Martin Scorsese may be a living legend, but he’s never pretended to be anything other than human. Countless actors and directors paid tribute to him on Monday night at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Film Benefit — and shared frank, funny stories from their own experiences with the famous director.
Emily Mortimer vividly recalls her first day on “Shutter Island,” which she came into terrified. “There he was, sitting at a table with Leonardo DiCaprio — I thought I might be sick,” she said. Scorsese had presented an award at the Oscars the previous evening, so as an icebreaker, she blurted out that he had looked dashing on TV. “Really?” he said, according to Mortimer’s account. “God, that surprises me. I’d come out in hives that morning and smothered myself in hydrocortisone cream to calm it down. Then I got paranoid that the cream would come off on my tuxedo, so I wrapped tape all around my body – over the cream and the hives, under my suit. Hives, then cream, then tape. I didn’t feel in the least bit dashing, but I’m so pleased you thought so.”
Mortimer laughed at the memory. “Needless to say, I was put at my ease, and Marty has been putting me at my ease ever since, because of the few geniuses I’ve ever met, he is really the nicest.”
Spike Lee’s first encounter with Scorsese also stayed with him. “He screened ‘After Hours’ at NYU. And afterwards, I just went up to him, introduced myself, said I was an NYU graduate film student, and he didn’t know who I was – I was still in school! But that was the first time. And he remembers that too,” Lee told Variety. “He was very open. We talked. There were a lot of people there, but we had a moment.”
Lee has cited the “Taxi Driver” director as an influence many times, and the two are still friends today. “To me, he’s the guy,” he said, asserting that film is like a religion for Scorsese. “He’s Catholic, too, so you know what that means!” he added, laughing.
“Marty’s first career ambition was to be a priest. My theory is that he changed his mind when he realized that being a priest meant serving God, while being a director meant being God,” Robert De Niro quipped later. “But Marty is very priest-like in his approach to directing – he’s open and kind and generous.”
The actor used his speech at the end of the evening to reflect on their long history, noting that he and Scorsese had even grown up near each other (“He on the literal mean streets of Little Italy, me on the more gentle streets of Greenwich Village,” he joked). “We got together on Marty’s movie ‘Mean Streets’ about 45 years ago. That started a collaboration that has continued to this day.”
Though Scorsese had no way of knowing it, another neighborhood connection would lead to his creative partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio’s father, George, who attended the benefit as his plus-one, was born mere blocks away from Scorsese and came to revere the director — and to pass on that admiration to his son.
“When I was 15 years old, just starting out on my journey as an actor making movies, my father took me to a dark theater for inspiration,” DiCaprio said. “He pointed to the screen, and as the reels of ‘Goodfellas’ began to spin, he said, ‘This is the epitome of modern filmmaking, this is someone whom you may be lucky enough one day to work with, and when it comes to directors, Martin Scorsese is where the bar is set.’”
From that moment on, working with Scorsese became “a relentless ambition.” Twelve years later, that dream was finally realized when they collaborated on “Gangs of New York”; today, they’re preparing for their sixth film together.
Jonah Hill also idolized Scorsese from a young age. “Some people grow up with superheroes on their wall,” he said. “I had a picture of Marty on my wall.”
He told the story of a scene from “The Wolf of Wall Street” in which he was supposed to be punched by Jon Bernthal (per Hill, both “a great actor” and “a huge, buff maniac”). Scorsese had been unhappy with their attempts so far, worried that the moment looked fake. “Jon is pacing, still in it, and I’m not scared, because it’s a movie — and Marty’s like, ‘Oh, why don’t you try one where you hit him for real?’ And I’m just quiet, hoping the thought will float away,” he recounted. But the discussion continued, and Hill’s silent plea for help from DiCaprio went unheeded. “Anyway, long story short, Jon punches me in the face,” he said, laughing. “And it’s one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever acted in.”
Hill took the lessons from that set to heart. In preparation for his own directorial debut with “Mid90s,” he met with Scorsese for four hours – during which time the conversation turned again toward on-screen scraps. He was seeking advice for the opening scene of the movie, and how to make the fight between the two brothers look real. “He just goes, ‘You have ‘em do it for real!’ and I was like, ‘Oh, right, okay!’” Hill said. “So, they did it for real! And it’s the opening of my first film.”
When he took to the stage later in the evening, Scorsese was quick to note that the method wasn’t for everyone. “Real punching,” he said, “only works certain ways — I wouldn’t advise that to young filmmakers!”
The legendary director, who turned 76 on Saturday, cares deeply about fostering the next generation of artists – and for him, that means preserving the past so that they can learn from it. For older works, he said, “Time is running out. Every minute, a title that isn’t restored or preserved, the film does begin to disappear and decay.”
Scorsese himself has long been involved with MoMA’s efforts to protect those titles, partnering with the museum on 111 film preservation projects; his own organization, the Film Foundation, has preserved and archived an additional 800 titles.
He described the museum as “another university” — one that was indispensable to his film education growing up in New York. Now, he hopes to return the favor. As DiCaprio put it, “No one on Earth has so relentlessly pioneered the salvation of movie history.” As both an artist and an archivist, he said, Scorsese will be “the catalyst for generations of cinematic students and teachers to come.”