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Scorsese, Master Of The Rage

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 24, 1991; Page C01

I love the movies -- it's my whole life and that's it. -- Martin Scorsese, 1975

With Martin Scorsese, mellow is a relative term. As always, his voice is pure urban New York, and when he talks, the words still come at you like tiny fists, jabbing the air, punching their way to a point. They're like the images in his films -- explosive, cutting, fevered -- and even when he's relaxed, as he is now on the day before the release of his latest film, "Cape Fear," they connect in lightning-fast combinations.

This is the man who, during the production of 1977's "New York, New York," smashed up so many phones that a repairman was kept on 24-hour call; the man whose friends gave him prop glasses and chairs just so he'd have something else to bust up; the man who kept hundreds of extras waiting on the the set while his therapist tried to glue him back together in his trailer. But something has changed. Sure, the edge is still there, but now it's softer, more relaxed, more confident. The nerve endings don't spit and crackle the way they used to; the Wunderkind frazzle is gone, replaced by something that vaguely resembles calm. Though it sounds strange, perhaps at long last Martin Scorsese has grown up.

That may be the result of staring 50 in the face. Or he may simply be basking in the glow of his last film, "GoodFellas." With "GoodFellas," Scorsese's ship came in. His Mafia movie collected every critic's prize in sight and was nominated for an Academy Award. Just before that, a survey of critics proclaimed his "Raging Bull" (1980) the best movie of the '80s. Everywhere, it seemed, Scorsese was regarded as a master.

What's more, "GoodFellas" proved that he could make his kind of movie and still make money. Now, he's hours away from the opening of his 14th feature, "Cape Fear," which partnered him with Steven Spielberg (who, with Scorsese's old friend Robert De Niro, initiated the project). Spielberg, head of Amblin Entertainment, gave Scorsese $34 million to work with -- by far the largest budget of his career. It also begins a six-year contract with Universal Pictures that gives Scorsese his first real studio home and brings him in from the low-budget cold. For the inveterate New Yorker, the angry outsider, it marks the beginning of a whole new ballgame.

The question is, does this new-found security represent a sort of sell-out? Reportedly, after Spielberg first saw "GoodFellas," he asked the director how much it cost. Scorsese answered "$18 million," to which Spielberg replied, "Great. You keep making those low-budget pictures. That's what you do best."

This kind of through-the-looking-glass thinking can be contagious. Stay too long in Hollywood and you start to think like Hollywood. But if his approach to "Cape Fear" is any example, the old drive to test himself and push the boundaries is still there. "Cape Fear" may be a Hollywood film, but it's also a Scorsese picture.

On "Cape Fear," he worked for the first time in widescreen, hardly the choice of a lazy artist. "The poor actors," he says, chuckling. "We had these old Cinemascope lenses, and to keep everything in focus you have to use a lot of light, and the heat ... my God! At the end of every scene they were drenched. Freddie Francis, the cinematographer, said, 'You realize it's going to get a little toasty.' And I said, 'It's all right,' but in the meanwhile it was so hot I couldn't even get in the room."

When Scorsese first read the script for "Cape Fear" he hated it. But Spielberg and De Niro kept badgering him until he relented. "Before shooting we had, I think, 15 drafts of the script, and by the time we finished we'd probably gone through 15 more." In the end, it was the chance to renew his partnership with De Niro that won him over. "I hadn't worked with Bobby on a role this big for a long time, so that was exciting. He really wanted to play this character {the avenging ex-con Max Cady} and when he's as fully dedicated to a part as he was to this one, you just know that something great might happen."

The possibility of making something great is what keeps Scorsese going. "Taxi Driver" (1975) and "Raging Bull" (1980) notwithstanding, he still doesn't think he's made his "Citizen Kane."

People make movies for a lot of reasons, but Scorsese makes them because he's hooked. His blood runs pure celluloid, and nobody working today has a more visceral personal style or can create more genuine excitement with the sheer mechanics of moviemaking. There's tension and danger in his films, but most of all a profound, joyous love of movies and moviemaking. More than anyone else, he uses his camera as an instrument of passionate play.

As a runty kid growing up on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan's Little Italy, Scorsese wanted to be a priest. But the movies tempted him early, too, around the age of 7 or 8, when Scorsese's parents -- descendants of Sicilian immigrants who both worked in the garment district -- used to take their severely asthmatic son to the pictures with them.

"I became fascinated with the movies then," he says, "both in the theater and on television. Then after a while, when I was about 11 or 12, I began to realize that certain names on a film meant something. You'd see a John Ford or a John Huston picture and there was something different. A John Wayne picture without John Ford, for example, wasn't as interesting as the combination of John Wayne and John Ford. I knew their names even if I didn't know what they did."

He remembers other names, counting them off as if his diary entries were nothing but show times. "Howard Hawks. Minnelli. Kazan. I must have seen 'On the Waterfront' about 20 times. The Italian filmmakers ... De Sica, Rossellini."

He loved the John Ford films, he says, because of their poetry, the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger films because of "their themes and ideas and the audacity of the execution of the style." From Sam Fuller, he learned about "the expression of emotional violence"; from Orson Welles, about lens and camera placement and "a certain brilliance of technique." The same goes for Carol Reed."

The litany is one of passionate immersion. Still, with all these models to draw from, it was John Cassavetes, "my great teacher," who instilled in Scorsese that "filmmaking had to be personal and authentic." From Cassavetes, too, Scorsese drew a subtler, gut belief, one that led him away from the priesthood and into New York University film school.

"Basically, you could be inspired by Welles, you could be inspired by Ford or Powell, but they made a certain kind of film, the studio picture. But Cassavetes was the one who picked up a camera and actually shot in the streets. And if he could do it, he gave you the impression that you could do it. That's a tough thing, because once you pick up the camera and look through the lens ... my God... . and he gave the inspiration to keep going."

That inspiration has carried him through 14 features and 23 years, through "Who's That Knocking at My Door" (1969) and "Mean Streets" (1973) and and "Taxi Driver." It's carried him through the debacle of "New York, New York," through the lean '80s and the commercial failure of "Raging Bull" and "The King of Comedy" (1982), through the arduous controversy surrounding "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) to "GoodFellas" and the triumphant '90s.

There were times along the way when it looked as if Scorsese would self-destruct. In the late '70s, the combination of drugs and insanity surrounding his production of "New York, New York" drove him over the edge. He was strung out, exhausted and suffering from his chronic asthma. In 1978, he landed in the hospital, where his doctor told him that either he'd have to change his life or he was going to die.

The failure of "New York, New York," his attempt to marry the stylized glamour of the Vincent Minnelli musicals with his own brand of inter-personal emotional violence, had been a devasting experience, he says. "I wanted to try a different way of working," he says, "where, for once, everything wasn't set in my head in advance ... to push it to the edge just to see how far I could go."

To pull himself out of the mess, Scorsese threw himself into the production of "Raging Bull." At the time, he was convinced that it would be his last picture, and with nothing to lose he poured everything he knew about movies and all that he'd learned about his own self-destructiveness into it, taking what he called a "kamikaze" approach to filmmaking.

"My thinking at the time," he says, "was just pull out all the stops and then find a new career."

Though "Raging Bull" represented a sort of personal redemption for Scorsese, it sank quickly out of sight at the box office, as did "The King of Comedy," which followed it. Shortly afterward, Barry Diller at Paramount backed out of his commitment to finance "The Last Temptation of Christ" even though the sets had been built and the costumes made. (Scorsese later found out that the shoes for the film were used in the Richard Gere movie "King David.")To ease the blow, the studio offered him a chance to direct "Beverly Hills Cop" (which, at that time, was to star Sylvester Stallone) and "Witness," but Scorsese turned them down, deciding instead to return to New York and independent filmmaking to work fast and loose on a low-budget project called "After Hours" (1985).

"It was like doing penance," he says, laughing. "I shot it in 40 days, which was like 40 days in the desert, fasting. Forty days -- that is, 40 nights! -- in downtown New York. I just wanted to see if I still had the energy to work that fast."

When it bombed, Scorsese's career hit its lowest ebb. Some of the ground was made up with "Color of Money" (1986), which he describes as his attempt to impersonate the Hollywood studio directors of the past. "They had a certain kind of picture assigned to them and they had to make it. That's what I tried to do."

"The Last Temptation of Christ" was a different matter altogether. Based on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, it was a picture he'd been trying to make for 15 years. When it was finally released, its merits were obscured by the avalanche of protest from outraged religious groups. The film isn't perfect; even Scorsese acknowledges that. It was made too quickly and with too little money. (Imagine making a religious epic for $7 million.) Still, perhaps no other movie since "Mean Streets" came so directly out of the center of his talent.

"I look back at the film now as a kind of work in progress," Scorsese says. "It was shot so quickly and we had to rush it out so fast that I never really had the time to finish it. I don't mind that, though. There was this priest who had an Indian rug hanging behind him. He said, 'You like the rug.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'It's made by Hopi Indians. They always leave a few stitches open to let the soul come through.' With 'The Last Temptation' there's a lot of soul."

He admits that he may gotten a little carried away in places -- "particularly with the Catholic iconography. It's 2 hours and 46 minutes long ... that's a lot. But why compromise? I felt the same way about 'Taxi Driver.' If you're going to make that kind of movie, a labor of love, for very little money, what's the sense of going half-way?

" 'New York, New York' {was} a different situation. I was dissatisfied with the film. Though it has some nice things in it, it could have been better if I had been more disciplined at the time. But what the hell, why pull back on a film that you're suffering to make? On every film you suffer, but on some you really suffer. It's not a matter of integrity ... or maybe it is, I don't know. But you think, gee, I wanna make it this way and that's the point. It's important sometimes to take a stand on these things."

In recent years, Scorsese says he has stripped down his life, eliminated a lot of the clutter. In 1985, he married Barbara De Fina, his fourth wife, who since then has worked with him as his producer. Gone are the vampire days, when he blacked out the windows of his house so that the dawn wouldn't interrupt his all-night screening sessions. Gone are the drugs, and even, for the most part, his asthma. He still spends time producing, as he did last year with "The Grifters," and working for film preservation. (He was in town the other day, in fact, to receive a commendation from Congress for his work as co-chairman of the Film Preservation Board, and to celebrate a resolution proclaiming film as an art form.) But mostly, he says, he's cleared everything out for the work.

"You never know how much time you have left," he says. "I'd like to do a number of films. Westerns. Genre pieces. Maybe another film about Italian Americans where they're not gangsters, just to prove that not all Italians are gangsters. I feel the pressure of time, and I've set a sort of furious pace for myself to keep going. Everything in my life is much simpler now. I don't really see many people ... don't really go anywhere either. I may travel to France to pick up an award or something, but actually I've visited almost every country I ever wanted to see. It's the work, now, and almost nothing else."

© 1991 The Washington Post Company