US Release Date: 04-25-1979
Directed by: Woody Allen
- Woody Allen, as
- Diane Keaton, as
- Michael Murphy, as
- Mariel Hemingway, as
- Meryl Streep, as
- Anne Byrne Hoffman, as
- Karen Ludwig, as
- Michael O'Donoghue, as
- Wallace Shawn, as
- Bella Abzug as
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Manhattan.
Although so many of Woody Allen's movies are set in New York City, it is in Manhattan where he really wears his love for his hometown on his sleeve. The first five minutes are a Valentine to the city, featuring a romantic montage of images, shot in black and white, accompanied by Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and narrated by Allen himself, culminating with fireworks and the line, "New York was his town, and it always would be". For anyone who loves New York, this is one of the greatest movie openings of all time.
Clearly Allen has a romantic opinion of the city that is on full display here. Lovingly shot in black and white, he goes to great pains to make Manhattan look like a wonderful place to live. Given that it was shot in the late 1970s, before the city had become the gentrified place that it is today, and was perhaps thought more of as the city of Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy by the rest of the country, this must have been more remarkable at the time. Of course, while Allen captures a moment in time, it really isn't a moment in time of all New York City, but just of a certain type of New Yorker; the Upper East Side intellectual.
Allen stars as Isaac, a television writer who, when the movie opens, is having a casual affair with Tracy, a 17 year old girl played by Mariel Hemingway, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role. Given Allen's later love life and the public's changing attitudes since the more liberal 1970s, this plot point looms larger now than it did at the time. Isaac treats the relationship casually, while Tracy seems to be truly in love with him.
When Isaac's married friend, Yale, introduces him to his mistress, Mary (Keaton), Isaac is at first annoyed by her cultural snobbery, but after spending one memorable night talking and walking around the city, culminating in the film's most iconic scene of the two of them sitting on a bench in the shadow of the Queensboro bridge, Isaac finds himself in love with her. He breaks it off with Tracy after Mary is dumped by Yale and the two end up practically living together.
There are some minor subplots as well. One involves a surprisingly beautiful, young Meryl Streep as one of Isaac's ex-wives who is now a lesbian and is writing a tell-all book about their marriage. Another is Isaac quitting his television writing to become a novelist.
While this is definitely a comedy, this is a much more mature Allen than his earlier work. It's light years away from his early comedy and even compared to Annie Hall, the number of one-liners is vastly reduced. While there are more typical Allen lines, such as, "I can't express anger. That's one of the problems I have. I grow a tumor instead," his humor also includes more obscure jokes like, "When it comes to relationships with women, I'm the winner of the August Strindberg Award." where you need to know that Strindberg was a misogynistic, Swedish playwright in the late 1800s, to get the joke. Allen's stock neurotic character is toned down and he seems much less of a caricature, delivering one of the better acting performances of his career.
The problem with this movie is that no one in it is all that likable. Isaac is funny, but not exactly warm or fuzzy. Mary and Isaac's friends are pretentious and annoying at times. Only Tracy is shown as warm and sympathetic. And the big romantic moment at the end isn't really with a relationship that you want to see succeed.
Along with the typical Allen humor, the real joy is seeing such a loving view of New York City so perfectly captured on film. The carriage ride through Central Park, the crowded Elaines, Zabars, the Planitarium, Gramercy Park and dozens of other New York icons are littered throughout the movie as a constant background to the slim plot. As Isaac says at one point, "Boy, this is really a great city, I don't care what anybody says it's really a knock-out, you know?"
Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen in Manhattan.
Manhattan is a black & white bookend to Annie Hall, like a negative image or a shadow perhaps. Scott I don’t understand how you can say there is no one likable in this movie when Isaac Davis is nearly identical to Alvy Singer. Granted Diane Keaton’s Mary lacks the goofy charm of Annie and yes this movie is more somber in tone but it is very similar in content and style. Missing are the lighthearted moments from Allen’s childhood but the doomed relationship between Allen and Keaton is very familiar. Annie Hall has a romantic scene at the Brooklyn bridge in the daytime that foreshadows the iconic nighttime shot at the Queensboro bridge here.
Visually this is Allen’s most poetic movie. He sets up shots for their artistic composition in several scenes where the characters are in the corner of the screen or he has them walk in and out of the frame while the camera stays static. The B&W cinematography of the city underscored with those gorgeous Gershwin melodies makes for an enchanting combination.
The clothes, cars and attitudes are very much of its time but in some ways this movie was on the cutting edge of societal views, specifically in its depiction of the lesbian couple raising a son. Neither of them is a stereotypical dyke and the other characters are fairly nonchalant and accepting towards them. How refreshing this must have seemed in 1979.
The relationship between Isaac and Tracy doesn’t bother me and I can easily root for them to succeed at the end, although the movie is slightly ambiguous about whether or not they stay together (and it does make a point of saying she is now 18). Throughout human history 17 has been considered marriageable age in most societies. I think it is Allen’s gnome-like physiognomy and his subsequent tabloid headlining life that is the real turn off. In Gone with the Wind no one gets upset that a 33 year old Rhett Butler is lusting after a 16 year old Scarlett O’Hara after all.
And Speaking of GWTW one of the funniest lines here is when we find out that Isaac cries during it. Manhattan has many such clever and funny lines. This is the movie where a woman party guest says that her doctor told her she had the wrong type of orgasm and an incredulous Isaac replies, “You had the wrong kind? I've never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.” Nobody writes dialogue that mixes the intellectual with the street like Allen. Take this exchange between Mary and Isaac. Mary: “I'm honest, whaddya want? I say what's on my mind and, if you can't take it, well then fuck off!” Isaac: “And I like the way you express yourself too, ya’know, it's pithy yet degenerate. You get many dates?”
I agree with Scott that this is Woody Allen’s best performance as a leading man. He shows a surprising bit of emotional range and he keeps the annoying tics and stammers to a minimum. Although he apparently hated the finished movie and expressed surprise when it went on to become his highest grossing to date.
I think his life affirming monologue at the end is his finest screen moment…
"Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... and Willie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face..."
How can you not be moved by that?
Michael Murphy, Diane Keaton, Woody Allen and River Phoenix.
I was moved Patrick, to the point of vomiting. Woody Allen is a fucking pervert. Isaac is a 42 deviant screwing a high schooler, Tracy. Although she is of the legal age of consent, 17, she looks and sounds like a 13 year old at best. Allen defends himself by writing a scene where his friend and his wife state in passing that they do not think she is too young for him. Isaac brags that he is older than Tracy's father.
Patrick, no one complains about Rhett lusting after Scarlett because they do not have sex until marriage. Isaac goes on and on about how everyone is less than him because everyone is doing drugs, but he having sex with a minor is okay. Perhaps I am bothered by this because my son is seventeen, but 17 year olds are children. A forty something having a sexual relationship with a 17 year old high school student is wrong on so many levels. Older guys are attracted to younger girls for two reasons, sex and control. Isaac and Tracy's relationship is not, by any means, on an equal playing field.
With that in my mind I had a hard time stomaching the rest of the film. Every time Isaac was on screen I thought of him as a pedophile. I gagged when they kissed in the carriage, and blew chunks when they were shown in bed after having sex. The only thing that could have made this movie work for me would have been if Tracy's father showed up and kicked his creepy ass.
Even if we take the sex out of the equation, we still have a middle aged man playing with the feelings and emotions of a child. He knew all along it was just a sexual relationship as well as understood she was in love with him. When he breaks up with her and she cries he says out loud, "Why should I feel guilty about this?" Is he fucking kidding?
At the end, when he suddenly comes back into Tracy's life, he asks her if she still loves him. She tells him he hurt her when he broke it off. He responds, "It was not on purpose." Does he believe his own lies? Breaking up with someone who you know loves you is purposely hurting them.
Sure there are a few funny lines, "I finally had an orgasm and my doctor said it was the wrong kind." I recognized many of the pop standards on the soundtrack. But none of it mattered. I was so disgusted by Isaac/Allen that I was hardly in any mood to enjoy any of this.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1979)