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Marty in the ’80s: The Hidden Genius of Scorsese’s Most Fascinating Decade

As Hollywood became more corporate, the legendary director did some of his best work. But much of it was underseen or misunderstood. Three decades later, it’s clearly the crucial bridge from ‘Mean Streets’ to ‘The Irishman.’

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It was December 31, 1983, and Martin Scorsese was suiting up for a much-needed night out. The past few months had been a grueling time for the 41-year-old director: His long-in-the-works religious drama The Last Temptation of Christ had just been canceled by jittery studio execs. And his newest film, the biting celebrity-worship tale The King of Comedy, had vanished quickly from theaters. If anyone deserved a stress-free holiday, it was Scorsese. But as he readied himself for a New Year’s Eve party, his TV set blaring in the background, the filmmaker received one final reminder of just how miserable his year had been. “I was putting on my shirt and tie,” Scorsese recalled, “and Entertainment Tonight said, ‘Now, for the flop of the year: The King of Comedy.’ I just go, ‘Oh. OK.’”

It was another deflating moment in what was shaping up as the most frustrating, panic-inducing decade of Scorsese’s career. The director had made his explosive arrival in the ’70s, when the brash trifecta of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver established him as one of America’s crucial new directors. That critical aut-streak would culminate in 1980’s sweat-soaked masterpiece Raging Bull. But as the Reagan era rolled in, it became clear the major studios were becoming more interested in sequels and special-effects adventures—many of them made by Scorsese’s peers—than in the brutal, truthful dramas that had flourished in the post-Vietnam era. “The industry had changed, and the day of the personal film was gone,” Scorsese lamented (and not for the last time).

Nearly 40 years later, of course, Scorsese is a cinematic crossfire hurricane—the rare filmmaker whose name is an above-the-title draw in itself, and who can secure huge stars and the occasional nine-figure budget (Netflix has reportedly spent close to $160 million on The Irishman, which opens in limited release on Friday). And many of his less successful ‘80s efforts are now seen as crucial entries in his filmography, especially The King of Comedy, which is homaged throughout Todd Phillips’s hit Joker.

Scorsese, though, spent most of those years in a state of perpetual nervousness, convinced his directing days were numbered. “He was very, very aware that he had to prove something,” noted Scorsese’s editor and longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker in a documentary about the making of After Hours. So he threw himself into projects with small budgets and tight deadlines, resulting in some of his most daring, unexpected films: a pair of harshly funny New York City nightmares (The King of Comedy and After Hours); a flashy, flinty pool hall drama (The Color of Money); even a showstopping Michael Jackson video (“Bad”).

“Each one was a lesson,” Scorsese later said of the films he made in that period. And as the decade went on, those movies would slowly revive his confidence, reaffirm his commercial standing, and sharpen his already formidable filmmaking skills. (They’d also put the director on a path toward the 1990 blockbuster that would forever confirm his status as a big-screen goodfella.) But before any of that could happen, Martin Scorsese had to survive the ‘80s.

For Scorsese, the first signs of the trouble ahead arrived in 1977. That summer, his messy big-band-era drama New York, New York was swallowed whole by George Lucas’s Star Wars. It was a fate that would have been unimaginable in the years prior, when Scorsese was seen as one of the nerviest and more insightful members of cinema’s next wave. (Even Lucas’s wife and collaborator, Marcia Lucas, was surprised by how the two films fared: “New York, New York is a film for grown-ups,” she told her husband before Star Wars opened. “Yours is just a kids’ movie—and nobody’s going to take it seriously.”)

Scorsese saw Star Wars’ success as further proof that mainstream audiences wanted feel-good success stories. The weirdos and wild ones who’d only recently brought Hollywood back to life, he fretted, were now being phased out, both on- and off-screen. “The whole mood of the country was different,” Scorsese said years later. “Big money was being made with pictures like Rocky. … I knew which way the wind was blowing, and it certainly wasn’t in my direction. Therefore, I just did the best I could with Raging Bull, because I had nothing and everything to lose.”

Scorsese had committed to Raging Bull—based on the life of troubled boxer Jake LaMotta—while recovering from a harrowing near-death ordeal. According to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a combination of bad coke, asthma medication, and other prescription drugs had led to internal bleeding and a weigh-in of 109 pounds. By Biskind’s account, Scorsese was still in his hospital bed when he received a visit from Robert De Niro. “What’s the matter, Marty?” the actor asked. “Are you gonna be one of those flash-in-the-pan directors who does a couple of good movies and it’s over for them?”

The talking-to helped convince Scorsese to finally commit to Raging Bull, which the actor had wanted to make for years. De Niro famously put on 60 pounds to play LaMotta; Scorsese, meanwhile, gained an entirely new set of behind-the-camera skills while making the film’s alluringly brutal fight scenes. In Raging Bull, the camera floats through the ring, butterfly-style, while the numerous bodily fluids squirt and spit in slow motion. During the movie’s most exhilarating mano a mano sequence, Scorsese daringly drops out the sound altogether. It’s a brief moment of Zen that makes the blows that follow all the more pummelling.

Scorsese described his newfound style as “kamikaze filmmaking.” But Raging Bull wasn’t just a rousing sports thriller; it also focused on the out-of-the-ring home life of LaMotta, a born-broken lout who bullies everyone in his eyeline. The film’s ugliness turned off a few critics, and scared off plenty more moviegoers. For Scorsese, Raging Bull’s so-so box office response felt like a defeat, one that would sting even harder after the 1981 Academy Awards ceremony, where Ordinary People’s Robert Redford bested him for a Best Director statue. “When I lost for Raging Bull,” he says in Biskind’s book, “that’s when I realized what my place in the system would be, if I did survive at all—on the outside looking in.”

In his films, Scorsese had long demonstrated a close kinship with loners: The late-night taxi driver; the morally conflicted hitman; the newly widowed, on-the-move single mom. Now he was beginning to feel like one himself. It’s hard not to detect a bit of self-mythologizing when the director speaks of his ’80s-era outlier status; after all, if anyone knows the inherent coolness of being the odd-man-out rebel, it’s Scorsese. Yet compared to many of his contemporaries, Scorsese was indeed adrift—at least commercially. Francis Ford Coppola had made two Godfathers; Brian De Palma had turned Carrie into a shocking smash; and Lucas and Steven Spielberg were establishing a blueprint for a new type of blockbuster, one with family-friendly stories and dreamy high-tech visuals. “I can’t imagine directing one of those special effects—talk to the blue screen!” Scorsese said at one point, adding: “I mean, I love Spielberg pictures. You have those wonderful little kids. But I don’t think everyone should have to make them.”

After Raging Bull, the movie Scorsese felt he should make—though he’d later ask himself why—was 1983’s The King of Comedy. It was another idea brought to him by De Niro, who wanted to play Rupert Pupkin, a dismal wannabe standup who infiltrates the life of a late-night talk-show host named Jerry Langford. Scorsese hadn’t connected with Paul D. Zimmerman’s script when he first read it in the mid-1970s. But in the years that followed, as the director’s own career pursuits led to frayed friendships and failed marriages, Scorsese found the characters’ life-torching ambitions all the more relatable. “I wanted to look at what it’s like to want something so badly, you’d kill for it,’’ he said.

After hiring Jerry Lewis to play Langford, and Sandra Bernhard to star as another of the host’s needy stalkers, Scorsese was quickly plunged into The King of Comedy’s exhausting shoot. A potential writers’ strike was on the horizon, pushing the schedule up by a whole month, and Scorsese was left at the mercy of traffic-clogged midtown Manhattan, where he’d often spend hours waiting to get to work. He was also once again violently ill. “By the second week of shooting,” he said. “I was begging them not to let me go on.”

When he finished nearly five months later, he was left with nearly a million feet of film and a movie that was tough to classify and even tougher to sell. The King of Comedy was, without a doubt, the funniest film Scorsese had made at that point: The pained encounters between Langford and his star-struck devotees all but minted a new form of merciless cringe-humor. And Scorsese’s own mother, Catherine Scorsese, is hilarious as Rupert’s overbearing mom. But King of Comedy was also a hostile takedown of Big Culture and Big Celebrity, one that indicted the same consumers who’d flock that year to Return of the Jedi and Trading Places. Less than a month after King opened, 20th Century Fox told the director it wasn’t even worth their while to keep in theaters. “I should not have done The King of Comedy,” he later reflected. “I should have waited for something that came from me.”

But Scorsese was incapable of resting for too long. By the time he was promoting The King of Comedy, he was already scouting locations for his next film. If ’80s film fans wanted epics, he was going to give them one—the greatest story ever told, in fact.

Scorsese had first been handed a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ in the early ’70s. He’d grown up obsessed with both cinema and Catholicism—as an altar boy, he accompanied his local priest to see The Robe—and was moved by Kazantzakis’s account of an existentially troubled Jesus. By 1983, the director had convinced Paramount Pictures to finance an adaptation of Kazantzakis’s controversial book, one that would star Aidan Quinn as Jesus, and work from a script by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver cohort Paul Schrader. “When I was asked why I wanted to make this film,” Scorsese noted in an interview for the book Scorsese on Scorsese, “I replied, ‘So I can get to know Jesus better.’”

But as word of Scorsese’s film got out, angry letters started pouring in to the offices of Paramount’s owner, Gulf + Western. Kazantzakis’s book imagined Christ abandoning the cross to live with Mary Magdalene, one of many aspects that made Last Temptation a target of religious groups. When a new regime took over at Gulf + Western, executives took a look at the film’s escalating budget ($16 million) and potentially troublesome material, and had their own come-to-Jesus moment. Over the Thanksgiving break that year, Paramount backed out. “I remember Marty telling me that when Last Temptation of Christ was finally canceled, he got a phone call from the studio head, [and] he just started laughing,” remembered actor Griffin Dunne. “He was very upset, obviously. But it was just, ‘What are you going to do?’”

Dunne was both coproducer and star of the film Scorsese fled to just as Last Temptation was sinking: 1985’s After Hours. Like The King of Comedy, it was another New York City–set drama-comedy, this time following Paul Hackett, a wayward yuppie who gets stranded for several late-night hours in NoHo. It was easy to see why Scorsese, who took over after Tim Burton dropped out, would connect with the character: Like the director, Hackett was out of sorts and out of fashion, desperately racing from one iffy-seeming destination to the next. After reading the script, Scorsese noted, “I asked myself, ‘Can I make a picture with the same energy I had when I was 32?’”

To find out, Scorsese approached After Hours with the low-budget, pared-down ethos he’d employed on Taxi Driver nearly a decade earlier. “I really felt, ‘If I don’t pull this one off, it’s completely over—I’d never be able to make another film,’” he said. Working for a quarter of his usual salary, he sped around a darkened Manhattan for weeks, burning through set-ups as quickly as possible: “On the first day, I realized happily that I had no time to sit down or wait in my trailer. … It was like a rebirth by the end of that film.”

With the help of German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who’d soon become a career-long collaborator, Scorsese sent After Hours’ beleaguered hero on a fast-forward sprint through a downtown terrordome, one that was populated by artists, thieves, and punks. Critics who’d harrumphed over The King of Comedy were won back by After Hours—“so original, so particular, that we are uncertain from moment to moment exactly how to respond to it,” wrote Roger Ebert—and it earned Scorsese a Best Director prize at Cannes. More importantly, it reminded him why he’d first picked up a camera in the first place. Before beginning After Hours, noted producer Amy Robinson, Scorsese was in “a very depressed state … I think he felt very powerless.” But on the last day of filming, “Marty turned to Griffin and myself and said, ‘Thank you for giving me back my love of making movies.’”

After Hours wasn’t a huge moneymaker, but it was an undeniable reminder of Scorsese’s powers, and he soon found himself attached to such tantalizing studio projects as Little Shop of Horrors and Dick Tracy. Instead, he went with The Color of Money, a sequel to 1961’s The Hustler, which starred Paul Newman as damaged pool shark “Fast Eddie” Felson. Yet even with the marquee clout of Newman and costar Tom Cruise—whom Scorsese had hired right before Top Gun took off—The Color of Money was a hard sell: 20th Century Fox turned it down outright, and even when Touchstone OK’d the film, Scorsese and Newman had to sacrifice part of their salaries to keep the budget at an even-then-lean $13 million. “It is a crime what’s happening in the American industry,” Scorsese sighed. “If the situation is not totally bleak, it’s news to me. … There’s no guarantee of anything in this business any more unless it’s a big epic—invading cannibals.”

But the hustle was worth it. Released in late 1986, The Color of Money became Scorsese’s biggest movie to date, earning more than $50 million in the U.S. and winning Newman his first nonhonorary Academy Award. Thirty years later, it’s also one of the director’s most jubilant works, powered by screenwriter Richard Price’s delicious dialogue; Ballhaus’s zipping run-the-table camerawork; and the tense, almost familial mentor-protégé relationship between Newman’s pro and Cruise’s cocksure new kid (it also features some seriously awesome sunglasses).

Scorsese felt so empowered by The Color of Money that he decided to switch agents, hiring famed Creative Artists Agency power broker Michael Ovitz. “Mike said, ‘What is it you want to get done? What is the film you really want to get made?’” Scorsese recalled. “I said, The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Throughout the ’80s, Scorsese had picked up a handful of high-profile side projects, many of them made with his filmmaking friends. He directed a 1986 episode of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, spinning a tale of a temperamental writer (Sam Waterston) haunted by a mirror-dwelling phantom. Along with Coppola and Woody Allen, he contributed an entry, “Life Lessons,” to the 1989 anthology film New York Stories, spinning a tale of a temperamental painter (Nick Nolte) haunted by a studio-dwelling ex-flame. And, a decade after the sputtering-out of New York, New York, Scorsese finally got to make a hit musical, turning Jackson’s “Bad” into an 18-minute mini movie featuring Wesley Snipes, the New York City subway system, and a still-remarkable gang-member dance-off. (Scorsese and Jackson reportedly battled for control of the production, which cost more than a million dollars.)

Still, for much of the decade’s second half, Scorsese’s primary aim was to resurrect The Last Temptation of Christ. Over the years, he’d reworked the script, met with financiers, and mulled over locations. In early 1987, during a three-week visit to Marlon Brando’s private island in French Polynesia—he was there to discuss a possible project—Scorsese got an urgent call from Ovitz, telling him Universal was interested in Last Temptation.

That fall, he was in Morocco with his cast, which included Willem Dafoe (as Jesus), Harvey Keitel, David Bowie, and Barbara Hershey, the actor who’d first introduced the book to Scorsese years earlier. The movie they were making with Scorsese was hardly on a scale of the CinemaScope biblical epics the director had loved as a child: To get Universal to back him, Scorsese had agreed to make Last Temptation for just $7 million, and to complete shooting within barely two months.

“I found the actual making of the film the most physical experience I ever had, rather than a spiritual one,” Scorsese said. Work would start near the crack of dawn, to chase the spare winter light, and some areas were so loud, Scorsese would find himself begging his crew to get him just a few minutes to talk to the actors in peace. But the real noise came when Scorsese returned to the States. Leaked versions of the Last Temptation script had been circulating since the early ’80s, and there were concerns among members of the Reagan-empowered religious right that the movie was borderline blasphemous (among their concerns: An extended fantasy sequence in which Jesus steps off the cross and lives life as a man, during which he has a romantic encounter with Mary).

As the movie’s September 1988 release date neared, Scorsese found himself in the middle of a worldwide controversy. Protestors picketed Universal’s studios, as well as festivals in Europe; the TV nun Mother Angelica said any Christian considering whether to see the film was choosing “between heaven and hell.” When Universal premiered Last Temptation in Manhattan—after pushing up its release by several weeks—it hired more than 100 security personnel and police officers, who checked bags to make sure no attendee was looking to spray-paint or damage the screen (as the movie played, about 1,000 protestors assembled outside).

What the naysayers were missing was a lush, powerful film that could only have been made by a director with a deep appreciation for the Scripture. During the controversy, Scorsese released a statement indicating Last Temptation was “an affirmation of faith, not a denial.” It was a point reinforced in its final moments, in which Jesus, having awoken from his earth-wandering fantasy, returns to the cross to fulfill his destiny—a scene that finds Dafoe, bloodied by his crown of thorns, proclaiming, “It is accomplished!”

Last Temptation never had a chance of being a Color of Money–size hit (when it went to home video, Blockbuster refused to carry copies, and Universal all but buried it at retail). But as 1989 began, Scorsese could finally look back at the decade and think: It is accomplished. Thanks to Last Temptation, he’d received his second Oscar nomination for directing, and by that summer, he’d begun shooting his next feature, one he’d been nurturing for a while. It would call upon all the tools in Scorsese’s shinebox, especially the ones he’d perfected in the ’80s—his ability to detect the humor in the darkest moments; his fascination with morally damaged outliers; and his Michael Ballhaus–assisted visual vigor. It would even find him once again casting his mother as comic relief. The film had originally been titled Wiseguy. But by the time it arrived in late September 1990, Scorsese had come up with a new name, one that’s been associated with the filmmaker for as far back as anyone can remember: Goodfellas.

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