MARTIN SCORSESE REVEALS
THE TRUE MEANING OF HIS VIOLENT 'MEAN STREETS'
This interview with Martin
Scorsese--the first of three I did with the director for The New
York Times--was conducted in 1973, just when critics and audiences
were beginning to realize that here was a major cinematic talent.
Since then, Scorsese has directed many challenging, richly rewarding
films, including "Taxi Driver," "New York, New York,"
"Raging Bull," "The Color of Money," "Goodfellas,"
"The Age of Innocence," "Gangs of New York,"
"The Aviator" and "The Departed." --GUY FLATLEY
Scorsese said goodbye to God a long time ago. But youd have
a devil of a time selling that story to the flight attendants on
the plane that recently carried him here from his home in Hollywood.
"Every time I get on an airplane," Scorsese admits, "I
know Im not really an atheist. Oh God, dear God,
I say the minute the plane takes off, Im sorry for all
my sins, please dont let this plane crash. And I keep
praying - out loud - until the plane lands."
Now that the plane has landed and God is dead again, the short,
intense Italian-American is free to sit in the placid safety of
his Pierre suite and pursue the one subject which, to him, truly
smacks of divinity. That subject is movies - from Griffiths
"Broken Blossoms" to Rossellinis "Stromboli"
to Fullers "I Shot Jesse James" to Scorseses
"Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore."
who? "Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore" is the 31-year-old
directors new movie, one which will star Ellen Burstyn as
a would-be nightclub singer who makes a wild and wooly adjustment
to widowhood. In fact, Scorsese has flown to New York for the sole
purpose of scouting suitable suitors for the freshly liberated lady.
One of Alices more ardent admirers - a gentle-seeming
bachelor who turns out to be a married maniac - has already
been cast, however. That sickee will be played by Harvey Keitel,
who scored in Scorseses 1969 film, "Whos That Knocking
at My Door?," and in "Mean Streets."
Streets," of course, is the Scorsese sleeper which shook up
the critics when it unspooled at the recent New York Film Festival
and which is now serving the customers at Cinema I a gut-raw, yet
strangely operatic slice of life among the small-time thugs and
spiritual misfits of New Yorks Little Italy.
Cinema for the squeamish it isnt. Cars
screech, guns blast, women wail, men vomit and fists pound with speed and fury. And we sense the futility,
we know that all those dumb, pathetic figures parading defiantly
across the screen are doomed by the violence in and around them.
We know exactly how far Charlie, the young and dangerously softhearted
hood played by Keitel, will get in his frantic effort to protect
Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), his mush-brained
buddy, from vengeful assassins.
in the end, we are jolted when - together with Charlies
epileptic girlfriend Teresa (Amy Robinson, shown here with De Niro
and Keitel) - they are bloodily ambushed when trying to escape
across the Brooklyn Bridge. (The half-pint, dark-eyed Sicilian who
pulls the trigger is played by Scorsese himself - a bit of
self-casting which may have proved meaningful to Dr. Robert Kahn
, Scorseses California analyst whose therapeutic talents are
gratefully acknowledged in the films closing credits.)
"Mean Streets" may not be pretty, but - according
to its maker - it is true to ghetto life. The character of
Charlie, with his priest-spawned feelings of guilt, is based partly
on Scorsese himself and partly on a close friend who still lives
in Little Italy. The wild and vulnerable Johnny Boy, too, is real
- though, like Scorsese, he has fled far, far from his native
turf. Were it not for Scorseses insatiable appetite for movies,
however, it is conceivable that he would be dwelling today down
on Elizabeth Street, where his parents were born and still live
and where he himself grew up - a frail, asthmatic boy doing
his best to keep pace with one of Little Italys more rambunctious
Unlike Charlie in "Mean Streets," Scorsese managed to
remain on the straight side of the law. "We werent that
kind of gang. There was a lot of horsing around, but we seldom got
into real fights. We were more into the social thing, hanging out
in bars, picking up girls. By the time my friends and I were 12
or 13, we were drinking an awful lot of hard liquor."
What about hard drugs? "Never. We didnt even smoke pot.
We thought it was as bad to use drugs as it was to sell them. I
still feel that way, although I do try a little grass now and then.
But I cant really smoke, because of my asthma. But never the
hard stuff. That was the major point of accuracy in The Godfather.
The mafia looks down on pimps and drugs."
One or two critics looked down on "Mean Streets," calling
it a low-budget copy of Francis Ford Coppolas monumental look
at the mafia. "Mardik Martin and I wrote the screenplay for
Mean Streets seven years ago, so we could hardly have
been influenced by The Godfather. We werent trying
to do the same sort of thing at all. Francis Coppola made an epic
Hollywood picture, an old-fashioned movie - in the good sense
- like Gone With the Wind, only better."
Nor were those Corleone kids noticeably churned-up by memories of
their Catholic boyhoods. Scorsese, on the other hand like
the scrupulous protagonist of "Mean Streets" - did
not take church dogma and liturgy lightly. "My friends used
to say, Jeeze, Marty, do you really believe all that stuff
the priests tell you? Well, I did believe it, every word of
it. I wouldnt touch meat on Friday, and I believed I would
go to hell if I missed Mass on Sunday. As a matter of fact, I went
into the seminary after grade school, but they threw me out at the
end of my first year for roughhousing during prayers. They thought
I was a thug."
Scorsese was crushed, but he managed to thug and chug his way through
Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, still cherishing the dream
of one day becoming a priest, a dream he continued to dream at NYU
- until the day he stumbled upon the film department. "I
was bitten, and the whole vocation thing shifted."
shifted so drastically that Scorsese was soon turning out stunning
student films and, eventually, he taught a course in filmmaking
at NYU. During the sixties, he also worked as a news editor at CBS,
shot commercials, and served as supervising editor on "Woodstock."
Finally, in 1968, he wrote and directed his first feature, "Whos
That Knocking at My Door?" Like "Mean Streets," Scorseses
maiden movie probed the psyche of a sensitive Italian-American drifter
(Harvey Keitel, above), an emotional cripple whose relationships
were poisoned by prejudice.
"Its the ghetto that creates prejudice," Scorsese
says. "I can remember when I was 5 and my brother was 12, we
were walking down the street one day and suddenly we saw a big crowd
of people. They were standing around a man who had fallen and his
head was bleeding. My brother took a look at him, and then turned
to me and said, Oh, hes only a Jew. And that is
one of my earliest memories.
"We hated the Irish, too, because of the Fifth Precinct. It
was unheard of for any of us to call a cop, unless it was to give
him some graft. Cops were always Irish, always drinking, and always
had their hands out. We used to bribe them so we could play stickball
in the street. Its still that way - believe me, 'Serpico'
only skimmed the surface."
Is it possible that "Mean Streets" overstresses the seamy
side of life in Little Italy? There must be some decent, hardworking
people living there.
"Sure - the majority of the people in Little Italy are
decent, hardworking people. My parents are over 65 and theyre
still decent, hardworking people. My mother worked in the garment
center for over 30 years, and because there was some switch in management,
shes no longer eligible for retirement benefits. Now shes
going around to job interviews.
"But theres also this milieu of young turks. Some people
are shocked that these guys are running around, buying and selling
hot stuff. But Im not shocked - Ill buy toothpaste
from them for 19 cents instead of 50 cents. Why not? Its not
as if theyre dealing in heroin. And dont forget, even
numbers runners are hardworking guys."
Scorsese never sold hot toothpaste and he never ran numbers. What
he did was go to NYU, find himself a nice girl who was part Irish
and part Jewish, and then he settled down to a life of domestic
bliss. But the bliss was brief and his former wife now lives in
New Jersey with her second husband, and with Scorseses 8-year
old daughter, Catherine.
"In a way, I guess my marriage was a form of rebellion. Up
to that time I had been dating a Sicilian girl and, to this day,
that girl is very close to my parents. I got married in Saint Patricks
Cathedral in 1965, and I left the church not long after that. There
were problems about mortal sin, certain sexual things. But what
really did it was sitting in a church in Los Angeles and hearing
a priest calling the Vietnam war a holy war."
Scorseses own sense of rage over Vietnam was eloquently reflected
in "Street Scenes 1970," his documentary about antiwar
protesters. Yet he feels that "Mean Streets" is by far
his most political film. "'Mean Streets' shows that organized
crime is similar to big government. Theyre both machines.
In the Sicilian culture, we learned never to expect much from the
government, having been trod upon by one government or another for
some 2,000 years. That is why the family is the unit we always look
to for strength.
"Still, that does not mean I should sit back without making
a protest. There has been more underhanded stuff done in Washington
than well ever be able to fathom. Its almost been worth
two terms of Nixon to find out just how things work. Peter Boyle
caught on to Mean Streets. We were at a party in Hollywood
recently, both of us drinking a lot, and he came up and grabbed
me by the arm and said, Hey, you really slipped it in under
them, didnt you? No sermon, nothing. You just showed them
that our whole way of life in this country has been leading to one
place and one place only - Watergate. "
there is more to life than politics and movies, which is where pretty
Sandra Weintraub comes in. "Sandy will be working very closely
with me on Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore. Shes
actually like an associate producer - she starts at the very
beginning of a film, discussing dialogue with me and making suggestions
for casting. It was Sandy who suggested David Carradine -
whom I had directed last year opposite Barbara Hershey in Boxcar
Bertha (above) - for the small role of the man who gets
murdered in the bar in Mean Streets. People say Im
giving Sandy a job because shes my girlfriend, but the fact
is she understands film - she even did some of the editing
on Mean Streets - and when you find somebody like
that, you should hang on to her."
Sounds like a match made in movie heaven. Is there any chance theyll
come down to earth long enough to tie the knot? "Im not
sure. Whats the difference, anyway? If youre with a
girl for two or three years, you are married. Of course, it might
be different if we wanted children. Sometimes I think it would be
nice to have kids, but not in this business. This is such an ego-oriented
profession; you deal with yourself first."
In truth, Scorseses ego does not obscure the love he feels
for his daughter; he is obviously troubled by their separation.
"She lives with her mother and stepfather, she goes to a good
private school, and she is happy. The best I can do is pay for her
education, and now - since Mean Streets -
thats easier to do. Ive seen her more this past year
but thats a whole new thing for her, getting
used to me. My wife and I broke up when Catherine was 3 or 4. Weve
got to get to know each other. It would be good to have her with
me for a month or so.
"Catherine has been into film since she was 5, when I took
her into a cutting room and let her operate the movieola,"
Scorsese says with fatherly pride. "She knows all about freeze
frames, and she even knows films by their directors. I want
to see a Dick Fleischer film, shell say. Her favorite
movie right now is The Poseidon Adventure. When she
told me that, I said, 'What? Youre
no daughter of mine!
"She came to see Mean Streets at the Film Festival.
Her stepfather brought her, and I had to get a telephone book for
her to sit on. It was a funny thing - she was delighted with
the festival itself, the atmosphere of Lincoln Center and all that,
but the movie seemed to bewilder her. I dont think she could
follow the story, with everything happening so quickly. Afterward,
she was tongue-tied, sort of embarrassed."
Scorsese himself seems momentarily tongue-tied. "You know,"
he says finally, "the only thing she could think to say was,
How did you ever get all that blood to work? "