Martin Scorsese’s Cinema of Obsessions

“No doubt I’ll always be interested in underworld sto­ries. But no cutesy films about mama’s pas­ta and people getting married. I can’t stand that.”


GoodFellas: Blood and Pasta

Martin Scorsese is a small, fragile man in a pressed, custom-tailored suit and immaculately polished soft Italian shoes. Now that he’s shaved off his beard, his eyebrows seem even more imposing. They’re the first thing you notice about his face, before you catch the flight-or-fight expression in his eyes.

At 48, Scorsese is an anomaly among contemporary film directors. For 20 years, he has managed to make utterly personal, deeply autobiographical movies that are bankrolled by the film industry. He’s both an art-film director — the American equiva­lent of a Buñuel or Truffaut — and a “play­er” in Hollywood. Because his films deal with urban culture in knowing detail, and because their vocabulary is based in Holly­wood, their effect on American audiences is something no “foreign” film can achieve. Scorsese does not make homages to Ameri­can cinema. Rather, he shapes its syntax to his own experience.

His latest film, GoodFellas, is also his largest, budgeted at about $25 million. Whether or not it’s a commercial success, there’s a sense within the industry that Scorsese has been elevated to the ranks of the untouchables. The failure of any single film would no longer prevent him from getting others off the ground. Scorsese doesn’t agree. He’s as anxious as ever. “I just keep hoping,” he says with a nervously flashed smile, “I get to make the pictures I want to make.”

In his tiny apartment with a wide-screen view of Central Park, Scorsese keeps an Eames chair right up against the floor-to-­ceiling windows. This is one of the places where he takes phone calls and watches old movies: 900 feet above the street. Scorsese is a man who knows the edge. His elegant image is self-conscious, if not self-mocking (which is not to say he doesn’t get a kick out of it). He’s incapable of hiding the extreme shyness that might motivate his will to power. In a dark (most likely Ar­mani) suit and nattily knotted silk tie, he looks like a proud child actor playing the part of a Sicilian grandee.

As seemingly dissimilar as Scorsese is from Henry Hill, the protagonist of Good­Fellas, the director points to one parallel between them. “Henry says that as far back as he can remember he wanted to be a gangster. From the moment I enrolled in NYU film school, I knew I wanted to be a director. Within a year I was planning my first feature.” There is another similarity: like Henry, who first appears in the film as a child, Scorsese has always been intensely aware of the privilege and violence of “wiseguys.” At a press conference for the film, the director is asked how he can look at these mobsters with such a nonjudgmen­tal eye. “It’s what I thought about these people when I was eight,” Scorsese replies. But unlike Henry, he was too sickly as a child to be one of them.

In Little Italy, where he spent much of his childhood, Scorsese led a sheltered life. Asthmatic from the age of three (he carries an atomizer and uses it frequently), he was barred from the obvious routes to becoming a somebody on Elizabeth Street, ex­empted from the male rites fetishized in his films. “On my block, people took games seriously,” Scorsese recently recalled. “They had bets going on them. If a kid dropped the ball, they could get very mad. I wasn’t good at sports; they became anathe­ma to me.” He spent a lot of time in church and going to the movies with his father. “Having asthma, I was often taken to movies because they didn’t know what else to do with me.”

One of the movies Scorsese remembers “being hypnotized by” as a boy was Mi­chael Powell’s The Red Shoes. He says he was drawn to the hysteria and elegance of the picture as well as its characters: to the impresario, with his “cruelty, beauty, and self-hatred”; to the choreographer “who spoke his lines the way he danced”; and to the ballerina (Moira Shearer) who, like Christ in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, is torn between her special calling and her desire for a sexual and familial life. At the climax of The Red Shoes, the balleri­na, desperately attempting a reunion with her lover, hurls herself down a flight of stairs above the Cote d’Azur railroad sta­tion, loses her balance on the parapet, and falls to her death on the tracks below. Im­bedded in Scorsese’s memory bank — along with Jennifer Jones’s bleeding hands at the end of Duel in the Sun — is the close-up of Shearer’s broken feet, white tights stained as red as her shoes. For what it’s worth: The director who does business from a chair placed at a dizzying height is phobic about flying.

Ambivalence is central to his style. Scor­sese’s Italian-American trilogy — Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and now GoodFellas­ — mixes anthropology with psychodrama, re­vulsion with empathy, from the perspective of an insider who was also an outsider. Mean Streets is the most overtly autobio­graphical film. (“It was about my friends and myself and about trying to break away.”) Raging Bull is the story of a man who gains fame and fortune by brutalizing others legally. GoodFellas is about the guys who take the other route, becoming gang­sters so they won’t have to stand in line to buy bread. At once a depiction and a critique of upward mobility, the films have elevated their director’s status, even on the street. Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the script for GoodFellas, based on his best­seller, Wise Guys, says that Mean Streets is the favorite film of the gangsters he interviewed.

On Sullivan Street, where I do my laun­dry, the guys in the candy store watch The Godfather on videotape, on a daily basis. Mean Streets isn’t part of their repertoire. When I mention Sullivan Street to Scor­sese, he snorts: “That’s compromised. It’s the Village! People reciting poetry in coffee shops.” Further east, where he grew up, (and where he says “the last bastion is Mul­berry Street”), the guys who live like Scor­sese characters might fixate on seeing their daily rituals set to golden oldies and depict­ed in such florid detail. They might dis­avow the mocking critique of male vio­lence, the comedy of male excess and female domesticity. Outside the subculture, it’s possible to miss both the unsparing ac­curacy and the anguish, to see these films as urban exotica — a celebration of blood and pasta. In any event, what makes Scorsese attractive to the industry, besides the unde­niable skill and economy of his filmmaking, is that the critique doesn’t obliterate the blood. “Violence is a form of expression,” he says curtly. “It’s how people live.”

As Scorsese tells it, Warner Bros. liked GoodFellas so much that they considered giving it a mass release. “Deep down, I knew it wasn’t that kind of picture,” he says. But Warner decided to test their hunch at a sneak preview in plush Sherman Oaks. “People got so angry that they stormed out of the theater. They thought it was an outrage that I had made these peo­ple so attractive.” Indeed, what attracted him to Pileggi’s book was its matter-of-fact, even affectionate attitude toward outra­geous behavior. He enjoys the wiseguys for their energy and single-mindedness, howev­er murderous, while debunking their mys­tique. “I liked the everyday banality of it. Daily life in the Mafia on the lower eche­lons as opposed to the bosses of crime fam­ilies. The real worker bees. Coming from an area where that was part of the life-style, I also found it very funny. They are human beings, human beings have a sense of hu­mor, and the humor is more extreme among people living an extreme life.” (Or, as Freud put it: criminals and humorists “compel our interest by the narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from the ego anything that would diminish it.”)

What blew them away in Sherman Oaks was not just the sight of Joe Pesci hacking away at a half-dead, flayed open body; it was Tony Bennett on the soundtrack, launching into “Rags to Riches” as the last blow is struck. GoodFellas mixes comedy and melodrama into a rock ’n’ roll Grand Guignol, further complicating its point of view. “I never intended to make a straight genre film,” Scorsese says. “My films never go from A to B to C.” Rather than fitting emotions into a conventional dramatic structure, Scorsese allows emotional change to shape the picture. GoodFellas has an astonishingly peculiar shape. It starts with an hour-long roller coaster ride that winds up exactly where it began. Then there’s a relentless downhill slide climaxing with frantic depiction of a coke-soaked day in which everything Henry has to keep track of — stirring the sauce, delivering the guns, cutting the coke, avoiding the helicopter — has equally absurd value. Finally there’s a grim denouement of betrayal and revenge: the music fades but the killing continues. As the film relinquishes its breathless pace, the viewer begins to feel the nausea and disgust that sheer kinetic involvement had masked.

Scorsese’s ebullient editing — that sense of being on a roll, of a process taking you over, so that you keep being surprised by what you’re seeing — is one with the experi­ence of his characters. “I wanted GoodFel­las to move as fast as a trailer or the open­ing of Jules and Jim and to go on like that for two hours.” Speed dominates other as­pects of his filmmaking as well. “On film,” he says, “it looks better if the actors do it twice as fast.”

But the power of Scorsese’s films is not merely kinetic; it’s visceral. His earliest memories of movies are seeped in blood and he remains fascinated by images of what violence does to the body. In Good­Fellas, the most brutal murders are shown not once, but twice, so that we see the act not only within the flow of the narrative but as a fetishistic spectacle that stops the narrative cold. It isn’t a laughing matter the second time around. In the end, violence is the means by which he shows us that the body bleeds — to death. And male identity cuts two ways: It’s not only the capacity to inflict pain, but also to withstand suffering. “I enjoyed making those little images of the bleeding heart,” he once said about The Last Temptation. “I enjoyed probing the wounds.”

His anxieties notwithstanding, Scorsese clearly relishes being in business with the studios. Another layer is imposed on the kid and the artist — the serious but streetwise businessman. It’s a persona he’s still trying on. “I want to be a player,” Scorsese says. “To be a player in Holly­wood, you have to take a lot of bruising.”

An enthusiast with an immense store of knowledge, talking film with dazzling fluen­cy, he can’t help but impress the dealmak­ers. Although he has never produced a megahit, Scorsese has, during the past five years, cut deals with most of the major studios. “What they all want, of course, is another Taxi Driver.” His subsequent films were hardly that. Even a critical success like Raging Bull was not a big money-maker, while New York, New York, and The King of Comedy were regarded as “difficult.” Given the uneven progress of his career in the early ’80s, it’s remarkable how secure Scorsese’s position now appears. It’s not all mystique: the box-office success of The Col­or of Money (his least personal film) proba­bly made GoodFellas possible.

There’s no doubt, however, that his for­tunes improved after he became a client of Michael Ovitz, the agent frequently labeled the most powerful man in Hollywood. Scor­sese had been trying unsuccessfully for 10 years to make The Last Temptation of Christ; within three months of signing with Ovitz in 1987, he was in production.

Although most of Scorsese’s films have been studio-financed, they don’t go through the usual in-house process of development and packaging. How exactly does an auteur from Little Italy convince a bunch of corpo­rate executives whose primary responsibil­ity is to their shareholders to hand over $25 million for a film about gangsters that hard­ly conforms to the rules of the genre?

“You don’t lie to them,” he says directly. “They’ve got to respect your work so they know you’re not just coming in there to make fools of them or take their money. And they’ve also got to like the script, al­though they never fully understand what it is until they see it. So they give attention to other things like the casting — they had sev­eral suggestions which fortunately didn’t pan out because I knew from the beginning that I wanted Ray Liotta to play Henry Hill. Mike Ovitz was helpful in protecting the work and working it out so that the studio and I each got what we wanted. We’re not talking about a blockbuster. We’re talking about something which, if handled properly, can make some money.”

Scorsese hadn’t thought there was a part for Robert DeNiro in GoodFellas. “In the pictures where Bob and I work together, he’s in almost every scene.” But when he was having difficulty casting the icy hi-jacker/killer Jimmy Conway, DeNiro sug­gested himself for the part. Neither man will discuss their working relationship. When Scorsese directs DeNiro, absolutely no outsiders are allowed on the set. “When I work with actors like Bob,” he says, “we improvise. We work it out in advance, re­write the scene, and then we shoot it.” Occasionally, the improvisation continues, even while the camera rolls. (When Scorsese played his famous cameo in Taxi Driv­er — “Do you know what a 44-magnum can do to a woman’s pussy?” — the tables were turned and DeNiro directed him. “If it wasn’t for Bob, I don’t know that I could have done it.”) In any event, DeNiro’s presence in GoodFellas encouraged the stu­dio to cough up a few million more dollars.

Scorsese has a gift for getting all kinds of people on his side. It’s not merely that he’s funny, smart, and surprisingly open. He’s at once the surgeon and the patient, a man with awesome skill and authority who evokes in others the desire to protect. His jackhammer speech and gestures erupt out of agonizing self-consciousness. His relief when his passionate grasp of an idea or process overcomes anxiety is palpable. Scorsese’s crew of regulars — writers, producers, assistants, technicians, and even ac­tors, some of whom have worked with him since his first film — are constantly worry­ing about Marty. Is he tired? Is he depressed? Is he doing too much? Not that these aren’t reasonable fears. (Scorsese’s workload at any given moment would tax a person 20 years younger who hadn’t been asthmatic all his life.) But the director’s fragility is also functional: it makes it hard for those around him to separate their in­volvement in the work from their concern about his well-being.

The artist who wants to be a player has one film in pre-production, a remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, with DeNiro in the Robert Mitchum sadistic-killer role. Scor­sese hopes to follow up with an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. He’s also planning a film set in 4th century Byzantium and several other projects with Pileggi. He doesn’t intend the Italian-Amer­ican films to stop at a trilogy. “No doubt I’ll always be interested in underworld sto­ries. But no cutesy films about mama’s pas­ta and people getting married. I can’t stand that. It’s completely fake.”

His enhanced status has opened up other options, like executive producing. The Grifters, adapted from the Jim Thompson novel and directed by Stephen Frears, will be released this fall. He’s also involved in a script by Richard Price to be directed by John McNaughton of Henry… Serial Kill­er fame. “I can’t do the day-by-day produc­tion stuff. I don’t know anything about money. And now that I’ve found out it’s not going to be that artistically satisfying, I have to be careful how much time I appor­tion to it.”

There’s another perk that comes with success as an auteur: Scorsese has become a crusader for film preservation, lobbying the studios, and running a foundation out of his office that locates original materials to be archived. Like the goodfellas who be­come gangsters so they don’t have to stand in line to buy bread, Scorsese can get his hands on any film he has a passion for. He watches movies constantly, though he finds it impossible to look at his own (except for Last Temptation). “That’s what I do,” he says. “Sit here, watch movies and talk on the phone. That’s it.”

He still gives vent to his anxieties about every project. About Cape Fear: He shud­ders to think where he’s going to be in November. He’ll need a pith helmet with netting because mosquitos love him. And he doesn’t know how to make a straight genre picture. He’s never done it. “There are certain rules — how you move the cam­era.” And he wants to have it both ways — ­to make an A-to-B-to-C film, but a bit twisted, like his other pictures. “At the end of Cape Fear, there’s a scene with a boat breaking up. It’s just like a real movie,” he says with mock incredulity. “Like the mov­ies we watch up here. I don’t make real movies like that.”

The notable objects in Scorsese’s mid­town office are a bookcase filled with refer­ence sources essential to a film archivist, and a large desk covered with papers. The walls are cluttered with movie stills, photos, framed strips of 35mm, and posters: East of Eden, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.… Ask him about one or another of his mementos and it’s more than likely he’ll reply with only slightly studied casualness that it’s a gift from this or that studio production head. Tribute to the Sicilian grandee.

Directly behind his desk is a print repro­duction of a Titian altar piece — Jesus on the cross. If Scorsese is in his chair and you are seated directly opposite him, his head appears superimposed on the crucifixion. It’s probably an accident, but the irony of the composition is worthy of his films. Like the man said: players have to take a lot of bruising. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 18, 2020