#182) Manhattan (1979)
OR “Woody’s Last Film on the Registry for a While”
Directed by Woody Allen
Written by Allen and Marshall Brickman
Class of 2001
The Plot: Woody Allen-esque comedy writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is dating 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, We’ll get to that in a bit). While at a party, Isaac meets author Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), the mistress of his best friend Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy). Though they do not hit it off initially, a chance second meeting finds them falling in love. What follows is a complicated love rectangle peppered with beautiful cinematography, excellent use of George Gershwin’s music, and a question about New York’s age of consent that has definitely compromised my Google search history.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises Allen and Brickman’s screenplay, the cinematography by Gordon Willis, and the “exceptional comedy teamwork” between Allen and Keaton.
But Does It Really?: I’ll be real: I wrestled with this one. A lot. On the one hand, “Manhattan” is a funny, beautifully shot love letter to New York at a time when the city was at its grittiest. On the other hand, Woody’s dating a teenager and no one seems to mind or be concerned. It’s a plotline that, given what we know now, ultimately taints an otherwise enjoyable film. “Manhattan” was selected for preservation in December 2001, no doubt a response to the terrorist attacks on the city three months earlier. We were post-Soon-Yi but pre-Dylan Farrow in our Woody issues, so no one can claim ignorance on the subject. Cinematic merits aside, perhaps the film’s retroactive controversy is reason enough for preservation. “Manhattan” is a film that (purposefully or not) immediately starts a discussion, and isn’t that what all the films on this list are supposed to do?
Everybody Gets One: Mariel Hemingway, Congresswoman Bella Abzug, film editor Susan E. Morse (her first of over 20 Woody collaborations), and legendary SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue as the man who was talking about orgasms.
Wow, That’s Dated: Tape recorders, references to the Carter family, and Woody’s standard jab at EST. Plus another round of “What’s Playing on Broadway Back Now?” that includes the musical “Runaways” and ‘70s mime trope Mummenshcanz, which places filming in the fall of 1978.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite its critical and commercial success, “Manhattan” received only two Oscar nominations. Allen & Brickman lost Original Screenplay to “Breaking Away”, while Mariel Hemingway lost Supporting Actress to Meryl Streep; not for her work in this film, but rather for her other 1979 New York based divorce film, “Kramer vs. Kramer”. The film’s most conspicuous Oscar snub was – once again – Gordon Willis’ cinematography (though his first nomination for Allen’s “Zelig” was only four years away).
- There’s a lot more to say about the Isaac/Tracy plotline, and we as film-lovers should keep discussing it. I highly recommend this think piece about dealing with art made by “monster artists”, specifically Woody and “Manhattan”. It helped me cope with my conflicting thoughts on this film.
- This has got to be one of the rare times where Woody strayed from his standard opening credits.
- The piano version of “Mine” playing at the restaurant sounds an awful lot like the “Everybody Loves Raymond” theme. Well, strike that, reverse it I guess.
- I’ve now seen all four of Diane Keaton’s NFR films and I must say I have severely underestimated her as an actress. Here she is brilliantly playing a New York intellectual that is night and day from her turn as Annie Hall and her more restrained work in the first two “Godfather” films. Ms. Keaton, if you’re reading this, I owe you a drink.
- The best line: “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics.”
- And then there’s that beautiful iconic shot of the Queensboro Bridge with Gershwin swelling in the background. Don’t make me like you, Woody.
- Can we make it a rule that no one is ever allowed to call it “making love”?
- I can’t tell if Meryl Streep’s acting style just doesn’t mesh or if her character is intentionally written to be in sharp contrast with everyone else. My guess is the latter, but something about her scenes is just a hair out of place. In either case, this is the only time Meryl and Woody have worked together, and I suspect it will stay that way.
- The scene of Isaac and Mary in the rowboat is one of my favorite shots, and may be the film’s only visual gag.
- I forgot Wallace Shawn is in this! He is quite possibly the only person to work with Woody Allen, Rob Reiner and Pixar.
- This film ends with the dramatic “running to be with your loved one” cliché.
- By Woody Allen standards, this is an upbeat ending. No one gets what they want, but it ends with a glimmer of hope.
- Umm…besides that?
- The film’s main intentional takeaway is the iconic shot of Woody and Diane watching the sunrise. It’s the main image on the film’s poster, and everyone has done their own take on it at some point.
Further Viewing: Not exactly a fan of the Oscars, Woody has only attended the ceremony once: in 2002 when he was neither a nominee nor a winner. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Allen came to the (then) Kodak Theater to introduce a clip package by Chuck Workman honoring films shot on location in New York City. The tribute itself is currently not available online (copyright clearance is a bitch), but Woody’s introduction is worth a watch.
Oh wait: here it is. Enjoy it before it’s taken down!
Listen to This: I already covered “Rhapsody in Blue” in my “An American in Paris” write-up, but I would be remiss if I did not give the Gershwin classic a shout-out here.