New York, New York
I have a sort of love-hate relationship to this film. It is absolutely gorgeous, shot entirely on the very sound stages at MGM that Liza Minnelli’s mother, Judy Garland, worked on in her musical prime. It has more music per minute than just about anything but grand opera, and it is all music that I love, featuring the songs of Tommy Dorsey at first, and working through to the early days of be-bop. It has some great numbers by Liza, including the “Happy Endings” sequence that is clearly patterned on the Gene Kelly “Gotta Dance” masterpiece from Singin’ in the Rain.
And then it has Robert De Niro.
In fact, it could be subtitled Raging Bull Meets 42nd Street. It could be a rehearsal for De Niro’s role as the loathsome Jake LaMotta. Not in the sense of a stupid, violent man, but in that both the idiot boxer and the jazz musician share one trait that makes them so awfully horrifying to me: A total, bulldog tenacity. LaMotta can only hold one idea in his head, and once it’s lodged there (You been fuckin’ my wife? You been fuckin’ my wife? You been fuckin’ my wife?) it will never leave until it explodes in violence. Jimmy Doyle must have things his way. He can’t imagine a world in which he doesn’t have his way. If a girl rebuffs him, he returns. He returns three times, a dozen times, a hundred times. .He won’t assault her physically, but he will wear her down like water wears down a mountain. This irritates the hell out of me, and he’s this way all through the movie. It’s a masterful performance, bookended as it is between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, back when De Niro was dangerous, specializing in psychotics. It’s just that I hate these characters so much.
Martin Scorsese reportedly wanted to soften his image a little, make a light movie instead of the gangster stuff he was getting known for. It was a big flop. And I can tell you why. People mostly go to see a musical to have fun. Most of them have the same plot, like Singin’ in the Rain (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl). New York, New York has this plot: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. People weren’t ready for that in the movies in 1977. Broadway had been experimenting with more down and dirty plots such as Chicago (girl kills boy, girl gets lawyer, girl gets off) (and not a hit the first time around), Sweet Charity (girl meets boy, girl meets another boy, boy ditches girl, girl lives hopefully ever after), and Sweeney Todd (boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy kills girl), but Hollywood wasn’t ready for such downers. Even when trying to make a light-hearted film, Scorsese couldn’t resist putting an obsessive narcissistic sociopath in it. You’re supposed to like the boy, Martin, and you shouldn’t feel sorry for the girl. Musicals 101. You should have hired Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.