At the beginning of New York, New York, when Jimmy (Robert De Niro) is trying to pick up Francine (Liza Minnelli), the first thirteen words out of her mouth are the words “No.” That would have been more than enough for most men, but Jimmy is so pushy that he keeps at it, getting nowhere. However, through a bizarre coincidence, Francine ends up with Jimmy the next day at his audition as a saxophone player. He flops. She tries to give him some advice, and he gets angry. Being a professional singer, she encourages Jimmy to accompany her in a song, and the manager is so impressed that he hires them as a boy-girl team. She agrees to meet Jimmy the next day, but when she gets back to her hotel, she finds out that her agent has a good singing job lined up for her, which means going on the road. But she has to leave early in the morning if she wants the job. As she has no way of breaking her date with Jimmy before she leaves, she simply takes off, giving her agent a letter to give to Jimmy explaining what happened.
This first sequence of events is a harbinger of all that is to come, and so it is worth pausing here to see what this represents. First of all, Jimmy is a snob about the kind of music he plays, and thinks he is too good to take advice from anyone. Francine, on the other hand, is casually great, a natural, someone who sings the kind of songs people want to hear, and does so with a lot of personality and polish. This reminds me of The Way We Were (1973), when Katie (Barbara Streisand) works really hard, desperately trying to write the best essay in the course she is taking. Instead, the professor reads aloud the essay written by Hubbell (Robert Redford), who probably just dashed it off the night before. And just to rub it in, the essay is about a man for whom everything came too easily. Katie is devastated. But at least she has the strength of character needed to admit that his essay was better, and to tell him so with a smile. Not so with Jimmy in New York, New York. He can’t stand the fact that Francine has more talent than he does. He resents her for it, and he begrudges every concession he has to make to her.
Second, Jimmy is obnoxious, arrogant, and pushy, and Francine is submissive and passive, to the point that a lot of people see her as a victim. But Danny Peary, in his Cult Movies 3, argues that “it is Francine who constantly victimizes Jimmy and who ultimately destroys (their professional and personal) relationships. He may do bad things, but she is the villain.” Regarding the sequence of events already discussed, Peary argues that she promised Jimmy to perform with him, and that she knew that without her, he would lose the job.
Well, the fact that Jimmy is not good enough to hold down the job on his own is not her problem. She was willing to help him out as long as she had nothing else going on in her life right then, but when something came along that was really important to her, she was not about to sacrifice her own career for someone she just met the day before, especially someone to whom she had said the word “No” thirteen times in a row. In other words, what people like Jimmy do not understand is that people like Francine only appear to be submissive and passive because they are good natured and easy going. And so it comes as a great shock to Jimmy that Francine really is not under his thumb after all, but is capable of bending that thumb back when it comes to the things she cares about. Call her a “villain” if you want, but let this movie be a cautionary tale to those like Jimmy who think they can dominate women like Francine.
Danny Peary is my favorite critic, which is why I have given his Francine-as-villain analysis so much attention. He gives several more examples of what a villain she is, but this one really floors me: “Francine became pregnant without discussing it with Jimmy.” In other words, I guess Francine should have discussed it with Jimmy before she decided not to use a condom.
Jimmy’s pushiness arises from an egocentric delusion. He thinks that what he wants, what will make him happy, will therefore make Francine happy. If she is reluctant to do what he wants, it is only because she just does not understand what is best for her. And so he just cannot believe that she stubbornly keeps wanting to do things her way, when he just knows that her true happiness lies in her doing exactly what he tells her to do.
She goes on to be a big movie star, while he manages to have some minor success owning his own night club, finally giving him almost enough self-confidence to tell her that he is proud of her in her dressing room where there is a party going on celebrating her successful return to New York. I say “almost,” because in his inimitable, small-minded way, he immediately qualifies the remark about being proud of her by saying, “in a way.”
He goes down to a payphone and calls her, asking her to meet him, because there is something he wants to talk to her about. Impulsively, she agrees. But then she gets to thinking about the important thing he wants to talk to her about, which obviously is about their getting back together. Not wanting to go through another scene of telling him “No,” God knows how many times, she goes home instead. When she does not show up, he realizes that she does not need him and just wants him to go away, which is what she tried to tell him at the beginning of the movie. At long last, he finally learns to accept this brute fact.