Entering his eighth decade, Martin Scorsese reflects on his long career.
"Who’s behind me?” hisses Martin Scorsese with a voice like bologna hitting a hot skillet.
“I’m Sicilian. We don’t sit with our backs to the door. We never sit with our backs to the door. Who’s behind me? Who’s got my back?”This is the way you dreamed it would go down, of course. The sit-down: the milk-fed veal, the carmine carafes, the rubber of post-prandial card games abruptly abandoned. The diminutive figure of the maestro bristles across the table from you. As he reacts to the sound of voices from the darkened doorway, a tremor of unease transmits itself through Scorsese’s people, his crew.
The director himself reaches for his piece. You watch in astonishment as the garlanded Hollywood insider fingers the barrel of his… inhaler.
It’s nighttime in New York City, and Scorsese has called a meeting at a favorite low-key joint a block or two from his home. But instead of the spaghetti house straight out of the old country, this is a chintzy suite in a boutique hotel, with its surprising lacunae: the pelmets concealing foxed wainscoting, the MDF boxing and panelling that shuts away eyesore cables.
The filmmaker, 72, is briefly between pictures, the gab and hustle for his most recent outing The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is behind him, and he is generously putting aside some time after standing me up on a previous date. So, the atmosphere is pretty relaxed, which accounts for his self-mocking turn as a goombah foot soldier fussing over the seating arrangements, a figure for whom Scorsese himself is partly responsible, of course – of which more later.
He calls over his shoulder to his assistants lurking by the door, chivvying them to spare me more of his time.
It’s pretty relaxed, as I say, but on the other hand, Martin Scorsese doesn’t really do tranquil. Take his asthma inhaler, which I’m happy to say is not fired in anger all evening. Scorsese has carried this keepsake of his gasping, pigeon-chested childhood into his eighth decade. No cheerleader’s baton could be more eloquent of a certain kind of US adolescence than this staff of suffering.
[Above: talking through a scene with Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976)]
Then there’s his good-natured kvetching over how exactly he takes his tea (“Are you leaving me here with this… bag?” “It’s infusing, Marty”). Most of all, though, there’s the big reveal: one of the most experienced and worldly men ever to occupy the stencilled deckchair of the director – the amanuensis of Goodfellas (1990), the nerveless sherpa of Mean Streets (1973) – is afraid to go out anymore.
I happened to say that the old tramp of Gotham had smartened herself up out of all recognition since the days of classic Scorsese noir Taxi Driver (1976), where the sidewalks were polluted with menace and trash. The zero-tolerance policy of Mayor Giuliani and the NYPD had seen to that many years ago.
“That’s what they tell me but I can’t, I won’t, test it out,” replies Scorsese. “I still feel that I will not go into Central Park. I try not to go below 57th Street now, as best I can. That doesn’t mean anything above 57th Street is safe…”
This was extraordinary: Scorsese casting himself in the unlikely role of little old shut-in, a recluse like Sir Ben Kingsley’s toymaker in his charming period-fantasy Hugo (2011).
“I grew up that way and I have that sense of unease in New York, London, Paris, Rome..” he says, laughing. The string of stylish destinations, like the outposts of a couture empire, filling him with a kind of dread.
Surely not our own dear metrop, though? “Maybe that’s to do with my height,” he admits. “The last time I worked in London, I couldn’t fight my way through the crew! I had to hire a big guy just to get me through the crowd. I’m serious. I’m careful about where I go and what I do. We don’t go out much anymore, it’s a matter of staying uptown if possible. But uptown?” He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter where you are.”
Taxi Driver: Not since the Keystone Cops swarmed over a speeding paddy wagon in the silent flicks has the unhealthy relationship between man and automobile been documented so affectingly on the big screen. More than this, the film has become a historical epic, a whacked out Gone with the Wind (1939). As the cultural commentator James Wolcott writes in his book, Critical Mass: “It is an invaluable time capsule of Seventies New York on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”
[Instructing Margot Robbie and DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)]
“When we were making [Taxi Driver], New York had apparently been written off the books,” Scorsese says. “The city was told to go to hell by the governor, but I didn’t know at the time. For me it was just simply New York. I began to sense it a little when a friend of mine said, ‘Marty, didn’t you notice when you were standing on the corner that there was a wall of garbage behind you?’ I just thought it’s a strike!”
He shrugs again. “In a week or two they’ll figure it out. But the trash was getting pretty highly packed there for a while. I didn’t like 42nd Street at that time,” he says, referring to the steam-belching inferno of the red-light district.
It was quite sleazy?
“Very sleazy. Everybody has great eulogies about the old place but it was horrible,” he says, laughing wheezily. “I mean you could not walk there unless you were into what was going on. And we shot the picture there. I must say it was a frightening experience that night…” This was for a sequence including a cameo by Scorsese, who brought a queasy authenticity to the part of a homicidal cuckold in the back of Robert De Niro’s yellow cab (“You must think I’m pretty sick or something, right? You don’t have to answer, I’m paying for the ride”).
Scorsese is aghast when he overhears his teenage daughter breezily agreeing to meet her friends in the park. “I’m always nervous about that.” It’s only fair to point out that the director’s wife has been in poor health lately, and there’s a problem back at the house. So things could be better, though you’d never know it to look at him: the antic attentiveness behind the spectacles, the flycatcher grin.
It’s funny to hear Scorsese talk like this because a lot of people would see him as – among other things – a kind of poet laureate of the American underbelly over the long span of his career. Surely, if anyone’s confident in that milieu, it’s him, yet he gives the impression that actually the perception of it is scary even for himself.
“Yes it is, it is,” he says with his arms folded. “I’ve never really noticed that much of a change in New York…”
It all goes back to the city’s fons et origo, as Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito so nearly says in Goodfellas (1990), New York’s original sin – the irresistible temptation of the Big Apple. “I grew up at the end, the dregs, of the time of Gangs of New York,” says Scorsese.
This was the epoch of late 19th-century turf warfare between criminal mobs that he brought to the screen in 2002, and which forms part of Scorsese’s foundation myth of the five boroughs. He still remembers a day when neighborhoods were known by their rackets, not just blameless meat-packing or garment-spinning and the like, but less licit pursuits, too. “From the Bowery to Sixth Avenue, you only went there to steal a car.”
Not that the thought would ever have occurred to him or his friends?
Scorsese laughs, claps, and raises two index fingers in the air as if preparing to perform “Chopsticks”.
“No! But I heard about some people. I heard about some things: hubcaps, for instance, and other nefarious goings on. Because there was nobody there! There was nothing, just the trucks in the daytime and nothing at night. There were a few cars, people who were crazy enough to park their cars there. So this was the West Side. The East Side was teeming with Sicilians, Calabrese, Neapolitans and, of course, there was Skid Row with the down-and-outs, and the men and women losing what was left of their lives. It was really tragic.”
[Martin Scorsese with Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets (1973)]
This is a portrait of the artist as a young man, of course – the future auteur who would one day find himself craning for a view past lanky gaffers and grips on a film set in England. The same boy who looked up to the street-corner tough guys with horrified awe.
His unexampled fieldwork in this area over many years needs no further rehearsing for the self-respecting Esquire reader, I take it, but have we seen the last of it? Is there any truth, I ask, in the story that he might get the old crowd back together — De Niro, Pesci — for something called The Irishman?
“Absolutely, yeah. It’s a story based on a gentleman, apparently a famous Sixties’ hitman, who worked with certain people on the east coast and with [trade union boss] Jimmy Hoffa. It’s very strong, I think, very moving.”
Who’s in line to play him?
“Um… De Niro.”
So he’s a mature hitman? I can say that without being rude?
“No, no. Definitely mature.”
The mature De Niro has come in for a certain amount of stick, mostly out of earshot, over his choice of scripts. Some people have been critical of him sending up his glory years – many spent with Scorsese – in movies like Analyze This (1999) and The Family (2013). He’s kind of destroying, I suggest, his reputation?
“I don’t know. Certainly, destroying it is overstating it,” Scorsese says. “I don’t know what his needs are, as an actor, to be able to continually work! Bob’s interesting because he moves a lot, two or three days in one city, this sort of thing. He’s got a wonderful family now.”
And he has restaurants...
“He has restaurants,” Scorsese agrees. “He had a terrible scare. A death scare [De Niro was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003]. And to hell with it, why shouldn’t he work and enjoy himself? I think he needs that energy, and he just keeps going.”
Did The Sopranos rip off Goodfellas? In a loving, homage-y, kind of way?
“Well, it would have been good if I’d gotten a piece of it! It would have been more loving if I’d had some back-end of it!” he says. “I don’t know, I was told that Brad Grey [Sopranos producer] admired it a great deal.”
Scorsese is never less than watchable on the tragicomic subject of the company of men. Think of the jailbirds in Goodfellas fixing their chow, the magnificently dainty Paulie slicing garlic to a thou of an inch as if he was wearing a jeweller’s eyepiece.
The Sicilian’s only serious rival here is early David Mamet. Indeed, in The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s rallying cry to his fellow junk-bond salesmen (and a few women) — “Does your girlfriend think you’re a fucking worthless loser? Good! Pick up the phone and start dialling” — is a nod to Alec Baldwin’s barnstorming turn in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) as the immaculately coiffed grim reaper from the head office of Mitch and Murray (“Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids”).
One of the more unlikely pieces of casting in the Scorsese oeuvre may well be Jerry Lewis, the director and comedian, who played the hooded-eyed talk show vet Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy (1983). If you haven’t seen it (why not?), De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a man with all the self-awareness of Piers Morgan, and whose dream of his own TV show from sea to shining sea proves equally forlorn.
[In the ring with De Niro playing doomed boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980)]
“You know, they despised the film here [in the US],” Scorsese says. “On New Year’s Eve, I was getting ready to go to a friend’s house and Entertainment Tonight was on – this kind of program had just started back then – and they said, ‘Now for the flop of the year!’” And there it was, The King of Comedy.
The irony of the film’s thumbs-down from this show – the CNN for wannabes – only burnishes its deserved reputation for prescience. Meanwhile, the luster has rather gone off the late Mr Lewis, though Scorsese is nice about him in his book, Scorsese on Scorsese (1989).
“There’s a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo is off his head and crawling to his Lamborghini to try and open the door. That night on the set I thought, ‘This is wonderful! The way he’s moving his body is just like Jerry. It really is!’ My young daughter, she’s 14, adores Jerry Lewis.’”
There was something a little dark about him, though, wasn’t there?
“Very dark. I think that’s one of the reasons I cast him.”
Something needy, maybe?
“Yes! Very much so, very much so.” The cineaste’s hands churn like the brushes of a carwash. “But I think every great laugh-getter has that neediness. I think comedy comes out of anger, you know, and so we tap into that in the film and he has a wonderful, sarcastic anger, Jerry. And it’s certainly not easy to work with – no great artist is easy to work with – but that’s the job, that’s what you do.”
Who’s been the worst so far?
“Ha, ha. I’ve been very lucky.”
Lewis was the master of televised charity leverage, shedding tears as punctually as a plaster statue in a Palermo procession. But what of the Holy Father himself? Scorsese studied at a seminary and his body of work references Catholicism, explicitly as in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and more subliminally elsewhere.
What does he make of Francis I, the modest priest from Argentina who has brought a humility to the Vatican after revelations of terrible abuse by some within the church? A history buff and an anglophile, Scorsese can’t resist ragging his Brit interviewer on the subject.
“I know that you’re not very fond of the papacy in your country…”
Well, we got rid of that, I respond.
“I know and I think probably rightly so.” Scorsese holds a forefinger aloft as if making a benediction. “In terms of what Henry VIII did, I think he had to.”
Let’s not re-fight that battle.
“No, we’re not going to go back there.”
It still provokes people.
“It does, doesn’t it? But I think, why should he have listened to the Pope? Come on, he had to get the heir and that sort of thing… but look, Francis is certainly sane and heading the way I hoped I would see a Pope behave in my lifetime. I never thought I’d see it!” he says. “I’m a Roman Catholic. I’m very serious about it. My films usually deal with a certain religious subject, there’s no doubt about it. But I think, yeah, there’s more compassion here than condemning. I think this is on the way back for the Pope to be a moral authority again.”
Meanwhile, back here in uptown New York City, the sins of the world continue to throw their exaggerated shadows on the director’s shuttered chateau – 57th Street has become his Sunset Boulevard (1950). Luckily for filmgoers, the Norma Desmond of the talkies still ventures abroad – yes, even as far as midtown, if it can’t be avoided – for the sake of “legwork”, research, and shooting.
And while so much of the “content business” is now going viral, or going directly to Vine, Scorsese persists in making films that last for three hours at a stretch – work of an unmatched grandiosity and brio. Figuratively at least, this pint-sized director can say with Desmond, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!”
What's your favorite Scorsese?
Originally published on Esquire.co.uk