Mean Streets. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Taxi Driver. If none of these titles register with you, you’re either a millennial or an improbably huge fan of Taxi starring Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah. (Sincere condolences if it’s the latter.) The 1970s weren’t just a landmark era for American cinema, pushing on-screen language, sex, drugs and violence further than it’d ever gone—they reflected all the anxieties and fears of a nation rocked by Vietnam, Watergate, unemployment, the energy crisis and everything in between. Martin Scorsese remains one of the most influential directors from that era, not to mention one of our most accomplished filmmakers today. According to a recent Hollywood Reporter feature, however, Scorsese almost didn’t survive the same perils of alcoholism and drug addiction that he routinely puts all his own characters through. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world without contemporary classics like Goodfellas, Cape Fear, or The Departed, but the article underscores the fact that directors as celebrated as Scorsese are, after all, only human.
Playing With Fire
When filmgoers see the phrases “Directed by Martin Scorsese” or “A Martin Scorsese Film,” they immediately have a different expectation for what they’re about to see. And with a career spanning over 50 years, Scorsese hasn’t lost any of his steam, credibility or gusto from film to film. Now 74 years old, his films remain as vital and vibrant as ever. Case in point: Scorsese’s latest release Silence is receiving some of the best reviews of his career—which is saying something. (Rotten Tomatoes currently has 16 early reviews giving it 100% across the board.) It’s also a passion project decades in the making for Scorsese—a visceral film about 17th century Jesuits who travel to Japan in search of a runaway priest.
The film seems a far cry from his usual films steeped in New York City back alleys but then again, it’s the sort of film that requires the steady hand of a master who’s in control of himself and his craft. That wasn’t always the case. In the Hollywood Reporter piece, Scorsese admits that in 1978 (at age 35), he began playing with fire: “After finishing [the film]New York, New York, I took chances,” he said. “[I was] out of time and out of place and also in turmoil in my own life and embracing the other world, so to speak, with a kind of attraction to the dangerous side of existence. Then on Labor Day weekend, I found myself in a hospital, surprised that I was near death.” It’s a story that, surprisingly, hasn’t received much attention over the years but remains as compelling as any story he’s put on screen.
“You Could Make Five Films at Once”
For those of you who want the nitty gritty: Once Taxi Driver received accolades, Scorsese began regularly using cocaine, Quaaludes and alcohol, according to a Mental Floss feature on the director. The creative charge he got from cocaine was too much to ignore: “At first you felt like you could make five films at once,” he said. “And then you wound up spending four days in bed every week because you were exhausted and your body couldn’t take it.” The article claims that his addiction quickly took over, reaching a low point at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, where he was giving interview after interview to reporters. During that time, Scorsese ran out of cocaine. He quickly sent a private plane to Paris to bring back a fresh supply to get him through his press obligations. In the meantime, cocaine wasn’t doing his personality any favors: “I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around,” he recalled in the Mental Floss story. “I always found, no matter what anybody said, something to take offense at…at some point during the evening I’d flip out.”
The director would later call his time with cocaine as a “two-year abyss from which he barely came out alive.” While he points to his drug abuse as nothing more than “self-destruction,” one has to wonder if he somehow managed to perfectly translate all that pain, pathos and desperation on the screen—having personally experienced it himself. “It was a matter of pushing the envelope, of being bad, seeing how much you can do,” he said. “Embracing a way of life to its limit. I did a lot of drugs because I wanted to do a lot. I wanted to push all the way to the very very end and see if I could die.”
A Dark Wish Come True
Scorsese almost succeeded that Labor Day, according to the Mental Floss feature, when “he and his friends were sold some ‘bad coke.’” This was the turning point for Scorsese—both physically and mentally. “A number of things had happened,” he told the Reporter, blaming medication abuse and dangerous combinations of drugs. His asthma medication, for one, set off a chain reaction that caused massive internal bleeding. “I was kept in a hospital for 10 days and nights, and they took care of me, these doctors, and I became aware of not wanting to die and not wasting [my life].” During that time, Scorsese also became aware of something else: himself. The feature notes that while he was visited by famous friends like Robert DeNiro, he was largely alone in the hospital, thinking back on his childhood as a Catholic boy growing up in New York’s Little Italy.
He felt that his upbringing in the church would get him through the tough times ahead. “I was stunned by the realization of my naivete and denial,” he says. “I prayed. But if I prayed, it was just to get through those 10 days and nights. I felt [if I was saved]it was for some reason. And even if it wasn’t for a reason, I had to make good use of it.” As the Reporter says, “when Scorsese emerged from that dark night of the soul, like the blind man in the Bible, he felt the scales were removed from his eyes.”
And as a result, the rest of us get to see some of the most wondrous films ever made.
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