'Dad Trouble': Liza Minnelli in Martin Scorsese's New York, New York. Photo: alamy
Martin Scorsese was all in white and shaking like the devil himself on the morning when he appeared on the doorstep of New York fashion designer Roy Holston. It was the end of 1977, and the 34-year-old director was in an advanced stage of cocaine addiction that eventually landed him in the hospital with a suspected cerebral hemorrhage.
Slumped next to Scorsese was Liza Minnelli, a favorite of Hollywood songs and dances and Scorsese's married mistress. They began a torrid romance on the set of Scorsese's latest film, New York, New York (which had just hit Broadway to lukewarm reviews). Minnelli was cast as a small post-war singer with big dreams, pitted against Robert De Niro, a slick – in hindsight, somewhat deceitful and predatory – saxophonist.
New York, New York is an unlikely historical musical from the bad boy of American New Wave cinema. Scorsese envisioned him as his Valentine on the Silver Screen of Hollywood and the rocking Manhattan of his youth. But there was a bit of Old Hollywood glamor in the director and his lead character as they stood huddled outside Holston's glass-and-steel Upper East Side mansion. They were there for drugs. Despite the early hour, Scorsese was in such a state that he could not even speak. So he let his girlfriend make the petition.
Halston himself was no stranger to the debauchery of the seventies. But that morning, he didn't have cocaine on hand. Instead, he provided the couple with Valium, four joints and Quaalude, the favorite depressant in ramshackle New York that Scorsese brought to life so convincingly last year with Taxi Driver.
Scorsese was in no condition to work that morning, so it went on until the late seventies. The following May, Andy Warhol had lunch with the director and left, shocked by his condition. “Marty was shaking like crazy,” he wrote in his diary. I think it's because of the cocaine.
Every great director of the seventies had a moment of self-destruction. Coppola traveled to the Philippines and failed on the set of Apocalypse Now. Friedkin made the unwatchable Wizard. Not even box-office whisperer Spielberg caught on with the sluggish comedy The Russians Are Coming in 1941. New York, New York has become as big a disaster as any other. Perhaps more, given the drug addiction that Scorsese sank into during filming.
“The Minnelli case of adultery and drug debauchery is something Scorsese would like to forget,” Vincent Lobrutto wrote in Martin Scorsese: A Biography. “Twenty years later, planning to pay tribute to his directorial achievements, Scorsese asked not to invite Liza Minnelli, shuddering at the thought.”
The director is also the first to admit that “New York, New York” was not a success. Its original version was four hours long. By the time Scorsese cut it down to a theatrical run of 163 minutes, he had lost sight of why he even wanted to do it. If he has a legacy, it's because of his noisy theme music, originally sung by Minnelli but more famously re-recorded by Sinatra in 1979.
Liza Minnelli, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of New York, New York. Photo: alamy
Scorsese took on New York, New York in part because he was itching to distance himself from the subway rigidity with which he became synonymous with Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. In The Hollywood Reporter, he read that producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had bought the script for a “revisionist” musical by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin.
This was before he starred in Taxi Driver. After his nihilistic masterpiece won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Scorsese returned to the US, hailed as America's greatest living director and given his choice of projects. New York, New York was at the top of the pile. Not only will he show the world that he's not just an apocalyptic Taxi Driver, he'll have the opportunity to pay homage to the lavish musicals he grew up watching in Little Italy; in particular, the pioneering director Vincente Minnelli.
De Niro was his first choice for the lead role. How could he not be after the relationship he and Scorsese forged while working on Taxi Driver? For the role of Jimmy Doyle's saxophone-playing lover, Scorsese pursued Liza Minnelli. She was the song and dance star of the day and still attracted the attention of Bob Fosse's Cabaret (although the disappointment of 1975's Lucky Lady followed in 1975). Even more accomplished, she was the daughter of Vincente Minnelli and Hollywood tragic angel Judy Garland.
Liza Minnelli in New York, New York. Photo: alamy
Even as his drug use grew, Scorsese's vision of New York, New York became more prominent. He threw away much of the original script and presented the relationship between Doyle and Minnelli's Francine Evans as a riff to A Star Is Born, which, of course, starred Judy Garland. Minnelli, for his part, had “problems with his father”. So when she and Scorsese's junkie started an affair, the layers of subtext to that relationship were really deep.
Scorsese went to great lengths to give New York, New York a heightened sheen – to better distance itself from Taxi Driver's heightened sullenness. He hired Boris Levene, a veteran of such musicals as West Side Story and The Sound of Music, as art director. And he found celebrity stylist Sidney Gilaroff, confidant Ava Gardner, Vivien Leigh, and who else? — Judy Garland.
The crowning glory of old Hollywood was Scorsese's painstaking imitation of the vintage Technicolor filming process. He did this using Eastman Kodak film, later printed by Technicolor (by 1976, the original Technicolor cameras, which were essentially museum pieces).
Scorsese was Scorsese, and he certainly had ambitions that went beyond mere old-school kitsch. New York, New York was supposed to be a postmodern painting. Ultimately, the doomed romance between saxophonist Doyle (De Niro apparently learned to play the instrument perfectly) and Francine will mediate the thorny dynamic between love and art. Also questioned was the tension within Scorsese, with his conflicting passion for new wave cinema and old Hollywood.
Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro in New York, New York. Photo: alamy
With this goal in mind, he and De Niro agreed that the film would rely heavily on impromptu dialogue. It was catnip for De Niro, but a nightmare for Minnelli, who had never tried The Method before.
It showed. She was visibly nervous in the scenes with the lead male. As the story expanded in all directions during rehearsals, the musical numbers that should have been at the heart of the film became increasingly redundant in the meantime. Ultimately, it was a musical not very interested in music. Tensions on set were further exacerbated by Scorsese's semi-estranged wife, Julia Cameron, who was reportedly prowling around and barking at the crew. She was looking for her husband. In Minnelli's trailer, he invariably “rehearsed the dialogue”.
Despite all the turmoil, New York, New York, however, was considered something true by the studio and Scorsese. So it was a shock when it failed and was criticized. Reviews condemned the lack of chemistry between the main characters and the grandiose stupidity of episodes such as Happy Ending. It was Minnelli's “movie within a movie” demo that cost two weeks and $350,000 to shoot, but did little to promote the central love story.
The unhappy ending didn't help either. Scorsese must have regretted from time to time that he didn't listen to his friend George Lucas, who insisted that the film could have been a hit if it had ended with Jimmy and Francine walking out into the sunset together. Instead, it achieved $16.4 million at the box office on a $14 million budget. Scorsese delivered one extended and failed musical note.
Original poster for New York, New York
As the scale of the film's failure became clear, Scorsese's cocaine habit began to take hold . At least one press day was shortened due to a lack of proper stimulants. “More cocaine,” he told his reporters, “no more interviews.”
There was only one way it could end – which happened in 1978, when drug abuse coupled with the side effects of asthma nearly killed him. Scorsese was taken to the hospital with internal bleeding.
Doctors feared that he might have a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. He somehow got through. One day, as the former child prodigy lay in bed contemplating what he was doing with his life and his career, De Niro stuck his head in the door.
He brought Scorsese Jake LaMotta's autobiography and asked him to think about turning it into a movie. This wasn't the first time De Niro had offered a LaMotta biopic. But where Scorsese, who created New York, New York, rejected the offer, now he has seen the light. Was anyone better prepared to tell the story of an underdog who achieved unexpected success only to give up? He sat down, his eyes flashing the same radiance.
“I could not understand this obsession with Bob,” Scorsese later recalled, “until that difficult period of my life finally passed.” own. I came out the other side and one day I woke up alive…still breathing.”