Mental Floss

Martin Scorsese is a fighter: Battles with cocaine, death threats"¦ and Liza Minelli?

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by Adam Horowitz

I've been reading Peter Biskind's scrumptious chronicle of 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and one thing I've learned is that even in that wonderfully liberated climate - with the old studio system collapsing and hippie visionaries seizing power - becoming a successful filmmaker and then staying a successful filmmaker was as hard as ever. A great case in point: Martin Scorsese.

Today the bushy-eyebrowed maestro is in his fourth decade directing, having long proven himself as one of our greatest filmmakers. But Scorsese's rookie years were no cakewalk. Beset with obstacles of all kinds (some of his own making), it's a credit to his determination that he was able to overcome them. The following are 9 things young Marty the dreamer had to contend with.

Coke smuggling, conflict with the Manson family and 7 more after the jump...

Battle #1: Extreme Asthma

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Battle #2: A fear of 11s (and the pouch of charms around his neck?)

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Battle #3: Lack of confidence in his work

After high school, Scorsese went to the seminary to study for the priesthood, but soon decided to follow his true passion, enrolling in the film program at NYU. The two movies he felt most inspired by were Citizen Kane and Shadows (John Cassavetes's landmark independent film). After struggling for four years to complete his first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? (financed in large part by his dad, and starring a young Harvey Keitel who was working as a court stenographer at the time), Scorsese didn't know how well the movie would be received or who might see it. One of his friends arranged for Cassavetes himself to take a look at it. Amazingly, the legendary director loved it: "This movie is as good as Citizen Kane. No, it's better than Citizen Kane, it's got more heart." When Scorsese heard the praise he almost fainted.

Battle #4: Lack of confidence with women

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Battle #5: The Censorship Board

The ending of Scorsese's brilliant 1976 film Taxi Driver is very violent and bloody; in one shot, a man gets his fingers blown off in full visual detail. Afraid that the picture would be dealt an X rating, Columbia Pictures wanted Scorsese to revise the ending completely, to cut out all the violence. Scorsese was enraged at the suggestion.

Afraid that the executives would seize the print, he locked it in the trunk of his car and snuck it off the lot.

Eventually he agreed to cut a few frames of blood spray, but more significantly, he suggested desaturating the colors in the scene, making the blood look a little less red. The ratings board was satisfied with this and awarded the film an R. Ironically, Scorsese was very happy with the desaturation, it was something he always wanted to try. He felt that with the colors muted the scene became even more shocking!

Battle #6: Death threats

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Battle #7: Cocaine and its emotional toll

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But soon addiction took over and there was no looking back. At the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, while giving interview after interview, Scorsese ran out of cocaine and found it impossible to continue.

"No more coke, no more interviews," he declared. Unable to score in Cannes, he quickly dispatched a private plane to Paris

to bring back a new supply. Meanwhile, Scorsese's personality was transforming for the worst. "I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around," he recalls. "I always found, no matter what anybody said, something to take offense at. I'd be the host, but at some point during the evening I'd flip out, just like when I'm shooting." As one might expect, he began to alienate some of those closest to him.

Battle #8: Cocaine and the physical toll

Scorsese describes the above period as a two-year abyss from which he barely came out alive. He makes no bones about it: it was about self-destruction. In his words: "It was a matter of pushing the envelope, of being bad, seeing how much you can do. Embracing a way of life to its limit. I did a lot of drugs because I wanted to do a lot. I wanted to push all the way to the very very end and see if I could die." He almost got his wish that August when he and his friends were sold some "bad coke." It interacted with his asthma medication and other prescription pills, and caused him massive internal bleeding. This was his wake-up call, and thankfully he heard it and went straight. (Interestingly, Scorsese says that gaining this insight into his own self-destructive tendencies enabled him to make his next masterpiece Raging Bull.)

Battle #9: Scorsese's battle with fidelity

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