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Surface Tension: Michael Mann’s “Heat”

In Michael Mann’s wide-screen, West Coast gloss on his own Miami Vice, the locations almost upstage the stars, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Mann is a locations visionary. He sees a city not so much for what it is as for what it might become. Just as Miami remade itself to better resemble its image in Miami Vice, L.A. may rise eventually to Heat‘s desolate, sand­blasted impersonality.

Mann’s City of Lights, where Vin­cent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (De Niro) go through their paces as the last of the existential cops and criminals, couldn’t be more re­moved from the gothic, phosphores­cent L.A. of David Fincher’s Seven. Heat’s color scheme is ultracool. In one inconsequential scene set at a con­struction site, Mann finds a 20-foot­-high pile of baby-bunting yellow sand that perfectly balances the film’s basic bleached blues and grays. The image stays in the mind’s eye long after the formulaic plot has faded. So does the ultimate showdown between Vincent and Neil on the far reaches of an air­port runway, where the immediate question of who lives and who dies is dwarfed by the planes roaring over­head. Mann’s use of scale is as mean­ingful as any great modernist painter’s.

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The splendid visuals aside, Heat is a cosmically silly movie — which does­n’t make it any less entertaining. Mann manages to have his romance of ob­sessed masculinity and send it up too. The joke is in the casting. Pacino and De Niro are as much dinosaurs as the parts they play; Mann doesn’t demand a suspension of disbelief. If anything, thee competition for acting honors be­tween these two ethnic superstars (relics of the wilder side of ’70s cine­ma) eclipses the fictional face-off of cop and criminal.

Though there are no big surprises in either performance, my preference is for Pacino, whose head-fakes and er­ratic speech rhythms have the improvisatory flair of the new Knicks. Pacino manages to be playful even when he’s excessive and never less than true even when he’s over the top. Moment to moment, he’s a pleasure to watch.

Pleasure has never been part of De Niro’s game. He’s a lot better here than in Casino (which isn’t saying much), and just about as proficient as he was in GoodFellas. At his best, these days, De Niro seems admirable rather than awesome. Once upon a time, his rigid­ity was a desperate defense against a rage that might erupt at any moment. He could make one both fear and long for the return of the repressed. But over time, the rage imploded into a black hole, sucking the life from him­ — and from anyone who watches. Here, that inner heaviness, though it doesn’t make for a thrilling performance, is right for the character — a career crimi­nal who’s ultimately undone nor by the desire for love he so carefully guards against as by a need for revenge that is the one thing he can’t control.

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Mann has never gotten the credit he deserves as an actor’s director. In Heat, he does well not only by his two stars but also his supporting cast, par­ticularly Val Kilmer as the most volatile of the partners in crime, Ashley Judd as his intermittently loyal wife, and Diana Venora as a woman who knows she’s too smart to stay married to a cop. She’s so smart, in fact, she almost gets away with using the word “detritus” in the middle of a love scene. ❖

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Godfather, Part II: The Corleone Saga Sags

“THE GODFATHER PART II” continues the saga of the Corleone family. Now ensconced on an estate in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, near their gambling holdings. The year is 1958, Al Pacino has succeeded Brando as the Don, and there is rumbling in the ranks. While the sun is shining upon little Anthony Corleone’s confirma­tion celebration, storm signs darken the already dimly lit interior of Michael Corleone’s study. The wayward sister (Talia Shire) de­fects, disobeying her brother to run off with a fortune-hunting wastrel (Troy Donahue); Frankie Pentan­geli (Michael V. Gazzo), an old-time clan member into his cups, argues with Michael over his association with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg); Fredo (John Cazale), the chicken-hearted elder brother, is publicly humiliated by his inability to control his floozy Las Vegas wife; and Diane Keaton, as the first lady, continues to smile bravely and swing her hair, but there will be trouble from her, too.

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An attempt on the Don’s life is followed up with an investigation, whose meandering path is intercut with flashbacks to the childhood (in Sicily) and youth (in Little Italy) of the Godfather, played by Robert de Niro. These sections, if all goes according to Paramount’s dreams of lucre, will eventually be joined to the Sicilian sections of the earlier picture to make a complete film — the first part of a trilogy to play, with chronology corrected, as a roadshow package. The Sicilian and Little Italy episodes are filmed in the faded­-browns-and-yellows, Immigrant Portrait style, and in the miniaturized perspective of a spectacle viewed from a great distance.

Brando’s absence hangs over the new picture as his presence — minimal in time but central in effect — hung over the previous one. Ties are disintegrating, the center no longer holds, and the narrative is correspondingly diffuse. In the new script by Coppola and Mario Puzo, the Corleones have brought their way into a respectability hardly more dubious than than of America’s other first families of finance. Gambling is the naughtiest enterprise alluded to, and Michael and brothers are given to quoting the Godfather’s maxims much as the young Kennedys must have treasured patriarch Joe’s pearls or Irish wisdom. The success­ive Corleone patriarchs are odd combinations of Robin Hood and Christ, whose only crimes are, re­spectively, to rid Little Italy of an extortionist bully, and to expunge from the bosom of the family those who would betray its ideals. When these happen to be blood members, well, that’s the way the pignole cru­mbles.

Coppola and Puzo, bowing no doubt to public pressure, have made “The Godfather Part II” consider­ably less violent than its predeces­sor. There are but five or six killings, and the corpses are removed with the efficiency of a Shakespeare his­tory play, as the Corleone saga moves on to another stage of world history: Cuba before, and during, the revolution: the Kefauver crime hearings; an F.B.I. prison; with a swelling Nino Rota score to provide emotional unity.

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It is describing physical locations themselves that Coppola’s imagination comes into play, but the human confrontations staged in those dazzling locales never fulfill their promise. As in “The Conversation,” Coppola opens on the world and closes on the tortured individual, in an image of despair a shade too sensitive and heroic for what has preceded it. Watching this largely non-violent sequel, I couldn’t help but be struck by how crucial violence was to the first film. Without it, the characters are not only not mythic­ — they are not even very interesting.

The pale cast of reflection hovers over “Part II” without ever harden­ing into active thought, much less verbiage. (The use of Italian dia­logue, with English subtitles, can’t quite conceal its inanity). Coppola and Puzo haven’t the curiosity of even a Galsworthy (forget Balzac and Tolstoy) that might lead them to investigate the various branches of the family, and discover a sense of the era through the words as well as the “looks” of its individuals. Even among the brothers, there is a lot or emotional display — hugging, kissing, caressing, eyes watering or smol­dering, but the actual dialogue could be contained on the back of a grocery list. It is — how you say — visual.

What about the women? From what we see of them, mostly their backs. Hyman Roth’s wife makes tuna fish sandwiches and the Mammas Corleone make babies. Mamma the Elder (Morgana King), unlike most Italian mothers of my acquaintance, retires gracefully to the the wings. Coppola makes a gesture to the “new consciousness” by im­plying a certain critical perspective on the patriarchy, when Michael asks his pregnant wife “Does it feel like a boy?” But by focusing audience interest so exclusively on Pa­cino, and by making his enemies either invisible or unattractive, he effectively neutralizes their subver­sive potential.

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It is difficult to discuss acting with performances that are allowed so little articulation of their own, that are controlled and positioned so carefully within an aesthetic scheme. The artiness of Coppola’s aesthetic ultimately becomes an ethic as Pacino, in somber profile, emerges more victim than villain, more a melancholy Dane than a bloody Macbeth.

“The Godfather Part II” is marked, more clearly than its pre­decessor, by a moral confusion at its core which is in sharp contrast to that sense of moral wholeness of the great storytellers of the past, an equilibrium working behind the affairs of men that gave an importance to their actions, and words, that lyrical long-shots and poignant close-ups alone cannot produce. ❖

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Martin Scorsese’s Cinema of Obsessions

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.

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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.

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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.”)

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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. ■

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Backstage at the Oscars: “Raging Bull” and Raging Bull

Backstage at the Oscars: ‘Raging Bull’ and Raging Bull 
April 8, 1981

Early spring, they descend upon Hollywood like snow in Tibet: producers with horror films to hustle to the studios, emaciated writers with screenplays to peddle to the pro­ducers, press agents, foreign press, unemployed actors, fans from all over the globe who want to wallow in the glamour of it all, and the Oscar nominees. The lucky ones stay at the Chateau Marmont, which is as close to civilization as you can get in a town where nothing’s close to civilization. From a Chateau window, you can see the Yoga Center on Sunset Boulevard, the Liquor Locker, Schwab’s Drug Store of Lana Turner fame, and a mammoth billboard advertising The Final Conflict.

John Hurt of The Elephant Man is registered at the Chateau, as is the Raging Bull contingent. Robert De Niro is a recluse in the penthouse, Joe Pesci occupies a fifth-floor suite, and Martin Scorsese has rented a bungalow near the pool as an office where he auditions actors for The King of Comedy (De Niro and Jerry Lewis will star).

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Tradition has it that at 5 p.m., on Oscar night, while the sun is still shining on the Freeway, the lucky ones descend the Marmont’s carpeted staircase in thousand­-dollar tuxes and evening gowns. They lean against rococo balustrades in the lobby making light conversation while chewing their fingernails to the cuticles. An uniden­tified idiot bangs out “Hooray for Holly­wood” on the Baldwin. Limousines arrive. And in a puff, the nominees are off to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where their fates are revealed on national television.

“After they leave, we have the quietest night of the year,” says Marmont manager Sam Heigman. “But when they return at midnight, the switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree:”

•••

It is three days before the ceremony. Joe Pesci, a short, fluffy-haired New York actor who’s been nominated for supporting De Niro in Raging Bull, is quietly chewing his nails while seated on a piece of Moorish sectional in his Chateau suite. Although Pesci’s onscreen performance is full of sound and fury, offscreen he’s shy and reticent. He says he was signed for Bull after he had given up acting. He was working in a restaurant when old pal Rob­ert De Niro told him he thought he was the right guy to play his brother in the movie.

Pesci’s not sure about the mechanics behind his nomination. “No one said any­thing directly, but I think it started when Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times had some good things to say about my performance. After that, United Ar­tists took out ads every few days in the Hollywood Reporter.”

How did he find out he was nominated? “I just heard it on the radio while I was driving my car,” he says. “Then a couple of days later, I got a telegram from Marty Scorsese wishing me congratulations.”

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Supporting Oscar nominations can be death to actors. It’s known as the Mercedes McCambridge syndrome; instead of being a step up, it’s a step to nowhere. Pesci received a few offers after his nomination but most were for roles in television films. He wasn’t interested. Before Raging Bull, he would have taken commercials, but tel­evision, he feels, is 10 steps backwards. He’d rather wait until another good film part comes along.

Three weeks ago, Pesci came to Califor­nia to see a friend, get some sun, play golf, and just hang out. Then United Artists moved him into the Chateau Marmont. They’re paying his rent for a week, but he’s reluctant to talk up the picture. He especially doesn’t like the idea of hyping Rag­ing Bull on TV.

“I’m not an excitable person,” he says between short telephone conversations with Scorsese and De Niro. “I can’t be doing flips for six months because I’m nominated. I grew up with the Oscars and I’m proud to be honored, but I still can’t help feeling that they made a big mistake.”

Was Pesci preparing himself for the emotional trauma of Oscar night? Yes. By not thinking about it. Should he win, he says, “I’ll not make a speech. If I did, I’d have to think of a lot of nice things to say to a lot of nice people. What I’ll probably do is talk to the actors who never receive recognition and say something inspirational to them. I’d like to say it without being dramatic.”

Joe Pesci lost to Timothy Hutton, who won for Ordinary People. He didn’t have a chance not to be dramatic.

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•••

No one is busier, glitzier, sillier, stodgier, or more sincere than Miss Rona. She is the Ed Koch of tinseltown, the populist, the moralist, the kid to kid. She is phony. She is real. She is Hollywood.

“Now, Carol,” asked Miss Rena on TV the morning after Carol Burnett won her libel suit against the National Enquirer. “Was there ever any time when the suit affected your relationship with your hus­band?”

“No, Rona,” answered Miss Carol, even ­more sincerely. “Joe has always been very supportive.”

Burnett’s victory has divided Hollywood. Drugstore cowboys at Schwab’s feel the jurors were predisposed to hate the ­Enquirer, If you live in Hollywood, you’ve got to be. Perhaps the Enquirer was punished far too severely, but to quote director Arthur Hiller (he’s making Making Love at Fox), “They’ve unfairly maligned so many celebrities, I’m glad Burnett responded and got her million-six.”

Yet one can’t help wondering if there is a correlation between Burnett’s suit during this Reagan conservative period and the innumerable lawsuits instituted against Confidential magazine during the McCarthy era. Ten celebrity suits are pending against the Enquirer. The L.A. Times reports “there may be an even more determined effort by the tabloid to defend itself against them.”

Burnett’s victory knocked Oscar out of the news, the weekend before the telecast. It was the talk of Hollywood.

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•••

So much tension, so much excitement, so much activity during Oscar week. Visiting here is like spending a day at the Club Baths. United Artists invites the press to meet its “new star in town,” Mrs. Frisby, the animated rat heroine of a feature-length fantasy now in production. MGM opens its Culver City gates to journalists and and sneaks scenes from Pennies from Heaven (Christopher Walken doing a bump-and-grind strip, Bernadette Peters shaking her ninotchkas in Steve Martin’s  face, Steve Martin dancing incredibly well for a comedian), followed by a luncheon on a sound stage (lox, shrimp, strawberries, cheesecake, and columnist Aaron Gold), followed by a set visit (Herbert Ross directing Steve and Bernadette in a replica of Fred and Ginger’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance number)”.

Filmex is about to open with Atlantic City, the American Film Market at the Westwood Marquis Hotel has been run­ning for a week, and the Publicists Guild gives a luncheon at the Beverly Hilton (chicken fried in canned pineapple, broc­coli spears, publicist Renee Furst) at which Mary Crosby, Ron Howard, John House­man, Natalie Wood, and Linda Purl present “showmanship” awards. Goldie Hawn gets one as “the motion picture showman of the year,” a sexist title to numb Goldie’s feminist consciousness. Accumulating pre-Oscar awards has an effect on Academy voters, but no one expects Goldie to win for Private Benjamin. And she doesn’t.

Academy voters are desensitized and lobotomized by trade paper ads: Oscar winners are judged less by the the amount of money a studio will spend to plug what it’s pushing. Warner Bros. can take out approximately 20 Hollywood Reporter ads between Christmas and Oscar night lauding Goldie for Private Benjamin (the ads undoubtedly helped her get a nomination), but Universal will top them with 30 hailing Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (an entirely new Oscar ad campaign was mounted). Major consideration is a studio’s investment in future projects for the nominee. Sissy is currently looping Raggedy Man for Uni­versal, which the studio feels could be as big as Coal Miner’s Daughter.

If an actor doesn’t play ball with the studio, he’s forgotten at Oscar time. Barry Miller got the best reviews for Fame and should have been pushed for a supporting nomination. He bad-mouthed the film. MGM didn’t hype Miller in any of Fame‘s innumerable trade paper ads; Two years ago, Paramount took out a paltry three Hollywood Reporter ads promoting Susan Sarandon in King of the Gypsies. Susan felt she was shafted: this was her finest moment. However Paramount was pushing co-star Eric Roberts as their Trav­olta of the future. Susan bought a couple of ads with her own money. Neither she nor Roberts was nominated, and Roberts’s movie career came to a standstill. (Ironically, his first film since King of the Gypsies is Raggedy Man, and the word is that he’s excellent.)

At the Publicists Guild luncheon, a Universal executive explains that “it’s all up to the gods. We can only push a little.” He thinks the Academy voters might choose Eva Le Gallienne for Resurrection because she’s old and she’s got lines like “If we could only love each other the way we say we do.” If, by some fluke, Ellen Burstyn wins for Resurrection (she doesn’t) her Oscar would bring the crowds in. Moviegoers adore Resurrection, he says, but the problem all along has been getting them to see it.

“Whatever it’s worth, whatever the cynicism, Oscar symbolizes the mystique and glamour of Hollywood,” proclaims Camille Lane, Universal’s advertising di­rector. “For those of us in the business, it is our one reaffirming moment of glory.”

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•••

Oscar means different things to dif­ferent people. To the owner of the Blue Parrot in West Hollywood, it’s renting a six-foot screen and listening to customers wonder if Angie had a face lift and why Sissy doesn’t get a good hairdresser. To the display designer at Ah Men on Santa Monica Boulevard, it’s a window with a Raging Bull poster and a mannequin in red boxer shorts. To Swifty Lazar, it’s hosting yet another star-studded bash up­stairs at the Bistro. To William Morris super agent Joan Hyler, “Oscar night is not just another business evening, but a rit­ual.”

This is Hyler’s second Oscar night. In 1975, she sat next to a nominee “who was drunker than anybody I’ve ever seen. I spent the entire evening worrying whether he’d throw up on my new Halston.”

Hyler’s date this year is client Peter O’Toole, nominated for The Stunt Man. She believes that a nomination separates  an actor from his peers. It’s prestigious, of course, but you can also up a performer’s price: With some actors, like De Niro and Robert DuVall, a nomination will Solidify what they’re already earning. Mary Steen­burgen’s worth should be affected because she’s new and young and on the brink of becoming a major movie star.

“For Peter O’Toole, the nomination makes Hollywood happy to have him back again. Peter’s been gone too long: he has an enormous talent. Unfortunately, you’ve got to keep reminding them. Hollywood’s a town with a very short memory,” says Hyler, whose clients include Patti Davis. The president’s daughter has done a very effective reading for a part in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, and is supposed to be in the audience at the Oscar show.

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•••

Monday morning, March 30, the day the Oscars are scheduled. The Tuxedo Center on Sunset Boulevard resembles Mamie Stover’s whorehouse in Guam during World War IL Male customers line up outside. They all look anxious. Inside, they’re measured. They fork out $50 for a day’s tuxedo rental. The price includes studs.

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the bleachers are filled. The broadcast is still eight hours away. Fans are young. Many have brought sleeping bags, blankets, food, and portable television sets. Greg Aiken., 21, from Del Mar, arrived 36 hours ago and has been sleeping on a bench and using bathroom facilities at a nearby service sta­tion. Seven women from San Diego arrived the afternoon before and waited outside the stage door to see the stars come in to rehearse. Sissy Spacek was real nice. Donald Sutherland wore red shoes. Peter O’Toole looked tired and worn. Lily Tomlin signed autographs. Diana Ross was rude, Angie Dickinson asked, “Are you from the Enquirer?”, Robert Redford rushed in with his head down. “You can bet we won’t ski at his lodge,” says the den mother of the San Diego group, “and we’ll remember his behavior when we see his movies.”

It’s an innocent, good-spirited, picnic­ — more Woodstock than Day of the Locust. Several fans carry posters: “We love you Jane Fonda.” “Hooray for Sissy.” “Why isn’t Madeline Kahn nominated?” whines a bobby-soxer. “Because she doesn’t de­serve to be,” snaps a teeny-bopper.

Everyone has an opinion.

Back at Schwab’s the visiting reporter asks Barbara the cashier if the drugstore’s gone Oscar crazy today.

“No, it’s gone Ronald Reagan crazy.” Has he decided to appear in person instead of on film? “No. He was shot in Washington an hour ago.”

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•••

Televisions blare from every room in the Chateau Marmont. Reagan’s in surgery. Jim Brady’s near death. Maureen Reagan is furious. Michael Reagan is sad­dened. Dan Rather’s in tears. The coun­try’s gone crazy. The world’s about to col­lapse. Again.

The telephone rings: Joan Hyler’s sec­retary to say they’ve just gotten word from the Academy that the Oscars have been postponed until tomorrow. Marilyn Beck goes on ABC News to explain that the Oscar ball scheduled for the Beverly Hilton will now conflict with the closing night banquet of the American Film Mar­ket on Tuesday — caterers and florists are facing a major dilemma, and beauticians in Beverly Hills are going crazy. Later, a press agent, who’s scheduled a private par­ty for 50, phones complaining that he can’t fit all that quiche into his freezer so he’s giving a Reagan-watch party instead. A publicist from United Artists calls explain­ing that he’s having a terrible time rescheduling limousines: At the Chateau’s front desk, the manager cries, “I’m in trou­ble. I won’t have rooms for tomorrow.” An actor in the lobby (not nominated) won­ders if the assassination attempt is con­sidered an Act of God and if Tuxedo Cen­ter will charge him another day’s rental.

Oscar nominee Mary Steenburgen calls, too. She’s feeling “real disturbed.” Mary and her husband, Malcolm McDowell, have decided to watch television and eat in. “I’m glad they cancelled the show,” she says. ”It’s inappropriate that performers receive awards tonight. Right now, I feel a great deal of rage about the lack of gun control in this country. Like everybody else, I’m feeling real sad.”

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•••

Tuesday. The themes of politics, assassination, celebrity, and movies have never been more dramatically visible than backstage on Oscar night. A block away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a bomb squad truck blares its way toward the arena. Security has been stepped up. Usually 200 guards are on duty. This year, 350 policemen, sheriff’s deputies, and private plainclothesmen patrol inside and outside the hall. Many actors bring along their own bodyguards. Richard Pryor is always within thumb’s reach of his Man Mountain Dean.

An hour before the show, word filters to the press about John Hinckley’s letters to Jodie Foster, including the final one, not mailed, confessing his unrequited love and stating, “There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan.” The immediate reaction is life imitates art: Taxi Driver with Hinckley playing De Niro, minus Marty Scorsese’s direction. Especially in Hollywood, this sort of news upstages the Oscars.

Each year, before the Oscar show, Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd greets celebrity arrivals and pulls them up to a makeshift stage below the bleachers. He exchanges small talk with heavy-duty nominees as well as stars of yesterday like Cesar Romero and Gale Sondergaard. They wave at the fans (Angie Dickinson: “Thank you for being so patient”) and the fans, in turn, wave back and scream their approval. Hawn, Burstyn, Spacek, Moore, Duvall, Redford, but no De Niro or Scorsese. Would they attend? As it turned out, they either arrived hours early, or sneaked in a side door.

From the sidelines, one gathers that Oscar is an affair for those giving and getting awards, their families, Los Angeles society matrons, and studio executives. It is not an all-out industry celebration. Stars in disfavor this year, such as Barbra Streisand, Raquel Welch, and Al Pacino, stay away. Actors in TV series appear by the limousine-load. Bleacher babies know their faces and their TV names, but don’t know their real names

At 7 p.m., the press is allowed to enter the backstage area. We hear Reagan’s vid­eotape welcoming speech, while 200 of us wait patiently for a lone elevator that holds 10. The press room is Kafka interpreted by Bobby Short: men in tails and women in silken gowns beat out copy on 50-year-old Remingtons in uninterrupted rows of For­mica tables. Four 19-inch TV sets telecast the show, and a public relations woman keeps track of winners on a huge scoreboard, the way Nathan Detroit did in Guys and Dolls. In the TV media room, Miss Rona occupies a front row space (to Jack Lemmon: “Do you have any advice to give Timothy Hutton?” “Make Rona hap­py,” says Mary Tyler Moore to Lemmon. “Give Tim some advice”). In the photogra­pher’s room, Ron Gallela leads a brigade of accredited paparazzi (free-lancers are treated like dirt and kept the same dis­tance as the fans) all bringing their own unique vision to the very same photo­graphs.

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Had God given each journalist four eyes and ears, we’d watch the Oscars on the monitor screens at the same time we photograph or interview an entirely dif­ferent set of celebrities. Instead, we have to be selective. Nastassia Kinski and Sigourney Weaver in person gorgeously win out over the best short subject presen­tation on the tube.

Only award winners and presenters make the backstage rounds. Losers are spared the embarrassment. Sissy Spacek is the only star to make two backstage ap­pearances, having doled out an award for art direction, then winning one herself for best actress. Sissy says she’s relieved the awards are over: she isn’t in a celebratory mood.

Because there is so much glamour and power to select from, lesser award winners are ignored completely while their pres­enters are lauded and interviewed to death. Lily Tomlin appears in the press room with the winner of Special Optical Effects, but he might as well have been the incredible shrinking woman in the kitchen sink. Lily wonders why the Academy hadn’t junked the Reagan tape. “They should have made a new one from his hospital bed. That would have been an unqualified up for the people.”

Some reporters hog the stars. Radie Harris of the Hollywood Reporter hugs Tomlin. Peter O’Toole kisses Radie. Shirley Eder of the Detroit Free Press asks Lesley-Anne Down if she can check out the label on the inside of her dress — and does. Will Tusher of Variety yells, “It isn’t fair for others if the stars only talk to their friends in the media,” which prompts an­other journalist to yell, “They should only talk to their friends.” (Tusher is the most persistent interviewer, and asks the most inane questions. Radie and Shirley want to kill him.)

How each celebrity is treated depends on how he is perceived by the press. Mary Steenburgen, overjoyed with her support­ing award for Melvin and Howard, is met with affection. Diana Ross with goggle­-eyed awe. Lillian Gish with respect.

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Best screenplay winner Bo (Melvin and Howard) Goldman is chatting with the press when suddenly someone says, “Hold it.” Twenty newsmen turn their backs on Goldman to watch Robert Redford deliver his acceptance speech for best director (Ordinary People). They never get back to Goldman.

Redford generates a feeling of being either above it or below it all and is not a favorite in the press room. He exudes in­telligence, but his answers to questions are vague. He insists he’d never act in and direct the same film. He derides Holly­wood for “the current trend toward pyrotechnics,” and says he wants to make more intimate films which deal with emo­tions and social conditions.

There’s something about Redford — the blondness, the coolness, the good looks, everything that’s been written about before — that must be as awkward for him as it is for the person dealing with him. He makes you feel a little grubby. No one asks him to speak out about the assassination attempt or comment on Johnny Carson’s crack about Fort Apache, Charlie Chan, and Cruising (“It was a bad year if you were a gay Chinese from the Bronx”), or about Carson’s comments on Reagan’s cuts in arts funding or about the Burnett National Enquirer decision. So you talk direction and Ordinary People.

On the other hand, Robert De Niro is painfully shy. He rarely gives interviews. The press — at least, in New York — respects him and leaves him alone. Redford directed Ordinary People but De Niro is ordinary people, and what should have been one of the most gratifying evenings of his life turns into a nightmare.

When he accepts his Oscar for Raging Bull, De Niro concludes his speech by ac­knowledging “the terrible things that hap­pened in the world.” Then he takes a deep breath, clutches his trophy, and makes the backstage rounds. In the photo room, Ron Gallela asks him to hold a photograph of himself as Jake La Motta close to his face. This is not De Niro’s style, but he com­plies, with embarrassment. He enters the print media room as Sissy Spacek is being interviewed, and, as inconspicuously as possible listens to ebullient Sissy dispense quotes like “I’ve had the longest adolescence known to man or beast.”

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Then he faces the firing squad. Because of his distance with newsmen, there is no “hi, Bob, kiss, kiss, congratulations, kid­do.” Formalities are dispensed with in­stantly. The topic is assassination.

Somebody asks him to comment on the reports that Hinckley had used De Niro’s part in Taxi Driver as a model for his one­way relationship with Jodie Foster.

“That’s a whole different thing that happened,” he mutters. “It’s a loaded question.” De Niro’s eyes dart around the room, avoiding the eyes of journalists. The faint smile he had offered on arrival has disappeared. So has any semblance of joy. He looks terrified.

“It’s a question I don’t want to be asked. It’s hard to answer something like that. It’s an assumption. It’s not what it is.”

But isn’t it’true that … but didn’t CBS report that … but didn’t Hinckley say that …

Piranha time.

De Niro mumbles “I said what I had to say when I accepted the award. You’re really all very nice, but I have to go.”

And De Niro goes. He bypasses the TV room. He is spared the obligatory emo­tional content questions by Miss Rona. He skips the Beverly Hilton ball and heads straight back to his penthouse at the Chateau Marmont.

At midnight, the Chateau’s switchboard lights up like a Christmas tree. De Niro isn’t taking calls.

Oscar night is over. ■
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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Shooting With Scorsese: Ready When You Are, Paisan!

Martin Scorsese, dressed in safari jacket, open neck silk shirt, jeans, and expensive Italian loafers, runs down East 13th Street, pokes his head into a Checker cab, and signals an assistant director, who in turn saunters over to a crowd milling behind a wood blockade. “Folks,” he says, “real quiet — we’d appreciate it. There’ll be a gunshot. Don’t be afraid.” A beat up floozy nudges her companion. “They’re making a movie about our ghetto,” she says. The assistant director yells, “Quiet please!” And the shooting begins.

Robert De Niro swaggers out of the cab, crosses the street to where Harvey Keitel slouches in a doorway. De Niro pushes Keitel. They exchange angry words. De Niro stalks off, turns around, pulls a gun from his jacket, and fires. The noise rings like the Hindenburg crash — so loud, in fact, that it doesn’t quite sound like a gunshot. Thirty minutes later, the scene begins again. This time, the gun doesn’t go off. An hour later, another start. But De Niro’s too close to Keitel, and is afraid to fire the blank cartridge. On the sixth take Scorsese says, “Print it.” De Niro says, “Shit.” And the assistant director yells, “It’s a wrap.” 

This is “Taxi Driver,” Martin Scorsese’s fifth feature film (after “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?,” “Boxcar Bertha,” “Mean Streets,” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”). It has been shoot­ing on the streets of Manhattan for nearly eight weeks. In addition to the East Village, locations include the Belmore Cafeteria (a hangout for hack drivers); Columbus Circle, where a political rally for a presi­dential candidate was staged; and a condemned apartment house on west 88th Street and Columbus. A stranger on the set might conclude that he was watching chaos on a high budget, but in fact, it was a highly organized sequence of events, or­ganized by Scorsese himself. 

The plot superficially resembles “Nashville” but it is unmistakably a New York story, set in an unmis­takably urban milieu. The lead character, played by De Niro, is a Vietnam vet. Like most cab drivers, he is treated as a part of the vehicle: people screw in the back seat, drug connections transpire; yet he re­mains completely anonymous to the passenger. In his travels, De Niro meets an ambitious presidential campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd), a 14-year-old hooker (Jody Foster), and a pimp (Harvey Keitel). Some­where along the line, he decides to shoot the presidential candidate. 

Circumstances intervene: his vic­tims instead are pushers and pimps. Ironically, he is acclaimed for his heroism. 

How the film will be interpreted is a matter of some concern to Martin Scorsese. He is afraid people will think there are parallels with Arthur Bremer’s assassination attempt on George Wallace. But the fact that the target is a candidate is peripheral. The issues are psychological, not political. 

It’s easy to summarize the film’s plot, but watching the drifters on East 13th Street, one wonders how many potential “taxi drivers” stalk the city streets. Where does life begin and Central Casting end? This was particularly noticeable a couple of weeks ago, during the filming of a breakfast scene at a pizza parlor on the corner of 14th Street and Third Avenue. The neighborhood hookers were hustling the crew, the local bowery figures were panhandling, fights erupted between derelicts. And Catherine and Charlie Scorsese, Marty’s parents, sat regally outside Variety Theater, proudly listing their son’s accomplishments to the sympathetic ear of a storefront pusher. 

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Mama Scorsese is often on the set, doling out humor and advice. She is a silver-haired heavyset woman, dressed immaculately in white. Marty treats her the same way he treats Keitel: he jostles with her and she doesn’t hesitate to jostle back. Some people say that this oddly fraternal give-and-take resembles the on-screen relationship between Alice and her son.

During a break from shooting, Marty talked in his trailer about movies. Films that have influenced him the most are Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising,” “Duel in the Sun,” and the westerns of John Ford. “I also used to see Sam Fuller’s pictures at the Academy of Music when I was a kid. ‘Pickup on South Street,’ ‘House of Bamboo’ and ‘Forty Guns.’ ‘Park Row’ I saw every night on ‘Million Dollar Movie.’ The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are great. I know it’s going to sound crazy, but my favorite is ‘The Tales of Hoffman.’ It’s a bad movie in many respects, but I learned a lot about editing and camera movement from watching it over and over. The dancing doll sequence is just gorgeous.” 

It’s somewhat incongruous hear­ing that Marty, who was born in Corona and learned the facts of life on the streets of Little Italy, received part of his training in the charlotte russe school of cinema claptrap. Does Marty consider himself a maker of New York films in the same way that Paul Mazursky has been a chronicler of the Southern California way of life? After all, “Mean Streets” not only captures the physical soul of the city but the emotional pulse of its inhabitants. “I don’t know,” replies Marty in his rapid fire, mile-a-minute hyperkine­tic delivery. “New York is a whole character in ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Taxi Driver,’ too. I love this city and take it for what it is — it’s good and it’s bad. I love the fire hydrants squirting water on summer nights and I love the ethnic joking among the crew when we film here. I don’t find that in L.A.” 

Was filming “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” in Tucson like tak­ing the boy out of the city but not the city out of the boy? The film was a collaborative effort between scriptwriter Robert Getchell, Marty, and Ellen Burstyn who put a lot of her own personal experiences into the movie. “If my films aren’t auto­biographical, there are certain feelings in the characters which I iden­tify with. Otherwise, it would take too much energy to make a movie and if I were disinterested in the characters, I’d be in big trouble. Even Barry Primus in ‘Boxcar Bertha’ carried my attitude and overview of the world.” 

In all of his movies, Marty’s com­passion, even for his dirty rat char­acters, shines through. For instance, in a “Taxi Driver” scene which he shot a couple of weeks ago, Jody Foster tells Harvey Keitel she doesn’t want to whore anymore. In­stead of slapping her down, Harvey picks Jody up and starts dancing around the room with her. He tells the young girl how much he needs her, how much he depends on her. The scene between pimp and hooker which began its life as a confronta­tion scene, suddenly becomes a love sequence. “It really doesn’t have much to do with the narrative struc­ture,” says Marty, “but it develops further insight into the two characters.” Would Marty be incapable of filming a cold and deadly movie, such as a film on the Houston mass murders of a couple of years ago? He contemplates the question for a min­ute or two, furrows his brow, and answers “I’m afraid so. For exam­ple, the murders in this movie were filmed in six days, and each day it got more grim to go into the hallways where we were filming and see artificial blood. I just got very upset.”

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Suddenly we’re interrupted by an aide. “Marty,” says the aide, “do you want the cab to park against the curb or should it be double parked?” “It should be crazy,” replies Marty. “Jutting out into the street a little, the front this way, the back this way.” Marty juts his body to the left and right. He seems to want to leap toward a drawing board to sketch a diagram of the cab, the same way that he sketches each scene in his films, but the aide says “Gotcha” and leaves the trailer at about the same time that Michael Phillips enters and deposits a couple of “Taxi Driver” T-shirts with us. Minutes later, Bobby De Niro whizzes in and whizzes out, silently, stealthily, like a pickpocket in the subway rush. De Niro is one of our great actors, yet the public knows more about Garbo than they do about Bobby. He shuns interviews, he keeps to himself, his private life’s a mystery. Why? Marty shrugs. “He was always shy, even at the age of 16 when I first met him. And when he works, he just blocks everything and everyone out. Ellen Burstyn was like that. She didn’t talk to anybody. When we were shooting ‘Alice’ she was al­ways by herself trying to concentrate. I can understand that, because when I work I get distracted a great deal. Bobby chooses to stay in his trailer, and that’s it. I don’t even bother him. I knock at his door. I say, ‘Can I come in?’ He says ‘sure, sure.’ Otherwise I leave him alone.” 

It’s near midnight and we leave the trailer and wander down 13th Street which is still teeming with humanity. Old women, their elbows perched on pillows, lean out their windows, surveying the street scene. Marty ambles over to his mother. They kibbitz. Ellen Burstyn stops by after her performance in “Same Time, Next Year” and stays to watch more retakes. The crew gets giddy as the hours pass by. There’s black coffee, feet drag, the crowd starts to thin out. The scent of un­collected garbage hangs heavy in the air. Taxi horn noises fill the air. One of the city’s lost souls sits in the gutter, gulping a Rheingold. He is merely an extra. Movie time in New York. 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Martin Scorsese Tells All: Blood and Guts Turn Me On!

After “Mean Streets,” Marty Scorsese was New York’s most evocative cinematic voice. He was Kid Ethnic, the skinny boy who tried to get respect in Little Italy by being sensitive instead of tough. He went to NYU where he learned to operate a camera with the street sense of Shirley Clarke and handle actors like John Cassavetes. Much of “Mean Streets” was shot in California but that didn’t matter: the language and obsessions oozing from Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel were pure native stock. Marty waited years to get “Mean Streets” off his chest, and in it, it seemed, was a moviemaker to grow up with.

Later some said Marty deserted his muse when he went to Arizona to make “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” But you have to get out of the neighborhood sometime. The film was a commercial suc­cess and Marty became, “bankable,” which is what Hollywood calls sure things. 

It was heartening to hear that Marty would shoot “Taxi Driver” on the old turf. But he didn’t return with the same adolescent flash. The gutter opera had turned to careful raunch; the manic camera that spoke of “becoming” was gone too, replaced by artful composition. De Niro and Keitel weren’t even Italian anymore. The cinema punk had gone stylish. Certainly many of the obsessions remained — the fearful and looming portrayal of blacks, the clumsy violence, the ritualistic males — but if the neighborhood in “Mean Streets” had Scorsese by the balls, in “Taxi Driver” he was exorcising old demons. 

We asked Marty about the past and present and what you can’t shake no matter what. —M.J.

“How did things go at the opening?

“Fine. Very good, in fact. Hollywood Boulevard theatre seems to be doing very good, I mean, really excellent.”

“What about the reviews?” 

“Reviews? Reviews is very, um — they’re very respectful, but they’re not… They don’t understand the ending and they don’t know if this kind of violence is really, you know… Actually, they’re wondering why we didn’t explain what this character’s about. They’re trying to find reasons why he did everything. And they get very upset at the ending because that may mean something else. See, everybody wants the picture to end like ‘Hamlet,’ everybody’s like dead all over the place, you know, and he looks up and points a finger at his temple and shoots himself three times, you know. That’s where everybody thinks it should end, because then it’s just like a… you know, I don’t think a Western is bad — I like Westerns — somebody gets killed and everybody goes home. Everybody forgets about the picture.”

“Well, maybe you could tell us why ‘Taxi Driver’ ended that way.”

“Well… [Laughter] the whole thing has to do with, you know, the whole process that the character goes through to the point at which he wants to sacrifice himself… And it’s going to be a blood sacrifice, right? Then you might as well do it right, and you might as well show every detail. I mean, I’m talking about the character. Travis goes through every detail, and the only thing is that he blows it, because he doesn’t get killed.”

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“Is that why he puts his finger to his head, he’s upset that he didn’t get killed?”

“Yes. It’s also kind of mocking himself… It’s the final irony. And then the camera going back over things is really kind of, like a reexamination of the elements of the sacrifice.”

“So, it’s a ritual?…”

“A ritualistic, religious experience. Like the Mass. Christ came down and said you don’t have to kill any more lambs, right?”

“Did He?”

“Yeah. He said I’m gonna go up on the cross and it’s going to be a human sacrifice and I’m going to be — I’m the son of God and uh, [laughter]… Do you understand my point? The idea of Christ coming to fulfill… not to, not to destroy, but to fulfill, you know, the prophecy and the idea was, you know, no more ritualistic blood sacrifice of lambs.”

“You mean, Travis thought if he did that killing, New York City would be clean?”

“Yeah.”

“Is that idea coming from inside Travis, or from you?…”

“That’s part of my thing, and it’s part of Paul’s thing [Paul Schrader, the screenwriter]. Uh, you know, Paul had a religious background, a depressed background, the whole thing. He was in the Special Forces, in the marines. You only get that by watching the kind of knife Travis is using at the end. It’s called a K-bar. Only Special Forces use it. Uh, the way he, uh, the way he, uh, exercises it, uh… The haircut, that’s very important at the end — because the Special Forces, before they went out on patrol in North Vietnam, they would shave their hair like that.”

“Are we meant to see Travis as a kind of average person, a well-adjusted guy?”

“No. By the time you see him, he’s ready for a breakdown. Travis is right on the edge, you know. Right from the first frame, he’s on the edge and we just wait the hour and 51 minutes for him to go over. But… I think that he has right on the surface a lot of the emotions, a lot of the problems, that most everybody has in them. I have them, Paul has ’em.”

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“Do you generally approve of your characters?”

“Absolutely.”

“What about their attitude toward black people?”

“Well, Bobby De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’ is a racist character.”

“What about the point of view of the movie, though? I mean, whenever we look at a black person, we see somebody who’s majestically evil looking.”

“…Looking into his eyes. Remember that shot when he says fucking Mau Mau land and suddenly Bobby looks over, sees this guy?… The guy was such a sweet guy. He was an extra. A very sweet guy. He was sitting there all night for that one shot. The shot was in slow motion, though. That’s why he looks evil.” [Snicker]

“What about the black woman in ‘Mean Streets’?”

“Absolutely. Yes. He says she’s beautiful, she’s beautiful, but she’s black. You gotta realize where these guys are coming from.”

“Do you worry about the fact that people are going to think that that’s the way you look at things or is that the way you look at things?”

“We were brought up that way. You don’t lose certain things, you only get to deal with certain things, right? I mean, how do, how do you say ‘Oh, I mean, in the Italian-American neighborhood I never heard the word, “Nigger.”’ [Laughter] Never. You know, how do you say that? I mean, that’s not true. It just isn’t true. I mean, if you’re gonna put something up there about yourself you might as well try to do it as honestly as possible.” 

“When you were growing up I mean, did you buy those values?” 

“Buy what values?” 

“Let’s say, values toward black people and toward violence? I’m curious about how you related to all that stuff as a child.”

“You relate to it in many different ways. I mean, in one way I was involved with it, but I was also involved with the Church at the time, you know?”

“Did they counteract each other?”

“Yes, sure. Sure, but at the same time, at the same time, you know, you’re in the streets and you’re watching the stuff and, um, you get involved with it. You get involved with codes of behavior, you know, and how do you act, how should you act in a situation like this? You know, can you make yourself a special person because you’re not, you know, uh, the toughest guy on the block? You know, how do you do that? Because there are ways, you know, you can survive, you know, and you know, ‘respect’ is a key phrase.” 

“One thing I always wanted to ask you — what’s a mook? You never find out in ‘Mean Streets’ what a mook is.”

“Well, no, it’s not, you don’t have know what he’s saying, that’s the point. I found out in a discussion — some guy told me it’s a, it means, it’s a slang for big mouth, like shooting off at the mouth, like very often, they call a guy a dun, remember at the end of ‘Mean Streets’ he pointed a gun at Michael, he says… DD—Disappointed Dunsky…”

“What’s that?”

“D-Dunsky is a word for dun. Dun is like a Don. Like Don Corleone.”

“So in other words, a guy who’s a disappointed Mafia leader?”

“Yeah, disappointed — a dun can mean a man of respect, you know, an honorable man.”

“How similar was your childhood to what went on in ‘Mean Streets’? Did you live through things like that?”

“You live through them… above some of them; you see some of them and some you can’t talk about, you know what I mean?”

“How angry do you feel about things?”

“If I didn’t feel angry, I wouldn’t have to make ‘Taxi Driver.’ ”

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“Do you feel angry the way that De Niro felt angry in that film?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“The movie’s like a nightmare to me.”

“Yes, it’s a nightmare. Yes.”

“I know Hitchcock works straight from his dreams. Do you ever do that?”

“Oh, sure, I had scenes in ‘Mean Streets’ that are dreams which I actually shot. You see the way it opens now, he jumps out of bed? Well, there was a dream before that. Took a shot of him lying on the ground — with a flame going out of his heart, some sort of flame in his chest, like it was supposed to be an X ray of him dying — you could see his soul burning up.” 

“Are there details in ‘Taxi Driver’ that come out of your dreams?” 

“All the slow motion. People in slow motion on the street. A lot of Bobby’s close-ups are slow motion. I wanted to extend the moment. You go inside his head, really, and also, it’s accentuating his acting, his looks.”

“Did you ever have nightmares like that?” 

“No, but that’s — very often when I get angry, that’s the way I feel.”

“How would you — can you — talk about that anger?” 

“Uh, gee, I should be paying you $45 a session…” [Laughter]

“Do you see a shrink?” 

“Oh, yeah, for the past few years… You talk about anger, like jealousy, for example, you put this woman as a goal, and then Travis puts all these self-destruct mechanisms, uh, in his actions with the girl, so that he knows that he can’t get her. Takes her to a porno movie, deep down knowing that he’s going to fuck up, you know… the conscious mind it’s fine, but the subconscious is saying you better screw up again and you don’t deserve her, understand?”

“Yes.”

“Well, uh, there’s a self-destruct mechanism that he puts in the relationship, see? So, uh… So, we talk about the anger and the jealousy and we come up with the whole thing he does in front of the mirror, which is really the key to the picture, you know…”

“Is that scripted, or did?…”

“No, that wasn’t scripted. We said, Bobby, let’s do something like that. Talk to yourself in the mirror. And when I shot the re­hearsals, I kept saying keep re­peating it. Repeat it. Because I couldn’t hear him. And it sounded great to me. I wanted to make sure we had it on sound. And the repeti­tion was what I liked. That’s what we used. The repetition of, ‘Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me?’ That’s what I liked a great deal. But there’s a lot of, um, you were asking the thing about the sessions, you know, like you think you put all that up on the screen. You think that you’re gonna, in a way — exorcise those feelings. Then, after the picture’s over, you watch it on screen and maybe besides the usual postpartum blues you have after a movie, there’s a period you go through when you realize, my God, you know, it isn’t enough to just put it on the screen. You’ve still got to work at chang­ing the feelings, you know, the feelings of anger and the feelings of — whatever.”

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“How do you manage to feel close to your feelings and emotions when you’re making a movie? It’s such a complicated process?”

“You laugh a lot. Especially with actors that I like, you know. I have fun with them and, uh, you get the violence though, and the violence is so, uh, inch by inch, A-B-C. There’s no fun in that. It’s a pain in the neck, so in between jobs, you know, you wait two hours, because makeup has to be done.” 

“You say the violence in your films is ritualistic, but the way you shoot it is realistic.”

“Right, the violence has got to be plain, straight, and fast, and awkward, awkward and stupid looking, just the way it would happen in real life. It’s got to be just as if the Daily News photographer went there and shot the a whole thing. It’s gotta be just like tabloid.” 

“It’s not much fun to shoot those violent scenes?” 

“Oh, it’s really not that much fun, no. No. Then you have to plug your ears because the gunshots are so loud. Everybody’s getting head­aches. Murray Marston had to come in every morning and get his hand cut off [snickers]… And uh, meanwhile, mind you, I’d taken Bobby out to dinner twice — through the blood and the Mohawk haircut. And nobody, nobody paid any attention. This was like 99th and Broadway in one of those Cuban-Chinese restaurants, you know. I looked like a regular, one of the Saturday night crowd.” 

“How do you feel about New York now that you don’t live here anymore?” 

“Well, I’m here most of the time really, I mean this is… L.A.’s one big office. It’s got palm trees, and you look out the window, ’cause I’m looking out the window now and it’s got trees outside. That’s about it. It’s an office.” 

“Are you going to make more movies in the streets of New York?”

“We are gonna come back to do ‘New York, New York.’ But only some of it. I would like to make this film look like a film that was made in the ’40s. You know, shoot in studios and have some fun with that.”

“It’s a musical.”

“Yeah.”

“Does anyone get killed in it?” 

“No. No.”

“I’m trying to figure out what a musical by Martin Scorsese could possibly be like.”

“First of all, it’s not a musical, it’s a film, which has music in it, that comes from an actual source, in other words, big bands, everybody gets up and sings — sing! — right? — music!” 

“Set in, like, 1940.”

“Opens on V-J Day. A guy comes out of the war, and loves jazz. And he plays a sax, and he plays sax rather violently, too — so he’s got a strange way of playing music. He hears some new music being played in Harlem. It’s the beginning of Charlie Parker, and all that sort of thing, he gets fascinated by it, and he tries to incorporate it, with the Big Band Sound. It’s really a story about him and a girl who sings in the band, and they’re very young, they get married, on impulse. Both characters are on the edges of emotion all the time — like, he’ll get up and play a solo, an unannounced solo — and throw off the rest of the band… that kind of guy.

“In other words, it’s a little like ‘Taxi Driver,’ it’s still the same character propping himself up.”

“Yeah, yeah, but he’s talented, and the thing is that the talent, her talent and his talent, get in the way of the relationship and they have to split.”

“Did you always want to be a Hollywood director?… when you went to all those movies, is that what you wanted to do?”

“I didn’t know what a director was, I just wanted — I guess — to make the movies. I don’t mean — not the details, but I always came back thinking how I would have done the film.” 

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“When I see ‘Taxi Driver,’ I notice a couple of heavy allusions. I mean, when Travis drops the Alka-Seltzer in the glass, is that like, a take from Godard?” 

“It’s exactly that. The script just says he pours the Alka-Seltzer in and, Jesus, think about what it refers to — the shot of the coffee cup in ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Her,’ she was all the way into the black coffee, and the coffee looked just like a galaxy, and they’re talking about the state of the universe.”

“Well I guess Travis is a lot like the character in ‘Diary of a Country Priest.’ ”

“Yeah, that’s my favorite of the Bresson pictures.”

“In fact, when Travis pours that peach brandy on bread, and he starts talking about how his stom­ach can’t…”

” ’Cause he, that’s again a self­-destructive thing. Don’t forget that what the priest is doing in ‘Diary of a Country Priest.’ He had cancer, that’s what he had the guy drinking this rotgut wine for, you know, he’s making sure he dies. But I mean — you should just understand — the way I like to work is I’m prompted by a lot of things, other books, things that happened to me in personal life, or that I do in life, some people will get it, some won’t, that’s fine.”

“Like what in ‘Mean Streets’?”

“Uh, ‘Mean Streets’ is a very, very… it’s really, obviously, personal, you know, because it deals with semi, semiautobiographical stuff, right? You know what I mean, by semiautobiographical, such as we were talking about before, saying that you really ex­perienced those things, well if you didn’t really experience them, ex­perience them spiritually or you hear about them, or you live through certain things like them, over a period of years, you know, if you compress them, you lie, you know, that’s what you do.” 

“Why does the murderer in ‘Mean Streets’ let his hair down at the last minute?”

“Several reasons. First one is — a ritual, he puts his hand over the glass, you know, ’cause what I had, I had — also, a physical problem, and I had to work it in the script.” 

“What physical problem?”

“Physical problem was that, the kid who did the scene was in another picture and he couldn’t cut his hair. Now, I knew that we had to write that in the script, and figure out a way that would work in terms of the whole picture — so that it should be done so that it’s almost like a ritual.”

“It never occurred to you that there would be any sexual ambiguity in it? I mean, the guy lets his hair down in the men’s room.” 

“Oh sure. Because nobody will know exactly what’s going to happen. Everybody… something sexual’s gonna happen and… bam!”

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“Why do people always bleed from the neck in your movies?” 

“…For anybody it’s… I think it’s — you really, to me, you really want to know?” 

“Sure…” 

“To me, I like the idea of spurting blood, it reminds… it’s like a… God, it’s… it’s really like a purification, you know, the fountains of blood… but it’s realistic, all realistic. That’s my own head, you know… the guy puts the blood… I said, give me a little more… he says, ‘there’s gonna be a lot,’ I said, that’s gonna be okay [Laughs]. And… that’s it, no explanation for it, nobody asks any questions. I like the idea of getting shot… I can’t, I can’t respond to that, I mean just why he gets shot in the neck, but… it’s a personal thing, but like… it’s based on something I have… whatever.” 

“Okay, I’ll accept that.” 

“Oh boy.” 

“You want us not to print that stuff about your neck?”

“About the neck? No, you can run it. What about it? I do what I feel, not what comes out of my head, it’s like a fountain, washing, the fountain, like in the Van Morrison song, you know. ‘Wash Me,’ you know, the whole idea of stand­ing in the waterfall?” 

“Do you actually feel cleansed after you’ve made a film?”

“For a while — I’m discovering now that a lot of other feelings just don’t go away. I’m very disap­pointed. [Laughs] You know, it’s the whole feeling that I used to have with the Church, you know, not being worthy, not being worthy enough to be a priest, not being worthy enough to do this, because you’re not good enough, you know what I mean?” 

“You wanted to be a priest, when you were a kid?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Did you feel that there was some reason why you didn’t do it besides the fact that you decided you didn’t want to do it?” 

“Uh, well… I couldn’t… I realized I couldn’t fit in the institu­tion, let me put it that way, I couldn’t fit in the institution of the Church… I was… I was con­sidered, you know, I was thrown out.” 

“Did you do something special that got you thrown out, or…” 

“Oh, well, I had great, great grades, and then I, uh, caused havoc. Caused great havoc, and you know, I just would bring in all kinds of things and cause all kinds of trouble in the classroom, and… I cut up a lot, too, I did a lot of cutting up you know, in a sense… class clown, I guess, that’s the thing, and I was thrown out.”

“Do you still feel ambivalent about not being a priest?” 

“No, no, I think I can’t fit in that. The institution, I mean, I can’t fit in that.”

“How are you fitting into the institutions in Hollywood?” 

“Not very well. No director ever does in this situation. I mean, this is not the old Hollywood, this is a different kind of Hollywood.” 

“Do you feel like you missed out on the romance?” 

“It’s still pretty romantic.” 

“Do directors hang out to­gether? Do you know Spielberg?” 

“Sure.”

“How would you have directed ‘Jaws’?” 

“I would never do a picture about water.” 

“What if it was a movie about mussels?” 

“Depends on how they’re cooked.” 

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Go Behind the Scenes on the 1975 Set of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”

Film Forum is currently presenting “Ford to City: Drop Dead — New York in the ’70s,” a series devoted to the classic, history-making movies made during some of the city’s darkest years. To celebrate the retrospective, we are sharing some of the stories and reviews that ran in the Village Voice during that time.

Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver might just be the greatest New York film of the Seventies. It was made during some of the city’s darkest days — there was a garbage strike and a heat wave during production, and Scorsese was in the edit room when the famous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline ran in the Daily News.

The Village Voice’s Arthur Bell was there on set as the film was being shot all over the crumbling, sweltering city. His piece for the paper included anecdotes from some of the movie’s most notable scenes, including the final confrontation between Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, as well as revealing glimpses of Scorsese and the people around him (including, touchingly, his mother, Catherine). Also making an appearance were the panhandlers and sex workers and other folks who looked on curiously as the cast and crew went about their business.

Interestingly, Bell notes that Scorsese was concerned some would find parallels between the film’s events and the 1972 assassination attempt on George Wallace; instead, in 1981, John Hinckley Jr. would be “inspired” by the movie to shoot then-president Ronald Reagan.

You can read Bell’s story, which ran in the August 18, 1975, issue of the paper, below.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

The Essence of “Heat”: A Look into the Soul of Michael Mann’s Epic Crime Drama

The true heart of Michael Mann’s Heat is revealed a little more than an hour into the film. No, I’m not talking about the classic coffee conversation between Robert De Niro’s master thief, Neil McCauley, and Al Pacino’s obsessed LAPD cop, Vincent Hanna — that fantastic and immortal face-off comes a little later. I’m talking about a pair of scenes that, at first glance, might seem somewhat extraneous but, when put together, hold Heat’s essence.

In one, we see Hanna and his colleagues with their families at a bar. He and his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), are dancing, a rare moment of domestic intimacy between them. Suddenly, Hanna gets a message on his pager. Justine looks away, knowingly; she understands how this goes. Hanna immediately heads to a crime scene, where a teenage sex worker has been killed by Waingro (Kevin Gage), a former member of Neil’s crew who, it happens, is psychotic.

While Hanna is investigating the scene, the victim’s mother shows up, distraught. As she approaches, he moves to intercept her — he doesn’t want this woman seeing the ghastly state of her daughter’s corpse. He grabs her, and suddenly, they wind up in a strange embrace. And then — in a brief gesture that Mann lingers on, slowing down the action and ramping up the music — they dance. Hanna and the mother start turning, arms locked around each other, and it looks like nothing so much as a mournful slow dance, an equal and opposite intimacy to what he was doing moments ago with his wife. It’s a potent echo.

Mann likes to talk about Heat — which hits Blu-ray this week in a gorgeous new edition loaded with extras — as a contrapuntal, dialectical story. (That is among the many topics I recently discussed with him in an  interview.) And the cat-and-mouse game between these two protagonists, the thief and the cop, both of whom we find ourselves thoroughly invested in, certainly shapes the film. Heat follows two men who get in each other’s heads and wind up influencing each other’s actions.

But there’s another counterpoint at play here, between these men’s work and their emotional, domestic lives. In Hanna’s case, the film is structured around the toll that being a detective — a job for which he feels he must keep his instincts sharp — takes on his marriage. In McCauley’s case, it’s the opposite. When we first see him, he lives in an empty, beautiful house, and is intimate with no one. Later, when he meets Eady (Amy Brenneman) and falls for her, he begins to open up. And suddenly, his emotional life starts to take a toll on his work.

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It’s this contrast that gives Heat such depth and turns it into something resembling poetry. Hanna struggles throughout with his marriage, with the fact that he’s never home for dinner, never emotionally available, never a real husband. Neil, once he becomes involved with Eady, starts to turn into the man Hanna refuses to be — the kind of person who might call home to check in when he’s out with others. As Hanna’s relationship falls apart, McCauley’s thrives.

And, in a final reversal, it’s the family man lieutenant who walks out on his attachments in order to get to the monklike career criminal. Toward the end of the film, Hanna sits in the hospital with Justine, waiting for word on her daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), who has just attempted suicide. (It’s another moment of rare domestic intimacy.) And yet again, Hanna gets a message on his beeper. With Justine’s encouragement this time, he’s off — in a funny, throwaway shot, Mann shows Pacino briskly trotting down the stairs, almost skipping, a free man.

It’s Neil, in the end, who can’t cut things loose — or acts to do so too late. He tries to take Eady with him on his getaway. Then, in a selfish act of vengeance, he detours to kill Waingro. By the time Neil does walk away — when he literally sees the heat (aka Hanna) coming around the corner and has to abandon his girlfriend — his fate is sealed.

Here comes one final convergence, which brings together the film’s twin counterpoints — cop and robber, work and home. Vincent was sitting in a hospital, holding hands with Justine, when he was called away — much as he’d been dancing with her earlier when he was summoned to the murder scene. Now, near the runways of LAX, after he has finally shot McCauley, he finds himself holding hands again — this time with the master criminal drawing his last breath. It’s not that, at long last, McCauley is dead and Hanna is alive. In the movie’s final shot, each man is perfectly still. They belong together. For both, this is the end of the line.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Crime in Counterpoint: Michael Mann on his Restored Masterpiece “Heat”

Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, Heat, comes out this week in a brand-new, fully loaded and beautiful Blu-ray edition. To explore further what makes this epochal crime drama so special, I recently talked to the director.

The story of Heat was based on real-life personalities. There was real thief named Neil McCauley, and Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna was based on legendary Chicago cop Charlie Adamson. How close are they to the real-life models?

Hanna is fairly close to a combination of Charlie Adamson and a couple of other law enforcement people I’d known who were primarily hunters. Guys who, if you really asked them, “You have to tell me what motivates you, and you’re only allowed to say one thing,” their answer would not be, “To serve and protect.” They certainly have a moral compass, but that’s not the single motivating engine. It really has something to do with being at the tip of the spear. They’re predators, and the more difficult the target is, the more they’re attracted to it. Typically, they’re very self-aware. And that’s Hanna. As he says to Justine, “All I am is who I’m going after.” He’ll leave behind the wreckage of marriages, and he’ll never say, “Well, that just didn’t work out,” as if there’s some third-party responsibility. He’s the author of everything that happens to him in his life.

As for McCauley, what we borrowed from the actual Neil McCauley was his professionalism, and the high regard that Charlie had for him. Charlie would speak of him in glowing terms. “This guy was terrific. What a professional! We were sitting in Wieboldt’s department store in Chicago, and we had cut into the crew. We knew what they were gonna take down. We were inside the store when they were doing a burglary, going after the safe, which had a lot of cash in it. And one thing was out of place, and this guy walked away from months of preparation and investment!” Charlie admired that.

The characters are also quite forthright. They talk about how their minds work. Was that also true of the real-life people?

Yes. Charlie’s partner was Dennis Farina, who was a detective in Chicago when I first met him, during Thief. They lived a very aggressive life, and Charlie was very forthcoming. When he had contact with Neil McCauley, he looked forward to having a dialogue. And he’d be very flattering because he wanted Neil to be forthcoming. They’d have personal conversations: Do you have a woman? What’s your life like? What’s your life view?

There was an overt and an ulterior motive to Charlie doing that. The overt motive was that he was fascinated with McCauley, because the guy was great at what he did. The contradiction, that McCauley would blow him out of his socks without thinking twice about it, isn’t really a contradiction. The ulterior motive was that Charlie understood himself so well that he knew that his subconscious mind was picking up aspects of McCauley that he may not even recognize at the time. He knew there might be a critical moment three months later in which he would have to make a snap decision: Do I go left or do I go right? What behavior can I predict this guy is likely to do? He knew that, in those totally intuitive decisions, what he knew about McCauley would be a deciding factor. So he always wanted to accrue more information, get more in contact with him.

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This idea of predictive behavior — both the cops and the crooks in the film try to know as much as possible about everyone so that they can predict their next move — isn’t this a reflection of what actors and filmmakers do? Aren’t you essentially trying to predict how a character would act in these circumstances that you’ve created?

I’ve got a theory, which probably holds no water whatsoever, about why there’s so much genre content in media — meaning police stories, crime stories, so much of that. It’s because of the nature of the medium. Detectives detecting do what writers and directors do in the inverse: We have an idea for a character, and our character has origins that we invent. Those origins become an engine that causes him to do certain activities and express himself and have different attitudes based on who the character is. And then those activities have consequences and leave behind certain effects.

But a detective works all the way at the other end. He sees the remains of a crime — the leavings. He starts to work backwards to what happened. What was the activity? And if this was the activity, what could I discover about the motivations of the person whose identity I do not know? And how can those motivations allow me to predict his future activity, so that I can intercept him and find out who he is? So, if you’re a detective and there’s a burglary of, I don’t know, a retail fur store — this is a simplistic example — then you know that the motive of the thief is probably cash money. That means he’ll have to fence the furs. You can predict his behavior, and you start working fencers who fence furs. You work backwards. The process, even though it’s an inversion, is very similar.

You fill out the emotional lives of all these characters — not just the main two guys. Were you at all concerned at the time about how expansive the film was?

Not at all. That was my central ambition. I didn’t set out to do a genre piece that would conform to a set type. It’s not a cops-and-robbers film. To me, it’s human drama, period. And it’s a very ambitious film, but in its ambition it was to be two things. One was kind of a counterpoint: Could I pull off a very contrapuntal film in which there are really only two protagonists? The second was that I wanted to dimensionalize everybody — that everybody should have a life. Whether it’s Hanna and Justine, Neil and Eady, Chris and Charlene Shiherlis, Waingro and his psychosis, Breeden, the Dennis Haysbert character, Lilli … everybody had a life. That’s how I got emotionally engaged in them, and more invested in the outcome of what happened.

In the case of the two protagonists, Hanna and Neil McCauley, I separated them out because each is an engine that drives the thesis and the antithesis into the ending. I decided that only those two would be totally self-aware. That’s why they have a unique rapport. And the ambition behind this was: Can I have a drama in which, at the same time, we’re 100 percent invested in Neil McCauley getting away, and we’re also 100 percent invested in Hanna’s intercepting him? We don’t want the interception to occur, and yet we’re thrilled about the potential of it occurring, all at the same time.

But they really are two different people. McCauley was state-raised, angry and aggressive. And an autodidact in prison where — working on his body and his mind — he developed real discipline. And that’s his doctrine now: distance, no associations that can increase the risk of apprehension, with the plan to delay the emotional life he so desires — the Technicolor-Fiji ideal — till after he’s scored and splits.

There’s also another counterpoint in the film, between home life and work. Pacino’s scenes with Diane Venora are shot in these almost Antonioniesque angles, with a lot of flat surfaces and carefully composed shots. But when he’s out on the street, it’s a lot of handheld — we’re very close to him, in his head, as he’s surveying the terrain.

He is truly alive on the street. As he says to Justine, “All I am is who I’m going after,” after she says, “You think it could work out between us?” in the waiting room of the hospital. He’s not successful at home — that’s part of his prioritization. He’s most alive in that cool groove of deep concentration. That’s his inspiration: When he sees a piece of physical evidence and then he overhears a conversation, he puts two plus two plus two and it equals 11, 12 or 13, because he suddenly has an epiphany or he sees a pattern nobody else saw. That is his drug of choice, if you like.

There’s this scene when Hanna is out with the other cops and their families. He’s dancing with Justine, and he gets called away, to go check out the girl that Waingro has killed. At the crime scene, the girl’s mom shows up, and it’s an incredibly sad moment: Hanna goes to embrace her, and they suddenly start turning around, and it’s almost a dance — it’s basically the same dance he did with Justine. You see the kind of sacrifice that work involves — even dancing with his wife is taken over by the job.

Yes, and in the scene that follows, he gives Justine this sense that, when a tragedy occurs, he doesn’t close himself off to it and abstract it, the way a good homicide detective would. He absorbs it, because it feeds him information — even if it’s traumatic as hell. So he doesn’t stay distant to that mother’s anguish. He feels that pain, and he uses that. He’s a very unusual character.

You were working on the script for a long time — through the 1970s. How did it change over the years?

The big change was discovering what the ending should be. The contrapuntal ending: Hanna has just killed Neil McCauley, who is fortunate enough to pass away in the company of the man with whom he’s closest in a way, who’s the most like him and understands him the best. Once I realized that that’s how the movie should end, that meant I could build everything off of that. I never had that ending quite right that way, until whatever rewrite it was that led me to sit down with producer Art Linson in the Broadway Deli — which is no longer there, but it’s where Neil picks up Eady — and I asked him if he wanted to go produce this thing with me. He read it, came back and said, “You’re out of your fucking mind. You have to direct this.”

De Niro and Pacino give career-best performances here, but how were they different as actors to work with? Do they approach their characters differently?

Yes, but the differences are simply individualistic. We all come from the same basic place about building a character inside you, and being able to do what that character does — which then allows you to push even further. To say that an actor has one method of acting versus another method of acting is false with the guys I’ve worked with — who are the best. Pacino’s method of acting is the Pacino method, that’s it. For Al, it’s very much about internalizing the way somebody feels. He memorizes scenes two weeks before he’s gonna shoot them. He wants them to roll around in his consciousness. He’ll dream about them. And Bobby is terribly smart — brilliantly analytical. “Why does this guy do that?” and the specifics are all very important. You know, what he’s wearing — all that detail is very expressive of character and feeds something to him. Pacino’s less concerned about what he’s wearing.

I think my favorite moment with De Niro is this tiny little bit when he’s busted Ashley Judd for having an affair with Hank Azaria. They’re in the hotel room, and De Niro’s looking at her and says, sternly, “Clean up, go home.” And then he repeats it, “Clean up, go home.” It’s such an odd repetition, but it feels completely right for that moment.

It might be my favorite part of his performance. There’s something in that moment — he is 200 percent Neil McCauley. He is the boss of that crew. He’s taking responsibility. He’s being protective. “Clean up, go home”: I’ll keep the lie. I’ll keep the marital betrayal that I’ve just discovered, which potentially is dangerous to our security. And it turns out it is — because Pacino discovers Hank Azaria, and they use him to get to Ashley Judd.

The other little moment that always jumps out at me is the little grin De Niro gives right when he’s decided he’ll break with his pattern and go after Waingro. The thought process that passes through his face when he’s in the car, and then right at the end there’s just a little hint of a smile.

We shot that one night, I didn’t get it. We went back another night, I thought I had it. I didn’t have it, and we went back a third night. While we were out there at the airport, I’d say, “Let’s take an hour and go shoot that moment again.” And then we got it. [Laughs] It’s one of those really intangible things, but when you get it, it really pays off. Responding that way is a deviation from his discipline of distance and separation. It’s an error, but it’s thrilling to him — he’s responding viscerally, intuitively, spontaneously.

You very subtly underline the fact that it is an error by having Pacino say, right before that, “He’s gone, he’s left. I know how his mind works, and he’ll be gone by now.” That highlights the fact that McCauley has broken with the discipline that has kept him alive all these years.

Yeah, and then when Al goes to the hotel, what does he see? He sees a girl [Amy Brenneman], alone in a car. If he and De Niro hadn’t had the coffee-shop scene — if he hadn’t stopped to say, “I want to know more about you,” and had that face-to-face [during which De Niro tells him he has a girlfriend] — he wouldn’t have known about the girl in the car. And it may not be her. She may be somebody else. But the way she’s sitting there, alone in a car, it just clicks with something he learned during that coffee-shop scene.

In many scenes, the background feels vital to what’s happening emotionally. In Neil’s house, we see the waves in the background or the city lights stretching out into the distance. I know it’s often hard to keep the background in the shot while you’re trying to focus on actors, especially in night scenes. And I think this is one of the reasons why you turned to video in Collateral. Was it a challenge here?

The challenge wasn’t so much to keep the background in the shot as it was [figuring out] what is the physical environment in which to have a scene, so that it’ll impact how the audience is feeling and amplify what’s going on. It all starts with scene analysis: the dramatic content of the scene, what the scene is telling us, how should it make the audience feel. I want you to feel the alienation of somebody who has the absolute minimum in that place. He lives in a world of abstraction. That’s why I picked that location, with the ocean out the window. And the windows are kind of dirty, you know — he doesn’t pay much attention to maintenance. He’d probably have a fork and a knife and a spoon, a coffee maker, and that’s about it.

“Never do anything you can’t walk away from in 30 seconds flat if you see the heat coming around the corner.” Where did that line come from? Is it your line, or is it something you heard in your interactions with cops and ex-cons?

I’m trying to remember … I think it’s my line, from Charlie Adamson’s description about how Neil McCauley lived his life. Or how you’d have to live your life if you were gonna be as effective as you can possibly be as a professional thief. The more attachments you make, the more vulnerable you are. Get in a big romance, you run away to Brazil, after six months you have a bad night, you’re really lonely, you pick up the phone and call her — and they have you.

I’ve always wanted to ask you this: Were you ever a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films?

You know, actually I’m not. [Laughs]

People compare your work to his all the time.

I haven’t seen all of his films. I think he’s a very good director. I think it’s historically very interesting because they derive from American film noir cinema, so it’s kind of the French version of that. It’s like when I first heard English bands, in 1965. I’d been a big devotee of Chicago blues and spent a lot of time in 1961, ’62, and ’63 listening to Muddy Waters in his local bar — and these were not white blues joints. And to hear these British bands, like the Animals, trying to do this music … it always felt very derivative at best.

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Cannes Report: Leviathan, the Winners, and Adieu

The Festival de Cannes closing ceremony makes for a fun and festive night, particularly, I suspect, if you get to watch it live from the Lumiere, the largest theater in the Palais de Festival complex and the spot where all the major events take place. Most journalists watch a simulcast from the smaller theater, the Debussy, and that’s usually plenty of fun by itself — provided the technology works, which it didn’t last night: The feed kept cutting out, leaving us literally in the dark for long stretches of the ceremony. C’est la vie.

But we did hear jury president Jane Campion mangle the names of Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, screenwriters of the somber Russian drama Leviathan, which won the Best Screenplay prize. You can’t really blame her — those Russian names are hard — and while plenty of people chortled in amusement and dismay, I can’t say her error was nearly as funny, or as charming, as the time a few years back when then-jury president Robert De Niro, speaking clumsy French and attempting to bestow a compliment on his fellow jurors, inadvertently referred to them as mushrooms (champignons).

But who am I to talk? My grasp of French is almost as vaporous as De Niro’s is, and now, having reached the tail end of this 10-day festival, I feel I have sufficiently mangled the language: I beg the forgiveness of the people of Cannes, and of the festival, who by and large have been lovely and patient. But before I leave the land of the mysterious handheld shower apparatus, a few more words about the winners.

Turkish filmmaker (and critics’ favorite) Niri Bilge Ceylan won the Palme d’or for his leisurely character study Winter Sleep, a choice that surprised almost no one, though many hoped that Leviathan would take the top prize: Director Zvyagintsev’s fourth feature — he may be best known for The Return (2003) and Elena (2011) — is a quiet and challenging drama with bitter social and political undertones. It’s a movie about suffering that’s extraordinarily graceful, and it’s scathing in its indictment of Russian bureaucracy. Zvyagintsev has taken a risk in making this picture and putting it before the world.

Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher took the Grand Prix for The Wonders, a gentle little movie about a family of beekeepers. Bennett Miller snagged Best Director for Foxcatcher, his study of the twisted relationship between rich weirdo John Du Pont and two Olympic-champion brothers, featuring a killer trio of performances by Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, and especially Channing Tatum. Julianne Moore (David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars) and Timothy Spall (Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner) took the best actress and actor prizes. Moore wasn’t present to accept her award, but a clearly stunned Spall made his way to the stage and launched into a rambling speech that, even if it seemed to annoy some of the more uptight Europeans, ended with a touching grace note: When Leigh brought his 1996 feature, Secrets and Lies, to Cannes, Spall couldn’t come — he was being treated for leukemia at the time. After making a joke about having had the “audacity not to die,” he ended a sprawling list of thank you’s by adding, “Most of all, I just thank God that I’m still here and alive.”

The top prize in Un Certain Regard competition — announced Friday night — went to Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczo’s White God, a dystopian allegory about a pack of stray dogs which I didn’t get to see, though those who did report that it’s intense and harrowing. Un Certain Regard jury prize went to the extraordinary Force Majeure, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s wry, observant, and often extremely funny picture about a family navigating shifting dynamics during a ski vacation.

The Camera d’or, for first film, went to Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis for Party Girl, a somewhat overwrought drama about an aging bar hostess. And in the main competition, the Jury Prize was split between two entries, Xavier Dolan’s hyperactive mother-son melodrama Mommy and Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language. The Québecois Dolan, just 25, seemed to be genuinely thrilled with this prize. And though the famously elusive Godard wasn’t on-hand to accept his — it’s the first time he’s won a prize at Cannes — let’s hope the honor at least means extra treats for his dog, Roxy Miéville, the true star of his movie. It appears she’s his lucky charm.