In Scorsese's case, the iceberg was his lavish musical "New York, New York" (released 35 years ago this week, on June 21, 1977). Its failure not only marred his career, it nearly killed him.
The disaster may have begun with Scorsese's stylistic approach to the movie, a clash between incompatible filmmaking modes of the old Hollywood he admired and the new Hollywood he'd helped replace it with. It was exacerbated by his eagerness to embrace chaos through improvisation, which ended up ballooning the shooting schedule and the budget. Worst of all, the shoot took place while his personal life was in crisis -- he was abusing cocaine, he was having an affair with leading lady Liza Minnelli, and his marriage to Julia Cameron (then pregnant with the couple's daughter Domenica) was unraveling. "New York's" poor reception among critics and at the box office sent him further into a tailspin that led to a bloody collapse and a hospitalization. What saved his life (and his career) was pal Robert De Niro's insistence that Scorsese return to work on the pair's long-gestating biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta, resulting in the cinematic milestone that was "Raging Bull."
In 1976, Scorsese was riding high on the critical success of his last three movies: the groundbreaking "Mean Streets," the warmly human "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (which won star Ellen Burstyn an Oscar), and "Taxi Driver," which won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, at the Cannes Film Festival. So for his next project, he had a big budget and carte blanche. So he decided to make a splashy, old-fashioned Hollywood musical.
Well, not quite old-fashioned. While "New York, New York" drew inspiration from the classic musicals of such directors as Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli, right down to the clearly artificial New York street sets built on MGM soundstages, he also wanted to overturn the conventions of those musicals, with more volatile Method-style acting, darker characters, and a downbeat ending. "I still think the idea of mixing a modern foreground with an artificial background, like the old Hollywood, was a good idea," Scorsese told interviewer Richard Schickel years later. "More than a homage, it was a recreation of the old Hollywood, even though I realized that the old Hollywood was gone. So maybe it was a way for a young kid who loved old Hollywood movies to try to hold on to it."
Helping him straddle the line between old and new Hollywood was Liza Minnelli, who starred as rising pop singer Francine Evans. Her casting paid tribute to the musicals directed by her father and those starring her mother, Judy Garland (espeically "A Star Is Born," which had a similar plot to "New York, New York"). At the same time, she represented the modern Hollywood musical, having won an Oscar for 1972's "Cabaret," in which she sang the cynical songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb (who would compose four songs for "New York, New York").
Fully on the side of the new was co-star Robert De Niro, who played frustrated saxophonist Jimmy Doyle. He was his generation's finest Method actor, embracing the immersive, raw, emotional acting technique championed by such latter-day directors as Elia Kazan and John Cassavetes. No mannered fakery for De Niro, who even learned to play saxophone well enough to mimic the proper fingering on his tunes. He and Scorsese were already on the same wavelength, having made "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" together.
Minnelli had been trained in the more classical acting style, but she embraced with zeal, the improvisational efforts of her director and co-star. According to Vincent LoBrutto's "Martin Scorsese: A Biography," the improvisations that grew out of endless rehearsals led Minnelli to learn 27 different ways to say "No" to De Niro in the early sequence where Jimmy tries relentlessly to pick up Francine.
But the improvs meant continuous rewrites of Earl Mac Rauch's screenplay. (Scorsese's "Mean Streets" writing partner Mardik Martin worked on the revisions, as did Cameron, though she received no screen credit.) They also caused shooting delays, to the point where the shoot dragged out from 14 weeks to 22, and the budget doubled from $6 million to at least $12 million. (Some reports say it went up to $14 million.) One number, "Happy Endings," took 10 days and $350,000 to shoot, only to be cut from the initial release print. (It was restored when the movie was re-released years later.)
Scorsese found the improvisational process exciting, probably because it was the opposite of his usual focused, meticulously planned approach. "I tried to have no idea at all what I was going to do, as much as possible, on the day of shooting - as opposed to having a fairly strong idea of what I was going to do. I was really testing the limits," he told Schickel. In retrospect, he concluded, "I had a very chaotic style, on purpose, on 'New York, New York.' And I found it didn't work for me."
Part of that chaos was Scorsese's cocaine use. Another part was his affair with Minnelli, which Cameron discovered when she found the star's silk blouses in her closet. Scorsese's second wife, she'd been married to the director for less than a year and was pregnant with their daughter. Domenica Scorsese was born in September 1976, as the film went into post-production; the marriage ended soon after.
Consciously or not, some of that personal chaos found its way into the on-screen drama, which was essentially about whether two creative people can maintain a romance. Francine's pregnancy was echoed off-screen by those of Cameron and Diahnne Abbott, De Niro's wife (who also had a small part in the movie as a singer). Jimmy's dilemma -- could he become a viable avant-garde jazzbo in a music world that pressured him to become a pop sellout? -- was one Scorsese felt keenly himself, as a filmmaker trying to be an uncompromising artist in commerce-minded Hollywood.
No wonder Scorsese threw himself into other, non-Hollywood projects after shooting wrapped on "New York." The editing process dragged on for months, but Scorsese dropped out of the editing room and out of sight for three weeks in late 1976 to shoot the Band's farewell concert and some related interviews and musical numbers, generating the footage that would become 1978's landmark rock doc "The Last Waltz." (Being around the group's coke-filled milieu couldn't have helped his own drug abuse much.) Over the next few months, he made another documentary, "American Boy," about Steven Prince, the colorful gun dealer from "Taxi Driver." He also developed a Broadway musical for Minnelli called "The Act," which further developed the Francine Evans character. But while the show was in out-of-town tryouts, their affair ended, and the director was fired from the flailing show and replaced by Broadway stalwart Gower Champion.
"New York, New York" earned less than $14 million at the box office, making it a costly flop. Moreover, it marked the first time that the critics had turned against him. The asthmatic director responded by doing even more cocaine, endangering his already frail health. Still, two years after he shot it, he managed to complete "The Last Waltz." "The movie was therapy," he told the Village Voice at the time. "It was the only thing that held me together." Still, the cocaine abuse continued. "The only good thing about the drug use is that it was very obvious in my case," he told Schickel. "And I just had to go to that brick wall."
Scorsese's exhaustion in the aftermath of "New York, New York" had led a lot of his friends to be alarmed about his health, he recalled, but he ignored their concerns until one day in September 1978 when he suffered what he called "a total collapse." He coughed up blood, blacked out, and was hospitalized. He'd suffered an adverse reaction to a mixture of cocaine and asthma medication. He almost had a stroke.
"That's when I finally went to the hospital, and that's when De Niro came to visit and asked if I wanted to do the film ['Raging Bull']. Really, we had been working on it since 'Taxi Driver,'" he told Schickel. "I realized I had nothing else to do. I had exhausted all the possibilities. Even my friends were all going off on their own. I was alone. And it was time to go back to work."
Scorsese threw himself into "Raging Bull" like a man who believed he would never get to make another movie -- either because he would die trying or be blackballed from Hollywood. "I had actually almost died, but by some stroke of fate it all worked out, and I didn't die, and I was making this movie," he told Australia's Sunday Herald in 2005. "I didn't give a damn what was going to happen to the picture. I just wanted to put everything in it. And I was really angry. An anger that was very, very productive. I knew that it would probably be the last picture I made." Not just because of his precarious health, but also because "I just felt that there wasn't any place for me any longer in filmmaking. Particularly in America."
Fortunately, Scorsese was spectacularly wrong. "Raging Bull" wasn't a hit, either, but it was instantly regarded as his masterpiece, a verdict that has not changed over the last 32 years of his legendary and prolific career. Now 69, Scorsese has lived on to make many more landmark films and to become the most critically admired American filmmaker alive.
As for "New York, New York," it's remembered now mostly for its theme song, which became a staple of Minnelli's concert act and a giant hit for Frank Sinatra (as well as the Big Apple's unofficial anthem). The movie itself still earns mixed reviews, though it has its fierce champions. Scorsese acknowledges his own dissatisfaction with the movie, but at least it taught him that he could overreach, fall flat on his face, and still bounce back. In his view, it was a necessary corrective to the swelled head he developed after "Taxi Driver." As he told author Peter Biskind in 1991, "I will always thank the French for giving me that grand prize to allow me to reveal to myself what a total failure I could be."