Saturday, May 28, 2011


It's an odd thing being a film enthusiast. One part of you regards film as an art form, worthy of all the aesthetic principles applied to fine art; the other makes peace with the fact that film is an entertainment industry "product" and just as likely motivated by tax shelters, hedge funds, and profit predictions. (I'm not naive to the realities of the movie industry, but I confess that I still find it a sobering experience watching the Oscars and seeing so many filmmakers reduce the sum of their work to gratitude afforded producers, agents, managers, and publicists.) 
That's why, in this world full of directors more concerned with building an add-on to their Malibu beach homes than with building a legacy of work that has something to say about the human condition, I remain (sometimes blindly) faithful to and thankful for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese. Even when he falters, as I believe he does with "New York, New York," he's one of those directors who always appears to be trying to make films that matter.
Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans
Robert DeNiro as Jimmy Doyle
 I first saw “New York, New York” in San Francisco in 1977. Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese were extremely hot due to the success of “Taxi Driver,” and the town was abuzz because Liza Minnelli was appearing at the Orpheum Theater in the Scorsese-directed musical, “Shine It On” (which became “The Act” by the time it reached Broadway). Minnelli had suffered a string of movie flops following 1972’s “Cabaret,” but the papers were full of gossip about her romance with Scorsese and predictions that “New York, New York” would return her to her former station as the queen of show biz.

Alas, despite high-running anticipations, “New York, New York” flopped rather spectacularly when it opened. The original version I saw on opening day was hastily re-edited within the week and a shorter version re-released to theaters, but to no great effect. The verdict was already in and the film pretty much declared D.O.A. by the critics.
DeNiro and Minnelli Make with the Goo Goo Eyes
 The most extravagant film to date for the gritty Martin Scorsese (the combined budgets of all his previous films didn't equal the 14 million spent here), “New York, New York” is a 1950s MGM backstage musical viewed through the dark prism of the 70s zeitgeist (issues of individualism, commoditization of art, and feminism crop up amongst the nostalgia fetishism). Sweet-natured big band singer Francine Evans (Minnelli) falls for volatile saxophone player Jimmy Doyle (DeNiro), and in the tradition of “A Star is Born” and “Cover Girl,” Francine’s professional ascendancy threatens DeNiro’s ego and strains their romance.
Real Tensions on Stylized Sets
No expense is spared in giving the film the look and feel of those quaintly studio-bound romances of old, but Scorsese’s desire to contrast 70s naturalism with the stylized artificiality of 50s musicals doesn’t really gel, and the whole enterprise feels like an obscenely over-funded film school experiment.  
Without a doubt, Scorsese’s biggest and most fatal miscalculation is in mounting such a staggeringly sumptuous production and then neglecting to give us either characters to care about or a romance to root for. What were the writers thinking in dreaming up DeNiro’s Jimmy Doyle? Did Scorsese really think a guy this noxious (he's like a cross between Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta) would make for an appropriate musical-comedy leading man? Even with the film structured as something of a dramedy, DeNiro's lack of any kind of redeeming quality leaves an emotional hole dead-center of this overstuffed opus. In addition, not only is DeNiro’s character such a selfish, hot-headed, obnoxious bully that watching his scenes becomes an increasingly trying experience, but the level of passivity with which his abuse is met by the Minnelli character has the effect of souring our feelings towards her as well.
Robert DeNiro: Star Quality? Yes. Charm? Not so much.
When veteran filmmakers lament the loss of the artistic freedoms that came with the "New Hollywood" of the 70s, one can't help but feel that a lot of the blame must fall at their own cocaine-dusted feet. 70s darlings like Peter Bogdanovich and Michael Cimino provided the nails for their own coffins by misusing their success to cultivate costly, undisciplined vanity projects ("At Long Last Love" & "Heaven's Gate", respectively), and Scorsese follows suit with "New York, New York."
These directors, who were so resourceful with tiny budgets, all seemed to lose their minds when handed millions, prompting the studios and lawyers to ultimately step in, like stern governesses, and take back the keys to the candy store. Scorsese allows improvised scenes to drag on and on pointlessly, as if unable to ascertain when to cut; characters pop in and out with little information given as to their importance to the leads; and whole scenes look randomly assembled, able to be inserted and deleted with little change to the plot. I respect when a filmmaker tries to do something different, but creative self-indulgence on such a grand scale just feels needlessly wasteful.
Mary Kay Place and Barry Primus play peripheral characters of varying degrees of plot significance, depending on the version of the film you see.

Given my criticisms, “New York, New York" appears an odd choice to number among the films that inspired me. But I really do find something admirable in what Martin Scorsese attempted to do with this film that has nothing to do with his inability to actually pull it off. It's a provocative idea to explore what a director known for his realist/naturalistic style could bring to a genre as ungrounded in reality as the classic Hollywood musical. To his credit, Scorsese doesn’t attempt to mock or display cynical superiority to the genre, but clearly respects the power of musicals and their dream-factory allure. If anything, “New York, New York” makes a good argument for the opinion that when it comes to musicals, contemporary directors can't match the efforts of even the most journeyman contract directors of the past.

This is the first love story I’ve ever seen that had the audience on its feet cheering when the lovers DON’T end up together! I’m really not equipped to judge Robert DeNiro’s performance because the character he plays is so detestable I can’t tell if DeNiro is just miscast or if he thinks his creepy stalker act is actually supposed to be charming (sad to say, but I've known many women -and men- who would willingly put up with such behavior if the guy looked like DeNiro). What I can speak to is how terrific Liza Minnelli's performance is. I think it's her absolute finest film work, and she is in the best voice of her career. Though ill-served by the script, she is exactly right and a perfect fit for what should have been the role of a lifetime and another Oscar nomination. After spending most of her career trying to distance herself from comparisons with her mother, Minnelli just goes all Garland on us here, and the results are fantastic. Any warmth and heart that the film has is chiefly due to her.
Minnelli's finest film moment: Singing the hell out of "The World Goes 'Round"
On par with how far afield this film goes emotionally is how superbly the film works musically. Scorsese handles the musical sequences surprisingly well and displays a real knack for the ways in which music can be seamlessly integrated into a narrative. The score is chock full of great postwar standards and the new songs by Kander & Ebb ("Chicago") are among their best work. That the terrific title song “New York, New York” was largely ignored until covered by Frank Sinatra two years later attests to the indifference this film was met with by the public on its release.
                   Outstanding musical sequences compensate for a rambling narrative

Some people can forgive a film anything if there are lots of explosions or chase scenes. Me, I'm a sucker for a film that's beautiful to look at. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider), costume designer Theadora Van Runkle (Bonnie and Clyde), and Production Designer Boris Leven (West Side Story) give “New York, New York” a period gloss that almost, just almost, makes up for the fact that, while all dressed up, the film ultimately has nowhere to go.
My Favorite Set: The Neon Nightclub

Obviously, everything I've written about “New York, New York” are the impressions I was left with after I saw the film. That's the fair bargain struck between the filmmaker and the movie-goer: let me have your attention for a couple of hours (or three) and you are free to take from this experience what you will, pro or con. That's straightforward and honest to me. I invest my time, they invest their ideas and inspiration. What pisses me off is when I've invested my time and it's nakedly apparent that the movie I'm watching doesn't care about anything beyond merchandising, insuring a sequel, and hefty paydays all around.

What makes a flawed film like "New York, New York" still such a valuable piece of cinema is that, love it or hate it, there's no denying that it's the work of someone who is vitally invested in what you are seeing. You can overlook the flaws when there is some passion on display. I'll take a wrongheaded, artistically well-intentioned flop over a calculated, market-researched blockbuster any day.

By the way, I was one of the many who went to see Ms. Minnelli at the Orpheum theater that summer in 1977, and stood out by the stage door to get the photograph below autographed by both Scorsese and Minnelli. Considering all the pressures of the show, the movie, and everything else, you couldn't have met two nicer people.
Larry Kert appeared in the "Happy Endings" number that was cut from the film and later restored. Got this autograph when he was appearing in a play in Los Angeles


  1. Hi Ken, I've recently revisited this after a good ten years since my last watch, and I have to say you've completely nailed this curate's egg. It has so much going for it, but seems to constantly want to trip itself up.
    I love the idea of the realism suffused with the 40s musical tropes but Scorsese really hampered himself with casting De Niro. As you say it's not charm it's really menacing! The opening scene makes you think he wants to slit Liza's throat not get into her pants! Clearly Marty felt he couldn't do a project without De Niro at that time, but he really should have.
    Liza is of course magnificent. It's a great performance, even if there's little real likeable chemistry between her and her male lead. This could be up there with Cabaret in terms of performance and just shows what a powerhouse she is for such a movie. I recently caught Victor/Victoria over Xmas (I blogged a review this week) and it's a real shame Edwards cast Julie Andrews in the lead as she isn't strong enough to convince in all the facets, whereas Liza would be.

  2. Hi Mark
    It seems I've seen a couple of films of late where the director is so in love with his male star that he fails to realize that he is playing an obnoxious character ruinous to the film's chemistry (Sylvester Stallone's man-crush on John Travolta in "Staying Alive"; Stanley Kubrick giving over so much needless screen time to Peter Sellers in "Lolita"; Kubrick letting Jack Nicholson ham it up in "The Shining").
    I always wonder what "New York,New York" might have been with a different male star. (I love your description of DeNiro's courtship scene). I'm glad that you still found something to enjoy about Minnelli's performance. Sometimes I forget how good she was in her early days ("Lucky Lady" notwithstanding).
    I just read your wonderful piece on "Victor/Victoria" and like you, always felt that there was potential for some great sexual tension had a more androgynous actress been cast. Thanks for sharing your post-ten year revisit to this film, Mark!

  3. Replies
    1. Aw, Thanks, Thom! Always happy to have you stop by!

  4. Enjoyed your take on the film. I likewise saw this on its original run sometime in the summer of '77 with my mother, aunt and one of my cousins. We all enjoyed the music and style of the piece but seriously questioned Francine's putting up with such a dick, or rotten egg as my mother and aunt called him, for so long.

    While watching it and having read Doris Day's autobiography the year before I was struck by how closely the couple in the film's story paralleled the horror story that was her first marriage to a emotionally unbalanced musician. Perhaps Scorsese had read the book and decided that it was the sort of dark tale he needed to show the warts under the satiny sheen of the old musicals. For my part I could have lived without the violence and would have rather seen more numbers like Happy Endings, which of course had been cut from the original version I saw but the rest of the music was stellar and Liza calibrated her performing style to it admirably.

    DeNiro was the wrong choice for the lead but it's difficult to think who might have worked of the actors popular at that time. Nicholson would have been more of the same, Pacino, Duvall, Hoffman and Gene Hackman all have the wrong vibe in different ways. Robert Redford and Paul Newman had the dash but Redford and Liza are too diametrically opposite and Newman was too old at that point. Burt Reynolds would have been clownish. The only two who might have worked were perhaps Steve McQueen, he certainly possessed the cool and while he was edgy he could be utterly charming when he turned it on something the part desperately needed. The other who comes to mind is Jeff Bridges, but he was still a supporting player at that time and his ambling persona might have been a rough mix with Liza's outsized energy.

    Have you ever seen the film Scorsese claimed as the inspiration for this, The Man I Love with Ida Lupino? I can see the milieu coming through strongly from one film to the other. Ida's a chanteuse who spends time in several joints with typically glamorous interiors, is dressed to the teeth in fantastic outfits and has a yen for a man who loves his music more than just about anything but that's about where the similarity ends. Ida is snappy, saucy, tough and about as far away from Liza's doormat as possible. It's a terrific film if you haven't with what I've always considered Ida's best performance. As with many films from the mid to late 40's you'll feel like you've smoked a carton of cigarettes by the time its over though!

    1. Hi Joel
      In an effort to delete a previous comment I failed to edit, I wound up taking your response out with mine. So, what follows is my response to your above comment:
      Thanks very much for your comment, Joel.
      You highlight a definite problem "New Yor, New York" faced from the outset: what 70s male star had the charisma of the 40's musical stars?
      DeNiro certainly had the looks, but I think it was just a bad screenwriting choice to make him such jerk so much of the time (I like the term "bad egg).
      I too read that Doris Day bio, and recall a couple of film critics claiming that the film was really a roman a clef of her first marriage.
      I have never seen that Ida Lupino film you spoke of, my partner is the big Lupino fan in the house. He usually has to tie me to a chair to get me to realize what an interesting, unsung actress she is.
      Always great food for thought in your posts, Joel! Thanks!

      Followed by YOUR response to this:
      I'm with your partner in being a big fan of Miss Lupino. Ida was unsung and underappreciated even in her day. The only female hyphenate (actress/director/producer) in the 50's and only the second woman admitted to the Director's Guild she was nominated (and won) for precisely one major award throughout her career, New York Film Critics Circle Award for her performance in the film The Hard Way despite doing much deserving work. One of the pitfalls of continued excellence is that awards bodies tend to expect it as the norm and therefore the performer goes unacknowledged.

      Most of the films she directed tackle social problems that weren't discussed at the time: rape, bigamy, unwed motherhood etc. and are tightly paced low budget affairs excepting the last, the wonderful The Trouble with Angels.

      As an actress she was sometimes a disciple of the go big or go home style of acting favored by the Misses Davis, Crawford and Stanwyck but like them she was often able to convey great sensitivity, better actually than the first two since her gestures tended not to be as expansive. Besides Man I Love & Hard Way some of her films worth checking out if you haven't already seen them are High Sierra, Ladies in Retirement, Road House, They Drive by Night (one of those big performances) and Deep Valley (the opposite of big, a lovely quiet piece of work). There's also only one comedy in her major years as a star called Pillow to Post, it's minor but she gives a game performance.

    2. Now I'm back on track...
      The only Ida Lupino film I own and really enjoy is "The Hard Way", and she is marvelous in that. My partner has her bio which i hope to read one day, and I'm growing to respect her more as an artist thanks to his influence. I think what you say about her acting style is what has always kept me at bay in the past (go big or go home), but I'm even coming to appreciate that.
      Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge of film!

  5. I enjoy The Hard Way too but it has one flaw that keeps it from being great which I think is the fault of the studio more than the actress playing the role. That would be Joan Leslie's casting in the role of Ida's sister. I like her and she isn't bad but if a stronger actress with more musical talent than she had played the other sister this would have been a better film. The character, the object of Ida's burning ambition, is supposed to be a marvel of the age-talented beyond measure. Joan's odd cartwheel dancing and average singing voice tend to make me feel Ida is somewhat deluded. Judy Garland would have been ideal and a fascinating screen partner for Ida. She was the right age at the time and this would have certainly offered more of a challenge than the films she turned out at MGM that year. It would have made the movie something special but Metro never would have loaned her out. Still the film is highly entertaining with one of Jack Carson's best roles and a career best performance by Dennis Morgan.

    1. That's a very interesting (and I think apt) appraisal of the weakness at the center of "The Hard Way." Joan Leslie, as appealing as she is, is really just average, and the film tilts towards making it look as if Ida's push is more responsible for her sister's success than her talent. Garland would have been terrific!
      I also never liked how the very ambitious Leslie benefits from Ida being the "bad cop" so often, yet throws her under the bus a bit at the end.
      And I do like Jack Carson a great deal in this, too.

  6. Great post on a fascinating failure -- I agree, I'll take a flawed work of passion over a successful paint-by-numbers job any day.

    One of the most astute assessments of New York, New York I've come across is Pauline Kael's, who said (and I'm paraphrasing like mad here), it's a shame that the movie as a whole makes no emotional sense, because each individual scene makes so much.

    1. Hi Neely
      That IS a wonderful Pauline Kael observation! So spot-on...the movie has so much going for it, but it puts the poor viewer through such a wringer. Watching it you get a sense of what is being attempted, but, like watching a tech rehearsal of a play, as a viewer you feel like stepping out to the lobby and saying "Please call me back in Mr. Scorsese after you've worked out some of the bugs."