Saturday, 12 March 2011

March Bloodstones: Francine Evans in New York/New York

This is another entry in my month-long retrospective on female centred cinematic bravery.
I hadn’t initially planned on taking a look at Liza Minnelli’s work under Scorsese, but noticing that her birthday was today I started thinking of her career. She’s both over appreciated and underappreciated. Most everyone recalls her brilliant 1972 Sally Bowles, but because of the raw deal that New York/New York often gets in history it’s not as oft-remembered. I remember I reviewed it on a whim for a LAMB’s Director’s Chair on the great Scorsese and it still doesn’t crack my top 5 Scorsese’s – although that doesn’t say much, I love most of his work.

New York/New York is a simple musical tale of love lost and then found – in New York, no doubt and it endures as one of Scorsese’s biggest “flops”. This time around I’m less interested in defending its merit, yet again. I’m more interested in Francine’s plight. New York/New York has one of those openings that exudes iconicity (even if it’s probably never endured as such) and a prolonged conversation at a club between Francine and Jimmy (DeNiro) is as much preparation for their characters as you need. This is five years after Minnelli’s tour-de-force in Cabaret and the performance is permeated with a high level of maturity that’s palpable. At the sake of being repetitious, I must declare that the way in which Liza suggests her mother here is poignant – haunting even, but Scorsese steps back just enough to prevent the exercise from being exploitative.
It’s terribly easy to read any bloodstone tendencies in Francine as evident in her struggle with abuse from Jimmy. She is an abused woman, but what separates Jimmy from the slew of spousal abuse dramas on a certain network is its focus on character not aspect, Francine is not just an abused woman and Jimmy is not just an abuser. But, even though screenwriter Rauch tries to balance the story it’s difficult for DeNiro to compete with Liza when she’s at her near best. Even if I’ll flip-flop as to whether this is her best work I remain convinced that it’s the role that encapsulates her talents best. For all her beauty and talent, there’s such a subtle awkwardness to Liza that makes her performances all the more golden. I love that first scene where Jimmy’s auditioning terribly and Francine decides to start singing. That naiveté of her there, oddly juxtaposed with her talent is such a great illustration of her; and oh, how the camera – Scorsese that is – loves her.

As broken relationships tend to go, Liza gets her token scene of bravery when the two part ways – the first time around. For all its intensity New York/New York is consistently funny (sort of the opposite side to Annie Hall from the year; a funny look at a doomed relationship that is humorous with moments of lucid dramatic awareness), and watching a pregnant Francine have the argument of all arguments with her husband in a cramped car on a busy New York street is just one of the thing that ensures that Scorsesian nature of this piece – and, incidentally, ensures that Liza gets all the chances to be brilliant. It’s only two scenes later that the narrative splits and Francine breaks out on her own, personally and figurative. We get a flash-forward that’s so subtly done (evocative of the flash-forwards in The Aviator, now that I think of it) that’s centred on her performance of “But the World Goes Round” – one of her richest performances, of the film and otherwise.
This is a musical, and music is Liza’s niche and of course she nails those musical numbers. It’s Ebb and Kander, so I feel no guilt in saying that this sits in the top 3 numbers that merges singing and acting – something that, so often, goes out of the window in musicals. It’s the second half where she gets all those iconic numbers though – like that legendary extended number “Happy Days” (a brilliant mini-movie in itself) and, of course, “New York/New York”. Her musical success is paralleled against Jimmy's and that bittersweet end where she “leaves” him for the second time never fails to pierce, because as dysfunctional a relationship it is – it’s still theirs. Yet, even though that ending should more weight for DeNiro, who is so piercing in that final scene. That look on Francine’s face when we realise the decision she’s going to make is beautiful. Oh Liza, so often praised...and yet, so often not...
Happy birthday, Liza.

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