Recollecting Hollywood’s greatest actor/director collaborations at Thursday night’s Cinema Vanguard tribute, Santa Barbara International Film Festival director Roger Durling invoked the classic pairings of John Wayne & John Ford, Mastroianni & Fellini, Bogart & Houston, and DeNiro & Scorsese. Throughout its 29 year history, the SBIFF has honored ingenues, auteurs and even ensembles, but rarely a duo – especially one as dynamic, “fearless and uncompromising” as Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.
A rare California rainstorm gave way to shrieking, fawning, Beatle–esque pandemonium (incidentally on the 50th eve of the band’s US arrival) as the stars braved (literally) the red carpet with one over-zealous “fan” quickly subdued by the heavy security presence after trying to bear-hug DiCaprio around the waist. Some in the media corps even joked that the arrival should have taken place in a demolished white Lamborghini.
Inside, a hard-rocking montage of the pair’s work was screened, cut to The Black Keys’ I’ve Got Mine, encompassing explosive scenes from Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Departed and their latest, The Wolf of Wall Street. Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter assumed hosting duties for a night of revelation into the method, madness, multi-take magic and cinematic alchemy of Marty and Leo (with some Greek mythology and a few phobias thrown in).
“There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man and I’ve been a rich man. I choose rich every fucking time.” – Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street
McCarthy kicked off the evening in broad strokes with an inquiry into the actor’s penchant for playing uber-affluent eccentrics, especially recent roles spanning the “twin pillars of wealth” – Gatsby (driven by a yearning heart) and Belfort’s Wolf (driven by a primal amygdala). DiCaprio expressed his fascination with the American dream and the corruption of that dream, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, leading him to Wolf.
Before Marty & Leo, there was Marty & Bobby. As Scorsese and Robert De Niro blazed celluloid trails in spectacular fashion through the 70’s and 80’s with seminal works like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, Leo watched from afar, intrigued by “these protagonists (like Taxi’s Travis Bickle) who fool me into rooting for them and then turn.” The mantle was passed after De Niro and DiCaprio worked together on 1993’s This Boy’s Life and De Niro recommended the young actor to his partner. Mutual admiration led to their first project together, the director’s long-gestating Gangs of New York.
When recounting the Gangs shoot, the fabric of the Scorsese/DiCaprio partnership began to reveal itself as the pair finished or embellished each other’s reminiscences and war stories, much like an old married couple (more on that later) with Scorsese relating mechanics (camera set-ups and framing) while DiCaprio revealed method and getting under his characters’ skins (laughingly noting how fellow cast member Daniel Day Lewis, also famous for his meticulous immersions – see last year’s Montecito Award review - took nine hours learning proper meat-cutting skills just to buttress Bill the Butcher’s authenticity). According to the duo, the Gangs film clip screened, featuring a particularly violent tryst between Cameron Diaz and DiCaprio, was completed in thirty takes, underscoring the director’s predilection for improvisation, process and the organic performance discoveries possible within multiple takes (beyond a stylistic approach, it’s also perhaps a luxury afforded to few helmers outside of his stature). As an interesting side-study in contrasts, Quentin Tarantino, last year’s Riviera Award recipient, demands an almost assiduous adherence to his scripts and views actors who “riff” on his material, with a certain level of contempt.
The next clip from 2004’s The Aviator further delineated the actor/director dynamic. Showcasing DiCaprio acting through a wall as a paranoid and (literally) naked Howard Hughes, deep in the throes of dementia while attempting to negotiate with Pan Am’s Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) on the other side, Scorsese again playing tactician, allows DiCaprio his freedom to inhabit Hughes’ darker depths while structuring the narrative and visual framework, “As long as he’s there (in character) I can shoot around him.” DiCaprio also expressed his preference in portraying real/historical vs. fictional characters, “I don’t have to make all that shit up.”
Longing to return to his Mean Streets origins and make a “down and dirty” film, 2006’s Best Picture winner The Departed was, well, a departure for Scorsese. Based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, William Moynihan’s adaptation provided plenty of psychological subterfuge and scenery to chew on for its A-list ensemble, especially Jack Nicholson. Following a clip featuring Vera Farmiga and DiCaprio engaged in a game of psychological chess, flirtation and meta-analysis, the discussion turned again to the latitude and apparent efficacy of multiple takes and lengths it can (hilariously) take to make movie magic. Alluding to the pivotal restaurant scene in which Nicholson’s Frank attempts to smoke out DiCaprio’s Bill as a rat, after completing an entire day of filming, no one was completely satisfied with the result. Nicholson suggested that Bill wasn’t intimidated enough by Frank, and the next day arrived on set sporting a pistol, matches and a bottle of whiskey to liven up the scene, achieving the necessary tension and gravitas.
The noir thriller Shutter Island provided even more cerebral insight to the evening as Scorsese confessed his apparent inclination for immersion therapy through work, by taking on projects containing his phobias (flying-Aviator, boats-Shutter, violence - Departed) as well as delivering a master class on orchestrating dream sequences. Despite a dazzling array of visual effects and seamless shots used in the film, the key to creating the necessary emotional resonance to sell the fantasy, according to the director, is to “focus on the faces” of the actors, “dreams are very real to the dreamers.”
Exploring their latest and most controversial collaboration, The Wolf of Wall Street, (this time, with Leo as producer/financier/star) the duo expressed their desire to “put it all out there” and produce a dark, narcissistic, unflinching look at the unbridled greed, audacity and outrageous behavior of these characters without being didactic (undoubtedly, where some of the animosity stems) while still deeming it a “cautionary tale.”
Freed from major studio constraints and shot on an unfathomable 87(!) day schedule, the film plays-out like an elongated, more frenetic, coked-out third act of Goodfellas. Justifying the film’s tour de force designation, three clips were shown underscoring the film’s intensity and exhaustive energy, including the award-worthy Gordon Gekko-meets-Braveheart “war-cries for greed” monologues (which were shot on the final days of production) as well as the much-talked-about “candle scene.” But the real brilliance of the Leo/Marty collaboration came through in the dissection of the aforementioned Lamborghini scene, as Scorsese once again set the marks, parameters and framework for the scene including an extended long-shot, letting the strenuous and hilarious physical comedy of his actor fill the space and play to the hilt, while simultaneously amplifying and defining his predicament. Where did Leo derive his inspiration for the scene? Buster Keaton? Jerry Lewis? Nope. A viral YouTube video entitled “The Drunkest Guy Ever,” (sporting over three-million hits and still online for the aspiring actors out there).
It was then that Wolf co-star Jonah Hill (with two Oscar nominations under his belt, a potential heir to the Scorsese pantheon?) arrived on stage to present the Cinema Vanguard award. Proclaiming his admiration of both Scorsese, “I saw Goodfellas at age 9, which is probably not an appropriate age to view that film,” and DiCaprio, “When I first saw Leo in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, I thought ‘Wow, that’s great that they were able to find a mentally challenged actor to play that role.’” (Full disclosure: this reviewer worked on the trailer for that film and thought the same thing). He then encapsulated the extraordinary relationship of the two as, “You know when you’re single and go out with a couple that have something so special, that you wish someday to share that connection with someone else? Leo and Marty are like that.” Then, as the room filled with laughter and awkward tension, he added, “Not like that…” As the awkwardness hit its peak, Hill concluded with his trademark self-deprecation, “Um, OK, am I supposed to walk over there and give you this (award), or what?”
The SBIFF credo reads: : The Cinema Vanguard Award was created in recognition of those who have forged his/her own path, taking artistic risks and making a significant and unique contribution to film.
It’s clear that for years to come, Scorsese and DiCaprio will be celebrated for their unique and extraordinary film collaboration, which has produced an impressive body of fearless and uncompromising work.
What’s also certain is that come March 2nd, the wolf will definitely be at the door.