Martin Scorsese has his Oscar. The poor Sicilian’s been pining for the silly little statue for the last 10 years, compromising his work in the process, abandoning the anti-Hollywood aesthetics of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Goodfellas and Casino for more conventional and palatable dramas, deploying, in pursuit of the widest possible box office appeal, the hopeless and vacuous Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man in his last three films.
Scorsese is a long-time admirer of Greek filmmakers; particularly Theodoros Angelopoulos, in whose film Ulysses’ Gaze, Scorsese persuaded Harvey Keitel to take the main role; and Pantelis Voulgaris, whose film Nifes (Brides) Scorsese produced. Scorsese also readily acknowledges the influence on his work of Elias Kazan, his films’ willingness to push at social and cultural boundaries, their innovative acting techniques, their fascination not with realism as such, but with the ‘truth behind the posture’.
The Greek filmmaker most pivotal to Scorsese, however, is John Cassavetes.
‘I saw Citizen Kane and [Cassavetes’] Shadows and I’ve been trying to combine the two ever since,’ Scorsese has admitted.
Scorsese describes Cassavetes as a ‘guerrilla filmmaker’ ‘fearless’, ‘a renegade,’ and Cassavetes’ films as ‘epics of the human soul’. Indeed, for his admirers, Cassavetes is not only the most important American filmmaker of the last 60 years, but ‘one of the most important artists of the twentieth century’.
Cassavetes’ obsession with making the films he wanted, resisting overbearing interference from producers and studios, hassling him about cost, time or what the audience was used to or wanted to see, meant he worked in opposition to Hollywood and its values, only seeing fit to compromise with the system, taking acting jobs in films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Fury, films he detested, when he needed to make money to fund his own projects.
It was this sense of artistic integrity and dedication to personal expression regardless of the consequences, art as a way of life, that Cassavetes tried to impart to Scorsese when the younger man came to Los Angeles from New York in the late 1960s, looking for a break in film and who Cassavetes, regarded since Shadows and Faces as a pioneer of a new and radical American film aesthetic, took under his wing, having loved Scorsese’s first film, Whose That Knocking at My Door? declaring it to be as good as Citizen Kane, better even, ‘it’s got more heart’, offering Scorsese work as a sound editor on Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moscowitz, ‘paying me $500 a week for doing nothing. I even lived on his [Cassavetes’] set for a week and, when he required sound effects for a fight, I held John while someone punched him.’
A mutual friend, Jay Cocks, describes Cassavetes as loving Scorsese ‘like a son’, and indeed when Cassavetes saw Scorsese’s second film, Boxcar Bertha, made for Roger Corman, a specialist in exploitation movies, Cassavetes took Scorsese aside for some advice: ‘Marty, you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. It’s a good picture, but you’re better than the people who make this kind of movie. Don’t get hooked into the exploitation market, just try and do something different.’
Scorsese turned down the chance to direct another Corman picture, I Escaped from Devil’s Island, a rip-off of Papillion, and The Arena, a gladiator movie, and concentrated instead on making Mean Streets, a story of aspiring gangsters in New York’s Little Italy.
Three years after Mean Streets, Cassavetes, who shared Scorsese’s love of gangster films (Cassavetes’ favourite actor was James Cagney), made his own unique ‘gangster’ film, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the inception of which Cassavetes describes as follows: ‘Martin Scorsese and I were talking, and in one night made up this gangster story. Years later, when I didn’t know what to make, I thought we’ll do that story about this nightclub owner who owes a lot of money, and is talked into killing someone.’
Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a great film – many regard it as Cassavetes’ greatest – but it was also a commercial failure and was savaged by some of America’s foremost so-called film critics, as was Opening Night, Cassavetes subsequent film, and Cassavetes was now finding it harder than ever to raise money for his projects.
As for Scorsese, he followed the success of Mean Streets with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, New York, New York (an attempt by Scorsese to reproduce a Cassavetes film) and The Last Waltz, during which time Scorsese had also become a cocaine addict, fond of telling everybody that he wouldn’t live past 40, prompting Cassavetes to confront Scorsese at a Hollywood party: ‘What’s the matter with you? Why are you doing this, ruining yourself? You’re fucking up your talent. Shape up,’ which Scorsese did, making Raging Bull.
As well as disapproving of his lifestyle and his willingness to compromise with the Hollywood money machine – which, with the advent of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (the two men who handed Scorsese his Oscar), had become more voracious and hostile to the cultural values Cassavetes represented – Cassavetes also began to resent what he saw as Scorsese’s stealing of his ideas, particularly from Minnie and Moscowitz for use in New York, New York.
Ultimately, as Raymond Carney puts it, Cassavetes and Scorsese had by the late 1970s more or less reversed places within the American cinematic pantheon and ‘Cassavetes felt personally betrayed by a man he had considered to be his friend. Scorsese was now too busy to talk to him and Cassavetes felt that, after all he had done to help and encourage the young filmmaker, now that the tables were turned, Scorsese didn’t reciprocate.’
In 1982, Cassavetes approached Scorsese with an idea about a film about filmmaking. Cassavetes would play a director who has a nervous breakdown; Scorsese his assistant. It was, at this point in Cassavetes’ life, Carney says ‘a desperate attempt to get something going in the way of a film. Cassavetes presented Scorsese with the script and made a passionate pitch, but Scorsese turned him down’.
Not that Cassavetes’ sense of betrayal or increasing difficulties getting projects off the ground diminished his desire to create or made him doubt his art or weakened his resistance to prevailing tastes. Cassavetes, like the characters in his films, never quit.
Following a brief venture into theatre, Cassavetes once again managed to attract financial backing for a film project. Cassavetes describes the way he sold Love Streams – Cassavetes’ last film – to the prospective producers: ‘I found myself going to Menachem [Globus] and saying, “We have a story. This absolutely will not make any money. Probably no one will want to see it, but it is a wonderful film”.’
Globus backed Cassavetes, and, indeed, Love Streams, as Cassavetes predicted, didn’t make money, failed to attract an audience, but did turn out to be an extraordinary film, ‘psychologically dangerous, lonely, terrifying’, as Cassavetes says.
While making Love Streams in 1983, Cassavetes was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and given only six months to live; he lived for another six years. As for his relationship with Scorsese, Cassavetes reflected: ‘I’ve watched Marty as the complications in his life grow, and the frustrations grow, and I hope he can survive the mass hysteria of success. Your way of life is a hell of a lot more important than anything else, and by the time you realise what success will do to you, it has taken you away from everything you were saying, doing and enjoying, and thrown you into areas of lawyers and accountants that want your success more than they want your music. I never had that, but I never wanted it.’
Martin Scorsese wanted it and got it, and now he has his Oscar too.