Spreadin’ the News

Melissa Anderson on Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York

Martin Scorsese, New York, New York, 1977, 35 mm, color, sound, 155 minutes. Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle (Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro).

NO: Liza Minnelli says this sixteen times to Robert De Niro in their first scene together in Martin Scorsese’s voluptuous, heart-piercing musical from 1977, New York, New York. (Five years earlier, in the incomparable Bob Fosse–directed TV special Liza with a “Z”, her opening number was a song called “Yes.”) Their characters, Francine Evans, smartly done up in her USO uniform, and Jimmy Doyle, who’s chucked his soldier’s attire for a Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with Big Apple landmarks, are among the hundreds of revelers celebrating V-J Day in a Times Square ballroom as the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra plays. Snapping his Juicy Fruit, Jimmy is on the make; Francine vigorously rebuffs his come-ons. But she is intrigued enough by this volatile ex-GI that she ends up accompanying Jimmy, a sax player, to his audition at a Flatbush Avenue dive—a tryout she rescues from another of his hotheaded outbursts by breaking into the 1930s standard “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” Shortly after this, they go on tour with a band, but their creative and romantic union will eventually be riven for good by emotional dissonance.

Scorsese, Little Italy’s most famous (and movie-besotted) son, followed up Taxi Driver (1976), his seminal portrait of New York as Sodom, with a far more sanguine tribute to his hometown, here mostly re-created on Hollywood backlots and sets. “I wanted to make it in the style of the forties films, with all their artifice and the idea of no reality,” the director says of New York, New York in the book-length interview Scorsese on Scorsese. “The sets would be completely fake, but the trick would be to approach the characters in the foreground like a documentary, combining the two techniques.” Augmenting the raw, vérité quality of this lavish, otherworldly musical is the fact that most of the dialogue was improvised. (After Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Scorsese notes in that same interview, “we got big heads and felt that no script was good enough.”)

The casting of Minnelli—the only child produced during the union of two of the greatest artists of the film era and genre that Scorsese salutes—further deepens New York, New York’s authenticity. In her simultaneously ferocious and elegant performance, the actress—who sings both standbys from the Great American Songbook and tracks written for the film by her frequent collaborators Kander and Ebb, including the title anthem—also pays homage to her parents. She does this quite explicitly in the lengthy “Happy Endings” number, which recalls her mother’s “Born in a Trunk” sequence from George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle after MGM had suspended her contract four years earlier. At times Minnelli’s intensity suggests nothing less than filial exorcism—a volcanic recognition of Mama’s colossal talent and her equally enormous tendencies toward self-sabotage, traits that she passed on to her daughter. Or, as Sam Wasson, in perhaps the most incisive assessment of Minnelli ever written, says in his recently published Fosse biography: “Liza had a big voice, one that conveyed the punishing truth about making entertainment: It was mean. It was messy. It was a C-section and she was both mother and baby.”

New York, New York was not a success either critically or commercially, partly owing to the fact that, for all the film’s lush decor and surface sunniness, it forswore a typically happy Hollywood ending. “It’s about two people in love with each other who are both creative,” Scorsese said of his musical. “That was the idea: to see if the marriage would work. We didn’t know if this marriage was going to work, because we didn’t know if our own marriages were working.” After looking at a rough cut, George Lucas, then the husband of Marcia Lucas, the supervising film editor of New York, New York, told Scorsese he could increase his box-office take by $10 million if he reunited Francine and Jimmy. Scorsese, who was after—and gloriously reached—a level of truthfulness amid so much make-believe, wisely ignored the director of Star Wars, released less than a month before New York, New York.

New York, New York screens at BAMcinématek on March 19 as part of the series “Under the Influence: Scorsese/Walsh,” which runs March 12–26.