Monday, April 27, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part VIII: New York, New York

New York, New York (1977) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Eric Mac Rauch & Mardik Martin.
Starring: Liza Minnelli (Francine Evans), Robert De Niro (Jimmy Doyle), Lionel Stander (Tony Harwell), Barry Primus (Paul Wilson), Mary Kay Place (Bernice Bennett), Georgie Auld (Frankie Harte), George Memmoli (Nicky), Diahnne Abbott (Harlem Club singer), Steven Prince (Record producer), Casey Kasem (D.J. aka Midnight Bird), Harry Northup (Alabama).

It is easy to see why coming on the heels on Taxi Driver, New York, New York was seen as a major disappointment from Martin Scorsese in 1977. Here was a bright, young filmmaker who had garnered a reputation for making gritty, violent movies based on the mean streets of New York. Now, he follows up Taxi Driver, one of the most acclaimed, most violent films of the decade with a 2 hour 45 minute musical starring Liza Minelli? What gives? It didn’t help that the film was a financial bomb either – costing the studio a lot of money, and not making much back. To this day, New York, New York is cited alongside a film like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate as prime examples of why the “Golden Age” on 1970s American cinema came to end. The “auteurs” were spending too much money making films no one wanted to see.

Watching the film again, the flaws in the film were still readily apparent. This is perhaps Scorsese’s most deeply flawed feature. Yet, the great things in the movie (and yes, there are many great things) also stood out more. New York, New York is certainly no masterpiece, but it is certainly ambitious – and never boring.

The film opens just as WWII is ending. Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) is a man just free from the army, who goes out on the town with his buddies in the hopes of getting laid. He tries his moves on every girl in a crowded club, until he settles on Francis Evans (Liza Minelli). He is constantly rebuffed, but continues trying anyway. They continue to run into each other, and eventually she accompanies him to an audition. He is a saxophonist trying to make it big. He is bombing out in the audition, until she jumps in and saves him by singing. They’re hired as a duo. They eventually, fall in love. They hit the road, they get married, she gets pregnant and returns to New York, and their act bombs without her. She makes extra money with recording sessions, he comes home. She has the patience of a saint, dealing with Jimmy’s angry outbursts and fragile ego. She can no longer deal with it when she starts to become really successful, and he doesn’t and then she leaves. Her star continues to rise, and eventually Jimmy becomes famous to. There is a possibility of a reconciliation, that the movie doesn’t reveal doesn’t happen because of confusion or because one or both of them thought better of it. That’s the story.

To my mind, there are two major flaws in the movie. The first is the running time. Scorsese’s film is an homage to the old MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, which usually ran about 90 minutes and wrapped everything up in a happy ending. Scorsese’s film is more than two and half hours long, and it drags in some spots. It’s not that whole sequences have to be eliminated; it’s just that it feels like almost every scene is dragged on just a little bit longer than it should have been. It’s worth pointing out that this is one of the few features Scorsese directed not edited by Thelma Schnoomaker – one of the great editors in cinema history. Perhaps had she edited it, she could have convinced him to cut the film down.

The other flaw, and this is slightly painful for me to admit, is DeNiro. It’s not that DeNiro is bad in the movie – the opposite in fact. There is crazed brilliance to his performance as he hits different notes from charming to funny to intense to downright scarily violent, yet he never goes over the top. The master of “method acting” is able to pull off a more old fashioned performance that wouldn’t seem all that out of place in those old movies. He also makes him convincing, even if his character can be slightly schizophrenic. The flaw is that he doesn’t fit into the rest of the movie the way he should. His character, with all his rage and jealously, is what makes New York, New York a “Scorsese” movie, but considering that this is supposed to be a light, entertaining musical, he constantly seems at odds with his surroundings. While I can appreciate DeNiro’s performance in and of itself, it just doesn’t work in the movie.

But there are many things that do work in the movie. Lazlo Kovacs gorgeous cinematography, shot in the narrower aspect ratio of 1.66:1 to better recreate those old films, is wonderful, and full of images that stick in your head long after the movie is done (like DeNiro being dragged down a hall full of lights kicking and screaming). The production design and costumes also brilliantly recreate those old movies. Full of garish colors that lack “authenticity” yet fit perfect, costumes where everything is just slightly “more” than would be real, New York, New York is a very distinct visual film. The musical numbers are staged brilliantly by Scorsese, proving that all those rumors in the past about him directing a musical are not as outlandish as they seem – he could do it fine, he’d just need to find the right musical. But perhaps best of all, and this is also kind of painful for me to admit, is Minelli herself. She was born to be in movies like this, and her Francie Evans holds the movie together even when it appears ready to fly off the rails into madness. Her musical numbers are brilliant. We are reminded of just why it is that she is an Oscar winning actress (for Caberet, a much better musical than this). It’s her loss, as well as ours, that she came along at a time when musicals were out of fashion.

So while I admit that New York, New York is a flawed film – perhaps a fatally flawed film in many eyes – I cannot say that it’s a bad movie. At worst, it’s an ambitious failure. Scorsese’s normal themes and obsessions don’t really fit into a musical, and the two sides of the movie seem at war with each other and never truly cohere. But I give the movie three stars anyway. Why? There’s just so much to admire about the movie that despite its flaws, I’m glad the movie exists. Masterpiece or not, it’s clear in every frame of New York, New York that it was made by a truly great director.

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