Was Dean Martin ever actually charming? The properties that made him the right straight man for Jerry Lewis’s thrashing boy-child could be taken as such: a slow-moving, honey-throated baritone who had a face just as sweet. Whereas Lewis would pantomime and squawk—a cute sublimation of profound sexual frustration (that would eventually get him a girl)—Martin would ruthlessly flirt with every pretty lady he’d meet, giving her a hard sell long past the point she’d made it clear she wasn’t interested. Martin certainly didn’t invent this particular type of suave yet icky bravado, but that his persona was presented as the opposite of Lewis’s passive nebbishness gave it an almost instructional purpose: to be charming was to be relentless. If the woman didn’t want you, she could just laugh it off; eventually, the laughter would give you another opening to try.
Dean Martin is never far from my mind whenever Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) is on screen in New York, New York. Jimmy, a saxophonist with slicked-back hair who has no other mode than aggressive (on and off the stage), exists in that same register of “charming” creepiness. His first lines are spoken in service of hitting on women at the Moonlit Terrace nightclub on VJ Day, regardless if their boyfriends are present: he absolutely needs to seal America’s victory over fascism by getting laid. Jimmy’s partner in the film, Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), is just as antithetical to his persona as Lewis’s was to Martin’s. Her inherently powerful presence is always threatening to overtake him, and after a certain point, by no ill intention on her part, his fears are realized.
Working together and against each other, Jimmy and Francine deconstruct and reveal the limitations of the Hollywood musical. Their pairing also poses questions that have a slightly less meta-textual purpose: can two driven artists be in a relationship together? Do the traits that we associate with artists only serve to excuse behavior that would otherwise be immediately identified as bad?
Though these may seem like divergent interests—ones that were perhaps informed by one of Scorsese’s below-the-line creative associates on this project, cocaine—heterosexual romantic relationships are a key preoccupation of Classical Hollywood’s movie musicals. As genre scholar Rick Altman has noted, “the musical fashions a myth out of the American courtship ritual.” The culmination of this ritual—the successful union of the protagonist(s)—is either precipitated by or celebrated with the final, syrupiest musical number: Bing Crosby wins over Marjorie Reynolds at the end of Holiday Inn (1942) with the help of “White Christmas”; a daydreaming Gene Kelly has Leslie Caron delivered to him at the end of An American in Paris (1951) while George Gershwin’s titular song plays; the list could go on, growing infinitely more dazzling.
These joyous couplings imply that opposites do attract and can resolve their differences—a glossier version of the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. (Hollywood movies are built around conflict and a sense of growth, which means that the dialectic pervades musicals and their non-singing descendent, the rom-com.) Relationships consist of compromises of all sizes, so despite the narrative-halting, lavish unreality of song and dance numbers that are hallmarks of the genre, the emphasis on compromise gives musicals a kernel of relatable realism. However, it also reinforces the notion that there is just one person out there for you, which means you’ve got to chase them, put up with whatever they throw at you, or just wait for their behavior to bend to your hopes (and it will, eventually, since they really love you)—the right ingredients for a long, shitty relationship.
This certainly isn’t to say that everyone who has watched musicals has internalized this exact ideology, but New York, New York’s revisionism is predicated on the genre’s obsession with synthesis, and how complicated the act of coming together can be under more realistic conditions. Such a feat is just as terrifying and overly intellectual as it may sound. This conflict takes place on a formal and narrative level, which imbues New York, New York with complicated, uneasy feelings—idealism built up and then cut down to the quick. Scorsese sought to bring together opposing modes of cinematic production that meant a great deal to him personally: the improvisation of John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959) taking place on sets of New York, built in Hollywood like those used in Gene Kelly’s On the Town (1949).
It was no small feat to fuse the realism of New American Cinema to the Classical Hollywood that it was rebelling against—especially considering that the infrastructure that manufactured musicals so elegantly and briskly had been dismantled over the course of the two preceding decades by the studios themselves. Thus, some of the great artisans of the studio era were brought in to fashion and finesse the finer details of New York, New York: Sydney Guilaroff, a stylist at MGM who cut Judy Garland’s hair for The Wizard of Oz, created her daughter’s magnificent victory rolls, and Georgie Auld, another Freed Unit veteran who played band leader Frankie Hart, served as a technical adviser for the production and provided sax lessons to De Niro. And then there’s Minnelli herself, whose presence is perhaps the ultimate expression of Scorsese’s desire to reach into that halcyon past he never actually experienced. It’s far deeper than a fannish cinephilic reference—although there are many throughout the film. Her face and voice are biologically tied to two great artists who worked within that glorious system, and who also happened to not end up together, albeit for different reasons. With her enormous, expressive eyes, seemingly borrowed from the silent era, Minnelli is the perfect counterpoint to De Niro’s raw Method acting. Even though Minnelli has an ease in her performance—which she does backwards and in heels—they are so physically different that they often don’t seem to be from the same film.
New York, New York began production following the success of Taxi Driver, which only worsened Scorsese and De Niro’s innate obsessiveness. Auld, for instance, complained that De Niro “got to be a pain in the ass” because of how many questions he’d ask, day or night, about the sax. In Scorsese’s case, being a pain in the ass meant ordering rewrites of Earl Mac Rauch’s original script, first by Mac Rauch, and then with Julia Cameron (Scorsese’s then-wife, who was pregnant during shooting); after Mac Rauch left, Mardik Martin (who co-wrote Mean Streets) was called in. Eventually, the director decided that no script was truly good enough, and, as the sets were being constructed, De Niro and Minelli would improvise a scene for hours on video. Scorsese and Martin would then fashion pages for the actors to shoot the next day on the best parts of these improvisations. This attempt at controlled chaos sometimes meant that the actors had to improvise their way out of one set and into another—or, because a set that was in the shooting script had already been completed, structuring improvisations and story elements that would best fit the set. (There were also scenes that had to be invented in order to bridge the gaps between other newly improvised scenes.) These tweaks and modifications were stretched across double-digit takes in search of perfection.
Shot over twenty-two weeks rather than the originally scheduled fourteen, the production’s excesses don’t bleed into the film—the performances always strike the correct, if unpleasant, emotional tenor, interacting with the dozens of costumes and palatial sets in enlightening ways. During the first part of the film, this sumptuous mise-en-scene is suited to the emotional tenor of the story: Francine and Jimmy’s budding romance builds and climaxes with their marriage by a justice of the peace at midnight. (A late-night visit to the justice of the peace is, of course, a classic scenario for Hays Code-bound Hollywood.) Jimmy’s insistence that the cabbie run over his head when Francine initially rejects the impromptu nuptials is darkly comic, like much of his shtick, but it also embodies his flawed approach to their life together. He must be the one in charge and anything else is humiliating emasculation.
Gradually, these sumptuous trappings take on a cruel air, and serve as a jarring reminder of what perfection looks like while Jimmy and Francine’s relationship deteriorates. After Jimmy becomes band leader and forces his aggressive style on the rest of Hart’s band, the large dance halls they play grow emptier and emptier—nobody wants to see a raging, musically confused big band. Their venues become even more cavernous when a pregnant Francine goes back to New York and is replaced by Bernice Bennett (Mary Kay Place), a soprano whose natural squeakiness is heightened by Jimmy’s misguided musical direction. Jimmy pursues his goal of grafting roiling jazz onto big band music, even in the face of financial ruin, because it is his chosen path of self-expression; it doesn’t matter that it’s impossible to achieve something that sounds good. The night the band implodes, Jimmy and Bernice (with whom he’s having an affair) stay in a hotel room with green walls, a literalization of his jealousy over Francine’s success. Even though she’s hindered by pregnancy, his wife has an easier time of forging a career back in New York, not because she’s artistically compromised, but because she’s got the gift of self-awareness—after all, on their first afternoon together, it was Francine who started singing “New Kind of Love” during Jimmy’s audition, transplanting an angry soloist into a desirable, marketable boy-girl act.
Yet for all of her perspicacity, Francine doesn’t realize that she’s locked in a competition with her husband, or understand how venomously he will act out once he starts losing. Upon Jimmy’s defeated return to New York, the film’s narrative begins to slow to a snail’s pace. Instead of trading quips and exciting new musical innovations in new cities, they bicker and are stuck in one place; the musical performances also grow longer, possessed by a passive aggressive energy that wordlessly says “you can wait.” Eventually, things get so bad that Francine’s innate strength fails her: an argument that starts off like a screwball comedy and then abruptly turns into Jimmy beating a heavily pregnant and drunken Francine as he yells, “Who told you to keep that kid?”
The gloom that follows this brutal altercation never fully recedes, even as Francine becomes a superstar. She records the single that propels her to fame, “But the World Goes Round,” in a darkened studio where only her body is lit—a torch singing a torch song. The song is about resilience following physical and spiritual abuse (“one day it’s kicks / and then it’s kicks in the shins”). Following a montage of spinning magazines and newspapers, Francine stars in Happy Endings, a Hollywood backstage musical. Just as the “Born in a Trunk” scene from George Cukor’s A Star is Born with Minnelli’s mother tells an autobiographical story, so does the truncated version of Happy Endings: an usherette with talent falls in love with a Broadway producer who propels her to fame, but leaves because he can’t stand the idea of being only known as “Mr. Peggy Smith.” Near the end of her storied career, he returns—only for Peggy to find herself back in the movie theater, searching for the same Broadway producer’s glove.
The whirling petticoats, sequins, facile rhymes, and self-reflexive (and historical) elements fold into themselves in order to offer a happy ending, in a film that cannot allow for such a thing. Francine’s decision not to meet Jimmy for Chinese food—after he, true to form, negs her by saying, “I’m proud of you, in a way”—leaves the door open for a truly satisfactory end. She’s not tied to a heel like Jimmy, and her star power grants her a degree of liberation that she wouldn’t otherwise possess. Francine transcends a Hollywood happy ending, and eschews a quick fix for something that could be far more complex, nuanced, and lasting. By breaking the formula prescribed by the musical, this seemingly tragic dame can be free.