- Movie Rating -

Manhattan (1979)

| May 24, 1979

For years I didn’t like Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I first saw it as a teenager and at that time it became part of my dislike for the more artistic, more serious Allen that had begun with Annie Hall. Gone were the days of his slapstick gems like BananasSleeperLove and Death and Take the Money and Run and it wasn’t until my adulthood that I began to appreciate Woody’s golden era, the time when he gave us Radio DaysHannah and her SistersCrimes and Misdemeanors and the film that would become my favorite of his works, Manhattan.

The film was part of a remarkable closing year for the decade. Nineteen Seventy-Nine was a year that saw more great films than any single year of the decade to come. Yet the academy’s selection was a film I found unremarkable, Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer, a melodrama about a work-obsessed family man whose wife walks out because of his inattention leaving him to raise an eight year-old son that he hardly knows.

With the divorce rate at an all-time high, the academy must have felt itself proud to have rewarded such an expose on the “Me Decade”, but with that logic, I can’t understand why Manhattan didn’t receive even a nomination as Best Picture. The academy, feeling that it had rewarded the new Woody two years earlier with Annie Hall were not so eager to give him credit (though he received a nomination for co-writing the script). That would have probably suited the director just fine, he hated the film so much that he told United Artists that he would make his next film for free if they would shelve this one. I’m glad they didn’t listen, this may be Allen’s least favorite of his directorial efforts but for me, it is my favorite.

Manhattan is the greatest love poem to a cinema artist’s native land since Fellini’s Roma. Allen presents Manhattan with a rapturous passion opening with loving shots of Broadway, 42nd Street, The Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square and of course his famous shot of the New York skyline at sunset looking west across Central Park. There’s something magical about these scenes which are accompanied by George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as the sun sets and night falls over Manhattan culminating in a beautiful fireworks display. I love that he interposes the voice of his character Isaac who is trying unsuccessfully to describe his feelings for his favorite city. He tries, over and over to find the words but they fail him until he arrives at a description that we feel that he will probably change later.

The irony is that Isaac can’t seem to get his love life in order, he loves the city in which he dwells but can’t find a human relationship that is just as meaningful. He is furious at his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) who has sparked the interest of a publisher after she wrote a book about the deterioration of their marriage and how she left him for another woman (there’s also talk of a movie deal). Meanwhile, he tries to be understanding while his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) has an extramarital affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), an intellectual snob who hates everything yet never seems to have a series of organized thoughts in her head. Compounded on top of these issues is that fact that 42 year-old Isaac is dating 17 year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), he has fun with her, knows that the relationship can’t go anywhere but won’t end it before Tracy gets too attached.

Isaac is not lovable, he is immature, stuck somewhere between adolescent cynicism and intellectual pessimism. He is a successful writer on a hit television show but he hates the show and leaves it in a huff, intending to write his novel (everyone in this movie seems to be writing a book). He has a radical change in lifestyle as leaving the show means a smaller apartment with a noisy upstairs neighbor and pipes that dispense brown water. Tracy is still in love with him but he reminds her (and probably himself) that their affair is only temporary until she goes to school in London and further to a bright future.

When Yale goes back to his wife, he suggests that Isaac and Mary should get together. During a conversation one night while walking through Manhattan, he listens and talks with Mary and slowly realizes that – despite his initial distaste – he kind of likes her. There is an otherworldliness to their relationship, Isaac has no real reason to like Mary other than some deeply buried human connection. The most beautiful sequence has the two walking through a planetarium full of light and dark and they move into the shadows and out of the bright lights. There is a shot of the two of them face to face that seems inorganic to the rest of the film.

There is a deeply buried insecurity to the characters in Manhattan, they hide behind a mask of intellectualism but they can’t seem to express themselves or perhaps they are afraid to. They are mired in cynicism, the fear of being alone and the fear of being hurt or maybe just the fear of expressing real emotions, of given your whole heart to someone and having the fear that they will never get it back. Isaac, especially in his relationship with Tracy thinks this because he is the adult that he knows what’s best. There is a heartbreaking scene in which he breaks up with her at a soda fountain, telling her “I’m in love with someone else”. I am stunned by the pain on Tracy’s face, It isn’t bold, but just enough. She has the truest line in the film when she tells him “Now, I don’t feel so good”.

What he doesn’t understand is that his relationship with Tracy is the first meaningful union he has ever experienced, he’s just too blind to realize it. The best scenes in the film take place in the end when he confides that “I think I made a mistake with Tracy”. There is a scene where he lays on his couch telling his tape recorder about “Things that make life worth living” and among Willie Mays, Groucho Marx, Louie Armstrong and the Potatohead Blues, the words “Tracy’s face” bring him to a dead halt and a heartbroken smile.

I think Tracy is the fulcrum. She seems to exist within the same space as these older characters but there is something so unblemished about her, something so truthful. She wears her heart on her sleeve, she is unaffected and says what she means. It is assumed by Isaac that age has given him an advantage but what he misses is that while he may have experience with marriage and love affairs, she has a clearer mind and a heart that is completely unguarded. What is challenging about this relationship is that we disapprove of their union because of their age difference but we have to admit, as Isaac does, that she is perfect for him.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized