A DOWNBEAT HOMAGE to bright-lights showbiz dramas, an epic orchestration that indulges in stubbornly obsessive riffs, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) seems to value awkwardness and indecision above all else. Coming off the success of Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese secured a big budget and MGM sound stages for what was meant to be his tribute to and deconstruction of classic Hollywood musicals, but the tribute got lost somewhere in the deconstruction. The stars of the film, Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, were encouraged to embroider their lines with improvisation, and whenever language begins to break down between them, De Niro pushes hard into inarticulate aggressiveness as Minnelli retreats into querulous befuddlement. Bathed in anxious red and purple neon, the movie plays out like some errant crossbreeding of Charles Vidor’s Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and John Cassavetes’s Minnie and Moskowitz (1971).
In the opening sequence set on V-J Day, Scorsese directs a massive nightclub celebration as masterfully as epic-maker Cecil B. DeMille. His 1:66:1 frame is alive with people dancing and carrying-on, and the denizens of the club don’t seem like extras but like specific characters having a specific good time. (Steven Spielberg would take this mildly crazed-1940s dance scene to its farcical, splurgingly vulgar conclusion in the set-piece dances of 1941 .) Wolfish sax player Jimmy Doyle (De Niro) zeroes in on singer Francine Evans (Minnelli), and De Niro stays so laser-focused on his unromantic goal of getting laid that Minnelli seems genuinely uncomfortable. The camera keeps catching her looking dazed and slack-jawed, her huge eyes staring into nothing, and it’s hard to tell if this is a choice she has made for her passive character or if something else is wrong. Francine keeps saying “no” to Jimmy, which seems to me like the hallmark of bad improv. The first thing actors are taught in an improv class is to avoid saying “no,” because if they do, there’s no scene, only stalled moments and desperate crosstalk. And this movie is practically an anthology of stalled moments and desperate crosstalk.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK was a famously troubled production, and that wouldn’t be worth noting if it didn’t help to explain the messiness of what wound up on screen. (Scorsese was breaking up with his pregnant second wife as he shot the film, and he began a fraught affair with his leading lady.) You can see the movie struggling to turn a conflict of technique—De Niro is Actors Studio, Minnelli is Old Hollywood—into a conflict of personalities, making Jimmy represent the tough, withholding pleasures of bebop jazz and Francine the simple pleasures of pandering, “I’ll disembowel myself on stage for you!” show business. The relationship between Jimmy and Francine is a contest of wills, right from the start, but that’s hard to discern at first because on the surface he seems like such an unhinged, bullshitting dickwad and she seems like such a conciliatory bump on a log. At times it seems like Jimmy wants to destroy complacent Francine partly because he hates the kind of popular music she represents, but this idea is only one of many possibilities floating around in a picture that often feels like some kind of disease or addiction, a set of never-ending possibilities to be worked or edited through.
Jimmy gets a chance to front a big band, and Francine’s singing starts to attract them a following; we see an old-fashioned montage of Minnelli warbling “The Man I Love” in lush, creamy tones until she finishes it with her “shoot the works!” vibrato. It’s difficult to tell here what Scorsese’s attitude is toward Francine and toward Minnelli because he isn’t able to bring either character or performance into focus (off on his own, De Niro just burrows ever-deeper into Jimmy’s anti-social anti-charm with the director’s distracted approval). The improv between the actors wobbles in the scene where Jimmy proposes to Francine, but the tension between them suddenly clarifies in a short rehearsal scene where the now-married couple fights for dominance of the band as she tries to sing “Taking a Chance on Love” (which is the theme song of Cabin in the Sky , the debut movie of Minnelli’s father Vincente, one of Scorsese’s filmmaking heroes). Jimmy yells at band members who are playing too slowly, and Francine tries to smooth things over with early Judy Garland-esque “We’re gonna put on this show!” boosterism. As she does this, Jimmy freezes and gives her a look filled with affronted pride and murderous hate, then puts her in her place in front of the men and whacks her on the behind. Humiliated, near hysterical, Francine finishes the song and then shoves her microphone down on the ground.
Francine is unable or unwilling to stand up to Jimmy; her passivity can be seen as her tactic of dealing with him, and this passivity makes his cold fury at her even crazier, more lethal. Having one of their typical fights in a car, the couple briefly bonds when they both take turns yelling at another couple who want to take their parking spot, but their relationship definitively falters in a bruising three-minute car argument to end all car arguments where a drunk and pregnant Francine finally goes nuts over Jimmy’s lack of support and affection. Whatever the problems with Minnelli’s work in the rest of the film, in this scene she obviously doesn’t care how she sounds and looks and goes for the guttural reality of the moment, so that she and De Niro finally click together as actors just when their characters are making a final split. It feels like a real, horrible, aimless couple fight, and it also manages to evoke the Kirk Douglas/Cyd Charisse car meltdown in Vincente Minnelli’s fiercely stylized Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) with its own Cassavetes-like willingness to stay with a scene to its confused and bitter end (Cassavetes was both mentor and friend to Scorsese).
NEW YORK, NEW YORK opened at 155 minutes, but it was going up against Star Wars, and the studio soon pulled it and trimmed it to 136 minutes. In 1981, it was re-released at 163 minutes with added footage for Minnelli’s “Happy Endings” number, which is supposed to be the movie that makes Francine a star and has the same “more is more” effect of the “Born in a Trunk” number sandwiched into George Cukor’s not-dissimilar A Star is Born (1954). This extended sequence showcases Minnelli’s musical skills at their disco height, as does her belting of the title song as De Niro’s Jimmy watches from afar. (This scene visually echoes the last moments of Love Me or Leave Me where James Cagney watches Doris Day on stage and rat-a-tat-tats out: “Gotta give her credit, the girl can sing. About that, I never was wrong!”) In Francine’s dressing room after the show, the now-successful club owner Jimmy tells her, “I’m very proud of you…in a way,” and that “in a way” expresses both his contempt for her showbiz, ha-cha-cha style and his grudging respect for her more vulgar talents. It’s that contempt and grudging respect that Scorsese has tried to explore throughout the film but too often remained shy of, perhaps for personal reasons.
New York, New York is a long picture in any cut, and it doesn’t seem to have any other notable characters in it but Jimmy and Francine (this relates to Jimmy’s solipsism but also to Scorsese’s as well). True to form, the movie ends on a sour note and a missed opportunity. Francine shouldn’t be with Jimmy, just as Liza shouldn’t be acting with Bobby D., but the fact that both characters and actors try so hard to make it all mesh speaks for Scorsese’s endorsement of passion over order and perversity over sense and film over life. This is an endorsement that seeks to hide a deeper-down disenchantment with popular success, movies and with musicals in particular, and it’s this barely admitted disenchantment that makes New York, New York maybe the most actively self-destructive musical ever made, tough to like but naggingly hard to forget.
Dan Callahan’s first book, a critical study of the films of Barbara Stanwyck, will be published in February 2012.
New York, New York, part of the program “Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s” is playing at Anthology Film Archves on Saturday June 18, Tuesday June 21, and Saturday June 25.