Woody's Manhattan at 25

By Avi Spivack

Avi Spivack is a graduate of Wesleyan University and a self-proclaimed film-lover. This is his first contribution to The Film Journal.


Did you know that Woody Allen so disliked his 1979 masterpiece Manhattan that he offered United Artists to direct a subsequent movie for free if they shelved it? Perhaps he felt that he put too much of himself on screen, or perhaps he thought the next film after his 1977 Best-Picture-winning Annie Hall would not be as well-received or as artistic. But thankfully for us, UA didn't listen to him.

I was quite surprised when I learned that this was an historical fact. And after watching this nearly flawless film again recently, I decided it was worth revisiting on its 25th birthday and assessing its urban properties as compared to the Manhattan landscape of 2004. What I discovered when I looked through this lens was that the film was able to freeze the city. Manhattan became timeless in Manhattan.

The last sentences of the film's opening voiceover (spoken by Woody, as TV writer Isaac Davis) are uttered with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the soundtrack and while we see New York City through the breathtaking black-and-white lens of Gordon Willis; as it was then and now-bustling and beautiful. After failed attempts to properly begin his book and introduce the city to us, Isaac comes up with this: "Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be..." And then the crescendo of Gershwin erupts. However, before we actually meet Isaac and the film's cast, we know its title (the only Woody film whose title is uniquely presented-as a vertically flashing parking sign), we hear these words, and we know that the movie will introduce us to an assemblage of characters, but what we see here is that the setting is just as important as these characters-where they say it will be just as important as what they say.

In his review for The New York Times, published the day the film opened, Vincent Canby wrote: "I suspect there will be much more to say about Manhattan in the future. Mr. Allen's progress as one of our major filmmakers is proceeding so rapidly that we who watch him have to pause occasionally to catch our breath." Canby may have been a Woody Allen devotee, but I doubt there is a true Manhattanite that does not watch Woody, or at least seek him out along the paths of Central Park (where I once passed him). Because so many of his movies are based in Manhattan, to be a consummate New Yorker, I would argue, is also to know its movies. Woody belongs in New York, he is the "jungle cat behind the black-rimmed glasses," but he also belongs to New York. And Manhattan is his Ode, his Sonnet, his Treatise on the Greatness of the City. Woody is our tour guide here, ushering us from one landmark to the next-and the irony is that all of the landmarks of 1979 Manhattan have remained:

  • Elaine's-where the movie begins in classic Woody fashion with Isaac, his best friend Yale, Yale's wife Emily, and Isaac's 17 year-old girlfriend Tracy sitting, drinking wine, smoking, and discussing life, art, and courage-is still the artsy Upper East Side hangout. The only difference now is that you can't smoke inside.
  • The museums-where the characters return frequently with various partners-are still at the centerpiece of the city.
  • A horse and carriage ride through Central Park-what Isaac and Tracy do when Isaac says "I'll take you anywhere tonight"-is still a huge draw, and not only for the out-of-towners.
  • The bridges at night are still spectacular, each a marvel. But one of the most unforgettable shots of the film is of Isaac and Mary (the woman over whom Yale and Isaac duel) sitting on a bench gazing at the lights of the Manhattan bridge as dawn approaches.
  • The city's skyline is still awe-inspiring, no matter how many times you gaze up at it.
  • Zabar's is still tops in the gourmet food business, and Isaac and Mary go there, only to see a pair of chatting African men emerge-clearly the secret is out.
  • The courtyard of the MOMA-where a black-tie function of the arts takes place-is still full of charm even though it's currently being renovated.
  • Everyone still heads out to the Hamptons every summer, just as the couples do-Yale with his wife and Isaac with Mary.
  • The Dalton School-where Tracy is a student-is still the height of the city's private schools, and a gem of Carnegie Hill, where Woody lives.
  • Under snow cover the city is still majestic, even in this winter's bitter cold.
  • You still need "a considerable income to live in this town," as Yale tells Isaac when he quits his job; but as any current Manhattanite will tell you, it's even truer now.
  • Somehow a night in bed watching old movies and eating Chinese food with the one you love-as Isaac and Tracy do-can still be more appealing than the party that is undoubtedly happening outside your window.
  • Every Manhattanite still has had an apartment with brown water and uniquely noisy neighbors- just as Isaac experiences when he "downgrades" his living quarters.
  • Gramercy Park is still magical, but especially if you imagine Isaac/Woody running passed its exclusive gates on his way to Tracy…running to declare his love. Manhattan is, after all, a city for lovers, even moreso than Paris, I think.

We feel at one with the city right from the first scene. After we see the orchestrated slideshow of Manhattan scenes, we are deposited into the crowded, welcoming Elaine's. We spend time in bed with these characters, in their living rooms, kitchens, and in the film's most unforgettable shot: Isaac's first apartment with the light strewn over the spiral staircase that leads to the bedroom, and dear, beautiful, illegal Tracy in her underwear, climbing the stairs ahead of our 42-year-old protagonist. If ever love could be tangible, there it is in front of us. And yet Isaac somehow rejects this love.

But he returns to it. And then the just-turned-eighteen Tracy is wise enough to speak the film's last line (with "Rhapsody" again in the background): "Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people." Isaac, two decades older, ironically and purposefully ends his relationship with Tracy at the counter of a soda fountain while she drinks a juvenile malt and a delicate tear runs down her cheek. And then months later she tells him that he should have faith in people. Her innocence is refreshing, and her maturity beyond her years is simultaneously fascinating. This moment is actually quite like the city itself-overwhelmingly tall and dark yet filled with many moments and places of intimacy; corrupt yet filled with an undeniable energy; dirty but massively beautiful. In a word: Timeless.


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002