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OBSESSION : Martin Scorsese Eats, Sleeps, Breathes and Dreams Movies, Shot by Shot

September 23, 1990|T. J. ENGLISH | T. J. English is the author of "The Westies: Inside the Hell's Kitchen Irish Mob," published this year by G. P. Putnam

For Scorsese, coming up with a unique approach often means seeing every movie ever made on the subject. "Mean Streets" was at least partially intended as an ode to the 1930s Warner Bros. gangster movies. The ominous, paranoid look of "Taxi Driver" was influenced by an eclectic collection of films, including Alfred Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man." For "The Last Temptation of Christ," Scorsese studied "King of Kings," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," among others.

But "GoodFellas," says Scorsese, has no such cinematic antecedents. Although he quickly acknowledges that "everything from this genre properly comes from the inspiration of 'Public Enemy' and 'Little Caesar,' " the idea was "to come up with something that was without precedent in terms of style--that was the challenge."

Critics like to write about Scorsese's expressive cinematic style. Cited most often is the mobility of the camera in his movies, the way it swoops and tracks and pans its way into the lives of his characters. "Certain directors will emphasize the lighting of a scene," Scorsese says. "But for me, it's the sense of motion. I love the way the camera moves. I love the cut from one moving shot to the next, or the cut from a moving shot to a static shot. The inspiration always comes from the point of view of the lens."

Nonetheless, a flashy visual style has little or nothing to do with a director's search for the truth. In today's Hollywood, where film-school diplomas are ubiquitous, there are plenty of directors out there with nothing but style. With Scorsese, there is another element to his work that is at least equally distinctive and important. It has to do with something he remembers vividly from the movies he saw as a kid, something he refers to simply as "the performance."

"THE THING THAT'S great about Marty," says Joe Pesci, who plays a pivotal role in "GoodFellas," "is that he's very open to what an actor has to say. And even if he doesn't use what you say, he doesn't make you feel like yours was a stupid idea and his is better. He wants and expects you to contribute--chances are, that's why he picked you in the first place."

Pesci's admiration of Scorsese goes beyond the usual actor-director relationship. The two New Yorkers have been good friends ever since Scorsese "discovered" Pesci in the late 1970s. At that time, Pesci had given up acting and was managing an Italian restaurant in the Bronx. Scorsese and De Niro were looking for a fresh face to play De Niro's brother in "Raging Bull." They had viewed a low-budget movie called "The Debt Collector" to check out another actor, but when they spotted Pesci in the movie, they knew he had the authenticity they were looking for.

On the set, it took Pesci a while to adjust to Scorsese's methods. The director and De Niro, who had already made three memorable films together, would often huddle off to the side and talk privately. "I mean, when Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese do that to you, it can be very intimidating," says Pesci. But eventually, Scorsese pulled him aside and explained that he felt an actor would be less inhibited if he or she were able to talk privately about a certain scene outside the earshot of others.

In "GoodFellas," Pesci plays Tommy DeVito, a jovial, talkative hood with a pathological propensity for violence. He gives a performance steeped in naturalism. "That's Marty's thing," the actor says. "He always says 'I don't want you to act like anybody; I just want you to behave the way you behave.' And he's a great acting coach because he stays on you that way. I probably shouldn't say this 'cause I may never get another job, but I wouldn't care if I never worked for any director other than Marty."

The respect Pesci and other actors feel towards Scorsese is not limited to those who have worked with him. Read almost any interview with an actor or actress these days, and, when asked what they hope to do before their career is over, they all say, "Work with Scorsese." Some are even motivated to take action, like Paul Newman, who wrote Scorsese a fan letter after seeing "Raging Bull" (Newman misidentified him as "Michael" Scorsese). Later, the two worked together on "The Color of Money."

What makes Scorsese such a rare director is his ability to combine a visually sophisticated approach with an unparalleled attentiveness to his actors. Like Hitchcock, the master, Scorsese is known for his thorough pre-production; he knows what he wants long before shooting begins. But unlike Hitchcock, Scorsese's method does not sap the juices from his actors. He seems to elicit such great performances (De Niro, Newman and Ellen Burstyn have all won Best Acting Oscars working with Scorsese, for "Raging Bull," "The Color of Money" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," respectively) precisely because he compels his actors to dig as deeply into the material as possible.

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