There are a few directors, but not many, who can legitimately be said to have inspired their own genre of movie. The recently released Super 8 keeps getting described as “Spielbergian,” which instantly conjures up images of precocious kids on a fantastical adventure of self-discovery. Almost every single review of Woody Allen’s previous movie, Interiors, calls it “Bergmanesque” — a similarly useful term that quickly describes a certain tone and style.
Both directors have a varied output, but when you hear the terms “Steven Spielberg movie” or “Ingmar Bergman movie” a very particular genre, style and subject matter jump to mind, and I’ve always thought of Manhattan as the first example of what we would now call a “Woody Allen movie.” To some people, I suppose, Bananas might be that movie, but I’ve always defined a quintessential Woody Allen movie as something funny, serious and romantic with a large cast of eloquent characters navigating extreme ends of human emotion. Annie Hall and Interiors are much smaller in scope than many of Allen’s classic films, and neither moves as gracefully between comedy, romance and drama as Manhattan.
Manhattan’s opening scene, one of the best and most famous of any movie, is representative of the film, or more accurately, representative of the film’s characters. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” plays over stunningly photographed black & white images of New York while protagonist Issac Davis (Woody Allen) frantically writes and re-writes his own story and tries to make sense of his relationship with his city.
The next scene is at a bar, where we first meet Isaac in person. He’s there with his married friends Yale and Emily and his girlfriend Tracy. Tracy is 17 years old, Isaac is 42. As they leave, Yale (Michael Murphy) reveals to Isaac that he’s having an affair with another woman, despite his mild opposition to infidelity (“I’ve only had two, maybe three, affairs ever”). Immediately it becomes clear that the Manhattan of Manhattan is an insular world with different social and moral codes than we’re used to.
Or, at least the ones I’m used to. Not a single character in the movie seems to even consider that it might be inappropriate for a 42-year-old man to be in an overtly sexual relationship with a teenager — Yale’s only opinion on the matter is that Tracy “seems like a nice girl,” and when the two of them break up, Emily encourages Isaac to try to get back together with her (“you two seemed happy together”). Everyone in the film also shares Yale’s casual stance on infidelity. Affairs, break-ups and divorces come in a steady stream — monogamy exists for most of these characters as a nice thing in theory, but far out of reach in practice. Even Tracy, the closest thing in the movie to an idealist, thinks the idea of long-term relationships is naive. One of the movie’s most famous lines — “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics” — is often quoted, but it’s always out of context. In context, it’s less a witty aside than a revelation of deep hypocrisy, as it comes from a middle-aged man with two ex-wives and two current girlfriends.
Before I start to sound like some sort of puritanical buzzkill, I should say that I point these things out not out of objection, but to illustrate the environment in which this movie takes place. The things that seem shocking on paper start to make sense once you get to know this movie’s Manhattan. The characters, who are mostly in their 40s, approach relationships with the same selfishness and indecisiveness of teenagers, so there’s a certain logic to one of them literally dating an actual teenager.
I realize that while I may have side-stepped the “puritanical buzzkill” self-depiction, I can never hope to avoid “wide-eyed rube,” but that’s okay, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s probably accurate. Pretty much everything I know about the world outside my apartment and my cubicle at work is based on assumptions I’ve made from pop-culture. Between this movie, a few other movies, some sitcoms and a music video, I have an understanding of New York City that, while not based on or supported by any actual experience, is fairly elaborate and comprehensive.
So, anyway, Yale has a mistress. His mistress is Mary, played by Diane Keaton. Yale introduces Mary and Isaac, and they kick off what is now a classic romantic arc. At first they bicker incessantly, over little things like whether Norman Mailer is over-rated, and how to pronounce Vincent Van Gogh’s last name, but soon they realize that their differences are small while the things they share — interests, worldviews, anhedonia — are vast.
It’s interesting to note that, amidst all the philandering, Isaac still adheres to a strict “bros before hoes” policy. Isaac draws the line at stealing another man’s woman, and doesn’t make a move with Mary until his friend (Yale) has broken up with her and given his consent. But Yale and Mary do break up, and Diane Keaton and Woody Allen fall in love on screen for the last time.
By this point, the romance between these characters seems a little familiar. We have, after all, seen these two actors romantically entangle themselves for parts of two movies and almost all of two other movies. Although, while Isaac Davis is not that different from Alvy Singer, Diane Keaton’s Mary is a fairly distinct creation. She has the charisma and sense of humor of Annie Hall, but the depressive self-defeatism of Renata (her character in Interiors). Her self-esteem fluctuates radically, and she speaks constantly about wanting to “get her life together” but consistently makes self-destructive decisions. The key moment for her character, I think, is when Isaac asks her about her future and she replies, sincerely, that she’s not capable of seeing or planning more than a few weeks in advance. Spontaneity is part of what makes her exciting, but that lack of foresight is a bit worrisome.
While Annie Hall gave Woody Allen and Diane Keaton an entire movie to explore a relationship, Manhattan only gives them a small part of sprawling film. Still, though, it is an enduring romance, if for no other reason than the beautiful backdrops their moments together occupy. Cinematographer Gordon Willis returns, once again, and makes what Roger Ebert called “one of the best-photographed movies ever made.” Their key moment, of course, being the iconic conversation under the Queensboro Bridge. Another breath-taking scene, and an underdog contender for prettiest moment in Woody Allen movie history, takes place in an eerie, sparsely lit planetarium on a rainy day.
The real heart of the movie, though, belongs to Mariel Hemingway as Isaac’s jail-bait girlfriend. Apparently Woody Allen had wanted Jodie Foster for the role, which I think would have been a mistake. As evidenced in Taxi Driver (1976) and Freaky Friday (1977), Jodie Foster, even as a child, was a talented, professional actress, but Mariel Hemingway doesn’t seem like she’s acting at all. The way she awkwardly tries to blend in with a peer-group that’s over twice her age is so heart-breaking and touching in its naivety, you wonder whether it’s skillful acting or just an extension of how she might feel off camera, waiting for her mark while Woody Allen and Diane Keaton make inside jokes and banter about obscure psychoanalytic theories. The best example comes when Mary (Keaton), who doesn’t yet realize her age, asks her what she does and her answer (“I go to high school!”) is an explosion of oblivious sincerity. When everyone laughs at her response, she sheepishly, but not overtly, looks around trying to trying to figure out what everyone is laughing at.
For most of the film, Isaac is trying to break up with Tracy. It takes him a while to work up the nerve, however, so in the mean time he talks over her, passive-aggressively pushes her away, and just generally ignores her. Tracy, on the other hand, idolizes Isaac. Her emotional and intellectual (if not social) maturity is advanced way beyond her chronological age, making Isaac’s sophistication very appealing in comparison to boys her age. They don’t really have anything in common, but she wants nothing more than to be with him. When he finally does break up with her, she’s so overwhelmed with sadness she starts to seem like she might suffocate.
Woody Allen’s movies so far (excepting Interiors) have limited themselves to two or three important characters, but Manhattan is much deeper, and there are still important people I haven’t even mentioned. The most memorable of the supporting cast is Isaac’s ex-wife Jill, played by the always-stunning Meryl Streep. Streep is, as I’m sure you are aware, the classiest and most beautiful woman to have ever lived, and that serves her well in a role that could have proved grating in lesser hands.
Jill and Isaac got divorced after Jill left him for a woman, and in the time since, she has spent her time concocting new and innovative ways to express her passionate hatred for Isaac — most recently, she has written a book about him. The idea of a character describable as an “angry, man-hating lesbian” might be problematic in lesser hands, but when Allen is at his best, he’s incapable of writing an un-nuanced character. Streep also helps by being her typically sympathetic self, and the more we find out about Isaac, Jill, and their relationship, the more empathy her actions generate.
The dynamic between Jill and Isaac results in one of the most brutal, memorable and funny scenes in any Woody Allen movie. Yale, Isaac, Mary and Emily are all out together, and they see Jill’s book for sale. Yale reads aloud the parts relating to their sex life (“an empty experience;” “a bizarre charade”), and then finds a section that summarizes Isaac himself. While he’s reading, he and Mary are laughing, but they quickly move off-screen, and all that’s left is Isaac, alone in the frame, looking resigned and depressed, while his best friend laughingly reads aloud from an incredibly insulting, published biography. The description is both surgically precise and an effective summation of the ugliest traits of all the characters Woody Allen has created for himself. No one other than Woody Allen could insult Woody Allen so insightfully.
“He was given to fits of rage, Jewish, liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair. He had complaints about life, but never solutions. He longed to be an artist, but balked at the necessary sacrifices. In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death which he elevated to tragic heights when, in fact, it was mere narcissism.”
Another important character, who’s appearance is brief but memorable, is Mary’s ex-husband Jeremiah. Throughout the film he’s built-up as a sexual goliath and a devastating ladies’ man. Mary says that he “opened me up sexually,” and their marriage fell apart, essentially, because she couldn’t compete with the rabid female admiration that she knew would always follow him. Later, one of the movie’s funniest moments comes when we finally meet him and he’s played by the great Wallace Shawn, whose shlubby, nonthreatening likability contrasts with the uncaged, primal animal he’s consistently described as. This is an example of what Orson Welles called a “Harry Lime Role” — when a character is built-up all movie long, allowing the actor to instantly deliver a memorable performance just by looking a certain way in a certain moment.
As the movie comes to an end, Mary leaves Isaac and goes back to Yale, who has now promised to leave his wife. Yale, it turns out, was the one who first reached out to rekindle the relationship, revealing that he does not share Isaac’s moral code, at least in terms of how it pertains to the prioritization of bros with regard to hoes. Obviously, this enrages Isaac, who confronts Yale in the middle of a class he’s teaching.
Isaac thinks Yale’s actions are immoral, yet Isaac has acted selfishly throughout the film. He has emotionally mis-treated Tracy and openly facilitated Yale’s affair by lying to his wife Emily, but only when his own feelings are at stake does he suddenly get a righteous streak. Isaac says that Yale is just “an animal,” no different than the primitive humans whose skeletons decorate the class. His argument is convincing, although he fails to realize that it applies to all the citizens of Manhattan, including himself.
As if to prove this point, the movie’s final scene shows Isaac chasing down Tracy and trying to prevent her from leaving (she’s off to study acting in London). Isaac had encouraged her to go to London when he was trying to get rid of her, but now that he’s been dumped, he’s lonely and wants her easy company. Woody Allen, as an actor, has never been better than he is in Manhattan’s finale. Tracy says “if you really wanted to be with me, you’d wait. I’ll only be gone six months.” Isaac knows she’s right, and he knows that all he wants from Tracy is for her to go back to worshipping him until he can meet someone new that he likes more — and six months from now, he probably won’t need her anymore. He doesn’t use those exact words, of course. Instead, he sticks to platitudes that might convince her to stay, and tries to manipulate her guilt by casting himself as a victim.
All efforts are futile, however, and the movie ends with a 42-year-old man standing alone in a lobby, abandoned by his friends and watching as a 17-year-old girl realizes she’s too mature for him.
Manhattan is filled with romance, wit and humor, but there’s a deep sense of sadness that underlies the whole movie. At one point, Isaac tries to make a list of all the things that make life worth living. He runs through a number of artists and athletes, but notably excludes family, friends, or any people that he actually knows (although he does say “Tracy’s face”). Woody Allen’s Manhattan is an exciting, romantic, funny world, but ultimately, it’s a very lonely place.
- “I was just thinking. There must be something wrong with me, because I’ve never had a relationship with a woman that’s lasted longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun.”
- “You know a lot of geniuses... you should meet some stupid people once in a while, you could learn something.”
- “This is turning into a Noel Coward play. Someone should go and make some martinis.”
- “I can’t express anger. That’s my problem. I internalize everything. I just grow a tumor instead.”
- “You rely too much on the brain. The brain is the most overrated organ.”
- “You are so self-righteous... you think you’re God.”
“Well, I gotta model myself after someone.”
- “I read in one of the psychoanalytic quarterlies that children don’t need a male. Two mothers are absolutely fine.”
“Really? I always feel very few people survive one mother.”
- “No, I didn’t read the piece on China’s faceless masses, I was checking out the lingerie ads. I have a hard time getting past them, they’re very erotic.”
- “Your voice was very authoritative, like the pope, or the computer in 2001.”
- “He’s a highly qualified doctor.”
“Yeah, he’s done a great job on you... your self esteem’s a notch below Kafka’s.”
- “I’ll probably have to give my parents less money. They’re not gonna be able to get as good a seat in the synagogue. They’ll be in the back, away from God, far from the action.”
- Isaac’s full list of things that make life worth living: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, Swedish movies, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, Tracy’s face.
- Woody Allen hated this movie and begged MGM to not release it (obviously, he failed). He said he didn’t like it because “it didn’t turn out very well” but many people (by ‘many people’ I actually just mean myself) often speculate that he actually just didn’t want the world to see a movie in which he played such an unlikable but yet vividly realized version of himself.
- Cinematographer Gordon Willis, who’s also shot The Godfather films, Annie Hall and The Purple Rose of Cairo says that this was his favorite of all his movies.
- Although it seems less commercial, Manhattan actually made even more money than Annie Hall and was the 6th biggest movie of 1979 (take that, Meatballs!). He’s had a few more minor hits and enduring popularity in Europe, but Manhattan was his last blockbuster in America.
- A rare Woody Allen film that does not open with the credits.
- I’m not entirely sure, but it sort of looks like Diane Keaton is in the same apartment she had in Annie Hall (I recognize the bookcase and the vines growing over the window).
- Mariel Hemingway is Ernest Hemingway’s grand-daughter.
- Speaking of Mariel Hemingway, she received a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in this movie.
- Speaking of Academy Awards, for the third straight movie (and the third straight year), Woody Allen got a Best Original Screenplay nomination. This time, like with Annie Hall, he shared it with Marshall Brickman.
- The British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) named Manhattan the Best Film of the year.