New York CA 90028

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Back in February, Marty Scorsese privately screened a rough cut of New York, New York that lasted four-and-a-half hours. The film as finally released is little more than half that length. We can assume that Scorsese knew he’d never get a four-hour movie released commercially. We can also assume that he knew what was happening while he was shooting and that he didn’t intentionally include failed material in the first rough cut. So how does it happen that half a movie winds up on the cutting-room floor?

The question is not just a matter of curiosity. New York, New York is a maddening, fascinating congeries of good and bad bits and angles, the sum of whose parts far exceeds the value of the whole, and that extraordinary difference between first rough cut and final cut may be the key to what went wrong.

Call it a lack of discipline if you like, but in an art whose seven-figure budgets would keep several small towns solvent through two or three recessions, that’s an answer that speciously begs the question. Be sure that Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, who bankrolled Scorsese’s vision with the help of United Artists, were not idly standing by while the kid ran through $12 million and a 22-week shooting schedule. By itself, the climactic Busby Berkeley production number “Happy Endings” cost $350,000, according to reports. In the rough cut it ran twelve minutes. Now it’s been pared to the length of a television commercial. (The producers are considering releasing the full-length sequence as a short.) Maybe the best way to recoup the investment, however, would be to turn New York, New York into a TV series. That might be the most effective aesthetic solution as well, since it would allow us to concentrate on the admittedly successful parts of the film while paying scant attention to the relatively disappointing whole.

What are those successful parts? Another remarkably intense performance by Bobby DeNiro; a role that fits the limited but real talents of Liza Minnelli like a sheer nylon body-stocking; a design conception based entirely on artificial sets and expressionist lighting that comes as close as any American film of the last thirty years has to rivaling the stark dreamworlds of Fellini (at the same time as it makes an interesting comment on Forties film noir and musicals); and a number of scenes—many of them apparently improvised in whole or in part—that are breathtakingly cinematic turn-ons. Among these: the 25-minute introductory sequence in which avant-garde sax player Jimmy Doyle (DeNiro) meets and courts sprightly neophyte bandsinger Francine Evans (Minnelli) on V-J Day, and two solid consecutive scenes near the end in which Francine and Jimmy finally have it out over the marriage just before the baby is born, and then finally admit the impossibility of staying together in a febrile encounter in an early-Fifties hospital room just after the birth. These scenes work as well as anyone has a right to expect. As half-hour television episodes they’d be unsurpassed. But what about the movie that surrounds and embraces them?

About an hour into the film you begin to realize that it isn’t working out the way you thought it would. What looked like a thoughtful, reasoned, admiring, lively study of the end of the big-band era and the birth of the hegemony of star singers who dominated popular music until rock ‘n’ roll turns into a neurotically interminable and—truth be told—ideologically distasteful love story that makes even the most recent incarnation of A Star Is Born (which it closely resembles) seem well-thought-out. The film is redolent of cinematic business and ironic style so that you maybe don’t quite notice its essentially shaggy emptiness right away; but once you do, the sum experience is akin to embracing a shadow. It’s profoundly depressing. So much talent spent to such a small end.

Scorsese, of all the not-quite-so-young-anymore film school graduates who have recently been welcomed jubilantly into the corporate boardrooms of the New Hollywood, has established the strongest personal style, which has to make him a favorite of whatever auteurists remain. His hothouse sets and lurid lighting have never worked so well as they did in Mean Streets, which had the very valid excuse of being a personal nightmare. On the surface, the mock–film noir atmosphere of New York, New York might seem like a good idea, but the plain fact is that it’s no longer 1948 and the style that had validity a generation ago doesn’t amount to much more than film-buff homage today. In that sense, New York, New York is the most expensive student project ever filmed.

Nevertheless, it might have worked if Scorsese and cast and crew had kept to the courage of their convictions. The music is the key here. Two dozen Forties classics from “Opus One” to “Night in Tunisia” decorate the film and, for the most part, they’re wise choices. Yet once we move into the Fifties and Minnelli/Evans becomes a star, Scorsese switches to fake—and notably pale—ersatz imitations by Kander and Ebb, Minnelli’s good friends. What’s the point of shifting modes? Did Scorsese think Kander and Ebb would boost soundtrack sales? Unlikely. Was it written into Minnelli’s contract?

Liza Minnelli in the "Happy Ending" number
Liza Minnelli in the "Happy Ending" number

By this time, though, the film has become so diffuse that it doesn’t really matter what music is played. No matter how little of it remains in the release cut, the “Happy Endings” production number is sorely out of place: it reeks of the Thirties, not the Fifties. Minnelli has turned into a frightful parody of her mother (but the way she looked in the early Sixties, not the early Fifties) and DeNiro/Doyle is given a plot-ridden success as owner/star of a Modern Jazz club. That turn of events has no parallel in history to my knowledge; nevertheless, Scorsese could get away with it if Minnelli/Evans looked like a Fifties character, which she most eminently does not. The last half of the film is a stylistically cacophonous hodgepodge. Maybe the problem is that Scorsese knows movies but not jazz and popular music. Since there were no film musicals of Fifties popular music to speak of, he has no reference points.

Francine Evans is a cipher. She works well enough within the limits of a particular scene, but she has no real roots. The story that should have been told would have been something like Doris Day’s: girl singer graduates from the seedy ranks of the dying big bands and toughs it out in a dying Hollywood to become the premier star of romantic movies whose chaste fantasy plots were violently opposite to her own difficult yet ultimately successful story. Now there’s something you can chew on. Francine, however, turns out to be as shallow and uninteresting as the Kander & Ebb songs she sings.

To a lesser extent, Jimmy Doyle is off the beam, too. One scene gives it away. In the depths of his Star-Is-Born resentment over Francine’s success, Jimmy takes on gigs at a Harlem club. At one point we stop for an arresting set-piece: Diahne Abbott (DeNiro’s wife) sings “Honeysuckle Rose” and she does it very well indeed—a touch of Lady Day, a hint of Dinah Washington, more echoes of Lena Horne. Magnificent. This is what’s been missing from New York, New York: real musical style, and a sense of the basic Blackness of jazz and popular music.

It’s just possible that much of what’s missing from Scorsese’s final cut is still in cans in UA’s vaults. Possible, but not likely. His best film remains his most personal, Mean Streets. While he obviously is passionate about wanting to make movies, he doesn’t clearly have anything he is passionate about saying. That’s why New York, New York even at half its length runs on much too long. Scorsese’s a master storyteller who doesn’t quite know what stories are for: how people use them, why they need them. He’s created the strongest persona of any of the new breed—the haunted, hunted, asthmatic movie buff. But it’s not enough.

“A love story is like a song,” the ads for New York, New York tell us; “it’s beautiful while it lasts.” Yeah, if it fits the usual two-minute 45-second time slot, but only if it comes from the gut rather than the Tin Pan Alley computer catalogue of clichéd themes and tried-and-true chord changes. New York, New York is a disco movie: nicely calculated, but pointless.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Direction: Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: Earl Mac Raugh and Mardik Martin, after a story by Earl Mac Raugh. Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs. Production design: Boris Leven. Editing: Irving Lerner, Marcia Lucas. Music: John Kander, Fred Ebb; saxophone solos: Georgie Auld. Production: Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff.
The players: Robert DeNiro, Liza Minnelli, Georgie Auld, Lionel Stander, Barry Primus, Mary Kay Place, George Memmoli, Murray Moston, Diahne Abbott.

© 1978 James Monaco

James Monaco is a frequent contributor to Take One, Sight and Sound and our own MOVIETONE NEWS. He is the author of the recent Oxford University Press publication How to Read a Film.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.