The Impossible Duet
Max Nelson on New York, New York

New York, New York, Martin Scorsese’s sprawling account of a romantic relationship jump-started, sustained, and ultimately destroyed by two lovers’ equal musical talent, is the film An American in Paris might have been if Jerry Mulligan’s egomania—his absolute faith in his own artistic abilities, his inability to take no for an answer, and his tendency to conflate his love for others with his love for himself—were a tragic flaw instead of the mark of a hero: in other words, if Jerry were played by Robert De Niro in 1977 rather than by Gene Kelly in 1951.

Like Jerry, Jimmy Doyle is a World War II veteran set on making a name for himself in a postwar urban cultural boom. And like Jerry, he conceives of life as a three-way improvisation among creativity, ambition, and love. “You wanna know what interests me the most?” he asks Francine (Liza Minnelli), an aspiring singer whose cab he’s just rudely commandeered. “One is music. Number two is money. Number three is”—he breaks off and mimes kissing. Substitute “painting” or “acting” for “music” and you have a good account of what motivates Kelly’s characters in, respectively, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. What sets Jimmy apart from those eager artists-in-waiting is, in part, the clumsiness with which he expresses himself. “Unless,” he continues, “you happen to come across someone who grooves with you, and you want to groove with. Then possibly I’ll make number three number one, and number one number three, and number two . . . ” He starts stumbling over his words. It’s only in musical terms that he comes through clearly: “Then you have what you call a major chord.”

New York, New York was to be Scorsese’s love letter to the MGM musicals of his childhood. There must have been times at which the prolonged, difficult production felt akin to a séance. Scorsese shot several scenes on the soundstage where Vincente Minnelli had filmed An American in Paris, modeled a last-act film-within-a-film partly on the earlier movie’s legendary closing ballet, and went so far as to cast the filmmaker’s daughter Liza as the female lead. (During filming, she and Scorsese began a highly publicized affair.) Scorsese had extended Minnelli Sr., then in his seventies, a standing invitation to visit the set—which the aging filmmaker did, during the shooting of the extended, raucous V-J Day celebration scene that opens the film. “Liza looks so much like Judy,” he remarked wistfully to Scorsese after seeing his daughter in the movie’s period dress for the first time.

The world of New York, New York could have been lifted straight out of a Minnelli or Stanley Donen musical: an urban dreamland filled with painted, two-dimensional forest backdrops; streets drenched in sleek, luminous rain; clubs bathed in shimmering red light sprinkled with dabs of blue. But Jimmy, for all his affinities with a character like Jerry Mulligan, is far from the traditional musical hero. It’s possible to place him in a lineage with the three volatile young men De Niro played for Scorsese before and immediately after the pair made New York, New York. With Mean Streets’ Johnny Boy, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, and Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta he shares a need to conquer the people and institutions around him, which also means—as in all four cases—proving his masculinity. He swaggers into New York, New York’s opening celebration wearing a Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with the image of a famous New York landmark and the not-so-subtle caption “World’s Tallest Building.” When he spots Francine sitting alone in her USO uniform looking visibly ill at ease, he fixates on her possessively and pelts her with his loud, showy brand of charm. Later, he will address her primarily in a language of imperatives; his marriage proposal is a forceful “Get your coat,” followed by a midnight drive to the home of the justice of the peace.

Unlike Johnny Boy, Bickle, and LaMotta, Jimmy has a nonviolent outlet for his cooped-up passions. But this blessing is also a curse. It dogs him with a set of desires that can never be fully satisfied: during his piercing sax solos he always wants to go higher or longer. He is only capable of love up to a point, because to love Francine completely would be—given his temperament—to do just what he tells her midway through the film he can never do: dash his instrument against the wall. In this respect, his most striking cinematic ancestor isn’t Travis Bickle, Jerry Mulligan, or Don Lockwood, but Moira Shearer’s doomed ballerina in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes—the other key inspiration for New York, New York’s climactic film-within-a-film. (Scorsese gives the connection away in advance: checking into a hotel in the film’s first hour, Jimmy gives the fake name “M. Powell.”) Both movies suggest what it would look like to choose between love and art, and both ask when—and to what kind of person—that choice might seem necessary.

New York, New York’s first two hours (out of nearly three) begin with Jimmy and Francine’s initial encounter on V-J Day and their impromptu audition the next morning, continue through the couple’s stint on tour with a graying bandleader (Georgie Auld), and conclude with their bitter New York homecoming a few months and one pregnancy later. De Niro dominates these first two-thirds of the film, integrating the pent-up aggression he’d mastered in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver with a new, overriding sense of purpose and ambition. Jimmy’s early scenes with Francine, whom he keeps stubbornly hitting on after nearly a dozen rebuffs, are uncomfortably strained; it’s when the couple first make music together—a duet on “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”—that their routine shifts from the spectacle of a horny young man hurling his weight against an unmovable wall to the mutual give-and-take of a mating dance. After that, the pair’s dynamic snaps halfway back. Scorsese makes jarring use of the contrast between Minnelli’s hesitant, wobbly bearing and De Niro’s commanding, threatened (and therefore threatening) presence: though it’s she who got them their first gig, and who ultimately reaches a higher level of fame, Francine remains a relatively passive presence for much of the film, a recipient of Jimmy’s bullying attention and nonnegotiable demands. She’s always being pushed, pulled, grasped, and released by him, and by the camera, which tends to identify with his restless forward motion by sliding into virtuosic tracking shots and dramatic cranes.

In the movie’s final act, this balance shifts decisively. The change begins slightly earlier, with a quietly shattering scene of Francine sitting up alone at night in a small apartment, gazing silently into her mirror. (In one shot, her eyes fill the frame illuminated by a narrow band of light—a nod to a moment in Black Narcissus, the film Powell and Pressburger made immediately before The Red Shoes.) Soon after, midway through one of the couple’s fiercest arguments, Francine goes into labor. Jimmy visits her in the hospital, but declines to see the newborn—at which point the scene skips to the boy, no longer a baby, waiting through one of Francine’s recording sessions six years later. She paces nervously, listening to the previous take, tousles the child’s hair, snaps her fingers, and steps behind the mic. The camera stands unusually still. And for four minutes she sings “And the World Goes ’Round” and expresses what Scorsese has just refused to show—the collapse of the couple’s marriage—in a tone somewhere between anger, resignation, and hope. (“One day it’s kicks, then it’s kicks in the shins / But the planet spins, and the world goes ’round.”) As the camera tracks in on her, her gesticulations get wilder, her voice deepens, amplifies, careens, and resounds, and it becomes clear that, in the space of that ellipsis, New York, New York has taken a step toward becoming the musical it has seemed primed to be—a musical in which Minnelli, not De Niro, has the starring role.

But New York, New York can never become a musical in the tradition of Vincente Minnelli or a grand ballet in the spirit of Michael Powell. The cinematic space in which Scorsese’s film takes place is tougher and more severe than that of those earlier films. It doesn’t allow for miraculous reversals; it insists, more or less, on preserving some kind of spatiotemporal continuity between and within shots; it shies away from defying the laws of physics. Scorsese can only integrate the kind of musical on which he grew up—one in which the rules of movie grammar supersede those of gravity and time—into New York, New York by marking it as a film-within-a-film: a big-budget romance somewhat bitterly titled Happy Endings, starring Francine at the peak of her marquee-idol fame. It opens with a riff on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie—Francine plays a lonely theater attendant catapulted to Broadway stardom—and spins off into a kaleidoscopic, candy-colored series of musical numbers, romantic encounters, and plays-within-dreams. Jimmy, meanwhile, watches the movie in a full house on opening night. In a film like An American in Paris or Busby Berkeley’s For Me and My Gal, the two lovers are ultimately brought together by collaborating to seduce an audience; here, in one of Scorsese’s most cynical inversions of the traditional showbiz-musical formula, the relationship between wife and husband has become that of a performer to a member of the crowd.

The film ends where it began: on a close-up of Jimmy’s shoes as he stands expectantly in the middle of a lamp-lit city street. At this point, he has become a successful saxophonist and club owner, but the fire seems to have gone out of him. In the film’s last quarter, he only plays a fragment of a single tune, and it’s a subdued, moody ballad. His movements are heavier, slower, and more earthbound. Most of his days, if the brief glimpse Scorsese gives us of his evening routine is any indication, are spent behind a desk. He’s waiting for Francine after one of her concerts, but the camera—in one of its rare perspectival shifts away from Jimmy—has just watched her hesitate by the elevator backstage, deliberate, and turn back. Like him, she ends up choosing music over marriage. Unlike him, she was forced to choose; his love was too commanding, too imperious, and too restrictive to let her flourish as a singer. Jimmy, on the other hand, could presumably have had creative freedom, or at least romantic happiness, like the radiant young couple he watched dancing silently under a streetlight on the night of V-J Day.

Why does he make himself choose? One possibility is that he is a stand-in for Scorsese, who, on top of his affair with Minnelli, was sliding at the time of the film’s production into a cocaine habit, recovering from the dissolution of his first marriage, and already feeling his second start coming apart at the seams. At one point, he was alleged to have kept over a hundred extras waiting while he stayed in his trailer on the phone with his therapist. Aspects of De Niro’s personal life surely made theirway into the character, too. The pair once joked that they couldn’t finish the script until they knew how their current relationships—De Niro’s first wife Diahnne Abbott has a lengthy cameo in New York, New York as a singer at the fictional Harlem Club—would turn out. (In the end, perhaps not coincidentally, large chunks of Jimmy and Francine’s exchanges were improvised.)

Another possibility is that there is something in the very idea of marriage from which Jimmy recoils. Marriage, he realizes, is not a major chord—a total conflation of life and art—but a confession that some things in life are more important than art. What he chafes against is the knowledge that Francine, as his wife, has the right to make claims on him that take precedence over any his instrument might make. For Jimmy, who thinks and speaks in a language of absolutes, this is impossible. If love and art can’t be brought into harmony with each other, he decides, then one has to be eliminated; a choice has to be made. It’s worth wondering, since the protagonists of certain musicals seem to share Jimmy’s dream of establishing this perfect balance, whether the musical, too, is somewhat allergic to the idea of marriage as a sustained habit of life rather than as a grand romantic finale. What would An American in Paris have looked like if Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron had been married midway through the movie, instead of—implicitly, symbolically—at the end?

Finally, love loses out to art. But art, in Francine’s climactic, showstopping performance of “New York, New York”—a song Jimmy wrote for her (it was written for the film by John Kander and Fred Ebb) before the couple adapted it independently into two very different hit singles—is transformed back into something resembling love.

“I’d like to sing a song now,” she tells a packed crowd of well-dressed concertgoers. (Jimmy is sitting prominently in the section to her right.) “It was written by a friend of mine who is a great believer in major chords.” In the interim since she sang “The World Goes ’Round,” Francine’s music has become something more than a kind of catharsis; it’s a healthy livelihood, a source of personal glory, and a gift to be given freely and fully. Onstage, Jimmy tends to burrow deeper and deeper into himself; Francine blooms. She moves with poised, assured grace, swings her arms in wide arcs, punches the air around her vigorously, and—as the song hits its first of several peaks—struts toward us with a blissful smile, her voice stretching out each word majestically. Of the two of them, it’s she who manages to fold her capacity to seduce, converse with, and connect to others into her art. It’s her triumph, and her compensation for having been forced, over the course of the film, to become a solo act.