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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

content01.jpgScorsese 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?)

B0005ZVGH6.01-A3CDPEGSIQM61V._AA280_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpgDuring 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

180px-Scors_2.jpgScorsese, 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

250px-Taxi_Driver_still_3.jpgTaxi 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

cocaine-addiction.jpgShortly 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

a_Liza-Minnelli-02.jpgOne 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.

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14 Deep Facts About Valley of the Dolls
The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

Based on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling 1966 novel (which sold more than 30 million copies), Valley of the Dolls was a critically maligned film that somehow managed to gross $50 million when it was released 50 years ago, on December 15, 1967. Both the film and the novel focus on three young women—Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins)—who navigate the entertainment industry in both New York City and L.A., but end up getting addicted to barbiturates, a.k.a. “dolls.”

Years after its original release, the film became a so-bad-it’s-good classic about the perils of fame. John Williams received his first of 50 Oscar nominations for composing the score. Mark Robson directed it, and he notoriously fired the booze- and drug-addled Judy Garland, who was cast to play aging actress Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward took over), who was supposedly based on Garland. (Garland died on June 22, 1969 from a barbituate overdose.) Two months after Garland’s sudden demise, the Manson Family murdered the very pregnant Tate in August 1969.

Despite all of the glamour depicted in the movie and novel, Susann said, “Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top.” A loose sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—which was written by Roger Ebert—was released in 1970, but it had little to do with the original. In 1981, a TV movie updated the Dolls. Here are 14 deep facts about the iconic guilty pleasure.

1. JACQUELINE SUSANN DIDN'T LIKE THE MOVIE.

To promote the film, the studio hosted a month-long premiere party on a luxury liner. At a screening in Venice, Susann said the film “appalled” her, according to Parkins. She also thought Hollywood “had ruined her book,” and Susann asked to be taken off the boat. At one point she reportedly told Robson directly that she thought the film was “a piece of sh*t.”

2. BARBARA PARKINS WAS “NERVOUS” TO WORK WITH JUDY GARLAND.

Barbara Parkins had only been working with Judy Garland for two days when the legendary actress was fired for not coming out of her dressing room (and possibly being drunk). “I called up Jackie Susann, who I had become close to—I didn’t call up the director strangely enough—and I said, ‘What do I do? I’m nervous about going on the set with Judy Garland and I might get lost in this scene because she knows how to chew up the screen,’” Parkins told Windy City Times. “She said, ‘Honey, just go in there and enjoy her.’ So I went onto the set and Judy came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘Oh, baby, let’s just do this scene,’ and she was wonderful.”

3. WILLIAM TRAVILLA BASED THE FILM'S COSTUMES ON THE WOMEN’S LIKES.

Costume designer William Travilla had to assemble 134 outfits for the four leading actresses. “I didn't have a script so I read the book and then the script once I got one,” he explained of his approach to the film. “I met with the director and producer and asked how they felt about each character and then I met with the girls and asked them what they liked and didn’t like and how they were feeling. Then I sat down with my feelings and captured their feelings, too.”

4. SUSANN THOUGHT GARLAND “GOT RATTLED.”

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Susann offered her thoughts on why Garland was let go. “Everybody keeps asking me why she was fired from the movie, as if it was my fault or something,” she said. “You know what I think went wrong? Here she was, raised in the great tradition of the studio stars, where they make 30 takes of every scene to get it right, and the other girls in the picture were all raised as television actresses. So they’re used to doing it right the first time. Judy just got rattled, that’s all.”

5. PATTY DUKE PARTIALLY BLAMES THE DIRECTOR’S BEHAVIOR FOR GARLAND’S EXIT.

During an event at the Castro Theatre, Duke discussed working with Garland. “The director, who was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met in my life ... the director, he kept this icon, this sparrow, waiting and waiting,” Duke said. “She had to come in at 6:30 in the morning and he wouldn’t even plan to get to her until four in the afternoon. She was very down to earth, so she didn’t mind waiting. The director decided that some guy from some delicatessen on 33rd Street should talk to her, and she crumbled. And she was fired. She shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, in my opinion.”

6. DUKE DIDN’T SING NEELY’S SONGS.

All of Neely’s songs in the movie were dubbed, which disappointed Duke. “I knew I couldn’t sing like a trained singer,” she said. “But I thought it was important for Neely maybe to be pretty good in the beginning but the deterioration should be that raw, nerve-ending kind of the thing. And I couldn’t convince the director. They wanted to do a blanket dubbing. It just doesn’t have the passion I wanted it to have.”

7. GARLAND STOLE ONE OF THE MOVIE'S COSTUMES.

Garland got revenge in “taking” the beaded pantsuit she was supposed to wear in the movie, and she was unabashed about it. “Well, about six months later, Judy’s going to open at the Palace,” Duke said. “I went to opening night at the Palace and out she came in her suit from Valley of the Dolls.”

8. A SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE FILM HID THE TITLE.

Fox held a preview screening of the film at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, but the marquee only read “The Biggest Book of the Year.” “And the film was so campy, everyone roared with laughter,” producer David Brown told Vanity Fair. “One patron was so irate he poured his Coke all over Fox president Dick Zanuck in the lobby. And we knew we had a hit. Why? Because of the size of the audience—the book would bring them in.”

9. IT MARKED RICHARD DREYFUSS'S FILM DEBUT.


Twentieth Century Fox

Richard Dreyfuss made his big-screen debut near the end of Valley of the Dolls, playing an assistant stage manager who knocks on Neely’s door to find her intoxicated. After appearing on several TV shows, this was his first role in a movie, but it was uncredited. That same year, he also had a small role in The Graduate. Dreyfuss told The A.V. Club he was in the best film of 1967 (The Graduate) and the worst (Valley of the Dolls). “But then one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley of the Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it,” he said. “And I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!”

10. THE DIRECTOR DIDN’T DIG TOO DEEP.

In the 2006 documentary Gotta Get Off This Merry Go Round: Sex, Dolls & Showtunes, Barbara Parkins scolded the director for keeping the film’s pill addiction on the surface. “The director never took us aside and said, look this is the effect,” she said. “We didn’t go into depth about it. Now, if you would’ve had a Martin Scorsese come in and direct this film, he would’ve sat you down, he would’ve put you through the whole emotional, physical, mental feeling of what that drug was doing to you. This would’ve been a whole different film. He took us to one, maybe two levels of what it’s like to take pills. The whole thing was to show the bottle and to show the jelly beans kinda going back. That was the important thing for him, not the emotional part.”

11. A STAGE ADAPTATION MADE IT TO OFF-BROADWAY.

In 1995, Los Angeles theater troupe Theatre-A-Go-Go! adapted the movie into a stage play. Kate Flannery, who’d go on to play Meredith Palmer on The Office, portrayed Neely. “Best thing about Valley of the Dolls to make fun of it is to actually just do it,” Flannery said in the Dolls doc. “You don’t need to change anything.” Parkins came to a production and approved of it. Eventually, the play headed to New York in an Off-Broadway version, with Illeana Douglas playing the Jackie Susann reporter role.

12. JACKIE SUSANN BARELY ESCAPED THE MANSON FAMILY.


By 20th Century-Fox - eBayfrontback, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The night the Manson Family murdered Tate, the actress had invited Susann to her home for a dinner party. According to Vanity Fair, Rex Reed came by The Beverly Hills Hotel, where Susann was staying, and they decided to stay in instead of going to Tate’s. The next day Susann heard about the murder, and cried by the pool. A few years later, when Susann was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, she joked her death would’ve been quicker if she had gone to Tate’s that night.

13. PATTY DUKE LEARNED TO EMBRACE THE FILM.

Of all of the characters in the movie, Duke’s Neely is the most over-the-top. “I used to be embarrassed by it," Duke said in a 2003 interview. "I used to say very unkind things about it, and through the years there are so many people who have come to me, or written me, or emailed who love it so, that I figured they all can’t be wrong." She eventually appreciated the camp factor. “I can have fun with that,” she said. “And sometimes when I’m on location, there will be a few people who bring it up, and then we order pizza and rent a VCR and have a Valley night, and it is fabulous.”

14. LEE GRANT DOESN’T THINK IT’S THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE.

In 2000, Grant, Duke, and Parkins reunited on The View. “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made,” Grant stated. She then mentioned how she and Duke made a movie about killer bees called The Swarm. “Valley of the Dolls was like genius compared to it,” Grant said.

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How to Perform the Star Wars Theme—On Calculators
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The iconic Star Wars theme has been recreated with glass harps, theremins, and even cat meows. Now, Laughing Squid reports that the team over at YouTube channel It’s a small world have created a version that can be played on calculators.

The channel’s math-related music videos feature covers of popular songs like Luis Fonsi’s "Despacito," Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You," and the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, all of which are performed on two or more calculators. The Star Wars theme, though, is played across five devices, positioned together into a makeshift keyboard of sorts.

The video begins with a math-musician who transcribes number combinations into notes. Then, they break into an elaborate practice chord sequence on two, and then four, calculators. Once they’re all warmed up, they begin playing the epic opening song we all know and love, which you can hear for yourself in all its electronic glory below.

[h/t Laughing Squid]

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