many times that he’s trying to exorcise his conflicts onscreen, visually. Most of his work deals with that, especially Who’s That Knocking, which was like the purest Scorsese. He’s a very logical, straight person, but every once in a while he dreams in nightmares.”
The Big Shave is one such nightmare: six minutes in a clean white bathroom, a man calmly shaving himself into a bloody ruin, finally passing the razor across his throat and opening it completely. All of this is orchestrated to Bunny Berigan’s classic, “I Can’t Get Started with You.” It was intended as a Vietnam allegory, but Scorsese didn’t insert any war footage because, he said then, “I had the choice of being too obvious or too subtle.” That blood was subtle.
His father helped finance another short, It’s Not Just You, Murray, which won awards and got him a mention in Time magazine as a prominent student filmmaker. Mother helped feed the film crew, and is seen on the screen as the woman following her son around with a plate of spaghetti.
Still hustling, he made commercials in Europe, edited CBS News film, and found a temporary home cutting such rock movies as Woodstock and, later, Elvis on Tour. Brought out to Hollywood to rescue the acid-twisted hulk of Medicine Ball Caravan, he tacked on his wall a movie poster that he thought sounded appropriate: Two Weeks in Another Town. But then fate stepped in and messed up the scheme.
He made a quickie potboiler for Roger Corman called Boxcar Bertha, starring David Carradine and Barbara Hershey. The usual Corman stuff: rudely fast. Scorsese rationalized that he liked exploitation pictures.
He was all set to make I Escaped from Devil’s Island, just to keep the ball rolling, when he screened Boxcar for his old pal and mentor, John Cassavetes. He got a sound three-hour Talking To, and was told to reach for the heart. Scorsese dusted off an old script called Season of the Witch and turned it into Mean Streets.
He crammed in everything he’d ever left out of the other plays. “Mean Streets comes from feelings, from myself, my own life in a sense. People are always talking right on the edge of their emotions, always yelling. It’s a way of life. The idea was never to build up to it. Suddenly there’s a fight in the background, there’ll be an explosion between two people, immediately. That’s the way the characters live. That’s the way I am. Somebody’ll throw a pizza slice across the wall….”
While it is an anthem to New York street life, only six frenzied days were filmed there, helped by the neighborhood guys like their safecracker pal Larry the Box. Before hauling back to Hollywood, Scorsese filmed all the streets and hallways he was able: “The best I could do was put the people in the middle of the buildings and let the buildings do all the talking.”
It was not until later, when filming Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore with Ellen Burstyn, that Scorsese had the illumination thrown on his path. Came from Marlon Brando, who saw Mean Streets and figured (as Burstyn had with Alice) that Scorsese would be the director for his Wounded Knee movie. Brando flew to Tucson and found Scorsese working.
Big stuff. Age 11, Scorsese had seen The Wild One, and stepped into an identical black leather jacket. He had also listened continually to the soundtrack of Brando’s Julius Caesar.
Brando wanted to talk about Mean Streets.
Scorsese: “It was the highest compliment: he understood it, he understood the picture. I told him I was shooting a picture [called Italianamerican] on my parents. He looked at me and said, ‘You realize what you’re doing?’ I said yeah. I thought he meant, ‘Do I realize I’m making a picture of my parents?’ Later on I realized he meant something else entirely. He meant looking for an identity, you know, the Italian American. Okay, which is not as crucial as the Blacks, or the American Indian, but it’s still yourself. You die alone.”
Italianamerican, a long beautiful dinner-table revelation, received a standing ovation at the 1974 New York Film Festival, and Mother was there to blow kisses to the crowd. Martin’s been a good son, named his first daughter after her, and called her up at 5 a.m. from France to tell her he won the Cannes Grand Prix for Taxi Driver. When she visits her boy in Beverly Hills, she doesn’t have to cook for the whole film crew anymore; but see here, Bernardo Bertolucci was visiting as she served up her best lasagna. “He said it was delicious,” Kate beamed. “But he liked my linguini better.”
And there on the edge of the New York, New York set were the short nervous parents, ready for their cameo appearance. They’d been to the wardrobe department. Charlie Scorsese got one of Edward G. Robinson’s old suits.
YES, NEW YORK, NEW YORK WAS supposed to be a lot of good, clean fun. Then one day fate stepped in and put the finger on them. While making a movie about an ambitious couple breaking apart over the birth of a baby, Scorsese and De Niro entertained pregnant wives. “We call it Pick-a-Reality,” said wife Julia Cameron Scorsese, who gave waddling lessons to Liza Minnelli. A reporter and a playwright, she also rewrote vast sections of the script and finally had to acknowledge that Liza’s character, Francine Evans, was composed of many parts Julia.
De Niro’s real-life wife, meanwhile, actress Diahann Abbott, had her pregnancy concealed when she put the torch to “Honeysuckle Rose” in the Harlem Club scene.
The Pirandello reality kept shifting as they all hammered Earl Mac Rauch’s script and replaced the wisecracks with some very personal material.
“It’s a story about people thrown together at a certain period of life; very talented and can’t get together,” Scorsese said one worried day in his office. “Because their careers, their drive and ambition is so strong. The career drive is so strong that it just destroys … what’s there. The reality destroys … the baby and the whole thing. It’s a very straight story. It reflects something we’ve all gone through. Very often you go through it all the time. I mean, I have to live at the studio. And that’s difficult because I’m directing the same things!”
He had a condemned man’s last laugh. “It’s more personal than I thought it would be. Maybe it’s just me trying to figure out something about the past, I dunno. Figure out something about the first marriage. Or parents. What was that all about? It’s a hard thing to do, it’s like being on the road and if the wife is doing something else, she’ll disappear for five or six weeks at a time.
“How does that relationship survive? That’s with established people. Imagine with unestablished people who are trying to make it? We’re trying … we’re trying … to analyze it.”
He picked up the intercom and begged the secretary for tissues.
“The movie was a matter of recapturing in my mind a certain thing about the past, my memories of my uncles in uniform. I was born in November of ’42, so I don’t remember any of that. I do remember the music….
“The key to it, and this is strange, was Django Reinhardt. From France. Stéphane Grappelli. One song was probably what made me make the movie. I used to play it over and over again. The song is an improvisation called ‘Love Letters.’ Or, in French, ‘Billets Doux.'”
His face screwed up. “Tissues. Just a minute.” He clawed the intercom again. “There’s tissues out there, aren’t there? Really got to have them, it’s getting embarrassing.” The door crashed open and the secretary, Jamie, handed him a box. He took it and looked at her. “He asked me a few questions and I’m crying.” Loud honk of the nose. “She knows I get hysterical at times.”
Of course, he was nowhere near crying, but the drama livened up the scene. He sat down and tried on a reasonable look. “Really, it’s about … you could take that love story and put it against the background of any time. Any period. It happens to be about big bands because of my fascination over this record. I used to listen to it when I was alone.”
Music has always been a factor to the flow of images in his movies. The first viewings of New York, New York footage were breathless affairs; here was a director who listens to music. Maybe it’s the first movie to see the historical progression of this music, and tell what happened the day the big-band music died and got taken uptown to have the seams let out. The original screenplay even had De Niro end up an R’n’B record producer in 1953, but that was deemed illogical for “the guy who lived only for his horn.”
Because we have here a movie genre respected almost as much as Misunderstood Hoodlum Gets in a Jam, and that’s the Angry Young Man with a Horn (Pete Kelly’s Blues, A Man Called Adam, All the Fine Young Cannibals, Paris Blues). They were nothing like the watery biographies of Dorsey and Goodman, or even the swell Glenn Miller Story, in which Jimmy Stewart takes June Allyson up to a Harlem nightspot and–Aw Shucks–gets up to jam with Louis Armstrong. Conversely, the Headstrong Heel with the Horn never said “shucks”; he only knew that life was a kick in the teeth.
Musicals have lately become Hollywood’s first-class tar pit, with high-priced flops like Star, Hello, Dolly! and At Long Last Love leaving the executives wondering who it was that shelled out those millions for The Sound of Music. United Artists had $8 million riding on this, $2 million over the original budget, and since Scorsese never even had a $2 million budget before, he had a lot to think about when he drove his maroon Lotus to work, the FM rock station on full blast. He has always edited film to music, and Mean Streets was not only shaped along a beautiful rock score, but, he said, the incidents were strung together “in an operatic structure, like a piece of music, the same scenes repeating but more intense each time.” Life in the old neighborhood was best expressed by the Ronettes singing “Be My Baby.” He once remembered: “We used to hear that late at night… echoing in the streets. The music was very important because you can go by and hear the march from Aida, and as you walk by another room you can hear ‘Handy Man,’ and then in another place you can hear Eric Clapton and then in another place you hear old Italian folk songs, and you keep going and there’s Chinese music. Especially in the summertime. It was incredible.”
He had not only the spectrum of music to play with this time (besides the Kander and Ebb originals, even “The Man I Love” gets a shot) but also the subculture of musicians, as he called it. The all-time advice-giver on that was Georgie Auld, a graying, finger-popping hipster with a carnival barker’s voice. Once a big-tone tenor saxophonist behind Basie and Goodman bands, he put De Niro into training, bought him a horn, taught him the scales and a novice version of “Tenderly.” Soon, De Niro had him stick around to orate the finer turns of bop lingo. And, very likely, to be a fine demonstration of the tried-and-true egomaniac musician that fit the Jimmy Doyle description. Auld ended up portraying the bandleader, Frankie Hart.
Another saxophonist was Clarence Clemons, the intimidating-looking player from the Bruce Springsteen Band. He shaved his beard, trimmed his Afro and put on a bulky tan suit that hung on his shoulders like an airplane hangar. They handed him a trumpet, put a gold tooth in his smile. He did not look so intimidating. Had he ever acted before? “Every day of my life,” he grinned.
Scorsese likes the Springsteen band very much. Once, taking time off from shooting Taxi Driver, he and De Niro went to New York’s Bottom Line to catch the group, and watched enthralled as Bruce Springsteen answered the tumultuous encore applause by coming out alone and doing, “You talkin’ to me?“
Sometimes when Liza Minnelli’s prerecorded voice boomed over the sound stage, people swore that certain low notes carried deep silhouettes of Judy.
The royal dressing room was sprayed with red roses and hung with portraits of Liza joined with well-remembered faces. Everybody wore a high-buff smile. These hallowed walls. The bathroom was scattered with makeup. Liza had a cheerful greeting, with a warm, moist hand and a girlish, rubbery voice.
“When this was my mother’s dressing room,” she said, settling on the sofa, “it looked nothing like this. It was kind of pale violet. The only thing I remember real clear was that chandelier. And it gave me suuuum shock.”
She was breathless. I got the idea that she wakes up in the morning all out of breath. She had just been rehearsing. Which I figured had all been finished months ago.
“No,” she said. “Because, what happens, you see, is it changes on you. Suddenly something you thought of before you started working together … is not in character anymore. We only got to rehearse like that two hours a day, and then we decided that wasn’t going to do at all. So we went into these six-, seven-hour sessions.”
That could be intense.
“It is, but with the two of them it’s terribly exciting. Marty does rehearsals on tape, and he takes all the videotape home.”
All seven hours of tape? “
Yeah. So it’s all on tape, the different scenes we’ve rehearsed, and we usually spend up to two or three hours on one scene. You know, because we go crazy, we take it every possible way we can take it. From those tapes he takes the very best moments. And builds the scene.”
That’s a hell of a way to write a script.
“Umm. The most natural, the best, the gems that he considers, like, the inside of a diamond. And from five hours, it’s suddenly like two pages. But it’s all there, all the beats are there.
“Marty’s incredible, isn’t he? And Bobby is so dedicated. Bobby is just…just fabulous. I think he’s addicted to film itself. In rehearsals, man, he opens up and he’s terribly funny. People think that he’s introverted. Whereas, in fact, he’s quiet. He’s intense and he’s very shy. Introverted always somehow means a flaw in one’s character. When somebody’s introverted, that usually means something is wrong with them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Bobby. A great, great deal of talent.
“We’ve been working on this for two and a half years, before Alice, before Godfather II, before Taxi, before anything. I just liked him. I thought, this guy knows what he’s doing.”
The first scripts had not much of a woman’s part.
“I saw the possibility in there, because all those band movies … you never know what she was thinking. You know. It was always June Allyson asleep in a chair in a white ruffled dress while he’s rehearsing. You never saw her say, ‘I was asleep in a chair in a white ruffled dress while you were rehearsing!’
“And I loved those movies. And I knew it would be completely different.” Liza sighed. Quiet poignance is never far from her street surface. “‘specially if he was going to do it. Then I found out his knowledge of music. Astounding. As did my knowledge of music astound him.”
Your voice has changed lately?
“Oh god, yes. I’m always working on it.”
Do you hear echoes of your mother?
“I don’t know.” Her voice drifted at this. Perhaps she counts time after any introduction until her mother is first mentioned. “I hear echoes of Kay Thompson a lot. She taught my mother how to sing. No, Mama’s vibrato was very different. And we sing in a different range.”
Well, in certain notes–
“And sometimes the pronunciation,” she nodded. “I had to learn to sing completely different for this. That was a trip-and-a-half. Holy moley. I had to sing like a band singer. So you go, ah, what’s one of those songs?”
Groping, her hands raised, she gave artificial respiration to a husky patch of song, and threw many sinks and sliders into the phrasing. “‘If a nightingale/Could sing liiiike you/They’d sing much sweeeeter thannn they do/Because you brought a new kind of lo-o-o-ve …’ I’d phrase it like that.”
She fell back on the sofa, giggling. “I can’t remember how I phrase anymore! They didn’t phrase like that. I wanted it even hipper than that phrasing.”
This time she sang it cuter, with a more definite beat. She danced her head like a marionette.
“They all, like, had strings through their heads. Didn’t care about a thing. Up there, the words meant nothing. That was the hardest thing for me to learn. Just hit the notes and sing the song and smile a lot. I couldn’t sing at all when I first started. I suddenly thought, ‘My Lord, I’ve gotten by so much just whacking my arms around and strutting away.’ You know, to just do nothing but sing like a good jazz singer is hard.”
I had a confession to make. When I saw the assembled footage of her big “Happy Endings” finale, the mirrored staircase, Liza as the usherette turned star, smiling like a duckling, well, this hard-boiled Joe got a little lumpy.
Liza’s eyeballs filled like billowing sails. “Isn’t that funny? I got lumpy too, and it’s me. It looked like somebody else! And I think what a frightful day that was, the terror of running up and down the steps, the hair … and Marty’s on the crane, on top of the big staircase two people who are—I shouldn’t even be up in this chair, that’s how scared I am of heights … and Marty too! We’re both terrified! Terrified, but laughing about it because we know we’re both terrified. And there’s thousands of people and I keep falling apart and the wig keeps dropping and they keep having to haul me back into the dressing room, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, did they go through this all the time?’ And Marty’s up there and Marty looks at me, like, ‘All this is for us?‘ It’s like kids, you know?
“… And then you look at it, and it looks so easy, you look so glamorous and pretty.” Her voice scaled the heavens. “It’s the kind of movie, when you’re a kid you’d say, ‘Oh, I wish that was me.’ And I was sitting in the screening room wishing it was me! So I guess it has to be.”
After composing herself, she dragged herself out of the couch and moved off for more rehearsals.
OVERWORKED, OVERREHEARSED Martin Scorsese stood outside his cubicle with a damp towel around his neck to help ward off the nausea. These “cubicles” were portable dressing rooms, trucked from stage to stage like Johnny-on-the-Spots.
“We stayed here at the studio all last night,” he said. “And this place gets spooky at night. Funny, my assistant, last night he pulls out his. 45, starts pulling it apart. I said, ‘No, no, I’ve already seen that movie!'”
To escape the carpenters hammering, he went inside the shell. There was the assistant, Steve Prince, a wiry New York street kid with sunken eyes and a past so long and terrible that Scorsese was already planning a documentary on him. He had already played Andy, the gun pusher in Taxi Driver. He played it from memory.
The director collapsed into a chair and looked at Prince. “We don’t have a gun in this picture, is that right? Something must be wrong.”
Prince quickly fanned the script binder, the size of a telephone directory. “You’re right, there’s no guns in it. And, speaking of–” He whipped out a gun store’s price list and gazed at it lovingly.
“This kid,” Scorsese sighed, “he’s got an arsenal. A gun’s no use, unless … you’re going to shoot something. You shoot it. You’re going to have it around, polish it, what?”
“Never point your gun at someone,” Prince clucked in a Yiddish accent, “unless you plan to shoot them.”
“Yah,” Scorsese snorted at the Walter Brennan line. “My Darling Clementine.” He leaned back. He was pale.
Liza Minnelli knocked on the door and checked in. She said she could use some sleep. They stared at each other dully, and said together, “Sleep. You remember what sleep was.”
“I’m supposed to be upset for this scene,” Liza said. “Should I get upset now, or when I’m dressing?”
Another blast of hammering from the Harlem set shook the walls. Scorsese looked at the door. “I feel guilty in here, not doing anything.”
Prince kept fumbling with the massive script book. Scorsese stared accusingly: “Why is that so big?” “I save every page,” Prince said.
“Actually, these are all ideas for my scene.”
Scorsese sagged from the fresh thorns in his crown. “This kid, he’s a monster.”
Let’s revive an old Mel Brooks joke in order to explain the Scorsese Complex. The difference between New York and Los Angeles is this: in L.A. you’re sure that some maniac could come up to you on the street and for no reason at all blow your brains out; in New York, a maniac could blow your brains out, but he’d have a reason.
Okay, Scorsese is a violent scatter-bomb, but he has his reasons, maniac concentration. He leans over the makeup girl’s shoulder because he has to know every shade of lipstick on hand. He was telling me once about the time he almost halted filming Taxi Driver unless the front-office executives got off his back: “You’ve got to love something enough to kill it.”
It’s an energy field that makes him special to actors, and also tears his fragile system apart. His tubes run wild with Maalox. He’s the guy who confounds his friends by suddenly begging them to tell that funny story they told him only 12 years ago. He’s the guy who suddenly scolds his parents for the time they told him he was going to the circus but instead took him for a tonsillectomy. He was all of four years old. (His father now marvels: “All he remembers is a white uniform coming up and taking him by the hand and taking him up there.” Mother pipes up: “He was very mad! He told me not long ago.”)
His obsession with heritage and form helps make real the improvisational acting. Too often this kind of acting is lost in a formless jumble. Hence, dishwater. Scorsese provides the storyboards for the pictures, and psychological details for De Niro, who seeks his every attention.
When a film student claimed that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was on the edge of soap opera, he replied: “We were dealing with … our own emotions. A lot of people’s lives are soap operas; mine is anyway.”
“He’s got a lot of guts,” one old friend said, “he’ll take any chance in the world. He’s not out there making a pitch to the audience to really love him. He’ll not always show himself to be a nice guy.”
No, indeed. Public crucifixion doesn’t guarantee understanding. Once we talked about the risks Brando took in Last Tango in Paris. Scorsese erupted, “You gotta dare to the point of being wrong. And you’ve got to also make yourself do rotten things and say, ‘Yeah, this is the terrible part of me, it’s awful and I’m really a rat.’ And then say, ‘Yes, but there’s another aspect too.'”
Just look at the roles he has played in his own movies. He played the hitman in Mean Streets, and his part in Taxi was a last-minute replacement for ailing George Memmoli, but surely it was tailor-made for the director: as the scrungy taxi passenger, he has driver De Niro stop the cab and look at his wife’s lurid silhouette up against a window, undressing “for a nigger.” He wonders about the damage he could do to her with a .44 magnum. So he plants the gun in the potential assassin’s mind. The everwonderful .44 magnum. (Taxi Driver‘s huge success triggered monster sales of that piece in Rome.)
“When you decide to do a picture like that,” Scorsese said later, “you’re going to have to go all the way. It’s a picture of yourself up there and if they don’t like it, they don’t like you. You think maybe by doing it you will have worked it out of your system.
“There’s other things in it too, religious things. Lots, lots of me in it. That’s why I stayed with the picture for so many years. I finally got it made. We had no idea it was going to make money.”
It made $20 million or so, and has signs of being a movie to be released repeatedly.
The movie’s script came from Paul Schrader, who, a few years ago, lying in a hospital bed ravaged by ulcer pains after too many months of living on booze and allnight porno movies, was influenced by two world events: Harry Chapin’s hit song, “Taxi,” and Arthur Bremer shooting George Wallace. It all added up.
So when violence erupts, there’s a reason. The blood is as important as Mama’s pasta sauce, or the sacred blood of the lamb. Nearly every movie has a crucifixion scene, a bloody payoff, a purge. Boxcar Bertha ends with David Carradine literally crucified on a boxcar. While Taxi Driver was a study of loneliness and ruined macho, “what’s really important,” Scorsese said, “is the release, the blood sacrifice he goes through.”
He kept calling it Daily News violence.
“That’s the way I see things happening today, that’s the way life is projected, the media is projected so quickly, everything goes so fast. It’s a kind of madness … I think nobody knows the cause of it. Open up the papers and you read three people killed in a shoot-out. Or, what happened yesterday? One guy was killed, two kids were fighting–one father ran over, the other father shot him–dead. Obviously, thousands of things were going on in his head, histories of everybody around him, relationships. You can make a thousand movies on one incident. What some people would say are third-rate movies. I don’t believe they’re third-rate movies.”
Robert De Niro also got the cold clutch from the script. “Bobby had once wanted to write an assassination story some years ago,” Paul Schrader told Film Comment. “It was about a kid who carried a gun around New York. He was lonely. He fantasized about using it. He used to go to the U.N. and sit there with a gun, trying to imagine killing any number of diplomats. Bobby said he was never able to write that script, but when he read Taxi Driver, he saw all the things he wanted to do with it.”
Schrader told him that the gun represented his yet-unexplored acting talent.
HIS PORTRAYALS OF UNCONTROLLABLE thugs were real enough, so that when De Niro addressed the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College one evening in April, the film students had to know about the violence of it all. It goes with the territory. All over Los Angeles, movie folks entertain the college film students. Actors are inevitably questioned about the directors, and the directors are questioned about the actors.
De Niro sat on a high chair with moderator Gary Shusett and fielded questions. Questions about gore. How, he was asked, did he detune from all that violence? How do you get your energy back down again? Do you worry about not being able to come back down? (“Don’t worry, I’m coming back.”) Were you afraid while shooting Taxi Driver? When you got shot in the neck in Mean Streets, how did your energy keep up? Do you feel Travis Bickle should have taken at least one shot at the candidate? Didja get nervous in the gun scene?
These questions were deflected, but fledgling actors— the more serious ones—stood in the aisles and asked other questions. They wanted to crawl inside De Niro’s head. How, for instance, did he show paternal feelings in Godfather II? With his eyes?
“I dunno … I just think it. The main thing in acting is not to show, not indicate, because people don’t indicate. Like, I know I run into people who had tragic things happen in their life. Their wife was raped and murdered and so on. And they tell me the story, they tell it flat, no drama, no retching, no nothing. You see the scene on television and right away the tears start coming. And that’s not the way it is.”
The lights were doused for two Taxi Driver excerpts. The first showed Travis Bickle practicing his fast draw in the mirror. Scorsese once explained that he always liked characters who talked into mirrors. When he told De Niro to do this, the director, on the floor wearing earphones, couldn’t hear and kept asking for repeats. De Niro, thinking Scorsese wanted something different, did variants on “You talkin’ to me? You talking to me?”
You’d never guess all that hoopla to see the scene. The next clip showed De Niro disguising his nervousness before Cybill Shepherd with a superior attitude. The theater lights returned and De Niro reacted. “Zeroing in on her… like, I run into people sometimes who come up to me and they’re really intense, they say, ‘Hey.’ They have some personal thing they’re gonna tell me. They identify, almost, with me, and I thought it’s eerie. Some people do this very strange, and I thought it was appropriate for him [Travis Bickle]. Also, an incident someone close to me went through with a guy just like this character. He would write 20-or 30-page letters, and she told me all about what he was like, and certain things he did. I tried to put that in that scene.”
Directors he’d like to work with?
“I haven’t seen any of this director Fassbinder, but I’m curious. There are others, I can’t think who. Stanley Kubrick. [Applause.] Ah, who else? Truffaut.”
Does he watch films, who does he like?
“I haven’t been watching many films lately. I like Richard Dreyfuss. Who else? I can’t think, offhand.”
Who was his idol when growing up?
“I don’t know if he was an idol, but I liked Montgomery Clift a lot. He was a very good actor.”
What was his reaction upon first seeing Taxi Driver?
“Well, it’s revulsion, usually. No … I think of all the terrible things that I did. It’s hard. I’m so used to seeing myself that now when I watch rushes, I cringe at things. But I sit through it, and just because I know I have to sit through it, I’ll learn something. When I saw it the first time, I felt terrible. First of all, leave the screening room right away.”
He was asked if he ever thought that he would be a superstar.
“That’s odd, because there’s a part of me that can never believe it can happen; and there’s another part of me that says it’s—and I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac—but that’s the way it should be. It’s like, it’s the reality you accept. But I could easily accept the other reality. I don’t know. I’m happy the way it should be. I don’t know but what you know.”
One persistent fellow, already snubbed once with his question, made his way to the microphone. He wanted to know about the Scorsese character in Taxi Driver, did he actually kill his wife?
“I… I…” De Niro faltered. “That’s obviously never resolved. But I think that’s part of the coloring he wanted to show of New York City, the craziness of the city. It didn’t necessarily have to be resolved, I guess. A guy gets out of the cab, and that’s the end of it. Unless you read about it in the Daily News.”
NINE WEEKS GONE: New York, New York was supposed to be half-finished after nine weeks, so a big studio party was held for the crew and the families to show some rough footage of the grandest production numbers. It was a Friday night to relax. Liza and Vincente Minnelli walked in, both wearing canary yellow and the same tentative muckle-mouth expression. There was George Cukor, director of Born Yesterday, Camille and all those movies Scorsese had shot into his veins. Maybe portions of the footage here could be traced to Cukor’s fine 1954 version of A Star Is Born. Whatever, the musical extravaganzas in the movie-within-the-movie were so accurate that for a moment I thought it might be a sendup of the time when movies turned into Velveeta cheese. (It was mostly excised in the final cut.)
Liza was triumphant, and when the lights turned up in the little theater, you never heard such eye-rinsing applause in your life. Some people who’d worked this studio most of their lives stood up, dried their faces and clapped like sea gulls. But Scorsese wasn’t even there, having been up for 36 straight hours, filming and then cutting with his editor, Irving Lerner. All this for a party.
The crowd rushed down the metal stairs, heading for the party in the MGM commissary, and there in the drafty corridor ran smack into Scorsese, flanked by his wife and aides. After a night’s worth of screaming, and bleached with sad resignation, he faced society. He looked like a Christian heading for the chopping block, offering faint smiles of recognition as he walked the gauntlet. A whirlpool of people surrounded him and slapped his back. George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli moved to embrace him and offer firm-handed congratulation.
Three small men. The two elders led him inside for a toast. He still faced another 14 weeks of shooting.
“It all hit me,” Scorsese said months later, over salad in his office. “What I was doing, the concept of what I was doing. I had been nine weeks shooting. I realized we usually finished shooting a picture by nine, ten weeks. Not that the schedule bothered me, it was the amount of work yet to go that bothered me. Were we going to be able to keep up the energy, keep up the level, not to be scared? Will you settle for things instead of pushing further? When you start pushing further, then you start pushing into each other’s egos, personalities… .”
His worried grimace faded into a grin. “That’s when things start to spark, and then things come out. That’s what had to be kept going. That’s what scared me. Then I thought, ‘These guys are seeing the rushes!'”
He seemed more relaxed with himself. It might even be said that he had it in the bag. Maybe he wasn’t a Pantheon Director, but at least you detect patterns. Even his asthma was nearly under control. He agreed it was still eerie to be recognized by his old director-idols, like Billy Wilder and King Vidor….
“When they talk to you, guys like that whose movies you went to see as a kid, whose films you studied … when they’re telling you good things about your work, it kinda flies over your eyes this way. You’re just fascinated, and very often it’s hard to retain what they say.
“Cukor I admire so much. The pacing. I was worried that night, I was telling him, ‘I don’t know, I see how you guys used to shoot, and shoot master shots, and get your pacing down, the rhythm and the pacing—‘” Scorsese adopted a prim, scolding voice: “He says to me, ‘Oh you have your pacing, don’t worry about it.'” He laughed loudly. “Cukor’s given me a lot of encouragement, seen a lot of the footage.”
At this stretch, Scorsese was living at the studio, going home on weekends. He was trying to make sense of three pictures shot in 1976. Two weekends were spent on the Steve Prince documentary, which his wife Julia scripted. Then he took his crew to San Francisco to direct a movie of the Band’s final concert/all-star jam, The Last Waltz, which promises finally to be a visual recording of rock to match the sound recording. It was a super session on both sides of the camera, with seven cinematographers (including Mike Chapman, Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond and David Meyers) all shooting 35mm Panavision.
He did this one “just for my own regeneration, to get things back moving.”
It also meant enough moving pictures flying through his head to paralyze any six eyeballs, as all three movies were being cut at once. His editing periods always seem to be at once rejuvenating and traumatic. His editor, Irving Lerner, died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve, 1976. He was 67. The occasion drove home memories of Bernard Herrmann, the legendary film composer who finished recording the score for Taxi Driver and returned to his hotel room and died on Christmas Eve, 1975.
Scorsese sat in his office hung with movie posters.
“You wake up, it’s like being in prison. Kind of a nice prison. The couch is nice and soft, the rooms are painted nicely now. You wake up, have some sort of breakfast, you go wash, shower and shave. They tell you when they’re ready for you. Because my best hours for working are usually from nine o’clock until three in the morning. For me. So that just means that you’re here. It’s just one long day, from Monday till Friday, there’s no driving back home. At five o’clock, six o’clock a.m., you just stumble over the dressing room and fall asleep.”
He looked down at his desk. “You’ll have to excuse these salads. I’ve been living on these salads. They’re disgusting.”
The Last Waltz gave Scorsese a fatal taste of real theater. He had art director Boris Leven (who, after all, won an Oscar for West Side Story) rearrange the Winterland stage to look like Gone with the Wind, using some of the original pieces. “When the kids came, they applauded the set! Soon as they walked in.”
The smell of the crowd was enough to make him accept Liza Minnelli’s offer to direct her in his first stage musical-drama, tentatively titled In Person, this summer. He acknowledged that her character would almost be an extension of her New York, New York persona, a singer coping with success.
The Jake LaMotta prizefight movie with De Niro was suddenly thought of as a play as well, and De Niro had already built up neck muscles the size of goiters. De Niro would once again play a Vietnam veteran this summer in The Deer Hunter. (Remember the way Frank Sinatra, a nonsoldier, made a career out of Army pictures?) Scorsese was sitting on the hot burner and had offers from every shoeshine boy who owned a script. He planned The Gangs of New York, about the birth of the Brooklyn underworld, 1820 to 1865; and then To Forget Palermo, about a crazy Sicilian politician who comes to terms with a fair-haired WASP woman magazine writer, a subject so foreign that fair-haired wife Julia was already working on it …
… and Jesus he’d like to do a movie about a real Catholic saint; or the final chapter of the Mean Streets trilogy; and he wants to do a Biblical movie, but he can’t think of the music. It’s the key. Once he hears the music, he’ll see the picture.