Everyone who knows New York, New York knows it’s a Martin Scorsese picture. But everyone who knows about the movie’s troubled history knows it was really written, produced and directed by cocaine.
Released 45 years ago, New York is Scorsese’s grand, studio picture. Coming off the acclaimed success of his gritty, shot-in-New-York breakthrough Taxi Driver, Scorsese went the complete opposite direction and shot this on the fake-but-picturesque backlots of Hollywood. Those same MGM backlots where Vincente Minnelli directed such Technicolor musical marvels as An American in Paris and Meet Me in St. Louis. That’s where Scorsese wanted to tell the doomed love story of saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli, Vincente’s daughter). “It’s a story about people thrown together at a certain period of life; very talented and can’t get together,” Scorsese told Rolling Stone in 1977. “Because their careers, their drive and ambition is so strong. The career drive is so strong that it just destroys…what’s there.”
If you watch the movie, you’ll understand why this coupling doesn’t work: De Niro’s asshole of a protagonist. He plays Jimmy as a tempestuous, possibly bipolar hothead. Right when we first see him—hair slicked back, gum smacking in his mouth, rocking a novelty Hawaiian shirt—aggressively trying to pick up Francine at a V-J Day celebration (she succumbs to his wiles after helping him land a nightclub gig), we know dude is gonna make this poor woman’s life hell.
Jimmy chases Francine all over the country as she tours with a traveling band, eventually becoming a bandmate after they finally meet up. It’s on the road where Jimmy practically demands that Francine marry him (he tells a cab driver to back over him if she rejects the proposal). But Jimmy isn’t that married to married life. When a pregnant Francine decides to go back to New York to have their kid, he bitterly stays on tour, even banging the band’s new singer (Mary Kay Place).
For nearly three hours (the original theatrical version was 155 minutes; the 1981 re-release stretched to 163), Scorsese subjects viewers to one of the most toxic romances ever put on film. It’s a more brutal version of A Star is Born, with De Niro’s contemptuous sax man not even being close to a loyal and supportive hubby to Minnelli’s diva-in-the-making. One agonizing sequence has him going on a drunken tear at a nightclub where Francine is getting wooed by a record exec, literally smashing lightbulbs in a long, incandescent hallway while getting hauled off by security. It doesn’t take too much to see that this self-absorbed, self-destructive artist is really a stand-in for Scorsese. As he told Rolling Stone about making the movie, “It’s more personal than I thought it would be.”
With New York, Scorsese did his version of an old-school movie musical, where bombastic, extravagant numbers merged with moments of honest, volatile drama. In order to achieve that, he got some heavy-hitters to join his team. He hired cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who lensed many of Peter Bogdanovich’s films, including his musical At Long Last Love) and Oscar-winning production designer Boris Levin (West Side Story) to make the visuals lush and shimmering. He recruited John Kander and Fred Ebb (Minnelli’s go-to songwriters) to pen new tunes, including the title theme, which would go on to become mostly known as a signature number for Frank Sinatra.
Scorsese, frequent collaborator Mardik Martin and Scorsese’s then-wife Julia Cameron extensively rewrote Earl Mac Rauch’s wisecracking script. But the shooting script (which actually wasn’t done by the time cameras started rolling) hardly mattered during production. Scorsese, who was already getting a rep for encouraging actors to improvise, basically told the cast to do and/or say whatever came to them and just ride it out. In one scene, De Niro accidentally smashes a door window when he knocks on it, prompting him, Minnelli and the other actors in the scene to briefly acknowledge it and keep it moving.
The director also felt he needed to do a lot of blow. In Peter Biskind’s 1998 New Hollywood history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Scorsese admits that he used cocaine as both a creative tool and a crutch: “I kept pushing and shoving and twisting and turning myself in different ways, and I started taking drugs to explore, and got sidetracked a lot of the time.”
Scorsese was practically fueled by the white stuff while making New York, something he later admitted made things worse. “I was just too drugged out to solve the structure,” he said in Easy. He found a drug buddy in Minnelli, with whom he had an affair during filming. One of the more memorable passages in The Andy Warhol Diaries has the pop artist recalling the time Minnelli and Scorsese showed up on the doorstep of fashion designer Halston looking for—in Minnelli’s words—“every drug you’ve got.”
In the end, the $14 million movie only grossed $16.4 million. At the time, audiences were more interested in Scorsese’s New Hollywood pal George Lucas’s latest, Star Wars. (In Easy, Biskind details how Lucas constantly worried that his film would bomb and New York would be another Oscar-nominated success. Fun fact: George’s then-wife Marcia was an editor on both films.) Even critics who usually dug Scorsese weren’t particularly fond of this. In his Boston Phoenix review, David Denby described it as “a tragically screwed-up film” and “an unstable compound of ‘40s Hollywood artifice and gritty modern despair.” The critical and commercial failure of New York turned Scorsese into a bigger mess. He separated from his wife and fell even more into drug-fueled debauchery, eventually deciding to sober up after health problems led to some dire hospital stays.
Yes, New York, New York was a major-studio experiment—a miserabilist musical—that didn’t work. (Some would say that Damien Chazelle did a more successful version of this with the Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone musical La La Land in 2016.) But, hey, at least we got one nice song out of it.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.