Review by Mark of Three Rows Back
The long and fruitful partnership between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese has spawned a multitude of enduring classics forever etched in our collective cinematic consciousness.
In the four years between the release of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, De Niro and Scorsese collaborated on New York, New York, the oft neglected offspring of their remarkable relationship.
After the critical and surprising commercial success of the apocalyptically dark Taxi Driver, an emboldened Scorsese used the bigger budget he was able to command to break away from down and dirty depictions of the Big Apple to instead direct what amounted to a love letter, both to the city of his birth and to the old Hollywood musicals he grew up watching.
Scorsese cast De Niro in the lead role of Jimmy Doyle, a smooth talking egotist with a zany streak and a gift for the saxophone. Audiences at the time were used to seeing Bobby play wiseguys and sociopaths, so to watch him clowning around on screen must have been a novelty.
The film opens in New York on V-J Day in 1945 and spends the first 20 minutes inside a nightclub in full swing, with Jimmy, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a shiny pair of spats he won in a bet, trying to work his magic on Liza Minnelli’s demobbed singer Francine. Through sheer force of will it seems, Jimmy eventually manages to woo Francine and the pair discover that her voice and his sax are made for each other. A marriage and a child follow but, as Francine becomes more successful in her own right, Jimmy’s inherent insecurities, bullying nature and jealousy threaten to tear both their personal and professional ties apart.
De Niro could do no wrong at the time and prepared for the role in typically methodical fashion by learning to play the sax (although the arrangements were actually dubbed in post-production by the esteemed Georgie Auld). As such, he looks at home on stage leading his band and handles the sax with aplomb instead of looking like he picked it up five minutes before the cameras rolled.
We now know that De Niro can ‘do’ comedy almost as well as he does drama, but at the time it was uncertain if the actor, renowned for his on-screen intensity, would be able to sell funny. Minnelli’s reaction to some of De Niro’s goofing is priceless, while the scene with Jimmy feigning a war wound to get out of paying a hotel bill is pure slapstick.
The comedy gradually wears off as the picture becomes more of a relationship drama and it’s here Bobby spreads his wings. De Niro is a master of the long silent stare (the one where you’re unsure whether he’s going to explode with violent rage or not) and employs it to disquieting effect here on more than one occasion. Minnelli’s genuine unease in these moments is palpable.
As Cabaret had shown back in 1972, there was still an audience for musicals. However, unlike the Hollywood greats it was hoping to emulate, New York, New York suffers from confused plotting and a flabby narrative (the film is almost three hours long). Apparently, the actors ad-libbed much of the movie and it shows; scenes are allowed to play out for far too long and things aren’t helped by the tepid on-screen chemistry between De Niro and Minnelli.
Sandwiched between Travis Bickle and Jake Lamotta, De Niro’s Jimmy Doyle ain’t all that, but when considered as part of his overall career it’s a notable chapter for opening up audiences’ eyes to a part of his repertoire that he’s since gone on to enjoy considerable success with.
If for nothing else, the film gave Frank Sinatra one of his most iconic hits and provided nightclubbers with an end-of-evening drunken anthem.
Scorsese’s description of New York, New York as a ‘film noir musical’ is apt one – both Old Hollywood (the lovely moment Jimmy watches a sailor dancing with his girl under the subway tracks is an affectionate wink to On The Town) and New Hollywood are fused into what might end up being a misfire, but a fascinating one nonetheless.