Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
When the yellow moon begins to bloom / Every night I dream a little dream / And of course Prince Charming is the theme for me / Although I realize as well as you / It is seldom that a dream comes true / To me it’s clear that he’ll appear / Some day he’ll come along / The man I love / And he’ll be big and strong / The man I love / And when he comes my way / I’ll do my best to make him stay… – “The Man I Love,” George and Ira Gershwin
Taxi Driver’s surprise success gave Scorsese heft and fame. He was at this time tagged, along with the other young directors taking American cinema by storm—Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, John Carpenter, John Milius, Michael Cimino, John Landis, Peter Bogdanovich, and others—as a “Movie Brat,” an epithet that, like the label “Impressionist” about a century earlier, became a rallying cry. If there was a common feature of these directors, it was their argot of total cinema. Their first and almost last point of reference was earlier movies. They reinvigorated Hollywood as a commercial entity, largely due to their willingness, even love, of making genre cinema, in recreating the dream films of their youths. All of them worshipped Fellini and Godard, but Scorsese was just about the only one damn fool enough to want to be them.
Coppola had given the generation its big breakthrough with his canny melding of the cool, studious effects of European art cinema with epic American narrative in the Godfather films. For all these filmmakers, there were differing layers of irony in their attempts to meld auteurism, art cinema, and classic Hollywood. Many of them wanted to take a shot at the total stylisation of the musical. Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Coppola’s One From The Heart, Landis’ The Blues Brothers, even Spielberg’s 1941 (which he made for the opportunity to stage a 1940s musical number), were all troubled productions, most of which flopped and dented the Brats’ domination.
Scorsese went to Hollywood to make New York, New York, but remained a New Yorker. For his fellow Movie Brat directors, melding old and new, hip and square, lush and spare was a necessary and entertaining act of cultural synthesis. Scorsese, however, dedicated his new film to examining precisely the gap between life and art, old and new style, façade and critique, spectacle and honesty. New York, New York sets out to be, as Marty called it, a film noir musical inspired in form by such showbiz tales as The Man I Love and A Star Is Born, with a screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin. It tells, in livid, often bruising detail, of a marriage between two professional narcissists, Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Scorsese set out to create the texture of a personal, realistic film in the Cassavetes mould—virtually all dialogue improvised, which made editing the film hellish. The film’s exchanges make up in vivacity what they lack in the arch, contoured crackle of screwball style.
The first half-hour of New York, New York is a virtuoso, near-continual scene. It’s VJ Day in New York, and the streets have erupted in confetti and abandon. Jimmy strips off his uniform, casts it out the window, and hits the town in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt looking for just one thing: to get laid. The jam-packed Rainbow Room, where Benny Goodman and Orchestra are playing, represented the peak of the sweet glamour of the Big Band era as well as the emotional apogee of four years of war. Jimmy tries his pick-up lines on every bird in sight. He is especially drawn to Francine, seated by herself waiting for friends, splendid in her USO uniform. When his every attempt has failed on the hostile, evasive woman, he announces a new plan: “I want to stay here and annoy you!” He does just this for the rest of the film.
Eventually, when Francine’s fellow USO performer Ellen ( Kathie McGinnis) arrives, her date is Jimmy’s friend Eddie di Muzzio (Frank Sivero, soon a Scorsese regular), who has arranged for the four of them to hook up. Jimmy makes sure to cook Francine good before dropping her home. The next day, Francine is trying to find Jimmy to contact Ellen, who’s on the run from killers and shacked up with Eddie. She watches in amusement as Jimmy bluffs the hotel’s concierge, posing as a wounded war veteran (“Anzio!” he hollers, “I was at Anzio!”) and skipping out as always without paying his bill after being manhandled. Jimmy’s in the not-so-fine tradition of Scorsese’s keenly observed Noo Yawk flakes; indeed, New York’s riskiest, most original idea is to make such a flake the hero. For Jimmy is, we learn, talented. He contrives to drag Francine to his audition with a Brooklyn club manager (Dick Miller), and shows he’s a mean tenor sax player, but too edgy and modern for the cleaned-up tastes of the time. Francine reveals she’s just as talented; when the manager expresses a desire for something like Maurice Chevalier, Francine launches into a sweet, swinging rendition of “You Brought a New Kind Of Love,” which Jimmy accompanies with contrapuntal elegance. They are fused instantly into a double act.
Romance, or something like it, blossoms. After a gig, Jimmy won’t let Francine get out of the taxi they share to her hotel by kissing her. Francine skitters, slips, and flops about, half in the pouring rain, trying to escape his voracious mouth. Francine finds she’s been offered a gig with the touring big band of Frankie Harte (Georgie Auld), and Jimmy is also offered a slot. Unfortunately, he’s gone before she can tell him, so she packs up and goes to join the band whilst sending her agent (the great Lionel Stander) to inform Jimmy. Jimmy promptly skips town and catches up with the band. He almost gets himself assaulted by Hart when he sits in the audience, draws Francine off stage, and won’t let her return. Jimmy is simultaneously declaring his “not love. I like you very much” whilst ranting at being left behind: “You do not leave me! I leave you!”
De Niro gives the greatest portrait of the artist as major-league irritant since Kirk Douglas’s Vincent Van Gogh. Jimmy’s alternately (and often concurrently) charming, funny, annoying, foolish, dishonest, angry, sullen, violent, and prone to larceny, but always propelled by a volcanic creativity and contempt for a world of schmucks, squares, and sycophants. He dances up steps in joy, throws tables in rage, play-acts, fakes out, schmoozes, assaults, and plays some mean jazz. (De Niro learnt sax technique, but the music he makes is by Auld.) He tries to sweep the world and Francine off their feet with the purity of his energy, and it sometimes works.
The tour continues, endless wheeling between towns in the band bus; Harte’s crusty and boozy, but he keeps the band disciplined. He won’t give Jimmy any opportunity to play his arrangements or his bop style, but he often relies on Jimmy to lead the band. Jimmy dabbles in composition, tracing out the bare notes that will become the title tune, whilst Francine writes poetry. After eading one of her poems about him, Jimmy says, “That was it! That was you proposal, get your coat on, put your shoes on, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” and drags her to a justice of the peace. When Frankie decides he’s fed up, he concedes to Francine that Jimmy “blows a barrelful of tenor, oh, but he’s some kind of pain in the ass!” Jimmy takes over the orchestra, but appears set for a flop until Francine saves their bacon at an audition with a soulful rendition of “The Man I Love.” With Francine headlining, the orchestra enjoys major popularity, but Jimmy is quietly furious she’s getting the attention, and he jealously guards his command. One evening Francine dashes off stage and reveals she’s pregnant. She returns to New York to have the child, and the band, saddled with a far less talented singer, Bernice Bennett (Mary Kay Place), whom Jimmy beds in Francine’s absence, soon faces disaster.
Jimmy signs over the band to another leader, and returns to New York to find Francine riding on a wave of good publicity, her agent having secured her recording dates; Jimmy, the arch, proud individualist, feels she’s degrading herself by kowtowing. Jimmy meets up with black musician friends and jams with them at a Harlem club (“Do they let white cats in?” “Just come in the back way.”). For the first time, Jimmy’s style is set free and wild in the be-bop milieu. Meanwhile, behind the pyrotechnics of Jimmy’s approach to life, Francine grows, quietly, from defensive doll, to urgently helpful wife, to coolly calculating go-getter who gets it. And Jimmy, without saying a word, knows he’s going to get screwed by life again. The subterranean arc of anxiety in Jimmy begins driving him crazy.
Like many Scorsese narratives, New York, New York is a study of a macho slow burn, except that this one remains entirely interpersonal. Jimmy gets himself thrown out of a nightclub by getting increasingly soused and truculent as Francine is courted by a Decca executive (Lenny Gaines). In one of the film’s most striking images, Jimmy is manhandled along the entry hall lined by bright neon tubes, embodying the electric distress by which he is caged. He and Francine fight in their car, whereupon Francine is stricken and almost loses the baby. When Jimmy visits her in the hospital, they mouth caring statements for each other, but it’s clear what held them together has dissolved.
Francine is much more a question mark than Jimmy. Minnelli often looks dazed by De Niro, appropriate to the character, yet she barely registers when not singing; her trademark acting touches feel by rote in comparison. Francine is, finally, the opportunist of the pair. Insufferable as he is, Jimmy is curiously honest even when bullshitting. Very few films paint so vivid a tale of how colliding egos and intentions can destroy relationships. Jimmy and Francine are scrutinized by the camera like a microscope on a pair of mating insects. In the space of about a year, we have one failed marriage, the kind that Francine, later a big Hollywood star, will sigh over if mentioned by interviewers.
In the film’s epilogue, we are treated to a short film purporting to be Francine’s latest hit movie, Happy Endings, which Jimmy is watching in a theater. Happy Endings is a brilliantly made pastiche of 50s-style musicals, charting the rise of a doe-eyed usher to major star who yearns for her gentlemanly agent Donald (Larry Kerns), who disappeared just when she made it big. Happy Endings presents just such a spin on the New York, New York story that such a musical would have done. The number was originally edited out of Scorsese’s film, and this was credited with its flop; without the sequence, the film’s careful alternation of glam and grit is unbalanced.
Out in the real world, Jimmy’s not doing too badly. He has a spiffy nightclub, his song “New York, New York” has, in its cool jazz incarnation, become Casey Kasem’s theme song, and Francine’s singing her mountain-leveling version in her live shows. Actually, of course, the song is the work of Kander and Ebb. (In the film, Francine’s poetry becomes the lyric, with Jimmy unimpressed: “These vagabond shoes…are longing to stray…and step around the heart of it?” he reads, nose curled up like it’s week-old fish.) Backstage after seeing her sing, Jimmy meets his son, and proposes he and Francine get together later; she agrees. But neither can finally be bothered.
And yet the film around them is a lovingly textured dream, a paean to the total style of classic Hollywood, indeed catching how artifice can sometimes suggest reality better than reality: in the snow-crusted villages the band tours in, where Jimmy and Francine bicker and are married, or the stunning vignette of Jimmy watching, after the first night with Francine, a sailor and girl jitterbugging in the street below a railway line, suggesting an otherworldly staging by Gene Kelly of Alfred Eistenstadt’s Times Square kiss photo. The musical sequences are bravura in style. Marty’s camera (with immeasurable aid from DP Laszlo Kovacs) zooms, dollies, and glides, picking out soloists and darting in on them, then drawing back and painting rich group shots. Scorsese tips his hat to the influence of Michael Powell at several junctions: Jimmy signs into a hotel as “M. Powell;” the scene where Jimmy cracks up in the nightclub is decorated entirely in neon that glows an infernal, maddening red, a favorite signifier for both directors; and the way Happy Endings reflects, in a distinct, distorted mirror, the larger film’s story, is reminiscent of the ballet at the centre of The Red Shoes.
The central couple’s personal separation symbolizes a vital split in American pop culture. Francine goes Hollywood—big, slick, entertaining, vital but without edge, embracing of artifice over truth. Jimmy remains New York—hip, hard, leaning to black culture, small in scale but intently creative, calmly resigned to his busted dreams (“Yeah I saw Sappy Endings,” he tells Francine). The story, conceived as a variation on A Star Is Born doesn’t entirely reverse the formula; instead of having one figure supplant another in stardom, New York, New York suggests there is more than one kind of stardom, more than one kind of success. This Scorsese film obviously had a stylistic influence on such jazz-and-nostalgia-themed films that followed as ‘Round Midnight, Bird, and Henry & June. It failed on first release, but there is a happy ending; when the film was restored to its proper form, it did good business in a 1980 re-release.