Harvey’s Big Gangs Bang

I’ve cringed a lot for Martin Scorsese over the last few weeks, but his March 3 appearance on The Tonight Show was particularly tough. Mr. Scorsese looked weary as he attempted to explain his epic movie to the eerily quiet California crowd. And Jay Leno’s vapid and patronizing interview only made things worse. “You feel lucky?,” he asked Mr. Scorsese near the end of the segment, referring to his Oscar nomination as Best Director for Gangs of New York .

“I feel okay,” the director replied wanly.

For a moment, I wondered how the bearded, fierce-eyed Scorsese of the 70′s-the one whom Los Angeles police once mistook for the Hillside Strangler-would have responded to Mr. Leno’s idiotic questions. But I chose instead to find perspective in the masterfully edited clip from Gangs that Mr. Scorsese had brought along to show.

In the scene, the terrifying Nativist Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) invites his former assistant, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), up on the stage of a social hall so that he can throw some knives at her.

“One more time for the sweet souvenir,” Bill says to Jenny to coax her up.

Of course, what follows is far from sweet: It is terrifying and humiliating and, judging from the look in Jenny’s eyes, a departure from what she expected to happen. But she toughs it out because, really, there is nothing else she can do. Her relationship with Bill is complicated, but she agreed to the terms long ago.

Seen in the context of The Tonight Show , “One more time for the sweet souvenir” sounded like a mantra. Mr. Scorsese wants the sweet souvenir of filmmaking-the Oscar-for a movie that took 23 years to wrestle onto the screen. To better the odds that he will get it, he has allowed himself to become part of a white-knuckle sideshow run by a guy with whom he has an equally complex relationship: Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. As Mr. Scorsese told Mr. Leno: “We’re the Sunshine Boys.”

It was much more complicated than that. After clashing during the production of Gangs , Mr. Weinstein was now down in the Miramax boiler room doing whatever he does to get Mr. Scorsese an Oscar. “I am gonna go door-to-door for Marty,” Mr. Weinstein told Entertainment Weekly in its March 7 issue. “Marty would like to get one of those golden guys.” In reality, he was trying to work even more ambitious magic by securing the Best Director statuette for Mr. Scorsese and the Best Picture Oscar for Chicago .

Meanwhile, Mr. Scorsese embarked on a Magical Mystery Media Tour that has taken him everywhere but the local Gristede’s to promote his film. On Feb. 13, he headed to Harvard for the Hasty Pudding award, where he was photographed next to undergraduates in gold wigs and massive bras; 10 days later he was in Britain, waiting to receive their Oscar counterpart, the BAFTA award. Roman Polanski won it. There he was shot nuzzling the cheek of Chicago star Catherine Zeta-Jones, looking like one of the Hasty Pudding boys. Three days after that, he headed to the Loews Cineplex Lincoln Square, where the American Museum of the Moving Image presented a discussion called “Martin Scorsese’s New York.”

Then it was on to Los Angeles for a whirlwind weekend. On Feb. 28, Mr. Scorsese got the 2,217th star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, following Eddie Murphy and Andy Devine. The following day, he received the Directors Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award (although Chicago ‘s Rob Marshall won as best director); then, on Monday, it was The Tonight Show . And on March 8-just 10 days before the Oscar ballots have to be in-Mr. Scorsese will be fêted back on his home turf, when he is presented with the Writers Guild of America East’s Evelyn F. Burkey Award “for one whose contributions have brought honor and dignity to writers everywhere.”

Dignity, always dignity.

Of course, when you’re that visible, some knives are bound to thrown. On Feb. 3, the screenwriter William Goldman drew blood with a column he penned for Variety . “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am sick unto death of feeling guilty about Martin Scorsese,” Mr. Goldman wrote.

“This year, more than ever, it’s like there’s a Byzantine plot to get Scorsese the honor,” he continued. “The Hollywood parties he is attending must make him want to barf, but there he is, glad-handing anyone in the vicinity who is an Academy member …. “

And then Mr. Goldman wrote that Mr. Scorsese did not deserve the Oscar this year because Gangs of New York “is a mess.”

Well, Mr. Goldman-who has won two Oscars for his screenplays-is the Bill the Butcher of screenwriting. He’s scary smart about movies, and he knows exactly where to stick the shiv for maximum effect. I remember a piece he wrote for Premiere magazine about Saving Private Ryan , right before the 1998 Oscars, that made me look at the revered picture in a much more critical light.

But his take on Mr. Scorsese, while it made some interesting points, didn’t have the same effect on me. It felt more personal than analytical.

I agree with one thing, though: I’ll bet Mr. Scorsese’s not enjoying his pre-Oscar tour. In some of the photos, he looks a bit like Jenny Everdeane during the knife-throwing spectacle. I’ve probably spent a few days with him over the course of four years-all in the context of an interview-and each time I’ve left feeling ashamed of myself. It’s hard to explain, but when you meet a guy who grew up with a fraction of the opportunities you had and yet somehow acquired a knowledge of film, literature and history that dwarfs yours, you can feel like that.

And people who are that smart-no matter how well they suffer fools-tend to die a little bit inside when they have talk-show hosts asking them: “You feel lucky?”

But cringe as I have at these encounters, I don’t feel guilty-or sorry-for Mr. Scorsese. If I may borrow a phrase from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard , Mr. Scorsese’s vanity is stronger than his misery. You don’t make movies the way Mr. Scorsese makes movies without a big, healthy raging bull of an ego.

And he’s operating in 21st-century media hell. Mr. Goldman won his Oscars in 1970, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , and in 1977, for All The President’s Men -long before the media proliferation that brought us CNN, MSNBC, the Fox News Channel, the Drudge Report, and dozens more cable channels and Web sites that ooze and blob their programming hours to Oscar white noise. For the producers, it’s imperative to create what one veteran of the Oscar wars called “momentum”: keeping the movie fresh in the minds of Academy voters, known to cast their votes for the last movie they saw.

Mr. Scorsese is hardly alone on this front. On Feb. 27, Chicago ‘s Mr. Marshall was fêted at the equivalent of a refrigerator opening when his caricature was hung on the wall at Sardi’s. And though Roman Polanski, Oscar-nominated director of The Pianist , can’t campaign in the States because of some outstanding legal troubles, others have helped carry the torch for him. In the last days of February, Samantha Geimer, the victim of the statutory-rape case that caused Mr. Polanski to flee the U.S. in 1977, rose out of the darkness to write a column for the Los Angeles Times and to appear on Larry King Live , suggesting in both venues that Mr. Polanski’s art should be judged separately from his private life.

By the way, there’s another good reason for all of this: it fuels the box office. “If you go to the casino and you don’t put a lot of money down at the table, you don’t get a lot of money back,” one Oscar-tested friend explained. Gangs , which has made over $75 million in the U.S. so far, according to Miramax, received “the gift of 10 nominations.” That is “like getting 10 reasons to see the movie. And if they don’t put their earnings down now, they’re not going to double or triple what they can make back.”

That’s a factor that Mr. Scorsese, at age 60, can’t afford to ignore, given that Hollywood judges his work by its box office. As one senior-level studio executive in Los Angeles told me: “People criticize John Wayne for getting an Academy Award, but John Wayne, I think, contributed to this business in a heavy way. Aside from Marty Scorsese’s enormous talent, I’m not sure what he’s contributed. He’s contributed a lot to himself-he’s an enormously talented guy-but he doesn’t care about making money for anybody.”

That’s the kind of L.A. condescension toward New York that Mr. Weinstein has fought since he brought Pulp Fiction to the Oscars in 1995. And that’s got to be one of the reasons that Mr. Weinstein is throwing his extra grande ass into getting Mr. Scorsese the Best Director award. Mr. Weinstein is a Gangs fighter himself. If this were the 19th century, he’d probably have a jar of severed ears on his desk-and mine would be among them-but he long ago made the conversion that takes place two hours and seven minutes into the movie, which Mr. Goldman cited as an example of bad storytelling: Leonardo DiCaprio, as Amsterdam, meets with Boss Tweed to turn his gang’s size into political clout by getting an Irishman on the ballot for sheriff.

I liked it. It reminded me of how Mr. Weinstein parlayed his power as the scrappy distributor and producer into an influential position with the Democratic party. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

This is another campaign. As Gangs co-writer Jay Cocks said: “What Harvey’s stated ambitions are for Marty, I really don’t know. I know that he’s extremely fond of Marty and extremely respectful of Marty. That doesn’t mean that he’s not a rough and tough character around Marty but those things go side by side in a way that is sometimes very difficult to reconcile.”

By the way, there’s one more reason I don’t feel guilty for Mr. Scorsese. I think he’s made a great movie. I’m going to let him, Mr. Weinstein and the voting members of the Academy worry about the statue. I understand why Mr. Scorsese wants the Oscar. I remember when, on the night of the 1998 awards, Shakespeare in Love writer Tom Stoppard let me hold the statuette he’d won. While he ate scrambled eggs, I got to feel like James Cameron.

But, tell me, do you remember what year Titanic swept the awards? I don’t. But I will never forget Robert De Niro’s bloody fingers in Taxi Driver , his dressing room speech in Raging Bull , the amazing Copacabana tracking shot in GoodFellas . Those moments have become part of the fabric and mythology of this country.

And Gangs of New York has scenes, moments exhumed and conjured, that are just as memorable-scenes that only Mr. Scorsese could have done. The opening scene, where the Dead Rabbits come up from the bowels of the Old Brewery is “the Irish literally marching out of history,” said Kevin Baker, the author of Paradise Alley , a novel about the Five Points district. “They’re coming up through a thousand years of darkness and oppression and neglect and they come up through these levels and they kick open the door…and there’s America. There’s nothing, no other attempt that I’ve seen on film to get quite so deep into the American historical psyche.”

Gangs is not a perfect movie-Ms. Diaz’s romance with Mr. DiCaprio is flimsy, and the movie doesn’t breathe-but it is hardly a mess. It is, as Mr. Scorsese told me back in November, “an impression of time.”

I like Mr. Cocks’ description even more: “

“You can create the mythology of the Eastern just the way that people created the mythology of the old West,” he told me.

So Martin Scorsese and his writers and all his movie-besotted associates got together with Mr. Weinstein, and made an Eastern. First they lived it, then they made it, beautifully and bloodily, right down to its earned last shot. And now, way out west the nativists are treating the violent, messy paean to New York and its director and producer exactly as a town under assault would react: with a little scorn and some sullen respect. Gangs may get it, and it may not. But Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Scorsese have named the time and the place.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s called gang warfare.