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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

The passion Pesci conveys when talking about Scorsese is echoed by others who worked on "GoodFellas." Ray Liotta lobbied hard for the role of Henry Hill, the half-Irish, half-Sicilian Mafia wannabe whose recollections of life in the mob were the focus of Pileggi's book. "Marty definitely gives you the ball," says Liotta.

"He cast all these strong-minded Italians in the movie," says Lorraine Bracco, who plays Henry Hill's wife, "people who wanted to have a cappuccino and a discussion after every scene. And I remember, one day, he was banging his hand against his head, saying, 'What did I do, what did I do?' But, really, Marty thrives on that kind of input. He's ego-less in allowing his actors to bring who they are into the role, and he loves them for it."

Scorsese's love for the performance stems in part from his appreciation of film history. "I simply saw 'East of Eden' over and over again," he explains, "or 'On the Waterfront'--that's the acting school I went to. Topped off by Olivier in 'Richard III,' or Orson Welles. Welles in 'Touch of Evil' is beyond belief; his enjoyment of expressing himself on screen is so strong you can feel it."

Scorsese's method sounds simple enough: truth in casting. He often uses non-actors in his films, including his parents. Catherine Scorsese, his mother, has a few big scenes in "GoodFellas" as Tommy DeVito's mother. Even the professional actors in the film--De Niro, Pesci, Liotta and Bracco--all come from backgrounds not unlike those of the characters they portray. "Some wonderful actors wanted to be in 'GoodFellas,' " he says ruefully, "and I wish I could have used them. But they'd have had to learn about the lifestyle. Better to get people who had some contact with it growing up. Because when you're growing up, it stays in your mind, and you can draw on that. It reminds you of certain images, certain people you knew in your childhood."

For a man with such a strong identification with actors, Scorsese is strangely dispassionate when it comes to his own sporadic acting career, which he claims means little to him. His extraordinary cameo in "Taxi Driver" happened only because the actor who was supposed to play the part didn't show up for work that day. He agreed to appear in " 'Round Midniqht" as Goodly, the jazz promoter and quintessential New Yorker, because Winkler was producing the movie. Recently, he shaved his beard to appear as a blacklisted Hollywood director in "Guilty by Suspicion," written and directed by Winkler and starring De Niro. And, in an imaginative bit of type-casting, he was enlisted by the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, to portray Vincent Van Gogh in the recently released "Dreams."

"It's very complimentary that friends of mine keep wanting to put me in their films," he says. "I don't like it, but you learn what it's like to wait on a set, to be in front of a lens, to hear nothing from the director and the cameraman and see them talking over in the corner." He laughs. "You find yourself looking with expectancy and saying, 'Was it good? Gee, maybe it wasn't good.' "

A simpatico relationship between actor and director is not always a given in Hollywood, and Scorsese attributes his own respect for actors to the influence of a very un-Hollywoodlike personality: John Cassavetes. In the early 1960s, he first saw Cassavetes' "Husbands" and was overwhelmed by the raw, spontaneous authenticity of the performances. He learned from Cassavetes that an actor's energy should be nurtured and directed, not squelched. Later, he and Cassavetes became close friends. It was Cassavetes who took Scorsese aside after seeing a rough cut of "Boxcar Bertha," Scorsese's first Hollywood feature, and told the young director he'd just spent a year of his life "making a piece of shit.

"Don't you have something you really want to do," prodded Cassavetes, "something personal?" It gave Scorsese the motivation to make the highly autobiographical "Mean Streets."

When Cassavetes died last year at the age of 59, Scorsese was saddened not only by the director's death but also by his own inability to confront the inevitable. Living in New York, he had put off flying to California to visit Cassavetes, even when he knew his friend was dying. "There are certain periods in my life when I'm terrified of flying," he says, "and that was one of them. But I think if I had been more courageous, I would have been able to do it. But it was something that I partially could not accept. At that age, so much power and so much inspiration about to expire. I couldn't face it."

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