The old college triad

Helmers Lee, Scorsese and Stone share NYU roots … and a resurgent Oscar season

Call them city boys. Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee are not only NYU film school’s most prominent graduates, they’re provocateurs in the most colorful Gotham sense.

Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of NYU’s Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film & Television (part of the Tisch School of the Arts), asserts the filmmakers reflect the curriculum’s “strong auteur philosophy.”

Stone likes to think they share “a New York state of mind,” or, as he elaborates for Variety, “an irascibility … something energetic, and off-putting sometimes, and it comes out in Spike’s work and in Marty’s, and I think it comes out in mine — but each in different ways.”

All three are experiencing a banner year with big-studio productions featuring strong scripts written by relative novices. And for Stone and Lee, who are coming off what might be termed a baroque period of overly mannered movies that served as fresh meat for their detractors, vindication is sweet.

Newsweek’s David Ansen called Lee’s “The Inside Man” a film that “crackles with the seriocomic tension of thin-skinned New Yorkers thrown together in a crisis,” while the New Yorker’s David Denby says with “World Trade Center,” “Stone bulls his way into our emotions with his usual force but with greater clarity, sanity and measure than in the past, and he is better at violent spectacle and at capturing the stages of dying than any other director.”

Scorsese, whose classes Stone and Lee attended at NYU, has received the most uniform praise with “The Departed,” a crime drama in which his chosen milieu — the mean streets of New York — have been replaced by those of Boston’s South Side. “This is the movie that Scorsese fans have been yearning to see for a very long time,” wrote Joe Morgenstern in his Wall Street Journal review, “and it’s a crowd-pleaser in the bargain.”

In a way, working within the confines of genre — albeit with strong narratives and punchy dialogue — has benefited both Scorsese and Lee. For his part, Stone was dealing with a subject — the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — that required the kind of sensitivity with which he’d appear to be at odds.

“The grandiosity (of recent Stone projects) looked like his self-indulgence knew no bounds,” says author, film scholar and critic Molly Haskell. “With (‘World Trade Center’), he couldn’t dominate the story, so he chose instead just to serve it.”

If Scorsese, Lee and Stone have been shaped by their experience at NYU — which Stone calls “a home of ideas” — they hailed from different backgrounds.

Urban legends

Scorsese, a native of Manhattan’s Little Italy, seriously considered joining the Catholic priesthood before attending film school in the early ’60s.

Stone, the son of a successful Wall Street stockbroker, dropped out of Yale and did a tour of duty in Vietnam (for which he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart) before he enrolled at NYU.

And Lee, who spent his formative years in Brooklyn, attended Morehouse College before earning a graduate degree from Tisch.

The three directors have not only given back as instructors (Lee has been teaching at NYU for the past 10 years) and with financial support, the subjects and themes they explored as students remain very much with them today.

Scorsese’s senior class short, “It’s Not Just You, Murray” (1964), centers on an aging mobster who reflects on his life of crime; Stone’s 11-minute student film from 1971 is titled “Last Year in Viet Nam”; and Lee’s controversial NYU short “The Answer” (1980) reimagines a remake of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” from the perspective of a black screenwriter.

“When you start out young, you’ve got to believe you’re going to change the world,” Haskell says. “They certainly did. And they wanted to change the way movies were made. They all had more of an agenda than most people who come out of film schools, especially West Coast film schools. They weren’t looking to get into the industry to do smooth, polished work. There was something more gritty, more urban, more violent, edgier.”

School for scrappers

Or, as Morgenstern puts it, “They’ve all been infected by the idea of film as more than something that opens on a Friday night, makes a killing over the weekend and disappears.”

That ethos is reflected in NYU’s fostering of individual voices.

Campbell says: “One of the things our faculty says about teaching is, ‘I’m not interested in the film that I want to make, I’m interested in who you are and the film you want to make.’ And everything we do is about finding out what your story is, and then giving you the tools to make that story.”

Stone recalls NYU as offering “a certain degree of independence. We were all on our own, there was no money, it was like a rat’s nest of competing ideologies. We’d have to fight for our budgets, our scripts. I remember every film was a struggle. So it was a scrappy way of learning.”

This struggle has remained with Scorsese, Stone and Lee throughout their careers. Even in the wake of such career high points as “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas,” Scorsese has always harbored the fear that every film could be his last, that whatever suit was signing his checks could pull the plug at any moment.

“At least until recently, (Scorsese, Stone and Lee) have represented a sort of urban New York counterpart to the industry,” Haskell explains. “They’re sort of anti-industry, and maybe that’s one of the reasons they’ve had such a hard time in terms of Academy Awards.”

Between the three of them, they have earned 20 Oscar nominations, but only Stone has won, thrice: for directing “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” and for writing “Midnight Express.”

The year Lee received a screenplay nom for “Do the Right Thing” — his incendiary drama about racial tension in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood — presenter Kim Basinger famously departed from the script on Oscar night when she said: “We have five great films here and they are great for one reason — they tell the truth. But there is one film missing from the list that deserves to be honored because, ironically, it might tell the biggest truth of all. And that’s ‘Do the Right Thing.’ ”

“I think there was always that (sentiment),” recalls Haskell of Basinger’s extemporaneous remarks, “especially with (Lee), because there was this sort of desperate desire for some black filmmakers to make good. I think he’s very talented, but I think people put up with a lot from him, too, just because they wanted him to succeed, and they wanted that voice in movies, that vision.”

That vision still abounds in “The Inside Man.”

In the guise of a bank-heist movie, Lee injects the narrative — from a script by Russell Gewirtz — with a melting pot of ethnic flavors and post-9/11 paranoia that’s at once tense and funny.

Veneration gap

“He brought all that New York energy to the film,” Morgenstern says. “The movie is really densely populated, and it’s fascinating to me that after all these worthy attempts at small, personal films that haven’t really connected with an audience — black or white — here Spike Lee was brought in as a director for hire, and he’s obviously had his way with the script, and his imprint is on the material.”

If Lee has felt shortchanged by the Academy, he’s not saying. Multiple calls and emails to his handlers went unanswered. But, like Scorsese, who also is not talking to the press, he seems to have made peace with an industry that has given him multiple platforms and opportunities as a filmmaker.

“I think they sort of exorcized some of their personal demons,” says Haskell of NYU’s power trio. “And once you become accepted, or even venerated, you don’t make the same films anymore. And there would be something faux about it if they did. They have grown, they’ve matured.”

Stone, who now makes his home in Los Angeles, puts it another way. “Hollywood — it’s a muse, and also a bitch goddess, but it’s made a good life for me. In the end, I can’t complain, because I do think she gave me some good breaks. And I couldn’t get those in New York, which is why I had to leave.”

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