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“I Never Kid About Money”: Marty Goes Mainstream With “The Colour of Money”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. Next week, we’ll looking at Casino. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but the season ends up largely avoiding Scorsese’s output during the 1980s. So I thought it might be worth taking a look back at The Colour of Money.

For Martin Scorsese, the eighties come sandwiched between two masterpieces: Raging Bull and Goodfellas.

These are two of the quintessential Martin Scorsese movies. They are frequently ranked among the best movies that Scorsese has made, and often included in lists of the best movies ever made. Indeed, there’s a famous Hollywood myth that director Brian de Palma reacted to a screening of Goodfellas by involking Raging Bull, proclaiming, “You made the best movie of the eighties and, God damn it, we’re barely into the nineties and you’ve already made the best movie of this decade, too!”

With that in mind, there’s a tendency of overlook Scorsese’s work during the eighties – to treat it as something equivalent to a cinematic lost decade largely defined by the failure of King of Comedy and the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ. This is understandable, but it is also unfair. Indeed, recent years have seen a welcome push to reassess Martin Scorsese’s tumultuous journey through the era of excess.

Scorsese’s eighties might not have been the best decade or most productive decade in his filmography, but they were instructive. They were a time of growth and evolution for the filmmaker, a point at which the director seemed to finally figure out how to reconcile the movies that he wanted to make with movies that studios wanted to finance. Although often overlooked and ignored in this context, The Colour of Money is perhaps the most instructive of Scorsese’s films from this period.

Scorsese is often discussed in terms of the so-called “Movie Brats”, the directors who came of age in the “New Hollywood” movement of the seventies and enjoyed a period of unprecedented creative and commercial freedom to make the kinds of movies that they wanted. These were films like The Godfather, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Jaws, The ExorcistThe Last Picture Show, The French Connection and even arguably Star Wars. This was a rare era in Hollywood’s history where creative freedom and commercial success were not mutually exclusive.

Many cinephiles look back on this era with a strong sense of nostalgia, and understandably so. There is a very real sense in which this period was a “golden age” for American cinema, where it was possible for one of the best-reviewed films of the year to also be one of the highest grossing and also one of the strongest awards contenders. Directors and writers were able to make deeply personal films with impressive production values and an epic sweep that spoke to a world that was in a state of turmoil and chaos in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam.

The “Movie Brats” were a subset of the directors who took advantage of the opportunities of this era. Martin Scorsese was one of these directors, part of the core group alongside Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian de Palma. Scorsese earned his place among these directors with early films like Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Boxcar Bertha and Mean Streets, but cemented it with Taxi Driver.

However, every so-called “golden age” ends. This one was not to last. Many of the great directors of the era eventually stumbled and faltered, their films going greatly over budget and then underwhelming at the box office. William Friedkin had become a defining director of his generation with The French Connection and The Exorcist, but he faltered with Sorcerer. Michael Cimino had proven himself a rare talent with The Deer Hunter, but his massive follow-up, Heaven’s Gate, would become one of the most expensive flops in history, killing the studio United Artists.

At the same time, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would radically redefine American cinema with the twin successes of Jaws and Star Wars effectively creating the modern summer blockbuster and altering the course of American cinematic history. Indeed, it seems fair to concede that this shift left some of those great directors in the dust. Francis Ford Coppola has never quite reached the heights that marked his work in the seventies. Brian de Palma remains an object of fascination, if not collective focus. William Friedkin works consistently, but no longer as royalty.

Naturally, Scorsese himself was caught up in this epic ebb and flow. Scorsese had leveraged the success of Taxi Driver to green-light one of his passion projects, New York, New York. Even today, through the generous lens of hindsight, New York, New York is a very strange film. It is a loving ode to classic MGM musicals, but filtered through the grounded naturalism of seventies cinema. Although the film has undergone something of a soft reappraisal, it was a massive critical and commercial failure at the time. As with Sorcerer, opening opposite Star Wars did not help matters.

The failure of New York, New York was frustrating to Scorsese, and sent the director into a downward spiral. At one point, after taking bad cocaine, Scorsese ended up in hospital. It was there that Robert DeNiro visited him and convinced him to make Raging Bull. Scorsese has described Raging Bull as his “kamikaze film”, the film that would probably end his career. It is notably one of the most abrasive studio films ever made. It has been argued that it only got through United Artists because the studio was so busy fighting fires on Heaven’s Gate.

Raging Bull did well enough that it did not end Scorsese’s career. However, it was not a breakout hit. Times were changing. The seventies were over. Scorsese’s next film, The King of Comedy, was another creative and commercial flop. However, The King of Comedy has subsequently been reclaimed as one of Scorsese’s masterpieces in recent years, correctly recognised as a fitting companion piece to Taxi Driver that offers a decidedly more eighties criticism of a certain type of masculine entitlement.

However, Hollywood was changing. Directors who could not change with it ran the risk of being left behind. Scorsese stands out from most of his contemporaries because of his willingness to evolve and move with the times. Of the classic “Movie Brat” directors, only Steven Spielberg really comes close. Scorsese’s filmography spans over half a century, and it is fair to suggest that there are masterpieces scattered relatively evenly across that stretch of time.

Critics might quibble over the individual quality of Scorsese’s late-career output like CasinoThe Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street or The Irishman, but those are significant films that made a sizable impact on the zeitgeist. There’s an argument to be had about how those films might measure up to movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but there’s no denying that these are more culturally significant films than those that de Palma or Friedkin or Coppola have made in the same stretch of time.

One of the more interesting aspects of Scorsese as a filmmaker is the extent to which he very clearly wants to remain relevant and engaged. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind quotes from Sandy Weintraub about Scorsese’s anxieties following the release of New York, New York:

“Marty wanted the kind of success that Lucas and Coppola had,” says Sandy Weintraub. “He was afraid he would always be the critics’ darling, but the American public would never love him.” He was terrified that he wouldn’t be allowed to continue making movies if he didn’t make money. She adds, “There was nothing in his life besides movies. What would he do?”

Indeed, Scorsese’s desire to be seen as a director who appeals to mainstream audiences is one of the most interesting things about him. It may reflect the director’s embrace of new technology, using computer-generated imagery on Casino in the mid-nineties and playing with deaging software in The Irishman.

This is also one of the great (and delightful) paradoxes about Scorsese as a filmmaker who clearly wants to be recognised by average moviegoers in the same way as his peers like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. Throughout Scorsese’s career, the director has had a number of opportunities to step up to bat on high-profile and big-budget projects that could easily be considered blockbusters. On each and every occasion, Scorsese has used that opportunity to present something that might most charitably be described as “esoteric.”

After all, when Scorsese was given a huge budget and complete freedom after making Taxi Driver, he used those to make New York, New York and then wondered why audiences did not turn out to see a gritty kitchen sing drama about a toxic relationship styled like an old-fashioned musical. Gangs of New York was a big Christmas release, a sweeping historical epic populated by unlikable people living a dirty world. Hugo is not only a 3D children’s adventure film, it is also a capsule history of early cinema.

This is not to denigrate New York, New York, Gangs of New York or Hugo in any way. These films all have their defenders and their fans, and understandably so. They are all ambitious and unique films. However, it is fascinating that these are the kinds of movies that Scorsese produces when given large budgets and creative freedoms, and which (from listening to him talk about developing them) he expects mainstream audiences to wholeheartedly embrace. This is a large part of the charm of Scorsese as a filmmaker, the sense in which he cannot be anything but himself.

In hindsight, this makes Scorsese’s eighties output particularly fascinating, as the director is clearly adapting to a shifting cultural landscape. While many of his contemporaries like Paul Schrader and Brian de Palma would try to navigate the decade while playing by their own rules, Scorsese spent the eighties attempting to figure out the rules of the game so that he might play it just a little better. In this sense, The Colour of Money is the quintessential Martin Scorsese eighties film.

On one level, The Colour of Money is an oddity in Scorsese’s filmography. It is the only sequel that Scorsese has directed, and it is not even a sequel to one of his earlier films. It is also notable for pairing Scorsese with Tom Cruise, who was already one of the most bankable young actors in Hollywood coming off Risky Business. Cruise’s other big movie of the year would be homoerotic volleyball masterpiece Top Gun. To all appearances, The Colour of Money is what would be classed as a “minor” Scorsese film.

At the same time, The Colour of Money also feels like exactly the kind of cash-in that might appeal to Scorsese. It is effective a “legacy sequel” – before the term was really in popular use – to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, a black-and-white film from 1961. More than that, Scorsese refuses to tone down his stylistic sensibilities and ramps them up. The Colour of Money feels very much like a Martin Scorsese film, albeit one filtered through the aesthetic of the eighties. There’s an early trademark push-in on Paul Newman while Phil Collins’ One More Night plays on the soundtrack.

The Colour of Money joins “Fast Eddie” Felson two decades removed from his prime, still hustling pool halls. A young man named Vincent Lauria catches Eddie’s eye one day. The boy has talent, even if he has yet to hone that talent into anything more precise. Eddie sees potential in Vincent, and takes the grifter under his wing, seeking to teach the youngster the art of the con. Naturally, the two men’s egos collide, as Vincent finds himself forced to take a look at the bigger picture and Eddie faces his own obsolescence.

There’s a lot to like about The Colour of Money, which is a movie with a lot of charm and energy. Both Tom Cruise and Paul Newman are on fine form, working with both a script and a director who knows how best to use them. The Colour of Money is a compelling coming of age story for Vincent, that familiar and archetypal narrative about a young man who finds a surrogate father and eventually grows beyond him.

The Colour of Money is also recognisable as a Scorsese movie, even beyond the director’s distinctive visual and aural style. The Colour of Money is a rich and vibrant film with lots of strong camera movement and catchy needledrops. It is also something of a study of masculinity. Scorsese has worked with actors like Robert DeNiro, Daniel Day Lewis and Harvey Keitel, but it is debatable whether he ever worked with a pair of movie stars as iconic as Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. (Cruise was reportedly also considered for the Henry Hill role in Goodfellas.)

Of course, Scorsese would later strike up an extended relationship with teen heart throb Leonardo DiCaprio, and would serve as the centre square on the young actor’s “great living director” bingo card. However, there has always been a sense that part of the appeal to DiCaprio in working with Scorsese has been shedding his movie stardom and evolving as an actor in films like Gangs of New York, The Aviator and Shutter Island. As such, there’s a very different energy to those DiCaprio collaborations than there is to the use of Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in The Colour of Money.

However, part of the joy of The Colour of Money is watching these movie stars grapple with some of Scorsese’s recurring preoccupations, particularly concerning masculinity. Indeed, The Colour of Money is notable for featuring the first example of a scene that Scorsese would replay with Nick Nolte in both New York Stories and Cape Fear, in which an older man feels uncomfortable in the bedroom of a barely-dressed younger woman, blurring the boundaries between a potential father and daughter figure.

In New York Stories, this sequence plays as troubled artist Lionel Dobie tries to navigate the breakdown of his romantic relationship with Paulette and struggles to integrate into the role of mentor to the much younger woman. In Cape Fear, it plays between Sam Bouden and his daughter Danny, with the father admonishing his daughter, “Put some clothes on. You’re not a little kid anymore.” In The Colour of Money, the first variant of this recurring scene plays between Paul Newman as Eddie and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Vincent’s girlfriend, Carmen.

In early sequences, Eddie notices that Carmen seems to be flirting with him; undressing around him, leaving doors open as she changes, even lying suggestively across the bed while Vincent is absent. It might be tempting to see this as a mid-life crisis fantasy, the older man who is still capable of seducing the younger woman. However, Eddie sees through it. He rejects it. “I’m not your daddy. I’m not your boyfriend. So don’t be playing games with me. I’m your partner. You don’t flirt with me, you don’t come on with me. Take a shower, you shut the goddamn door.”

As such, The Colour of Money arrives at a point of transition for Scorsese himself. There is a sense in which the director might also be acknowledging his own growth and transformation, growing out of the excesses of the seventies and towards the sort of paternalistic figure who would become a miniature cultural icon with documentaries like A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy.

Similarly, it is interesting to watch Tom Cruise navigate the familiar dynamics of masculine insecurity that define so many Scorsese protagonists. Scorsese’s movies are often a study of warped and fragile masculine ego. Who’s That Knocking At My Door? is primarily the story of a young man coming to terms with the fact that the woman he loves was sexually assaulted. Taxi Driver is many things, but it is also the story of a man struggling to relate to women. This tension simmers across Scorsese’s career, in films as diverse as Raging Bull, Casino, The Aviator and Shutter Island.

However, there’s a tangible difference watching actors like Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Leonardo DiCaprio work through those sorts of anxieties and seeing a movie star like Tom Cruise play it out. Vincent is an incredibly insecure young man. At one point, during a trip to a down-market pool hall, he appears to grow uneasy with the possibility that Carmen might have some sexual experiences outside of his preconceived notions. “She never went out with guys like these,” Vincent insists, a charged racial undertone to his anxieties.

Cruise is a better actor than many will readily admit, as demonstrated by his work in films like Collateral. However, many of Cruise’s more interesting projects allow the actor to play with the image of himself as a sexually confident movie star: his portrayal of a handsome and successful husband going through a midlife crisis in Eyes Wide Shut or his turn as a motivational speaker to troubled young men in Magnolia. While The Colour of Money is not as explicit as either example, it still uses Tom Cruise’s star persona in interesting and uncomfortable ways.

However, there is also a meta-textual aspect to The Colour of Money. It often seems like Scorsese is aware of the film’s function in the arc of his career. Put simply, The Colour of Money was a project that seemed to exist largely to prove that Scorsese was a director who could be trusted by a major studio with a reasonable budget and a couple of movie-stars to produce something that was both positively received and commercially successful. The Colour of Money was about demonstrating, in his own inimitable way, that Scorsese could survive in the Hollywood of the eighties.

After all, the previous year Scorsese had directed an episode of Amazing Stories for his old friend Steven Spielberg. While Mirror, Mirror is not anything particularly special, it was probably both a welcome paycheck and proof that Scorsese could turn in a piece of work subject to the various constraints of prime-time television: something that was not explicit, something that was accesisble, and something that came in on-time and on-budget with a pre-determined runtime.

Similarly, Scorsese would follow The Colour of Money by directing the music video Bad for Michael Jackson. Much like Madonna, Jackson was making an effort to synthesise film and pop music. In 1986, Francis Ford Coppola would direct Jackson in Captain Eo for Epcot. In 1988, Joe Pesci would make an appearance in the video for Smooth Criminal. The music video for Bad is hardly Scorsese’s best work, but it is notable both for a small early role for Wesley Snipes and for the way in which it seems to emulate West Side Story.

Scorsese’s next feature film after The Colour of Money would be The Last Temptation of Christ, a project that he had wanted to direct since he had first read the book on the set of Boxcar Bertha. However, following the public failure of New York, New York, Scorsese was hardly in a position to ask a major studio for the kind of money and freedom that he would need to realise his historical epic. He had to play the game if he wanted to win.

The Last Temptation of Christ was always going to be a difficult project, on a number of levels. In terms of financing, biblic epics were somewhat outdated. Most of the great Hollywood religious spectaculars dated back to the fifties and sixties. Indeed, it’s arguable that this style of filmmaking had migrated to science-fiction spectacle by the 1980s, reflected in the production of Dino De Laurentiis films like Flash Gordon or Dune, which often borrowed from the cinematic language of biblical epics for a more secular sort of spectacular.

However, there were other problems. The Last Temptation of Christ was not a typical religious epic. In fact, Paramount had backed out of financing the film in 1983 in part because they were worried about the backlash. As Scorsese explains, this was partly what prompted him to become a more commercial filmmaker:

After The Last Temptation was cancelled in ’83, I had to get myself back in shape. Work out. And this was working out. First After Hours, on a small scale. The idea was that I should be able, if Last Temptation ever came along again, to make it like After Hours, because that’s all the money I’m gonna get for it.

Then the question was: Are you going to survive as a Hollywood filmmaker? Because even though I live in New York, I’m a “Hollywood director.” Then again, even when I try to make a Hollywood film, there’s something in me that says, “Go the other way.” With The Color of Money, working with two big stars, we tried to make a Hollywood movie. Or rather, I tried to make one of my pictures, but with a Hollywood star: Paul Newman. That was mainly making a film about an American icon. That’s what I zeroed in on. I’m mean, Paul’s face! You know, I’m always trying to get the camera to move fast enough into an actor’s face—a combination of zoom and fast track—without killing him! Well, in The Color of Money there’s the first time Paul sees Tom Cruise and says, ’’That kid’s got a dynamite break,” and turns around and the camera comes flying into his face. Anyway, that night, we looked at the rushes and saw four takes of this and said, “That man’s gonna go places! He’s got a face!”

Eventually, Universal would sign on to fund the production. They would pay for it at a reduce budget, but they also traded horses. In order to convince Universal to give him the money to make The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese agreed to direct a later and more commercially viable film for the company. That film would eventually become Cape Fear.

This sort of wheeler-dealing was par for the course in Hollywood at the time, with big directors enjoying an informal “one for me, one for you” relationship with studios. Indeed, the later years of Scorsese’s career often seem shaped by these sorts of agreements and negotiations. More than most auteurs, Scorsese has proven himself flexible in working with large companies. Casino happened because he “owed a film to Universal.” Scorsese was only convinced to sign on to The Aviator by Leonardo DiCaprio after Michael Mann dropped out.

This is the meta-game of Hollywood filmmaking, the understanding that a director cannot always get everything that they want exactly when they want it. It was, perhaps, a steep learning curve for the directors who had arrived as the studios threw money at them unsupervised. However, while Scorsese never quite learned how to play the game as well as Spielberg or Lucas, he still did a lot better than many of his contemporaries. It’s hard not to read The Colour of Money as a meditation on this larger hustle that the director pulls.

One of the big recurring arguments in The Colour of Money concerns the importance of sacrifice. In order to set up a bigger win down the line, Eddie argues, Vincent must learn to make short-term sacrifices. Vincent must learn to sacrifice his ego for the larger pot, to swallow the humble pie that will get him to where he wants to be. A seasoned professional, Eddie understands the advantage of the long game. A young upstart, Vincent initially lacks the patience necessary.

At one point, Eddie explains what he is trying to teach his student. “He’s got to learn to be himself,” Eddie insists. “But on purpose.” This is the lesson that Scorsese appears to be teaching himself during this stretch of his career, between Amazing Stories, The Colour of Money and Bad. These are all the works of a recognisable director playing with his own motifs and fascinations, but they are also small steps to a larger goal. These are perhaps the first projects that Scorsese directed with the intention that they would be “minor” works, but they serve a great purpose.

This is the beauty of The Colour of Money. The film is very acutely aware of what it is – it’s no surprise, for example, that Vincent is introduced working in a kids’ toy store. However, it also has its eye on a more impressive prize. The Colour of Money is a fantastic film, one often undervalued or underappreciated by Scorsese aficionados. However, in hindsight, it feels like a much more important one than most will concede.

The Colour of Money is about Scorsese learning to be himself while playing within the boundaries of the new studio model, leveraging his skill and his talent to build a relationship that will allow him to work on projects that he hopes to pursue down the line. The Colour of Money is about the commercialism of eighties movie-making, but which finds a strange art buried in the commerce.

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