COVER STORY : Scorsese and Wiseguys: A Sure Bet? : With ‘Casino,’ director Martin Scorsese and favorite bad fella Robert De Niro again tread some very mean streets, this time tackling the story of Las Vegas and a pack of high-rollin’ mobsters.
It’s a quintessential gangster movie scene taking smoky shape here: A back room thick with Stone Age cigar waftings. A nearly ancient Italian American character actor passing down orders so ominously vague that Nixon would approve. The portent of bad things about to happen to bad people.
Fasten your seat belts, and whatever you do, don’t let them stick you in the trunk. Courtesy of Martin Scorsese, you have just re-entered the whack zone.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Feb. 12, 1995 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 12, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Page 83 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
“Casino” actor--In last Sunday’s cover story on “Casino,” Tommy Smothers was incorrectly included in a list of comics doing dramatic turns in the film. His brother, Dick Smothers, plays the role of a senator.
“Frankie!” barks venerable actor Pasquale Cajano--eighty-something, and still as intimidating as the day he was, er, made--to a Mafia flunky, somehow managing not to choke on his own fumes as he makes points in the air with the business end of a stogie. “I wanna know the names of all the other people he had with him! And I don’t care what you have to do to him to get ‘em! . . . Va !”
That’s Italian for go . And here comes Scorsese, satisfied with the framing of the wide-screen close-up he has been studying on the monitor in an adjacent room but not quite yet getting exactly what he needs from the subject. Five months and nearly a hundred shooting days into production, no tiny transitional scene or unheralded supporting player is too small for the director to not get it just so.
As Scorsese coaches Cajano, two crew members--both veterans of Scorsese’s shoots--pass each other in the doorway to the tobacco den of a set and share some kidding about the work in progress.
“What, you’re not gonna stay in and watch this?” banters the one headed in, mindful of Marty’s multiple takes.
“Nah,” says the other, headed for the craft services truck, waxing blase. “I’ve seen this wiseguy act before.”
Might moviegoing America say the same?
To be sure, the Scorsese epic in progress, “Casino,” offers much that is familiar, at least on paper: The screenplay, written by Nicholas Pileggi with Scorsese, is a fictionalized retelling of a true-life organized crime saga, based on Pileggi’s own nonfiction book, a la their “GoodFellas.” The drama centers on a quasi-crooked antihero determined to go straight (or at least straighter) but burdened with a hothead pal helping to keep him tethered to his shady past, a la “Mean Streets.” And the male leads in this dance of doppelganger machismo are Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, a la--well, you get out the filmography and abacus.
For most of the Scorsese faithful, familiarity breeds contentment. These legion may or may not have fully appreciated the director’s detour into mystery and manners with his uncharacteristically genteel last picture, “The Age of Innocence,” but it’s back in the land of expressive venality and explosive Sicilians that he is counted on to produce his most personal masterworks. The age of sheer, shameless guilt equals home turf.
But there will be those fed up with bad fellas, who will inevitably sniff: Another mob movie?
“Well, this isn’t really mob,” says scripter Pileggi, who knows mob. “This is dreams.”
He’s only being perhaps a tiny bit disingenuous. “Casino” is a gangster picture by any reasonable genre standard, but a Las Vegas gangster picture--and there represents a significant enough departure, perhaps, from Scorsese’s oeuvre of neighborhood-lashed losers. Here, the stakes are raised and the up-from-the-streets leads will at least lose big, lusting after not just unlimited creature comforts but also civic respectability and (in the most celebrated left-field casting twist) national dream girl Sharon Stone.
This is the movie in which Johnny Boy gets his wings--Icarus wings.
Scorsese knows he might be accused of going back to the gangster well once too often. He takes care to point out the differences between the characters in this underworld project and his previous, less-upwardly-mobile antiheroes, but remains unapologetic about the thematic preoccupations clearly connecting his lowlifes and high-rollers.
“I have other projects lined up that do not deal with this milieu at all,” Scorsese is quick to preface, catching some fresher air in his trailer while the crew clears the set and the smoke. He mentions a John Guare script about the life of George Gershwin he’s long wanted to shoot as a hoped-for departure from meanness and streets.
“But this one feels familiar and is more comfortable, there’s no doubt,” he says. “The big themes I’m attracted to seem to play out more easily for me in characters and situations like this. ‘Mean Streets,’ ‘Raging Bull,’ ‘GoodFellas’ and this, they’re all along the same lines.
“ ‘Mean Streets’ took place in that world on a nickel-and-dime level. Small-time guys, not made guys, not people who moved that organization, except the uncle. ‘GoodFellas’ was a level above the ‘Mean Streets’ characters, (with) a soldier who worked all the levels of that organization. Here, De Niro’s character comes from the same streets, but it’s another tier entirely.
“And when we talk about gaining power in a place like this, Vegas is a place that, to a certain extent, when you make it here, it’s like power is a drug in a way. Everything’s heightened here. And it could be very delicate for people to not overdo it.”
With “Casino,” Scorsese’s leads finally rise to the level of lieutenant, if not nearly kingpin. De Niro’s character is Jewish by birth but a good fella by default: His Ace Rothstein is a “genius handicapper” and “golden goose” who, while not ostensibly a mob guy himself (of course, no one’s ostensibly a mob guy), thrives and comes to considerable power under the nurturing wing of some very, shall we say, influential people.
Having amassed a fortune in brilliant bets for himself and his Midwestern Mafia keepers in Chicago, De Niro’s Ace winds up running a prominent casino on the Strip, marries the city’s classiest and most beautiful chip hustler and joins the country club.
Meanwhile, though, his old pal Pesci--an impulsive thug to whom blackjack is first and foremost something wielded in the dead of night--comes to town, too, and without any intention of abandoning his old, whack-happy ways for De Niro’s newfound niceties.
When things go wrong, De Niro pegs Pesci as the source of all his woe. And from the story outline alone, it’s not hard to blame him: Pesci not only leaves unseemly corpses in his wake but--in what’s anticipated as one of the year’s weirdest movie seductions--beds Stone, the hustler turned alcoholic hausfrau.
For all these triangular plot machinations, and subplots involving political or criminal intrigue, Scorsese wants it clear that his Ace Rothstein--based on a real figure of some Vegas renown, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal--finally stands as the sole engineer of his own downfall. In this, the character is much like the leading man in nearly every other picture Scorsese has made.
The filmmaker proves fairly resistant to any pseudo-psychoanalytical queries about why he’s such an admitted sucker for a rise-and-fall tale. To his mind, mobsters and other unsympathetic folk who come to sorry ends are just the inevitable successors to the crashing gods of Greek myth.
“The story is the oldest story in the world: People doing themselves in by their own pride and losing paradise. If they handled it right, they would still be here. Everybody’d be happy. But it got out of hand. . . . I think I learn more in a movie or in a story when I see what a person does wrong and what happens to them because of that. It’s also more interesting when they go about doing bad things, as antagonists. It’s like a catharsis.
“But maybe,” he cheerfully allows, rising to return to his set, “I’m just stuck.”
“Whip it! Whip it good!”
No, this isn’t another sinister order passed down from another creaky mob chieftain. The scene this time is a Vegas nightclub circa 1980--near the end of the “Casino” saga, which mostly spans the 1970s--and the speakers in the La Cage club inside the Riviera Hotel and Casino are blaring Devo’s vintage new wave hit “Whip It.”
A dance floor full of extras sporting wide lapels and other period fashion don’ts is boogieing furiously. Go-go dancers are writhing on stage in glass booths. The waitresses are sporting what look like glitzier versions of jagged-bottom Wilma Flintstone dresses, with a transparent slash across the cleavage. The carpet, chairs and booths beyond the dance floor are all zebra-striped.
Into this pastiche of tackiness walks De Niro, a sartorial vision in a bright red jacket made of raw silk over all-black undergirding. Trailing him is a hefty entourage of VIPs and their dates, headed by his casino manager and right-hand man--Don Rickles, in a completely straight role.
It’s a quick scene, not at all heavy on acting, but is requiring over an hour’s worth of takes because of a complicated camera move. The shot begins on Pesci and pals noticing De Niro’s entrance, then swoops all the way across the club to land on De Niro’s glancing moodily over his shoulder as he and his party scoot into a zebra booth.
On Take 5 or so, De Niro trips slightly getting in.
“The man’s a lush!” yells Rickles. “A big star like you, and you can’t even walk into a room right. How’d you get the job? Who needs it? I’ve never quit a picture in my life, but I think I’ll quit!” De Niro’s quietly bemused reaction to this roasting is difficult to read from afar, though the director’s robust guffaws every time Rickles takes a verbal swing at The Greatest Living Actor are louder than the elephant squeals across the street at Circus Circus.
On Take 6, Scorsese cuts prematurely because, in arriving at the table, De Niro hasn’t stepped under the overhead spot quite at just the right split-second. More grist for the mill.
“Hit him in the light so you can see what a real boozer looks like!” Rickles demands.
Most directors wouldn’t usually allow their actors to make open mincemeat of one another on the set, but for Rickles, obviously, Scorsese will make an exception. And frankly, the production can stand what legitimate levity it can get at this point.
The sign on the catering truck outside keeps a tally of the shooting days left--theoretically--and announces the hope of pie in the sky: “There is life after ‘Casino’!” As of late January, with a production that began in September finally drawing to a close, all involved on this grueling-by-any-standard shoot seem eager to focus on the promise of an afterlife, with friends and family waiting at the end of a long tunnel.
S corsese decided early on to shoot the epic entirely on loca tion instead of sound stages. And even before “Casino” went over-schedule and over-budget, the isolation of cast and crew created a sense of community--and, eventually, cabin fever. Just the number of character actors alone who made the migration out from New York lo those many months ago seriously upset the East-West balance of Italians in America: With all apologies to Elvis, Nevada’s theme song for the last half-year might have been not “Viva” but “ Evviva Las Vegas.”
But filming on location raised about as many problems as it solved. Complicating matters is the fact that this is a period picture--though Scorsese, feeling his age, admits “I have a hard time thinking of the ‘70s as period .” And the Las Vegas Strip is an area matched perhaps only by greater Los Angeles in propensity for architecturally destroying and rebuilding itself on a cycle roughly akin to the lifespan of the common housefly.
Special-effects matte paintings will do some of the work in establishing shots involving the long-lost Strip. For interiors, especially the casino itself, the Riviera was selected as the primary location, being one of the rare local haunts that still looks much the same as 15 or more years ago.
The fact that the Riviera’s owners were willing to shut down part of their gaming operation for a film shoot was also a factor, obviously. But there were limitations on the generosity: “Casino” could only have its casino in the middle of the night. For about six arduous weeks, six nights a week, the crew did a military-style invasion each night at midnight--redressing the “set” to reflect the movie’s fictional empire--then undressed it and cleared out by 10 a.m. so the real spenders could have full daytime reign.
Even in the wee hours, they didn’t exactly have the place to themselves.
“Oh, I’ll never forget it, never forget that sound,” says Scorsese, waxing haunted, wrapping a scarf around his neck as he steps out into the chill night air outside the casino. He means the sound of money. “Each night, after the first hour, we would get used to the noise of the machines, but it was very difficult initially.”
The real gaming continued just out of camera range. “Sometimes dice would go flying and land on my monitor,” Scorsese says. “When we were shooting, it was the real thing out there, and we became totally unimportant.
“Quite frustrating at times, but the trade-off was worth it, because the energy was alive, people really winning, yelling and screaming. We couldn’t tell them to be quiet in order to get some dialogue--forget it--so we have it all on the soundtrack. It’s like a breathing mass of people and machines and money.”
At some point, joining the usual cast of oblivious, insomniac slots-players were hundreds of lookie-loos who began showing up expressly to watch filming. The crew didn’t have to look far to figure how word had gotten out.
“I know our director of marketing wanted people in town to know that they were here, hoping to draw business,” notes the Riviera’s publicity manager, David Stratton. “And, of course, the Universal people making the movie didn’t want large crowds that they would have to control around the set.” On location, the home team wins. “Our guys put banners outside: ‘Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone--Now Filming!’ It really upset the Universal people.”
T here are other ways in which the production has been, if you’ll pardon the expression, a gamble.
One was--to borrow a phrase from the theater--non-traditional casting, or at least adding some highly unexpected faces to the repertory company. The lineup is heavy with stand-up comics in dramatic roles, including Rickles, Alan King, Tommy Smothers and (one who’d already made the transition) Kevin Pollak.
Scorsese maintains that the number of comics cast is coincidental, but believes that, in lieu of getting off any gags, even the mere presence of Vegas veterans like Rickles and King lends a subliminal authenticity: “You can’t tell a younger person how to walk through a casino the way these older fellas did in the heyday of the Dunes and the Desert Inn and the Sands.”
Then there’s Sharon Stone, whose casting--after a widely publicized roundup in which a number of Hollywood’s top actresses deigned to read for the part--raised a few eyebrows among Scorsese fans, some wondering if the star could hold her emotive own against the likes of De Niro.
Stone is refreshingly self-effacing: “Working with Marty was something that I didn’t imagine would happen to me, because he doesn’t often do pictures that require an artist of my type. But he watched everything I had ever done--all the schlock--and he saw what there was of value in all of that.”
So was she surprised when, after two extensive, noncommittal meetings with Scorsese and De Niro, they rang up wanting her for it? “I’m surprised when they want me for anything, frankly!” she says with a laugh.
And when it comes to the gruel factor of five months of shooting, Stone says, “Well, I’m not the one to ask. I play someone who’s deteriorating on drugs and alcohol.” (Her character, Ginger McKenna, whose downward slide is precipitated by her husband’s emotional inattentiveness, is loosely based on real-life showgirl Geri McGee, found dead, an apparent suicide, a few years after she divorced Lefty Rosenthal, a casino manager who was banned from gaming after a series of public hearings that put an end to the old way of life on Las Vegas Boulevard.)
“It was fun working with Bob--I had known him for a long time personally, and he’s such a wonderful gentleman--but sometimes the movie was a little like ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ meets ‘GoodFellas,’ and we had some scenes that were pretty hairy,” Stone says. “And we would cut, and we’d just look at each other and giggle so much because we’d been so out there.
“He plays a character that is often really affected by this woman--like, she drives him crazy. I had to be courageous enough to do that. It can be a daunting consideration. But there was no way I was gonna get on the set and not do it. I’ve been a long time prepping for this moment.
“I knew that I had abilities that I hadn’t yet had an opportunity to demonstrate. But we went way beyond what I understood that I could do to things that I had never guessed I would be able to tackle.”
She surprised herself?
“Oh yeah. I think I surprised everybody.” She breaks into a fit of uncontrolled laughter. “Yeah, I think people are gonna be pretty surprised when they see this.”
‘I t’s a very physical movie,” says Scorsese, corroborating Stone’s description of things hairy. “ ‘Age of Innocence’ had its problems because of the opposite--the restraint of it, the restraint of the performers, of how to deal with the body language. Here, it’s a constant energy that’s got to be kept up.
“And in a funny way, I guess I’m extremely tired, but . . . it’s not acknowledged. You just go. I’m just flying.”
Scorsese has been living such a focused, “almost monastic” lifestyle here for the last five months that he says he’s had little sense of even being in Vegas since location scouting last summer. Once a day, he remembers: “When they take me back at night or early in the morning, I would drive through the Strip, and the lights gave you a sort of lift . . . when I was in a good mood. And if you were tired and in a bad mood, then nothing was gonna work.”
The Vegas that Scorsese sees on his way back to his rented home is a place pointedly suitable for the whole family, quite the contrast to the not-so-distant Vegas of “Casino.” Screenwriter Pileggi likens the almost thoroughly remade Strip of 1995 to “an adult theme park,” complete with periodically erupting volcanoes and pirate shows and pyramids before you even get off the sidewalk.
There is some resentment among Vegas old-timers about the shift toward a kid-friendly atmosphere. A few miles away from the Strip, around the older, smaller gambling joints that populate downtown’s Fremont Street--better known as Glitter Gulch--there’s an advertising slogan on the posted signs there espousing an amusingly anti-family-values mood: “Where the Grown-Ups Come to Play.”
Though he never visited Vegas much in its heyday, Scorsese’s view of the city was largely formed for him as a teen-ager by his love for the Rat Pack comedy “Ocean’s Eleven,” parts of which he remembers as “literally almost like a documentary of the old Vegas, in wide-screen and color. And it’s a period of time that was very special to me, growing up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s . . . “
His “Casino” will not be nearly such a travelogue--”As far as shooting lights in Vegas, so many films have done that, I’m sure much better than I do; I’m more interested in how a place like Vegas would change people and how they behaved, especially coming to some sort of power”--but it will be, essentially, romantic.
“It’s almost like the end of the Old West in a way,” Scorsese says of his ‘70s setting. “Maybe the old Vegas--maybe, I say--was a place where you could have gamblers, wiseguys, hustlers, and it’s a place where they played. For them, not the family.
“I guess there’s a certain amount of nostalgia, but,” he acknowledges, “that’s my own fantasy.”
Rickles’ view of the period, experienced firsthand, is no less romantic. “It was a great day then. The Sands was a hangout for all of us. We used to hang out there in the steam room a lot with Dean and Sammy and Frank. . . .
“What I liked about Vegas at that time, even though it was controlled by--for lack of another word--the mob, was that there was one boss. It wasn’t like corporations today. Now you see five guys to get permission for a cup of coffee. And in those days, you went up to the main office and you saw the boss, so to speak, like De Niro plays. You went to him and said, ‘Can I have more money?’ or ‘Can I get a better dressing room?’ It was more of a family. Now, it’s like working for the bank.”
P ileggi first got Scorsese in terested in doing a movie about the changing of the guard in Las Vegas four years ago, when he was just beginning to research and write a nonfiction book centered on the turbulent life of Lefty Rosenthal.
The plan then was that the project would proceed the way their earlier successful collaboration on “GoodFellas” had: First, Pileggi would complete the nonfiction book, and then--in 1995 or so--they would fictionalize the story into a script that Scorsese would direct somewhere around ’96.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Flamingo: Scorsese dropped out of “Clockers” (bequeathing it to Spike Lee) and, project-less sooner than expected, prevailed upon Pileggi to write the screenplay before the book. The New York author is just touching up his tome now, and expects it out about the same time as the movie, late this year.
“We knew right away that this would be a very difficult and complicated movie,” Pileggi says. “In lots of ways, (Lefty’s) life is the story of Las Vegas. And I always think that Las Vegas is to America what America is to the rest of the world--and that is, the place you can go for a second chance.
“And as much of a dream as it is, you can still pull a lever there on a progressive slot machine and maybe get $150,000. The odds in Las Vegas might be a million to one, but they’re a lot better than the odds of trying to do that in Pittsburgh, where you don’t have a machine to pull.
“So even the dream of being able to pull the slot is like the dream of coming to America or the New World and the streets paved with gold.”
That much is the same now as then, but the running of the place has dramatically changed. Pileggi reels off the factors that led to the demise of Vegas’ former colorful criminality:
The black-market money that mobsters made during World War II and funneled in and out of the casinos in the postwar years is long gone. The IRS got better at catching crooks. The FBI cracked down on the Teamsters’ pension fund, so “the major source of revenue for the mobs’ buying into casinos evaporated.” And severe disclosure laws that had kept large, reputable corporations from investing in Vegas were overturned, resulting in an influx of big stock-market names supplanting smaller, crooked-er operators.
And the high-rollers are mostly gone. Blame it on Korea and Vietnam, Pileggi says. Everyone in World War II learned to play craps on troop ships, but soldiers in subsequent wars flew overseas to their fates, and “you can’t shoot craps on an airplane.”
“So today you have just four craps tables in a casino, and unless it’s a busy Saturday night and there’s a fight in town and you’re at the Mirage, only two will be working, and most of the guys are white-haired or bald. Now the majority of the casino revenue comes from slots, whereas the slot machines were put in almost as an amusement in the ‘50s, for the girlfriends and wives who didn’t want to get involved in the big stuff.”
Result: The days captured in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Diamonds Are Forever,” with Sinatra or James Bond in bow ties and cummerbunds, are history.
“No, there are no tuxes,” Pileggi chuckles. “Overweight people in spandex, often with little babies and children, that’s who you see now.”
Pileggi, like Scorsese, is unrepentant in his feeling for the era past.
“The word romance today has such a terrible sound to it. But if we remove the naivete of it, yes, there was a romance in the old casinos. They were crooked, a lot of them--they wouldn’t let you win. But the men who ran them and the way of life was quite exotic and fascinating. There was a day when Las Vegas really revolved around high-rollers, big money guys--morally, maybe not the nicest guys in the world, but they became a part of a fascinating culture that was part of America.
“And to see them now pass, it’s sort of sad in a way, because it’s like sadness in any endangered species. Even those that bite you and give you poisonous reactions.” Pileggi chuckles. “No one wants to see any endangered species totally wiped out.”
S corsese says that making “Ca sino” is like “balancing five balls in the air” with the picture’s romantic triangle, political subplots, et al.
“What I’m trying to do with this picture,” he says, “is get at how the domestic situation, after 12 or 13 years, undoes the entire empire that they created. That will be the trick, if I can pull it together. It’s based on a situation where a relationship between three people--the old friendships, transgressions, trusts and betrayals--is what precipitates the fall of the whole system, as it was at that time. It’s all based, in a sense, on domestic squabbling.
“It’s almost for the slightest thing that everything gets undone--what seems like the smallest thing, but it’s his own inability to give,” Scorsese says of the De Niro character. “There are certain scenes in this picture where he should have given in to certain people, and doesn’t. Whether it’s behind the desk or it’s in the bed, he refuses. And people are just gonna take so much . . .
“The great sin is pride. It’s the undoing of everyone. It’s the sin that created Lucifer, because he was the angel that felt he would be as important as God and was cast into hell. He was a favorite up to that point, but thought he could take over.
“So I’m very interested in a character who consciously makes the effort to deal with every problem with a solution in which his pride is 10 steps ahead of him. And the utter destruction”--Scorsese laughs--”that this causes the people he loves, the people he doesn’t love. Can he love? I don’t even know at this point, and that’s interesting to me. It’s the kind of story you like to hear over and over again.”
Why the preoccupation with the P-word? Does Scorsese have a feeling he’s just before a fall? Not really, though he will own up, vaguely, to youthful transgressions: “There’s aspects of myself and the way I behaved. . . . Periods of your life that you don’t like to be reminded of, that are certainly not favorite times of my life.” No details forthcoming. “But everything is kind of streamlined now. . . .
“I guess my reaction to that question is the aspect of being one of the Young Turks, coming in in the early ‘70s, and anything could be done. But then a certain reality sets in, in terms of what you need to do to get the picture made with a certain amount of money, and you have to start balancing it. And knowing that it could be taken away from you any second--maybe it’s unlikely, but I know it’s a possibility. You don’t take anything for granted, I can tell you that.”
Scorsese says he knows what a fall is.
“I lost my career twice. What I mean is, I lost my ability to make the kind of pictures I wanted to make two times.”
One was after the extravagant money-loser that was “New York, New York” (1977), when many considered Scorsese out of control; following that, he “squeezed in just under the wire to get ‘Raging Bull’ made,” with the help of a producer and two studio executives who hadn’t lost their faith in him.
The other dry period came after another commercial failure, “The King of Comedy” (1983), when his first attempt at directing “The Last Temptation of Christ” fell apart just before shooting; he had to make a tiny, “experimental” picture, “After Hours,” followed by a big, commercial one, “The Color of Money,” to get his career back on the track that he’s enjoyed since.
After those two dry periods when the Hollywood studios lost their faith in him, Scorsese shed his Turk-ish confidence and picked up a permanent sense of paranoia that’s good, if nothing better, for keeping pride at bay.
“I really don’t take this lightly. Every movie’s a gift. I’m not a mogul. I don’t have the money to make my own movies. The kind of picture I want to make, I can’t do like John Cassavetes, who was so great at it in the sense that he was able to shoot his films in his own house, with his wife and friends and loved ones. Stories I get attracted to need more production.
“But every film could absolutely, absolutely be my last one. I may not get the chance to make it again. I’m not talking about checking out of life, dying.” No, this is not mere mortality he’s considering, a dread that no doubt pales alongside the ultimate sacrifice. “I’m just talking about not being given enough money to make a picture. And that’s why,” he says, chuckling, “every one is a battle and a fight to the death.”*
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