Martin Scorsese is a fighter: Battles with cocaine, death threats"¦ and Liza Minelli?
by Adam Horowitz
I've been reading Peter Biskind's scrumptious chronicle of 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and one thing I've learned is that even in that wonderfully liberated climate - with the old studio system collapsing and hippie visionaries seizing power - becoming a successful filmmaker and then staying a successful filmmaker was as hard as ever. A great case in point: Martin Scorsese.
Today the bushy-eyebrowed maestro is in his fourth decade directing, having long proven himself as one of our greatest filmmakers. But Scorsese's rookie years were no cakewalk. Beset with obstacles of all kinds (some of his own making), it's a credit to his determination that he was able to overcome them. The following are 9 things young Marty the dreamer had to contend with.
Coke smuggling, conflict with the Manson family and 7 more after the jump...
Battle #1: Extreme Asthma
Scorsese has suffered from chronic asthma ever since he was a boy, but it worsened considerably when he moved from New York to L.A. in 1971. The effects were debilitating: he was in and out of the hospital continuously; he couldn't step foot in a room if someone inside it was smoking; he was forced to keep an oxygen tank by his bed. Worse still, he was prescribed cortisone that made his body blow up (it made him so embarrassed that he'd remain fully dressed on the sand while all his friends skinny-dipped). He also had to take constant puffs from an inhaler which affected him like speed "“ he'd rattle on relentlessly about movies to anyone who'd listen.
Describing his situation, he says, "I never really got much sleep at night because of waking up coughing. I had mounds of tissues around the bed in the morning. By the time I got past an attack in the middle of the night, I took an asthma pill and fell into a really deep, peaceful sleep, it was time to get up again. So I was a little cranky, never quite all there. Wherever I went, I was always late."
Battle #2: A fear of 11s (and the pouch of charms around his neck?)
During the 70s, Scorsese had a panoply of phobias and superstitions, some rooted in his intense Catholic upbringing, others sprung out of his own tortured psyche. He was terrified of flying and would always clench a crucifix in his fist during takeoff. His unlucky number was 11, which meant he wouldn't travel on the 11th, he wouldn't take flights whose digits added up to 11, and he wouldn't take a room on the 11th floor of a hotel. He also carried a gold amulet to ward off evil spirits and he wore a pouch around his neck filled with lucky charms.
Battle #3: Lack of confidence in his work
After high school, Scorsese went to the seminary to study for the priesthood, but soon decided to follow his true passion, enrolling in the film program at NYU. The two movies he felt most inspired by were Citizen Kane and Shadows (John Cassavetes's landmark independent film). After struggling for four years to complete his first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? (financed in large part by his dad, and starring a young Harvey Keitel who was working as a court stenographer at the time), Scorsese didn't know how well the movie would be received or who might see it. One of his friends arranged for Cassavetes himself to take a look at it. Amazingly, the legendary director loved it: "This movie is as good as Citizen Kane. No, it's better than Citizen Kane, it's got more heart." When Scorsese heard the praise he almost fainted.
Battle #4: Lack of confidence with women
Scorsese, never considered an Adonis by any measure, always felt insecure around women. Even when he became famous, that just seemed to make things more complicated for him. His friend Mardik Martin described his curious predicament: "He had to be "˜Martin Scorsese' for him to deal with a woman, but then he worried she would only like him because he was "˜Martin Scorsese.'" A catch-22, indeed. Scorsese probably would've benefited by meeting more women with taste like that of his second wife Sandy Weintraub. Describing her first glimpse of Scorsese, she says, "I thought Marty was just the cutest thing I had ever seen. He was chubby and he had long hair and no neck, and was shorter than me." She immediately approached him and asked him out to dinner.
Battle #5: The Censorship Board
The ending of Scorsese's brilliant 1976 film Taxi Driver is very violent and bloody; in one shot, a man gets his fingers blown off in full visual detail. Afraid that the picture would be dealt an X rating, Columbia Pictures wanted Scorsese to revise the ending completely, to cut out all the violence. Scorsese was enraged at the suggestion.
Afraid that the executives would seize the print, he locked it in the trunk of his car and snuck it off the lot.
Eventually he agreed to cut a few frames of blood spray, but more significantly, he suggested desaturating the colors in the scene, making the blood look a little less red. The ratings board was satisfied with this and awarded the film an R. Ironically, Scorsese was very happy with the desaturation, it was something he always wanted to try. He felt that with the colors muted the scene became even more shocking!
Battle #6: Death threats
Taxi Driver was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and Jodie Foster for Best Supporting Actress. Before the Awards, Scorsese received a death threat stating that if "little Jodie" were to win "for what you made her do in Taxi Driver" Scorsese would pay with his life. As it turned out, "little Jodie" didn't win and no attempt on Scorsese's life was made. But several years later, when John Hinckley, Jr., was arrested for attempting to assassinate President Reagan "“ his crazy motive being to impress Jodie Foster - many became convinced that it was Hinckley who'd sent that death threat to Scorsese four years prior. Incredibly, at the same time, Scorsese was also receiving death threats from members of the Manson family after he was asked to play Charles Manson in a made-for-TV movie. (He declined the offer.)
Battle #7: Cocaine and its emotional toll
Shortly after Taxi Driver opened, Scorsese started getting heavy into drugs, mostly cocaine (but also Quaaludes and alcohol, to help him come down from the coke). He initially used cocaine as a creative tool, but he quickly realized the drawbacks this presented. "At first you felt like you could make five films at once. And then you wound up spending four days in bed every week because you were exhausted and your body couldn't take it."
But soon addiction took over and there was no looking back. At the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, while giving interview after interview, Scorsese ran out of cocaine and found it impossible to continue.
"No more coke, no more interviews," he declared. Unable to score in Cannes, he quickly dispatched a private plane to Paris
to bring back a new supply. Meanwhile, Scorsese's personality was transforming for the worst. "I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around," he recalls. "I always found, no matter what anybody said, something to take offense at. I'd be the host, but at some point during the evening I'd flip out, just like when I'm shooting." As one might expect, he began to alienate some of those closest to him.
Battle #8: Cocaine and the physical toll
Scorsese describes the above period as a two-year abyss from which he barely came out alive. He makes no bones about it: it was about self-destruction. In his words: "It was a matter of pushing the envelope, of being bad, seeing how much you can do. Embracing a way of life to its limit. I did a lot of drugs because I wanted to do a lot. I wanted to push all the way to the very very end and see if I could die." He almost got his wish that August when he and his friends were sold some "bad coke." It interacted with his asthma medication and other prescription pills, and caused him massive internal bleeding. This was his wake-up call, and thankfully he heard it and went straight. (Interestingly, Scorsese says that gaining this insight into his own self-destructive tendencies enabled him to make his next masterpiece Raging Bull.)
Battle #9: Scorsese's battle with fidelity
One of the movies Scorsese worked on during his coke-fueled period was New York, New York, a musical starring Liza Minelli. Minelli was also struggling with drugs at the time and even though they were both married Scorsese and she carried on an open affair with one another during the production. What's more, Minelli at the same time was carrying on an affair with Mikhail Baryshnikov as well! For Scorsese, of course, all this didn't matter much. "I was making love to different women," he says, "but I didn't find that very interesting." As we already know, his true love was movies.