'I Am the Movies I Make' : Martin Scorsese's passion and commitments earn him the AFI's most prestigious honor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a heartfelt endorsement of a man whom some regard as the greatest American director working today, Hollywood turned out in force Thursday night as Martin Scorsese received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

Fellow directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni and last year's winner, Clint Eastwood, were in attendance, as were stars ranging from Robert De Niro to Jodie Foster. In a blockbuster-oriented business, they said, Scorsese's commitment to the truth sets him apart--not only in grittier fare such as "Mean Streets" (1973), "Raging Bull" (1980) and "GoodFellas" (1990) but in more arcane efforts such as "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974), "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) and "The Age of Innocence" (1993).

"I worked all day with smoke," said director Steven Spielberg, apologizing for his hoarse delivery. "That's what sets Marty and me apart. I work with smoke. Marty doesn't. I shoot with mirrors. The only mirrors Marty uses are the eyes into the souls of his actors. . . . Most people make movies to escape from real life. Marty is unblinking about being confrontational."

Acknowledging the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd, Scorsese, 54, accepted the award from Gregory Peck. In 1973, he watched a TV broadcast of the legendary John Ford receiving the first AFI Life Achievement Award, he recalled. Legends such as William Wyler, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder have received it since. Those people, he was convinced, would be working forever. It never crossed his mind the torch would be passed to the next generation.

"This award is meant to honor the masters of the golden age of the studio system," the director said. "And receiving it doesn't make me one of them. They're the pioneers who created the grammar of film language. What we do now, they did before."

He's of a different time and place, Scorsese added. "I am the movies I make," he said. "And I know they're not to everyone's taste. My old parish priest once told me that my work has too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday."

When Scorsese was 8, according to a short biographical film, his family moved from Queens to Manhattan's Little Italy--a neighborhood that worked its way into many of his 23 films. An asthmatic child, he headed for the movies when others played ball. Films would become an extension of his spirituality, a way of exploring moral conflict.

The tribute, which will be broadcast on CBS later this spring, took on additional resonance when clips of his parents were shown. Immigrants who worked in the garment industry, they were featured in a number of his films. His father, Charles Scorsese, died in 1993. His mother, Catherine, from whom the director says he got his storytelling ability, died last month.

Levity, however, was the order of the night. Several colleagues mimicked the director's rapid-fire speech, while James Woods ("Casino"), in one of the highlights of the event, took aim at Scorsese's work attire.

"Marty has the oldest denim bell-bottom jeans in the world," said the actor, acknowledging that he bypassed his agent to offer his services, "anywhere, for any price." "He knows they're coming back. He starches and presses them . . . in a sheet-metal place. If you trip over him, you get a gash in your ankle."

Don Rickles, accusing Woods of stealing his lines, injected some barbs of his own: "Marty, get a phone book so you can see me," he said to the diminutive director.

The notoriously tight-lipped De Niro, an eight-time collaborator of Scorsese's, also took a turn. "I tried to think what I owe to Marty--and I thought that, if it wasn't for him, I'd be spending tonight [on a set] in Bakersfield," he said.

Joe Pesci testified to Scorsese's mania for realism. During a fight scene for "Raging Bull," he took such a beating from De Niro that he fell to the ground with a broken rib, he recalled. When a couple of 275-pound "heifers" fell on him the wrong way in "Casino," that same rib was broken again. "Marty yelled at me, 'Be in the moment,' " the actor said. "To him, it was another great performance. I've come to the conclusion that great movies mean cracked ribs--with 'The Super' and 'Jimmy Hollywood,' I came through virtually unscathed."

Jean Firstenberg, director and CEO of the AFI, noted how apt it was that Scorsese, a leading proponent of film preservation, was seated at the same table with William Buffum, a Portland, Ore., projectionist who salvaged the oldest surviving feature made in the United States--the 1912 "Richard III."

Sharon Stone, host of the evening, agreed. "We're grateful not only for the films you've made but for the films you've saved," she said to Scorsese. Poking fun at one of her panned films, she said: "But, really, Marty, did you have to go all the way to the mat for 'Sliver'?"

In accepting the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Award, director John McTiernan turned the spotlight back on Scorsese. "He may not have been the first to have the notion that camera expressed character," he said, "but he was the holy man who whispered it in our ears."

Willem Dafoe ("The Last Temptation of Christ") quoted from Chekhov's "Three Sisters" in assessing the director's legacy. "We must learn to join the love of work with the love of higher things," he said. "That's something that Marty does very well."

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