Hollywood’s New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorcese

hollywoods-new-yorkerScorcese came along during a dynamic era, the time period we call the Sixties. It was suddenly acceptable to question authority, take drugs, wear outlandish clothing, support radic-lib causes, and show nudity on stage and screen. The Hollywood Production Code, which forbade breasts, penises, kissing in the bedroom, pot-smoking, and cursing, had vanished. It was now acceptable, after all these years, to portray divorce positively, leading to the hideous scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now. As for the studios, they all got killed by television, and the old outdoor sets looked like old backlots resembled lost cities. Into these studio ghost towns strode William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, and Martin Scorcese; they were known as the New Hollywood, and they would save the industry.

Prior to Scorcese, relatively few movies took place in Manhattan, and those that did rarely made use of outdoor locations. There were exceptions, however, like The Lost Weekend, which takes place under the El and in the panshops. Most films of the time, however, were westerns, and they took place far from the city. Some films, like Rebel Without a Cause, were shot in LA, as were most of the comedies of the time. New York City didn’t seem to be a place for drama or comedy before Scorcese and Lumet came along.

Hollywood’s New Yorker dwells extensively on Scorcese pre-Hollywood career as a college professor, and his first movie was actually his thesis. It wasn’t your typical movie, because the director wasn’t under any deadline and didn’t have to take orders from a producer. Few directors of the time, with the exception of Stanley Kubrik, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder, had any creative control. Scorcese’s thesis, titled Whose Knocking At My Door, show what happens when the director has a micro budget and an even smaller set of rules to obey. He did, however, get along well with the studio system, directing Boxcar Bertha, (not a NY movie)with violent scenes that would’ve previously been forbidden by the Production Code. Mean Streets, set in Little Italy and shot in LA, got great reviews from Roger Ebert, as it would from most young critics. The younger they were, the more accepting they’d be, and the more in tune they were to younger audiences. Ebert wrote that Mean Streets was like Marty, but with hoods.

This book isn’t always in praise of Scorcese. After Raging Bull, his next efforts weren’t well received. New York, New York, his wacky period piece, is not appreciated even today, and King of Comedy got mixed reviews. Nobody doubted that Jerry Lewis (who spent the 70’s as a film professor) did a great job, playing against type, but it seems more like an “indy” film that was a little beneath the director’s ability. Critics like Robin Wood weren’t sure if it was an end or a new beginning, and Peter Biskind, in his book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, makes his dislike of the 80’s very clear. He writes how the directors of the New Hollywood did poorly in the 80’s, like Mike Cimino, destroying his career with Heaven’s Gate. Coppola, praised for his Godfather movies, scared the establishment with his over-budget Apocalypse Now. As for Scorcese, his King of Comedy was questioned by the critics. While they praised Jerry Lewis, who abandoned his old antics for serious acting, they weren’t impressed by the director. Would the movie have been better received if it came out in 1970? Would they have been more impressed if it were the debut of a younger director? After Hours wasn’t well received, perhaps due to the Yuppie characters and the punk rock scene. As for The Color of Money, everyone liked it, but it didn’t seem to have Scorcese’s edge. The 80’s would be the decade of Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Sidney Pollack.

Scorcese would make a comeback with Goodfellas, and he churned out more hits over the decade, like Casino and Kundun. Today he’s gone out of New York, with LA (The Aviator) and Boston (The Departed.)

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