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How Martin Scorsese’s New York Review of Books Obsession Inspired HBO Doc

Robert Silvers Martin Scorsese The 50
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Martin Scorsese is best known for his bloody chronicles of mobsters and made men, so the film legend wouldn’t seem like a natural fit to peel back the curtain on the New York Review of Books, the periodical of choice for the intelligentsia.

But when the publication’s founder and editor Robert Silvers reached out to the director he discovered that Scorsese had stacks of back issues and had been an avid Review reader since his days as a New York University student.

“He knew it, he read it, he was into it,” Silvers told Variety at the New York Film Festival premiere of “The 50 Year Argument” on Sunday.

The documentary Scorsese ultimately made about the five decade long history of the Review will be shown on HBO this week. It contains archival footage and interviews with Silvers and such regular contributors as Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin as they discuss what made the paper such a focal point for political and cultural discourse.

A party for the filmmakers was held at Gabriel’s Restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side and drew an eclectic cross-section of Hollywood and academia. Among the guests were Kevin Kline, the New York Review of Books Publisher Rea Hederman, journalist Janet Malcolm, Review contributor Zoe Heller, HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins and Fran Lebowitz. Guests munched on short ribs, gnocchi and passion fruit sorbet before the Lincoln Center screening.

Also in attendance was Scorsese’s co-director David Tedeschi, who was enlisted when it became clear that the director’s professional commitments would prevent him from turning around the film in time for the Review’s half-centennial.

The two had collaborated previously, with Tedeschi editing Scorsese’s previous documentaries, “Public Speaking,” “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” and “Shine a Light.” It was a good match, because Tedeschi shared his co-director’s passion for the publication.

“It really offers long-form, non-fiction analysis and facts and it really takes a point of view so you’re able to gauge what to think on any given subject,” said Tedeschi. “It’s very different from any other publication. That was true in the 1970s when I started reading it and it’s true now.”

Part of what makes the Review unique is that its commentary is driven not by market forces or what’s hip and buzzy, but by what its team of erudite editors and contributors think is fascinating and worthy of coverage. Subjects in any particular issue can range from the films of Richard Linklater to the civil war in Syria.

“We’re the only paper in which the editors from the very first since we founded it have had absolute freedom,” said Silvers. “We can send someone to Liberia or we can bring someone over to review a show at the Met. We promote people who have something to say.”

Having the cameras turned on him was a fresh experience for the Review’s guiding editorial hand.

“There’s nothing better for humility than seeing yourself on film,” said Silvers. “It’s usually rather shocking and rather disappointing. Every one has their own body image and their own self image.”

Showing “The 50 Year Argument” at the New York Film Festival made sense for a publication and pair of filmmakers who are so enmeshed in the life of the Big Apple.

“It’s the New York Review of Books. It’s Martin Scorsese. I live in New York,” said Tedeschi. “All those things combined to make this a very special event for us.”

(Pictured: Martin Scorsese, Robert B. Silvers and David Tedeschi at “The 50 Year Argument” premiere)