The director's success at the box office is finally catching up with his critical acclaim

Martin Scorsese remembers the moment he knew he wanted to direct Cape Fear. He and Robert De Niro were at a meeting to discuss the possibility of remaking J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 thriller. ”Bob leaned down at the table,” recalls Scorsese. ”He knelt beside me, took my ear, and said, ‘We could do something with this guy, you know?”’

This guy, of course, is Max Cady, the brutally self-righteous white-trash psychopath — played with implacable menace by De Niro — who terrorizes attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and his family. ”Bob and I hadn’t worked that closely together in nine years. And so it brought back all these flashbacks. I thought, ‘Yeah, we really could do something.”’

Cape Fear, which is heading toward a $30 million gross after only two weeks, is the 14th feature Scorsese has directed and is fast on its way to becoming the biggest hit of his career. For Scorsese, who has never been one to bend to the whims of major movie studios, this is no small accomplishment. It means he’ll continue to be able to work with freedom in Hollywood. ”You always have to prove yourself,” he says. ”I don’t expect that just because there’s been some great critical reaction over the past few years, I can do what I want. In the end, it always comes down to ‘how much?”’

For this particular filmmaker, though, it comes down to much more than that. Martin Scorsese is a kind of cinemaholic, a man who thinks about movies — who runs them in his brain — more than he thinks about anything else, a driven perfectionist who fuses his obsessions with sin, redemption, violence, sensuality, rock & roll, and camera movement into exhilaratingly dark psychodramas of the soul. For nearly two decades, he has fought to direct pictures His Way. The real victory of Cape Fear is that, once again, he was able to make the movie he believed in.

”I’ve always been drawn to the exploration of this sort of character,” says Scorsese of Cady, ”a character who will not give up, who’s unrelenting, who not only tortures himself but the people around him. De Niro and I just happened to lock into that sort of thing together. I mean, we have the same kinds of feelings, the same painful reactions to a lot of this material — so painful that it gets very, very hard for us to express it in words. But we’re able to act it out. In France, they asked me recently, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have De Niro to play these parts?’ I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘I’d do it myself.”’

Actually, that’s difficult to imagine. Martin Scorsese is one of the least threatening people I’ve ever met. He’s extremely short — 5 feet 4 inches, tops — and listening to his conversation, which is punctuated by a series of self-effacing, hey-whaddo-I-know shrugs, you can catch a glimpse of the young Marty who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side — the sensitive, asthmatic movie freak who must have spent a fair amount of time placating kids a lot bigger than he was. Scorsese once planned to enter the priesthood (that was before he discovered the New York University Film School), and from a distance he still has the knitted-brow aura of an anguished young seminarian. At 49, though, there’s a boyish kineticism about him. When he gets on to a subject he likes, his eyes widen eagerly, the long, wiry black forests that are his eyebrows shoot straight up, and he flashes a wide, toothy smile you can’t help grinning back at.

Entering the hallway of his sleek white apartment, which looms 75 floors above a packed commercial artery of midtown Manhattan, Scorsese apologizes for being late and then pauses to check a crucial matter: a note from his office listing the movies he may want to tape this weekend. He’s excited now, because he has to set his VCR to record Carbine Williams, a 1952 Hollywood biopic starring James Stewart as the inventor of the famous carbine rifle. ”It’s not a very good picture, but it’s fun,” grins Scorsese. He seems almost sheepish about his enthusiasm. ”It’s been showing up more and more in the colorized version, so I want to get a copy in black and white.”

Scorsese is dressed in superfaded designer jeans and a matching light blue work shirt; his hair is slicked straight back, setting off eyes that are clear, nervous, penetrating. His infamous, rapid-fire conversational style casts a spell. When he gets rolling, an entire sentence will come out in a single machine-gun blast, as though he wanted to plant his thoughts inside you without actually taking any time. (It’s that same spirit that powers the live-wire immediacy of his films.) A moment later, he’ll snap back to his wary, scoping mode. You get the feeling that Scorsese has his lighter moments, but that he doesn’t quite trust them.

”He goes through tremendous mood swings because of his art,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, the film editor who has worked with Scorsese, on and off, ever since the late ’60s, when they teamed up to edit his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968), and to shape the rough cut of Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock. ”He can be very impatient with the noise out in the hall or the assistant rewinding a reel or someone knocking on the door at the wrong time. But he’s also one of the funniest people in the world.”

Scorsese’s small, angular living room, which is made to seem bigger by a wall of mirrors, affords a surreal, Jetsons’-eye view of Central Park. It’s not what you think of as a Scorsese sort of place. Too glitzy, somehow. But there are Marty touches. On the main wall is a rectangular mural from a Sicilian puppet theater depicting a 14th-century slasher-movie tableau of knights in combat. One of the knights has sliced through the middle of his foe, literally splitting him — plume and all — in two. ”This sort of stuff would actually happen during the show,” explains Scorsese with obvious delight. ”There’s all this great rhetoric, these rolling speeches, and suddenly everybody fights! Any excuse! All through the ages, it’s the same thing.”

In front of that same wall, Scorsese often pulls down a movie screen to watch 16 mm prints of Hollywood films made from the ’30s through the ’60s. By many accounts, he is the single most devoted film buff on the planet. ”Sometimes,” he says, ”I think it would be great if I could just turn the sound down and project them all the time, like paintings.” Wesley Strick, the screenwriter of Cape Fear, recalls that ”during the shooting, I would see him on a Sunday at 10 a.m., and he would make reference to a Japanese science-fiction film that he had screened earlier that morning. Sometimes the merest detail about a film fascinates him.” Scorsese acknowledges his fanaticism, but he also resents the image of Marty the Hermit watching movies around the clock. ”Everybody always says, ‘The only thing Marty likes is movies, movies, movies,”’ he complains. ”If that were the case, my movies would be about movies.”

”So why do they say it?” I ask.

”Maybe because it’s safe. Maybe because they get nervous if they realize that all the things my films are about are a part of me.”

The last two years have seen Martin Scorsese enshrined as a kind of culture hero. Like his good friend Steven Spielberg, whom he has known since the early ’70s, Scorsese has yet to win an Oscar for Best Picture or Best Director. (You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to see that Hollywood often resents talent.) Yet in the wake of last year’s GoodFellas, he has been virtually canonized by the media, becoming our official Greatest American Director. In a sense, though, the recognition arrives absurdly late. In the eyes of a great many dedicated movie fans (this one included), it has been clear for well over a decade that Martin Scorsese is, quite simply, the most brilliant and passionate filmmaker of his time.

That was obvious, in a way, with the release of Mean Streets, his dizzying, volcanic 1973 masterpiece about small-time hoods in New York’s Little Italy. Charlie, the autobiographical hero played by Harvey Keitel, was a kind of numbers-running Hamlet torn between guilt and ambition. The film’s most revolutionary character, however, was Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy, the reckless, half-crazy layabout who spun everything he touched out of control, and who seemed to have a mental short circuit: He was wired into himself and no one else.

In retrospect, Johnny Boy — and De Niro’s incomparable performance — can be seen as the spiritual touchstone for nearly every Scorsese-De Niro collaboration since. The haunted, sexually repressed cabbie Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976). The egomaniacal sax player Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York (1977). The compulsively jealous, self-punishing prizefighter Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980). The fame-obsessed nerd Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1983). For 10 years, Scorsese and De Niro dove headfirst into the lives of these haunted, unreachable men, with the De Niro character, in each film, growing denser, more obtuse, less able to touch the people around him with anything but criminality and violence. ”The crew on Raging Bull used to jeer at Scorsese behind his back,” says Wesley Strick. ”They would just ridicule the movie and the fact that it was perhaps unreleasable, that it would never come together — you know, why was he making a film about this sleazeball? And Marty was aware of that.”

Paradoxically, it was this very quality, this willingness to push the envelope of empathy, that made Scorsese’s movies so liberating. His work was brutal, raw, real; in many respects, he was the supreme antiromantic. Making films about people you couldn’t possibly like, he seemed to be burning through a half-century’s worth of Hollywood sentimentality. As a director, though, he was so romantic about his own antiromanticism, so impassioned about exploring — saving — the souls of men like Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta, that his filmmaking fever, his need to tell these stories, became the ultimate testament to his characters’ humanity.

”I think the whole image of the prodigal son has always been a very powerful one for Marty,” says Mary Pat Kelly, author of the recent oral biography Martin Scorsese: A Journey. ”You know, if you have 100 sheep and one wanders away, who wouldn’t leave the other 99 and go after the one? I think that’s his fascination with these characters who are so far out there: Are they still worthy of love?”

Scorsese’s religious commitment to his own vision keeps him in a state of anxious hyperdrive. ”With every film, it’s the depths of despair,” says his wife of six years, Barbara De Fina, who also produced Cape Fear. ”After the shooting finished on GoodFellas and he first started editing, he went into complete depression: ‘I’ll never work again.’ But life is like that for Marty. Everything is disaster. And the better he does, the more he expects of himself.”

Scorsese acknowledges that Cape Fear is his deliberate attempt at a crowd pleaser. ”I set out to make a picture that was more mainstream and more ‘commercial,’ whatever that is,” he says. ”In the climax, we were dealing with the conventions of the thriller genre as it is known today, where the character dies three times. The big question is, where does convention stop and cliche begin? I think Cape Fear is more a film of mine than The Color of Money. I mean, you can’t — I can’t — gauge what an audience is going to like and what’s going to make money. There’s no way. I just try to make the best picture I can make.”

”He has an incredible eye for anything that’s phony,” says Paul Newman, who reprised the role of Fast Eddie Felson, from The Hustler (1961), in 1986’s The Color of Money. ”I remember once we were playing a scene in a bar, and he tried to get me to approach it in a different way for about 10 takes. Then he cleared his throat, shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the next, did a couple of pirouettes, and looked at me and said, ‘Don’t try to be funny!”’ Newman cracks up at the memory. ”He really worked very hard to not have to be that blunt about it.”

In the closet of his apartment, Scorsese still keeps 10 boxes of 45s from the ’50s and ’60s. ”These are my soundtracks,” he says. ”I know you can buy CDs of this stuff now, but they don’t have the same scratchy feeling. Where I grew up, our lives were scored by radio, by jukeboxes. And the irony of certain pieces playing at certain times was amazing to me. It was better than a movie score.” Scorsese, who in films like Mean Streets and the ”Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories (1989) has done more than any other director to turn rock & roll into a transcendent, operatic soundtrack to life, claims he’s always running impromptu videos in his head when he listens to music. ”Two years ago, I was driving with a friend — we were going up to the country — and ‘Gimme Shelter’ came on the radio. And I just saw that image of Henry Hill (in GoodFellas) with the cocaine and the camera flying into his eyes. I said, ‘That’s great! I’ll write it on a Post-It note and put it away.”’

Scorsese can afford to be a little lighthearted these days. A couple of weeks ago, he even showed up on Late Night With David Letterman with his mom, who made her cherished pizza recipe for Dave. Catherine Scorsese, 78, a cuddly Italian-Catholic version of a Jewish mother, has appeared in many of her son’s films, and with her cameo in GoodFellas, where she innocently served Joe Pesci and his pals an assassination-run dinner, she has attained a minor celebrity in her own right. Scorsese remembers the night that Mean Streets, a movie that turns the word ”f—” into street poetry, was shown at the New York Film Festival. ”People came over to my parents’ house after the screening,” he says. ”Everyone was saying how much they liked the film. And my mother said, ‘I just want you to know, we never use that word in the house!”’

I ask Scorsese about a criticism that has sometimes been leveled against his work: That it’s too macho — that his understanding of women lags far behind his intimacy with the male ego. He flashes a quick look of displeasure, yet he isn’t defensive. ”The films I’m dealing with have often been about men’s worlds, where the women seem to be adjuncts,” he says. ”I think the women in GoodFellas and Raging Bull are very strong. But they’re not in the ring. In general, I have to be true to the society in which a story operates. I don’t think it’s right to overbalance it just for the sake of trying to be politically correct.” You get the feeling that Scorsese, who has been married four times and who has two daughters, isn’t so much indifferent to women as he is driven to express the beating of his own heart.

Ironically, his next film may provide the very balance his critics are seeking. The Age of Innocence, which Scorsese begins shooting in March, is based on Edith Wharton’s novel of thwarted romance in late-19th-century New York. ”It’s not a pretension at something that’s more acceptable or literary,” says Scorsese, putting a mock-highbrow spin on the last word. ”No, no, no! But the story, the story of this love that can’t be consummated — it gets very, very moving. I think a lot of people will identify with it, on both sides, male and female. Especially the women. That’s what drew me to it, and also my sense of movie history and costume dramas. I happen to like them. The last image in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), of Montgomery Clift banging on the door, not being allowed in. I saw that when it was first released — my father took me to see it — and the emotional impact was so strong that I’ve never forgotten it.”

When Martin Scorsese talks about the films he loves, his face turns happy, beatific. He conveys the sense that movies, especially the studio-system favorites he revered as a youth, aren’t simply cherished works but perfect worlds — glimpses, perhaps, of heaven on earth. Is it any wonder that he regards making films as such a life-consuming quest? ”Every now and then,” he says, ”a joke comes out and we start laughing, or some beautiful thing happens with the actors. Or something happens with the camera that’s extraordinary, you know? And you really, like, glow. And that’s fun. That’s really the most fun you can have.”

Cape Fear
  • Movie
  • 128 minutes