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Passion Play

After a career of telling tightly narrated urban fables, Martin Scorsese has let loose the monster epic he's been itching to do for 30 years. Equal parts costume drama, medieval morality play, sweeping romance, and New York creation myth, it feels like the movie he was born to make.


Knockout: It was only when Scorcese's longtime champion Mike Ovitz served up Leo DiCaprio for the role of Amsterdam Vallon that Scorcese secured the built-in box office needed to make his picture.   

You might say that the biggest lesson Martin Scorsese learned about selling his electrifying, sometimes harrowing Gangs of New York to the mass market happened before he ever got a green light for it. • In the mid-nineties, Hollywood's most venerated, auteurish director wrangled $50 million to make a different epic of the streets, Casino— sort of a Gangs of Las Vegas, glittery and sun-drenched. The film went over schedule and over budget, as Scorsese, as usual, displayed the passion of Saint Jude—the patron saint of desperate causes—in trying to chase down the movie he saw in his mind. But for a preview audience at the Beekman Theater, things came to a head early on— specifically, a crunching, eyeball-popping prosthetic head in the infamous scene in which Joe Pesci interrogates a particularly stubborn mobster by crushing his head in a vise. "The audience started to get up and leave!" groans Scorsese, sheepishly recalling the experience from the gilded elegance of his midtown townhouse. "I said, 'Oh, my God, we're not even halfway through the film!' "

This time around, Scorsese had no intention of producing that sort of reaction. On December 20, Gangs of New York, the movie Scorsese burned to make for 30 years, opens at long last. The film is not quite the bloodbath that many in Hollywood had come to expect. But at a James Cameron–scale budget of $100 million (twice the cost of any previous Scorsese movie), Gangs still raises a big question: Will a James Cameron–size audience want to sit still for an unflinching, weighty, and wildly ambitious three-hour epic from New York's high priest of urban dystopia? "I don't know," Scorsese says with a shrug. "When I'm making a film, I'm the audience."

Nevertheless, Scorsese did what he could this time to craft a crowd-pleaser. He cast Leonardo DiCaprio in his first monster picture since Titanic, and Daniel Day-Lewis in his much-anticipated return from five years of self-imposed exile, during which he worked for a time as an apprentice cobbler in Italy. Scorsese labored to produce at once a sumptuous costume drama, a sweeping romance, and a taut revenge tale. What he ended up with was, well, a Scorsese movie—tense, gritty, spontaneously brutal, and, when you least expect it, ecstatic. Imagine Gone With the Wind as narrated by Travis Bickle. But maybe that's appropriate. Over the past fifteen months, the world has started to feel like a Scorsese movie.

"When I first met Marty in 1972, he told me that there were two books he wanted to make, Gangs of New York and The Last Temptation of Christ," recalls Paul Schrader, who has written four Scorsese movies, including Taxi Driver. "It struck me that these were rather grandiose ambitions for someone whose most important credit was a Roger Corman film. But I've never seen Martin Scorsese intimidated by an audacious suggestion. It's the opposite—it perks him to life like the Energizer Bunny."

While Gangs is Scorsese's most audacious movie, it's among his most personal, too. The film takes place during the years leading up to the Civil War in the infamous downtown slum known as the Five Points, home to flamboyant Irish Gangs like the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits. The Points once lay only blocks from the Elizabeth Street tenement where Scorsese grew up (by that time, the neighborhood had been razed to build a federal courthouse). "My father had this mythological sense of the old New York, and he used to tell me stories about these old Gangs, particularly the Forty Thieves in the Fourth Ward," Scorsese recalls. "They still took the name in the 1930s, even though the neighborhood had become Italian by then."

In the film, there is no shortage of archetypes familiar from Scorsese's youth. Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (based on an actual historical figure, played by Day-Lewis) rails against immigrants as a nativist crusader, but he's basically a mob boss wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio) is a street kid both seduced by Bill's power and bound by honor to avenge Bill's killing of his father. DiCaprio's love interest, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), is a cunning pickpocket trying to steal a better life beyond the old neighborhood.

Something about Cameron: Cameron Diaz stars as Leo's love interest, Jenny Everdeane.  

In Gangs, as in the Little Italy of Scorsese's formative years, a distinctive urban dread wafts through even the moments of color and joy. Life is something that's lived out with a time bomb audibly ticking. "Where I grew up, half a block away was the Bowery. These poor men were out of their minds, and anything could happen, at any second," Scorsese says. "All my life, I never really felt comfortable anywhere in New York, except maybe in an apartment somewhere." In this movie, the bomb ends up going off—and in Technicolor fashion. As Amsterdam and Bill finally square off, the city erupts into the apocalyptic Draft Riots of 1863—"the worst riots in American history, not New York history," Scorsese says. "The worst loss of life until September 11."

From the outset, Gangs feels like the New York movie Scorsese's been building up to for his entire career—or maybe several of them. "My problem is, there's no definitive story about New York for me," Scorsese says. "I could take that book, I could make another ten films out of it. Maybe more. There's one to be made on the Chinese in New York in the 1890s alone."

The odyssey began on January 1, 1970, when Scorsese, staying at a friend's house, ran across a copy of The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury's 1928 history of Five Points. Scorsese immediately called a friend, screenwriter Jay Cocks. "Marty said, 'Think of it like a Western in outer space,' " Cocks recalls with a laugh. It was all very "seventies." There was lots of talk about A Clockwork Orange, and writing the lead for Malcolm McDowell. They would frame the narrative with Springsteen quotes, but otherwise keep the period slang bafflingly authentic. All of which is why Gangs never made it out of the seventies.

"Jay and I put together the first draft in 1977," Scorsese recalls. "Next thing I knew, I was directing Raging Bull. That film was similar to this one, a kamikaze film—I put everything I knew into it, and if it was going to sink, it was going to sink, and I didn't care." Ten days after Raging Bull opened in 1980, Heaven's Gate—the quintessential megaflop—was released by the same studio, United Artists. "The era of big-budget personal filmmaking was over," Scorsese says ruefully. "I was going to move on to other things—go to Italy and make documentaries. I didn't think there was any place for me in Hollywood anymore."

Scorsese stayed, only to grow more mythic in the eyes of confirmed cineasts, but his unsettling tone poems like After Hours and King of Comedy ran aggressively counter to Hollywood's blockbuster sensibility during the Top Gun eighties. From the outside, he appeared to have cashed his last "indulge the genius" coupon to make The Last Temptation of Christ, a picture that seemed to attract as many picketers as viewers. Even after GoodFellas and Cape Fear revived his commercial credibility in the early nineties, studios were wary of letting Scorsese be too Scorsese. "People always point to Heaven's Gate, or my New York, New York—all these other pictures that went way over budget," he confides. "I think that's always been a problem for me."

Lords of the Ring: Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis watch a prizefight on the same lot where Fellini made La Dolce Vita.  

Then, on location for 1993's The Age of Innocence in Troy, New York, Scorsese ran across an 1896 photo of a burned-out building, hauntingly dripping with icicles. He turned to his production designer, Dante Ferretti, and announced firmly, "I want this to be the first image in my next movie, Gangs of New York." What Scorsese got financing for was Casino. Next, it was Kundun. After each film, Ferretti says, Scorsese would insist that Gangs was next. "Finally, I asked him, 'Are we ever going to make this picture?' " Ferretti recalls. Scorsese, for his part, was pitching the project relentlessly. It's just that no studio had the guts to take it on. Only when Mike Ovitz visited Scorsese on the Hell's Kitchen set of Bringing Out the Dead in 1998 and offered up Leonardo DiCaprio—the centerpiece client of his new, and ill-fated, company, Artists Management Group—did Gangs finally look bankable. Not surprisingly, it was Miramax that took the dare.

"I've wanted to work with Marty in any capacity I can for years, and he'd always been tied up with someone or something else," explains Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, who considers himself a friend as well as a fan. "The minute there was an opening, I jumped in with both feet."

Still, Harvey-versus-Marty had Ali-Foreman written all over it. The personal styles of these heavyweights of New York film couldn't have been more different. The hulking Harvey is a bombastic Barnum, a bellower, an intimidator. "Harvey's a showman," Scorsese says diplomatically. The diminutive Marty, meanwhile, is neurotic, cerebral, logorrheic—and just as intimidating. "Marty and I had a very similar vision," Weinstein says sardonically. "We had Marty's vision."

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