Biographies & Memoirs



IN THE AUTUMN of 1967 I had been a film critic for seven months. I walked into “the submarine,” the long, narrow, dark screening room knocked together out of plywood by the Chicago International Film Festival. I was twenty-five. The festival’s founder, Michael Kutza, was under thirty. Everything was still at the beginning. I saw a movie named I Call First, later to be retitled Who’s That Knocking at My Door. If I was sure of anything, it was that it was the work of a natural director. I wrote a review suggesting he would become “the American Fellini” and a few days later received a call from its director, Martin Scorsese. What I’d seen had started as a short film he made as a student at NYU and then lengthened into a feature on a shoestring. The term “indie” hadn’t come into its present use, and there was no category to assign; Scorsese was another of the children of John Cassavetes who found that you could make your own film in your own way for very little money.

I looked him up not long after when I was in New York. We were the same age but I realized his understanding of movies was much deeper than my own. A daily critic tends to go wide. A director like Scorsese tends to go deep. There would never be a time we met when I didn’t learn something useful and true about the cinema. He was filled with enthusiasm. He had a joy about directing that was much more than simple ambition. He didn’t seem concerned with money. He defined success as being able to make the films he wanted to make. Scorsese was part of that generation that began immediately after Cassavetes and the French New Wave demonstrated that films could be made outside the studio system. They wanted to make the Great American Movie; too soon they were joined by a generation that wanted to make the Great Weekend Hit.

He was slight and filled with energy. He was funny. He was a creature of New York. The first time I went to his house, he was living in a high-rise next to the Russian Tea Room and his living room was jammed with video equipment I had never seen before, allowing him to project on a big screen. Of course there was also a 16 mm projector. To some degree his house was a screening room with sleeping and kitchen accommodations.

That first time we met in New York, he took me to visit his job, as an assistant director and editor on Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock. The footage from Woodstock was being edited by a team headed by Thelma Schoonmaker, later to become the editor of Scorsese’s features, and Walter Murch, a tall young man with a mustache who would later reinvent the strategy of sound design. In a top-floor loft in Soho, reached by a freight elevator, a headquarters had been cobbled together with a skylight and a lot of little rooms off the big one. “You know what picture was cut in this loft?” Scorsese asked me. “They made Greetings in this loft.” That was the De Palma movie with Robert De Niro in his first role. So much was still ahead. The loft was a crazy, jumbled place, with earnest young editors bending over their Kellers. “The Keller Editing Machine,” I was told. “The finest editing machine in the world, and the only one you can use to cut three-screen footage with eight-track synch sound, with thirty-five-millimeter and sixteen-millimeter film on the same machine at the same time.”

There was a stir at the elevator door. Bill Graham, proprietor of the Fillmore East and West rock venues, had arrived. Graham was then the biggest rock promoter in the country. He’d come to see rushes from the movie, rough cuts of acts he managed. Everybody went into the projection room, which was lined with sheets of soundproofing, with a big screen on the wall and speakers underneath it. They had three projectors lined up and synchronized, so that from the rushes Graham could see how the movie would look with the split screen technique. The soundproofing in the doorway was cut out in the shape of Mike Wadleigh with his hat on, which I figured out when Wadleigh walked through it and fit. Graham’s people sat on the sofa, the rest on the floor. The lights went out and the first rushes were of Richie Havens.

On my next trip to New York, Marty took me down to Little Italy, the neighborhood where he had been born. We pushed our way through streets crowded for the feast of San Gennaro and into an Italian restaurant where he was known, although for being a neighborhood kid, not a director. His first film, now retitled Who’s That Knocking at My Door, hadn’t yet found distribution. He gave me a briefing on some of the other customers. I found out what it meant to be a “made man.” I sensed an alertness in the air, as if some of these diners at their tables were aware of one another in a special way involving offstage roles.

Marty mailed me screenplays titled Jerusalem, Jerusalem and Season of the Witch, which was later to become Mean Streets. One night during the New York Film Festival he and I and Pauline Kael ended up in my hotel room, drinking and talking, and his passion was equaled by hers. Pauline became urgent in her support of those filmmakers she believed deserved it. She sensed something in Scorsese. Her review in the New Yorker of Mean Streets would put him once and for all on the map.

Her connections were crucial. One night we met in the lobby of the Algonquin and went out to eat with Brian De Palma, Robert De Niro, and Paul Schrader. De Palma and De Niro had made two low-budget films. Did Marty, De Palma, De Niro, and Schrader know one another at that time? Certainly. Did anyone guess Raging Bull would result? Pauline must have sensed the mixture was volatile. We went to an Italian restaurant. Pauline was then between her jobs at McCall’s and the New Yorker; De Niro and De Palma were unemployed; and Schrader was a hopeful screenwriter. Thinking I was the only person at the table with a paycheck, I picked up the tab. “You dummy,” Pauline told me. “Paul just sold The Yakuza for $450,000.” She always knew about the deals.

Scorsese and I were born five months apart in 1942, into worlds that could not have differed more, but in important ways we had similar childhoods. We were children of working-class parents well aware of their ethnic origins. We attended Roman Catholic schools and churches that, in those pre–Vatican II days, would have been substantially similar. We memorized the Latin of the Mass, we were drilled on mortal sins, venial sins, sanctifying grace, the fires of hell; we memorized great swaths of the Baltimore Catechism. We were baffled by the concept of Forever and asked how it was that God could have no beginning and no end. We were indoors children, not gifted at sports: “That boy always has his nose buried in a book.”

We went to the movies all the time, in my case because television came unusually late to my hometown, in Scorsese’s because to begin with his father took him, and then he went on his own, sometimes daily, watching anything and learning from it, watching WOR-TV when the Movie of the Week was repeated all week and he watched every screening. He became fascinated by the details. He told me about a single shot of Deborah Kerr in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus that arrested his attention. It was a close-up of Kerr, but mysteriously more than a close-up. Something had happened there, and he couldn’t see what it was or how it was done, but he could sense it. Years later, he was to enlist Michael Powell as a consultant and discover the answer to his question. Powell told him he had told Kerr to stand up into the shot and then had edited to start the shot one frame before she arrived, so there was an invisible urgency in her appearance. Powell and Thelma Schoonmaker of course met each other, and to general delight began a happy marriage. All ahead on that night in the loft.

When I saw Marty’s first film, why did it have such an emotional impact on me? I wasn’t reacting to its greatness, but to something more fundamental and personal. I had so much in common with J.R., its hero, played by Harvey Keitel. I, too, idealized women but shied away from sexuality. In high school there were some girls I dated and some girls I furtively “made out” with, and they were not the same girls. I associated sex with mortal sin. I understood why J.R. could have nothing more to do with a young woman after he discovered she had been raped. She had been touched in a way that meant J.R. could not touch her, and he blamed her. By the late 1960s I identified with the camaraderie of the friends J.R. ran with. Drinking had melted my solitary shyness and replaced it with shallow bravado. I identified with the movie’s rock and roll, and indeed I Call First was the first movie I recall seeing with a sound track that was not a composed score, but cobbled together from 45 rpm records. The energy of the cutting grabbed me with the opening shots when the fight broke out and the handheld camera followed it down the sidewalk. Everything about that movie touched me, heart and soul. I had seen great films, I had in truth seen greater films, but never one that so grabbed me. Perhaps it was because of that experience that I became a film critic, instead of simply working as one.

Every time I’ve met Marty, the conversation has come around sooner or later to Catholicism and sin. At a time when he had been married twice, he told me he knew he was living in a state of mortal sin. “You believe you will go to hell?” “Absolutely.” Scenes such as the one in Mean Streets, with Keitel holding his hand in the flame of a candle and imagining the fires of hell, were not mere character behavior but came from a well deep inside Scorsese. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that early screenplay he sent me, had contained a scene involving a sermon like the one all Catholic schoolchildren seem to have heard, the one about the endless torments of sin.

His greatest film is Raging Bull, and it is an act of self-redemption. In a period before it, he’d become addicted to cocaine and told me that after an overdose he was pronounced dead in an emergency room and then resuscitated. “That, for me, was hitting bottom,” he said flatly. He’s been clean since. One day in the hospital, De Niro walked in and threw a book about Jake LaMotta on his bed. “I think maybe we should do this,” he said. Certainly there is more of LaMotta in Scorsese than some will realize, including the same Madonna-whore complex that obsessed the hero of his first film.

In 1983, we had a long talk about his film The King of Comedy, a movie the studio was ready to give up on until some good reviews started coming in. For Scorsese, the making of the film coincided with a painful period of his life, a time when he fell in love with Isabella Rossellini, married her, and was divorced. Although it is easy to see The King of Comedy as the most barren and unemotional of all Scorsese’s films, that wasn’t the way he saw it.

“The amount of rejection in this film is horrifying,” he told me. “There are scenes I almost can’t look at. There’s a scene where De Niro is told, I hate you! and he nods and responds, Oh, I see, right, you don’t want to see me again. I made the movie during a very painful period in my life. I was going through the Poor Me routine. And I’m still very lonely. Another relationship has broken up.”

Since Isabella?

“Since. I’m spending a lot of time by myself now. I go home and watch movies on video and stay up all night and sleep all day. If I didn’t have to work I’d sleep all the time. I’ve never had such a long period when I’ve been alone.”

Toward the end of our dinner I discovered by accident how deeply he was hurt. I mentioned a new film named Exposed, by James Toback, starring Nastassja Kinski. I said I thought Kinski possessed whatever rare magic Marilyn Monroe had; that whatever Kinski appeared in, good or bad, she commanded the screen.

“I can’t bear to see Kinski in anything,” Scorsese said. “She reminds me too much of Isabella. It tears me apart. I can’t even go to see a film by the Taviani brothers, because Isabella and I had a little courtship on the set of one of their films. I can’t ever go back to the island of Salina, where Visconti’s The Leopard was shot, because we were there. In fact, I can hardly even watch a film by Visconti without growing depressed.”

“By memories of Isabella?”

“By memories of a period when I thought I was happy. I’ll put it that way. A period when I really thought I had the answers.”

“Okay, then,” I said, “I’ve got a new movie that can’t possibly depress you or bring up any old associations. It’s called Say Amen, Somebody, and it’s this wonderful documentary about gospel music.”

“Can’t see it.” Scorsese was grinning, but he was serious.

“Why not?”

“It’s distributed by United Artists Classics.”

“You mean you can’t see a film that is distributed by a company that is connected to a woman you once loved?”

He smiled. “I’d see the United Artists logo and it would ruin the movie for me.”

“Maybe you could come in after the logo had left the screen?”

“I’d know.”

In the spring of 1988, Marty got into hot water with elements of the Church for making The Last Temptation of Christ, which contained scenes they found blasphemous. William Donohue, the self-appointed leader of the Catholic League, was at the head of the pack. Universal Pictures had been threatened with a boycott and to its credit refused to back down. Tensions rose after Scorsese began to receive death threats.

I was in Cannes when I got a call asking if I’d be able to see the film in a screening room in London and then talk to Marty about it in New York. I was sworn to secrecy; it wasn’t known that a print even existed in London. I was given a time and address for a screening room on Wardour Street, passed through security guards, and saw the film all by myself.

In New York, I was given a number and asked to call it from a pay booth on the Upper East Side. Scorsese described his address in words, not using a street number. I was admitted by two security guards and taken upstairs to his living room, and we discussed the film in terms mostly theological, not cinematic. Setting aside the question of whether it was good, we agreed that it was devout. Scorsese fell naturally into that kind of conversation. The physical making of a film was by then well within his abilities; it was the moral challenge that consumed him.

His living room was appointed in a style suited to an upper-class New York family of the vintage of the nineteenth-century town house itself. I had no doubt there was a screening room, but this room had deep sofas, a fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

“I’ve been trying to catch up on great literature,” he said. “I subscribed to the Folio Society.” Five years later, he was to release The Age of Innocence, based on the novel by Edith Wharton. I suspect after he moved into that house he began to imagine the people who had built it and inevitably made a film about their time and class.

Since his first work, Scorsese has never disappointed me by making an unworthy film. He has made a few films that, he confided, he “needed” to do to get other films made, but if it is true, for example, that After Hours was done simply to distract him after the heartbreak of the first cancellation of The Last Temptation of Christ, it is also true that After Hours is one of his best films.

One of Scorsese’s strengths is a technical mastery of the medium. Like Orson Welles long before him (who allegedly watched Ford’s Stagecoach one hundred times before directing Citizen Kane) he learned his art not only in classrooms at New York University but by the intense scrutiny of other directors’ films. Once when I told him I had seen his personal print of Renoir’s The River at the Virginia Film Festival, he told me he watches it at least three times a year. When Gene Siskel visited him during a low time in the 1970s, he took him into a screening room (in a basement, as I recall) and said he spent most of every day down there, watching movies. He does not copy other directors, he does not do homage, but he absorbs and transmutes.

We have never become close friends. It is best that way. We talk whenever he has a new film coming out, or at tributes, industry events, or a special evening after a retrospective at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. We did a Q & A onstage for perhaps two hours, maybe longer, but even so I was astonished to see that the transcript amounted to more than twenty thousand words, which came pouring out of Marty in the full flood of memory and enthusiasm. He isn’t guarded like members of subsequent film generations, cannot be limited to sound bites, will answer just about any question he is asked, including some he should really not answer. His long-serving publicist, Marion Billings, is not the type of person who rehearses “sound bites” with her clients, but more of a supporter and a friend. His personality could not abide one of today’s rigidly controlling publicists. The Billings philosophy: If Marty said it, that’s what he said.

I only have one story left to tell. Siskel and I were asked to host a series of career tributes at the Toronto International Film Festival. Our first choice was Scorsese, whom Gene admired no less than I do. On the afternoon of the tribute, we ran into Marty and his ebullient mother, Catherine, in the lobby of the hotel.

“What’s the dress code tonight?” he asked.

“We are the presenters, and so of course we’ll have to wear tuxedos,” Gene said. “But you are the guest, and you can wear anything.”

“Maybe I’ll just wear my jeans,” he said.

Martin!” Catherine said, her voice in italics. “You will wear your tuxedo!”

“Right, Mom,” he said. And he did.

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