DELICIOUS TORTURE

Times Staff Writer

BACK when Martin Scorsese was getting ready to direct "The Departed," he confided that his first instinct had been to turn down the Boston-based film about infiltration and intrigue in the mob and police ranks alike. "I did not want to do another gangster movie," said Scorsese, whose breakthrough film, "Mean Streets," was of that genre, and who capped his trilogy of violent masterpieces (the others being "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull") with 1990's "GoodFellas," which helped redefine it. Why spoil that record by doing another?

But Scorsese felt he should at least read William Monahan's script -- reworking the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs" -- to be polite, "as a matter of form," when his agency sent it to him. Then he got to page 26 and thought, "What the hell's going on here?"

What he realized then was that the characters "are all duplicitous and all deceiving each other and ultimately all wind up in a kind of elegant, how shall I say it ... Gotterdammerung." That's German for the twilight of the gods or, by Webster's definition, "a collapse (as of a society or regime) marked by catastrophic violence and disorder."

OK, perhaps the movie did not go quite that far; however, many A-list actors would be shot in the end. But Scorsese couldn't help wringing his hands in glee at that delicious double-dealing and betrayal. You could spoil his mood, however, by suggesting that such a worldview was the stuff of fiction, for "people aren't really like that, right?"

If you said this with a straight face, you could send Scorsese into a near panic, get him up from his chair to pace, wondering how he was going to remain polite with such a moron in his office. You'd have to tell him that was a joke, "humor going on," before he'd relax and say, "Oh, whew! ... I said, 'Where are we? Why are we doing this?' "

You'd be back in business then, in happy agreement that the world really is full of plots and betrayals -- the only problem being that Hollywood seems to be like that too, especially this time of year, when Scorsese has long wished there could be something other than Gotterdammerung for him in the end.

HIS STRATEGY: DO NOTHING

HE is keeping a lid on things this year, staying mum, zipping it -- wisely, we might agree. Is there any doubt that how he fares will be the big story this go-around, whether he can finally get the gold, after six nominations, at 64? The last time he was in this position, two years ago, with "The Aviator," he agreed that you can't win in the lead-up to the big moment, "no way," when everyone's whispering in your ear how you should campaign.

How do you handle the questions, say, about whether such honors should be bestowed for a body of work, even if the rules say the statuette is for last year's film alone? Two decades ago, Scorsese directed "The Color of Money," which gave the academy an opportunity to do right by Paul Newman, after many overlooks. But how do you discuss the realpolitik of that?

"You don't do mercy things. You don't give awards for that. But in the past they have," Scorsese once said, before making it clear, "I'm not justifying it."

It's a lose-lose even talking about that, in other words, for "people don't like to be told: 'This man should get this one, this woman should get that one, because we have the past 30 years.' Well, what if we don't think this guy's latest picture is as good as the one he made in 1991 or 1986? 'Don't tell us how to behave,' and I totally understand that. Yet, there has been recognition -- like career awards -- for a film that may not be their best work. But I think that people are going to be rankled if they're going to be told to do it."

And that's just one issue of a slew. Take those brilliant launch-and-lobby campaigns perfected by Harvey Weinstein during his Miramax years. Back in 2003, the studio's war council came up with the idea of having a newspaper column by 88-year-old Robert Wise, a multi-winner in his day, tout the virtues of Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," a brilliant idea that brilliantly backfired when it was discovered that a publicist had ghost-written the praise. "I am the worst person in the world when it comes to distribution or selling a film in terms of, like, a poster or a trailer. So I trusted the nature of their sell," Scorsese said later. "At a certain point, you've got to let them do what they do."

But after they did what they did, he also said, "That's why I'm saying the academy or any group would rightfully resent being told what to do by anybody, whether it's the exhibitor of the film, the distributors, the studios -- anyone."

So we're not hearing much from him this go-around.

THE 'TAXI DRIVER' SNUB

THAT'S not only good strategy, it's good for his sanity, for he's always gotten riled up, too easily, when such questions arise. You can be talking to him for hours about the ancient Greeks and the Lower East Side and Italian Neo-Realism and how he might make snow go upward in a scene to unsettle the audience, and then you ask one question about those silly matters, involving the academy, and he jumps up and says, "Now I see -- that's what this is about," as if the rest was subterfuge, a set-up.

Then he'll take his seat again, eventually, and say, "These are very important issues ... because of the pressure."

Scorsese has said that he had to learn twice, in 1976 and 1990, that he might as well forget about winning. "It would have been interesting if, let's say, 'Taxi Driver' had won best picture and I'd won the Oscar for best director. I wasn't even nominated. That was the main one. That's when I noticed I was going to be lucky enough just to get the films made."

Then came "GoodFellas" and his loss to Kevin Costner, who got to make the thank-you speech at the podium for his directorial debut, "Dances With Wolves" -- that Oscar was clearly not a lifetime achievement "mercy" deal.

"Since 1991, I've always said the same thing -- it's the work," Scorsese reiterated a couple of years ago. "If I wanted to make 'Raging Bull' and 'GoodFellas' ... and I wasn't able to get them, then I'd say, 'Yes, the awards are important for me to get.' But that's all gone now. Somehow, I've navigated through."

The last time he went through the agony, just before he and "The Aviator" lost to Clint Eastwood and "Million Dollar Baby," he was provided some solace by his young daughter, Francesca, who would see him go to these events and ask, "Did you get your reward?" and if the answer was no, she'd say, "Oh, don't worry, you got plenty upstairs."

Soon after, he was off to Boston to work with Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson on that cops-and-mobsters tale. And after the "The Departed" opened, amid reviews making it apparent that he'd be going through this agonizing season again, he diverted himself by filming a documentary on the Rolling Stones, who once sang, "You can't always get what you want."

It's a good thing it's all about the work. Sort of.

"I mean, if it happens now," Martin Scorsese said, "great."

paul.lieberman@latimes.com

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