More close encounters: Barbara Streisand, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin and Lauren Bacall

Successful Hollywood screenwriters were once struggling to survive by washing dishes.  Famous movie stars were once terrified young wannabe actors, trying to get a break

Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin

The screenwriter Mardik Martin, who was teaching at USC whilst I worked there, had made friends with Martin Scorsese when they were both film students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.  The friendship ultimately led to a collaboration that resulted in the creation of the celebrated films, ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Raging Bull’. 

Following graduation from NYU, Mardik and Martin Scorsese had stayed friends.  Scorsese soon managed to make an independent feature, ‘Who’s that knocking at my door?’ This was followed, five years later, by a low-budget romantic crime drama ‘Boxcar Bertha’.

Meanwhile, Mardik supported himself washing dishes in restaurants, and continued working with Scorsese, a collaboration that eventually resulted, five years after they graduated, in the script for ‘Mean Streets.’ 

One day, in a screenwriting class at USC, Mardik was talking in general about actors and how they can slowly develop confidence, whilst building their careers, and to illustrate this, described the day that he had met a young Robert de Niro.

After the script for ‘Mean Streets’ was completed, a call was put out for actors to audition. 

Robert De Niro, who was about 30 years old when he auditioned, had invested in his craft, studying at the Stella Adler Conservatory and the Lee Strasberg Actor’s studio.  By this time De Niro had already managed to secure roles in two films: the first, ‘Greetings’, in 1968, directed by Brian de Palma, a satirical film about about young men avoiding the draft for the Vietnam war, and in 1973, De Niro had worked on a sports drama. 

Robert de Niro

Despite this success, when he entered the room, ready to read for the part the role of small-time criminal, ‘Johnny Boy’ in Mean Streets, Mardik said that poor De Niro was literally shaking with fear. 

Having succeeded in his audition, Robert DeNiro went onto act the part of Johnny Boy, opposite Harvey Keitel, playing Charlie Cappa, in ‘Mean Streets’, (1973)

Following the successful release of ‘Mean Streets’, the actor went onto work with Scorsese in nine further features, many of which are considered to be some of the most celebrated works of the New Hollywood era.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, long-time collaborators

So you might think that it was simply lucky that Scorsese and Mardik could see past the terrible nerves De Niro had during his audition, enough to give him the part.  That it was lucky that Mardik stuck it out washing dishes for five years after graduation, whilst using his free-timeworking to continue working on scripts with Martin Scorsese. 

Mardik Martin: at the time I interviewed him for my book (see below), he said he had given up screenwriting, because it was too painful to see his original ideas destroyed during the production process. However, he did go onto co-write one final feature, a German Film, ‘The Cut’, which won an award at the Venice Film Festival in 2014. He passed away in 2019.

The audition, and the development of Mean Streets, is is also another example of ‘luck’ favouring those who are extremely well-prepared, and favouring those willing to stick it out, for many years, in the hope of achieving success one day. 

No matter how rich and famous you are, you can be afflicted by loneliness: Barbra Streisand

One day, in one of Mardik Martin’s screenwriting classes at USC, a student workshopped a script in which a rich and famous woman was struggling with loneliness.  Another student attacked this script as ridiculous, arguing that it was impossible for such a woman to ever be lonely. 

Before the script’s author could defend himself, Mardik shut the dispute down, with a great story. 

Barbra Streisand, at about the time of her call to Mardik and Martin

One night, he and Martin Scorsese had been taking a well-earned break in a bar, when Martin received an urgent phone call.  It was Barbra Streisand, who was alone in her house in the Hollywood hills, and in very desperate need of company. 

Barbra was, even then, one of the best-selling recording artists in history, having sold over 150 million records worldwide.  As an actor, producer, director and musician she is one of the few to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards.  Her movies ranged from ‘Funny Girl’ and ‘The Way We Were’ to ‘A Star is Born’ and ‘Yentl’.

Having divorced her first husband, in 1987, she had been connected, romantically, to actors Don Johnson, Richard Gere, Clint Eastwood, and then later in the 90’s, to tennis player Andre Agassi, 28 years her junior.  She has been married for the second time, since 1998. 

However, at some point in her very successful and seemingly glamorous life, Barbra felt desperately lonely enough to put in a call to Martin Scorsese and get him and his drinking buddy, Mardik Martin, to abandon their plans for the night, and dash up to her house in the hills, on a mercy-mission, to keep her company and presumably lift her spirits. 

The famous and successful can feel bitter about more successful peers and socially rejected: Lauren Bacall

When I heard that Lauren Bacall was visiting the University, to publicise the launch of her latest biography, ‘Now’, I hurried to secure tickets.  The book would be a wonderful Christmas gift for my mother, who had seen classic Hollywood movies in the cinema as a child, and would think herself extremely honoured to own a signed copy of Bacall’s book.  The stacks of hardbacks at the side of the auditorium cost the equivalent of £30 today, and took a significant bite out of my very low disposable income. It was more than I had ever paid for a book, and a lot more than could afford to spend on myself, but I believed it would be worth it, to give my mother such a unique gift. 

Before the signing, there was a Q&A session.  The interviewer introduced the actor with a summary of career highlights. 

In response to questions, Bacall touched on anecdotes from her book.  It became clear that Lauren’s first role had been secured principally on the basis of her looks. After modelling for a cover of the magazine ‘Bazaar’ she was spotted by the wife of Hollywood Director Howard Hawks, who then brought Bacall to Hollywood.  There she won a role in her first Hollywood feature, ‘To have and to have not’ opposite Humphrey Bogart. 

Bacall on the 1943 cover of over of Harper’s Bazaar, an image that secured her acting career

The screenplay was adapted from a novel by Ernest Hemmingway.  Howard Hawks, who was a friend of the author, idealised a kind of young woman  who was sexually experienced and insolent; who would not complain about the drinking or big game hunting, but were young enough never to pose a threat.  Lauren Bacall’s photoshoot, for Bazaar, had fortunately portrayed her as just this type of woman, which was key to her securing a role in the film. 

During filming of the movie, Bacall’s admitted that what was considered to be her ‘smouldering look’ was in fact a head held rigid in fear, forcing her tilt her eyes upwards, Her celebrated low voice was the result of voice coaching ordered by Hawks, who disliked her normal, high-pitched, nasal voice.  A two pack-a-day cigarette habit also helped.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart on the set of the film ‘To Have and To Have not’, where they met

Hawks, allegedly angry about Bacall’s relationship with Bogart, is reported to have said that Bogart had fallen in love with a Hemingway-created character, that Bacall was then forced to play for the rest of her life.

Lauren Bacall went onto marry Bogart, and then to star in ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘Key Largo’ with Bogart, and later, ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’ with Marylin Monroe and Betty Grable.  In the book, she describes looking up to actors like Bette Davies and Katherine Hepburn.  Hepburn’s career spanned well over twenty-five great movies, and she was named in 1999 by the American Film Institute as the greatest female star of classic Hollywood Cinema. 

Bacall’s swift marriage, at 21, to Bogart and his preference that she devote herself to the raising of their children, was used to explain her failure to achieve a similar level of success as her role models.  There are also stories that she was simply not as talented an actress as her heroines, and this, coupled with a difficult temperament also curtailed her career. 

As Bogart’s fourth wife, Bacall entered a marriage with a man 25 years older than her. By the time of the book signing that I attended, Bogart had been dead for 37 years, yet Bacall’s life was entirely defined by her connection to him.  The core of her life’s story, as told during the interview, was focussed upon the lead-up to the meeting Bogart, and their short time together. 

She came across as very bitter about her treatment as a widow, and as a single woman (a second marriage lasted 9 years), by Hollywood hostesses who excluded single women from dinner parties.

Bacall dwelt for some time upon the enduring love and companionship she had found with her small dogs,  and was extremely angry about what she felt were ‘neurotic and draconian’ British rabies controls, which at the time, had prevented her from taking her dogs with her to the UK on a book tour.

A review of the book online subsequently claimed that ‘her unique looks were her only attribute’ and by the end of the talk I had got the sense that this might have been the cause of her sadness.

My overall impression of the interview was that the book was principally a story of loss, bitterness and loneliness.  Movie parts had dried up, and by the late 90’s she had become a spokesperson for cat food and coffee.

Once the interview was over, members of the audience who had purchase copies of the book were invited to join the queue to have the book signed.  The signing was set up to minimise the contact that the actor was forced to have with the public.  Assistants jotted down the inscription that each of us wanted, on yellow post-it notes, and then we were instructed to approach the desk where the great actress was sitting, pen poised.  When I reached the front of the queue, Bacall took my copy, which had been passed to her by yet another assistant, glanced at it and then looked up at me and said, ‘What inscription do you want?’ 

Thinking she wanted me to spell my  mother’s name more clearly, I started to say that the name started with an ‘E’, but was cut dead by the actress, who spat ‘Not the name: ‘For’ or ‘To’?  As I stumbled in my response, I realised Bacall was glaring at me with a level of visceral loathing and hatred that froze my blood.  Fortunately I have almost never been on the receiving end of such an intense level of hatred.  And this was being directed at me in response to a very simple misunderstanding.  If this had been a Hollywood Movie, I would have been reduced to a smoking pile of ashes, by the ‘death stare’ directed at me.

From Bacall’s reaction, it was clear that she dearly hated the public and entire process of being forced to publicise her book.  The second the book was passed back to me, I hurried away as quickly as I could, hoping that perhaps the actor was exhausted, by the book tour, and by her fame.  She had been stared at by everyone she encountered since her first movie.  There must be some regret that she had perhaps, unknowingly, at 21 years old, given away her privacy in exchange for an acting job, which after those first few films, had not resulted in a brilliant career, or the multitude of acting awards gained by those she admired.  Bacall had spent most of years acting out the role of a great actor’s widow. 

She had also, no doubt, been a loving and kind wife and mother, and could be a charming woman, and a gracious and generous person to those she encountered.  Like all of us, she had bad days, perhaps it was just unlucky that my path crossed hers, on such a day. 

However, the sheer vicious nastiness of that moment with Bacall, meant that I could not bear to even look at the book afterwards.  Later I searched for information about her reputation, and found descriptions of a very much feared temperament, and speculation that this had caused her to lose roles in movies. 

That Christmas my mother unwrapped the book and was delighted that the great Lauren Bacall had actually written ‘For Eileen’ inside the cover.  I never let my mother know anything about my horrible experience with the actor, as I did not want to ruin my mother’s illusion, that Hollywood stars are in some way greater, impossibly better people than us.  After my mother’s death, in 2019, four years after Bacall, I was relieved to be able to despatch the book to a charity shop. 

An online review of it suggests that ‘the first part is good, up until the part where Bogart dies, then it is all over the place.’  This might also sum up her life. 

Further information:

An interview with Mardik Martin about his long and successful career features in my book, ‘Is There Life after Film School’ (Continuum, 2006)

‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.’  Biskind.  (Bloomsbury 1998)