How much money would you trust this person with?
In a week’s time, the luminaries of show business will congregate at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood to learn who the big winners are at this year’s Oscars. This year, like every year, the biggest of the big will be the award for Best Picture. While the field is unusually crowded with popular films, and there is no obvious winner (to either take the prize or be upset), there is a certain loser: The Irishman. It will not win the award, nor will Martin Scorsese win Best Director for it.
This is not unusual. Scorsese typically loses at the Oscars, and the awards for Best Picture and Director which he secured for 2006’s The Departed were almost certainly conciliatory for so many past losses—studio Warner Bros. barely campaigned for him. By that point, his talent was undeniable and unceasing, and the years had made it difficult to justify that Raging Bull had been defeated in both these categories by Robert Redford’s Ordinary People in 1981, or that a decade after that, Scorsese’s Goodfellas had lost to Kevin Costner (yes, as director) and Dances with Wolves (yes, this happened.) The Departed might be the weakest crime movie Scorsese ever made, with an impossible-to-ignore deficit in its third act, and a Jack Nicolson performance where he couldn’t decide whether he speaks like he’s from South Boston, or Tarzana, depending on the scene. It’s a good movie if you like Scorsese’s work in this vein or the actors, but it has its holes. As a Massachusetts native, this is difficult for me to concede. As one who elevates Scorsese above any other director living or dead (Casino is my favorite movie, bar none), it’s harder still. But as time passes I’m increasingly sure The Departed will not warrant a mention in the director’s obituary, unless it’s in the same sentence that mentions his receiving these two awards. That creates a problem for this year: there are definitely people still living and voting who don’t see the need to reward Scorsese a second time out of guilt.
But this isn’t why he’s going to lose. Ordinarily, I would just say this makes it likely he’s going to lose. Instead, I’m certain of it this year. This is because a short time ago, Scorsese elected to tell the motion picture industry, in so many words, to go fuck itself. In fact, had he chosen those specific words instead of what he actually said, I am sure his chances would be better. This is an industry (and an awards show) where roguish mavericks are well-regarded. Traitors, on the other hand, are a different story.
This is what Scorsese told Empire magazine upon The Irishman’s release:
The only time his ardour [for film] dims is when the subject of Marvel comes up. “I don’t see them,” he says of the MCU. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Why does that sound like “fuck you?” Several reasons. For one, it’s frowned upon and petty to criticize anyone else’s movies. You will almost never hear it publicly. More importantly, Scorsese chose to direct his ire at the biggest thing going in movies right now, and something unlike anything that’s ever happened in popular films before.
The “MCU,” if you’re not hip, refers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a series of 23 films since 2007 (based on Marvel Comics characters) that all take place in the same “universe” (they share characters and events.) None has lost money. Almost all are wildly successful, and last year’s culmination event Avengers: Endgame is probably the most successful motion picture of all time. This is the realization of a master plan by producer Kevin Feige and Disney after the latter’s 2009 purchase of Marvel Comics. This is completely unprecedented. The closest thing is probably the Harry Potter series, which earned $7.7b through eight films over a ten-year period between 2001-07. The MCU has earned over $22b in just thirteen years. The per movie average revenue might not seem wildly different, but it is, for two reasons: 1) because the MCU is so vast (most movies are focused on different characters) Disney can focus its development resources many of them at once; and 2) Harry Potter had a definite ceiling: the seven novels J.K. Rowling wrote. Harry Potter will be return someday in reboot form, probably sooner than anyone suspects (unless you see the Fantastic Beasts series as already counting), but any way you measure it, Rowling’s catalog is limited. Marvel Comics (in its current form) has been publishing since 1961, and has created so many characters in that time that, if Disney wanted, this film series could probably continue for the next century without covering the same ground twice. The public’s appetite for this stuff will sour (it always does) but when it does the precedent of a large, interrelated brand play that spans many groups of talent will remain. Disney’s other big purchase in the last decade, Star Wars, is already being capitalized in this same way. Warner Bros. would love to see the DC Comics universe achieve similar popularity, though their success so far has been mixed.
Disney would be a powerful enemy to have in any year, but they don’t control awards voting. Their ability to influence a vote by the people they hire is probably less than General Motors has over their members of the United Auto Workers union. This is because those auto workers, though unionized and independent in representing their own interests, nevertheless rely on GM exclusively for their livelihood. If something bad for the company happens and the factory closes, they lose their jobs. In film production, most work is done on a contract basis and continued employment is almost never guaranteed beyond that contract’s length. Most people will work for a broad swath of studios and other production entities during their careers. But there are exceptions. TV is a good job. If a show is successful and continues to get renewed, so will the employment. In film, a franchise is the closest thing to steady work, and even franchises that never take off probably had contract provisions binding the actors for possible future installments. But even Disney, the biggest studio by orders of magnitude, couldn’t marshal the awards voting necessary to change an outcome.
But Scorsese’s words didn’t just alienate Disney. They alienated an industry. The MCU, at least financially, is good for this industry. Consider the idea of steady employment, just from the perspective of actors. Take Tom Holland, the latest actor (and the first in the MCU) to play Spider-Man. He has only appeared in these movies since 2016. Nevertheless, he has appeared in five of them, three of which are not Spider-Man movies. Achieving the status of MCU character can be solid work. There is no analog in the Scorsese Cinematic Universe. To be in five of those movies, you literally have to be Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio, and even then, you can be certain it won’t happen in four years. The Irishman marks Harvey Keitel’s sixth appearance in a Scorsese film, but he started with 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? A lot of young actors may admire Harvey Keitel for his unique presence and prolific screen credits, but far fewer aspire to match his career path.
For “below the line” crew, the MCU doesn’t offer much career security. Below the line people are anyone who is not an actor, producer, director or screenwriter. If the next Avengers movie has its lights arranged and hung by a whole different team than the previous one, it probably won’t have too much of an effect on whether people pay to go see it, so Disney doesn’t have much of an incentive to preserve continuity of personnel in these positions. But any time more movies (or TV) are being made, it’s good for people who work in these jobs. In 2006, the last year before the MCU began, only one movie (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) made over a billion dollars worldwide. In 2019, nine movies pulled off this feat, with fully a third of them being products of the MCU. None of the nine were original ideas; all were based on characters from prior movies. The total worldwide box office take was a record $42.5b. While this is almost certainly near a peak for theaters, because other forms of media are going to increasingly diminish the share of people’s time theatrical exhibition consumes, it won’t change much for people who work in film production. People might watch it at home, or (sigh) on their phones, but the product they will be consuming will be categorized as what we call feature films, at least for the foreseeable future. The more money that can be made in film, the more films will be made. More work is better for everyone.
Even the many failing attempts at miming the MCU will mean paychecks for thousands of people who work below the line. This is a situation where below the line personnel have an advantage over their creative, above the line counterparts: a flop can hurt the career of a star, or a director, and people who control the money will take that flop as a statement by the public about the commercial viability of that artist’s work. On the contrary, a key grip who works on that flop and performs their job well can add it to a solid portfolio of work in aid of their professional reputation, just like they would any hit.
Marvel movies are just one reason why we’re currently living in an age of unprecedented filmed content creation. The explosion of streaming has meant increased production in nearly all genres and formats. But Marvel’s unique success as feature films is what counts for purposes of this discussion, because feature films, exhibited in theaters, are what the Academy Awards recognizes. Even the content from streamers like Netflix that has now become a staple of the Oscars has to make at least a token appearance in a theater to qualify as eligible for the Oscars.
Meanwhile, in the Scorsese Cinematic Universe, the director’s comments to Empire were met with gasps, then anger, albeit tempered by the Hollywood manners Scorsese himself had failed to observe in his original remarks. To refute Scorsese’s take, frequent Marvelite Joss Whedon pointed to the work of his colleague, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. Despite disclaiming with, “I revere Marty,” (Whedon used the popular abbreviation of Scorsese’s first name no doubt to convey to Twitter that they are pals who might jump into a DeLorean together at any moment), the Avengers director said that Gunn packed his franchise with his “heart & guts,” countering Scorsese’s assertion that the MCU doesn’t convey emotional, psychological experiences.
Gunn was famously fired by Disney from the third installment of that franchise for comments in poor taste made many years earlier on Twitter, which seemed only a little more baffling than the company’s abrupt decision to rehire him eight months later. This time on Twitter, re: Scorsese, Gunn explained he had been “outraged” by picketing of Marty’s The Last Temptation of Christ from people who hadn’t even seen the movie, drawing a parallel to Scorsese’s uninformed commentary on Marvel. This response has many flaws, but here are three: 1) It assumes Martin Scorsese might like Guardians of the Galaxy if he saw it, which, no matter the film’s arguably objective qualities, is unlikely; 2) it equates the MCU’s defenders with religious activists who have zealotry enough to picket a Hollywood movie, and I doubt either group would embrace this comparison; and 3) James Gunn is apparently the type of person who gets “outraged” by other people’s outrage, a concept of living which is polluting our society right now, as exemplified by the snooping right-wing trolls who caused Gunn’s 2018 firing, in response to his being a vocal critic on Twitter of President Trump. While I think, for the reasons stated, Gunn’s response was misguided, it was very diplomatic. Nearly of the MCU’s response to Scorsese was. MCU producer Feige’s response was typical: “He has a great opinion, he’s a genius at what he does so he is obviously not wrong. But it is an opinion and he’s not completely right either.”
The harshest—if you could call them that—words I saw come out of the MCU camp were from Disney CEO and alleged supervillain Bob Iger: “I don’t think he’s ever seen a Marvel film,” Iger told the BBC, “Anyone who’s seen a Marvel film could not in all truth make that statement.” Any Marvel film? All 23 are that good? Obviously, I disagree with the latter portion of Iger’s quote, but when one commands Disney’s imperial forces, one is allowed to make such blanket statements, I guess. Here, Gunn’s firing comes to mind again. If the two were on roughly the same page about Scorsese’s words, I believe it’s a safe assumption that they were not simpatico on the day that regrettable dismissal occurred. During the strange valley between firing and rehiring, Iger told The Hollywood Reporter the plan to fire Gunn was presented to him “as a unanimous decision of a variety of executives at the studio and I supported it,” and “I haven’t second-guessed their decision.”
This is something key. I don’t present Disney’s firing of Gunn merely to gossip about an embarrassing situation that appears now resolved in the eyes of all parties who matter—even if, yes, it is still a little fun to do that. It’s relevant here because Martin Scorsese began his career as part of a generation of filmmakers whom it’s nearly impossible to imagine this happening to. Granted, nobody in the 1970’s was getting fired over something they tweeted, but Scorsese’s place and time was unique even in that context. Scorsese was a member of the “New Hollywood,” or “American New Wave,” or “Hollywood Renaissance.” Whatever your preference, all three terms refer to an era that began in the late 1960’s and ended a decade or fifteen years later. There’s reason to debate that last part, which I’ll get to.
The New Hollywood stood for, more than any other single idea, the “auteur theory” of filmmaking, a concept mostly rooted in French film criticism which holds that the director is the artist on a film set, and the movie is his (and it was typically a he.) Basically, to be of maximal artistic value, this theory prescribes that the power of a director must be indulged as absolute. The opposing view, that film is a collaborative creative project, is rejected by the auteur theory. Whatever other artisans are necessary, their contribution is only as good as their execution of the director’s vision.
This last sentiment was never true, even in the 1970’s. All of the great films of the New Hollywood feature some kind of dynamic artist in a position other director. These were mostly cinematographers, but very often actors and writers. There are also great films of the period from directors who were very possibly just lucky enough to end up working with those people, and failed to ever to make interesting films again. But, whatever the reality, directors in American movies never had so much control as they did during the New Hollywood’s reign.
The birth of the New Hollywood is typically seen as having occurred with three groundbreaking mainstream films: The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, then Easy Rider in 1969. There are others that matter which predate these, but if you take an introductory film course that covers the topic, I promise these are the ones you will hear about. These films did things with cameras and editing that hadn’t been seen outside of the avant-garde before. They were “young” movies, and all rang very true with the counterculture of the day. They were all unusually cynical for Hollywood fare, with none ending on a happy note.
And they all made a ton of money. None earned less than $60m at the box office (this low mark being Easy Rider), and none cost more to produce than $3m (this high mark being The Graduate.) To put that success in some perspective, for Avengers: Endgame (remember, probably the most profitable movie ever) to provide a return-on-investment proportional to that which Easy Rider provided (150 times its original budget of $400,000), Avengers would have to earn at the box office not the $2.8b it generated there in 2019, but instead fully $420b, or put another way, an amount about ten times what all movies on the planet generated in ticket sales in 2019. It may be counter intuitive to think of Easy Rider as the more financially ideal of the two things, but if you were a business person, and things were as simple as this, you would choose to be in the Easy Rider business any day of the week.
Thus, artsy as it was, the Old Hollywood, ever desirous of a financial windfall, wasn’t standing too much in the way of the New Hollywood. Even the most artless philistine would want to get on that groovy gravy train, if they valued money. It was a good time to be a director, or a person who wrote that director’s checks. While the New Hollywood is a term that encompasses many films of the period, some of which are bad, and some of which lost money, the ones you will hear about over and over again are the ones that are both great and profitable: The Godfather I and II, Chinatown, The Exorcist, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Dog Day Afternoon, and many others. All of these movies, despite their commercial success, came from directors who had at least one foot in the art world.
It was a good time to be Martin Scorsese. The aforementioned Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) is classed with the New Hollywood, and although it wasn’t a big hit, the critics did notice it. It was the director’s first film, and while his career had a slow build over a handful of lower budget films, by the mid-70’s he had established himself as the creator of a truly transcendent film experience, with Taxi Driver (1976.) That movie is remarkable for several reasons, chief among them the talent and craft of Scorsese and everyone else involved. But it’s also remarkable as an example of the New Hollywood at its height.
Yes, Taxi Driver only cost $1.9m to make, but put that in context: this is a movie about an imbalanced cab driver (Robert De Niro) who scores a date with a girl way out of his league (Cybill Shepherd), so he takes her to a porno movie without warning her. When she’s offended and doesn’t want to see him again, his reaction is formulate a meticulous plan to assassinate her boss, a Senator who is running for President. When that plan doesn’t work, he instead (in one of the goriest killings ever committed to film outside of the horror genre) murders the pimp of a 12 year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) who, by the way, he’s managed to spend way too much of this movie talking to. Today we’d say creeping on. You couldn’t make this movie in the 50’s. You couldn’t make this movie today. You could only make this movie, this way, in the New Hollywood.
And arguably, 1976 was the time society was most going to be shocked by Taxi Driver. This was still the age of shocking public assassinations. Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been dead ten years, and less than six months before Warner Bros. dumped Taxi Driver into a February release, two women had attempted to assassinate then-President Gerald Ford in two separate incidents, both in California, home of show business. One of those would-be Oswalds was the Manson Family’s own Jodie Foster-esque ingenue, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and the grotesque killings that had already made her famous were themselves less than a decade in the past. Suffice it to say, this was probably not a movie America was writing fan letters to Warner Bros. asking to see. This would be the end of the story, except that, five years after the film’s release, in 1981, imbalanced Taxi Driver-fan (or, imbalanced fan of imbalanced taxi drivers, which would describe him just as accurately) John Hinckley would shoot and very nearly kill then-President Ronald Reagan, all in an attempt to impress the actual Jodie Foster, after having become obsessed with the Scorsese’s film. Despite what came before and whatever about it inspired Hinckley, Taxi Driver still earned about $28m at the box office, which still makes it substantially better in the return-on-investment department than anything called The Avengers. The New Hollywood was a weird time (or place, which would describe it just as accurately.)
In literal Hollywood, or at least its creative community, the New Hollywood was a big hit too. Every Best Picture Academy Award during the 1970’s went to a film that was part of this movement, with the exception I draw being 1970’s Patton, but I should note that Wikipedia’s list of New Hollywood films disagrees with me on this point. The Academy even awarded this trophy to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II in 1975 despite having given the same award to the first one, two years earlier. Besides the back-to-backness of it, how many sequels can you think of that won Best Picture? The answer is one, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004, and had either of its two forerunners taken the award you can be sure King would not have. The only halfway memorable challengers that film had to surmount were Lost in Translation (incidentally from Coppola’s daughter, Sofia) and Mystic River. Godfather II had to defeat Chinatown and Coppola’s own The Conversation. This is true of many of those New Hollywood Oscars: in retrospect, the winner isn’t surprising, until you realize how stiff the competition was. In 1972, The French Connection beat A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show. In 1974, The Sting beat American Graffiti and The Exorcist. And in 1976, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest beat Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, and Nashville. All of these unrewarded challengers are regarded as unmitigated classics today. But of course, in 1977, Taxi Driver lost to Rocky (so did Network), beginning a long trend of losses for Scorsese that would only end with The Departed.
But generally, and this is especially true if you study it in college, people believe the New Hollywood did end. The popular mythology is that it was done in by a pair of assassins named Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. This is because Jaws and Star Wars (the first one, which Lucas later rebranded Star Wars: A New Hope) rewrote the way we conceive of a movie’s success. Before those movies, the public didn’t care about box office receipts. Gone With the Wind was the most successful movie of all time, but most people didn’t know that, and those who did mostly couldn’t tell you how much money it had earned. They just knew it was something extremely popular, which they did or did not like themselves. Spielberg and Lucas set records with those films, not only for how much money they grossed in total, but for how quickly, specifically for what they earned in their opening weekends. Jaws and Star Wars are the whole reason why, to this day, any halfway comprehensive look at Monday morning news will include a story about what won and lost at the box office, quantified in millions. Prior to that, a movie’s distribution often started with a slow rollout, expanding to more and more cities and slowly building to its ultimate financial take. This model, the New Hollywood’s defenders will often tell you, much more suited movies like The Godfather, which is totally commercial, but the quality of which is better promoted by things like word of mouth, as opposed to the major marketing blitzes we associate with blockbusters today. In 2020, if a movie has a bad opening weekend, the exhibitors want to discharge it from their theaters as quickly as they can. There’s no building slow to anything, even failure.
There are several problems with this theory. For one, Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) are undeniably a part of the New Hollywood, and could no more have been made the way they were by the people who did in another age than Taxi Driver. They were merely drastically more successful than their peer. Lucas and Spielberg both made artier fare before these films, and if either movie had somehow failed commercially, they would be taught in film schools today as among the best of the New Hollywood. As it is, they are hardly taught at all, because pretty much everyone arriving on some campus to study film has already seen them. They lack the sexiness of obscure, failed genius that so arouses the lowercase-A academy. Another problem is that distinctly New Hollywood movies, even smaller ones, kept being made after Star Wars smashed conventional wisdom to bits in 1977. Legendary lecherous lothario Warren Beatty’s Casanova-communism adventure Reds didn’t come out until 1981, when it presumably served as a more constructive statement of displeasure with the Reagan administration than Hinckley’s had, earlier that same year. The aforementioned Wikipedia article identifies New Hollywood films as late as Coppola’s greaser adaptation Rumble Fish in 1983—but curiously leaves off the list Coppola’s The Outsiders, also released that year and also based on one of writer S.E. Hinton’s young adult novels, and with which Rumble Fish shares talent both behind and in front of the camera. Presumably the added presence of Tom Cruise, Leif Garret, and Ralph Macchio made The Outsiders just too unserious of a business for that Wikipedian’s sensibilities. But Rumble Fish came out in October of 1983, a time when it would have almost certainly been sharing space in some theaters with Lucas’ third and final original Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, and more than a year after Spielberg had shattered even Lucas’ Star Wars box office record (as it stood then) with E.T. If the New Hollywood had concluded by that point, one assumes nobody told Francis Ford Coppola, or at the very least, they didn’t stop him from spending $10m each to create those young adult adaptations. That’s not cheap. This is about how much money Jaws and Star Wars were made for, six and eight years earlier, respectively. But on the other hand, in the film world of 1983, ten million dollars might not have seemed like an especially high price to put on a small movie about a bunch of teenagers, because of something that happened in the interim.
This is because of the third, final, and most important reason why Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have less than the blood of the New Hollywood on their hands. That reason is Michael Cimino.
If you’re under 40, there is a good chance you have never heard of this man, even if you’ve recognized the names of every other filmmaker I’ve mentioned up to this point. Today, Michael Cimino is almost completely forgotten, and that’s just how a lot of people would prefer it, possibly including Cimino himself, who gave barely any interviews to American journalists during the last two decades of his life. He spoke more often to French outlets, but many infamous Americans do.
Cimino was a director of the New Hollywood who made three movies between 1974 and 1981. The first was entertaining, the second was among the absolute best the era produced, and the third, much more than Jaws or Star Wars, single-handedly obliterated the auteur theory among the money-people. Thereafter, forever gone was the notion of directors as unquestionable gods, who must be left alone so that they might rain money on their worshiping congregants in studio offices.
Cimino didn’t come from film school, the way Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas all did. His talent, near as anyone can tell, was forged on Madison Avenue, where he directed commercials for American companies like Kool Cigarettes, United Airlines, and Pepsi. However, his education was in the fine arts, receiving his BA from Michigan State in 1959, then a BFA in 1961 and an MFA in 1963, both from Yale, both in painting, it would appear. If near-as-anyone-can-tell and it-would-appear sound cryptic, they’re just disclaimers. Because as much as he was a product of the Ivy League and a pitchman for Kodak Film, Michael Cimino was also an inveterate liar about his own background. The facts I have outlined here are just the ones to which others, and public records, are reported to stipulate. Cimino offered a much more detailed biography when he gave interviews, much of it subsequently disproven, and plenty of it subject to revising by the director himself in other, subsequent interviews.
Speaking at length to Vanity Fair in 2002, after a long period of seclusion, Cimino asserted many things, these words among them: “I was a child prodigy. Like Michelangelo, who could draw a perfect circle at age five. I was extremely gifted. I could paint a perfect portrait of someone at age five.” This would be very impressive, if true, and I cannot say for a fact it is false. This is the kind of thing a celebrity can almost always get away with lying about, because how could it be disproved? A journalist would literally need to find someone who can remember that Michael Cimino was shitty painter at age five, who drew poor circles, and this witness further would need to go on the record with their claims, and even supposing you could find a person who has any memory at all of five year-old Cimino’s painting ability, it would merely be their word against his. But of course, if you wanted to do all that, you would have to start with a simpler question: when was Michael Cimino born? In the same interview, Cimino alluded to the controversy surrounding his age:
“Let’s put an end to all this once and for all,” [Cimino] says at the [restaurant], where he pulls out what looks to be a photocopy of his passport. It shows his birth date as February 3, 1952.
Thus, Cimino is trying to prove, using documentary evidence, that he is about 50 years old when this interview was conducted. Unlike the claim about his painting prowess, this isn’t difficult to verify for the reporter, Steve Garbarino, who concludes that portion of the interview with the line, “Public records, however, put his birth year at 1939, making him 63.” This might not seem like a big deal. A lot of people lie about their age, particularly in the show business of Cimino’s era. But this is 2002. He’s heard of the internet. But he can be forgiven this indulgence, right? 13 years is a stretch for anyone, sure, but surely it’s not the Avengers: Endgame of lies about one’s age; the record must be must more substantial. How many people though, are willing to forge documents in this endeavor? When you wrap your head around the baldness of Cimino’s falsifiable white lie here, coupled with the fact that he apparently arrived at this interview with a well-prepared plan to tell it, you get the picture of the kind of character we’re dealing with.
But if these things about Cimino’s personality were obvious in the early 70’s, they weren’t going to stop him. He came to Hollywood as a writer, but he had career ahead of him so enormous it would eclipse the work he put on film itself.