Manhattan (1979)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne

Anyone who has ever displayed an interest in writing, whether for entertainment or journalistic purposes, knows exactly what’s going through Woody Allen’s mind during the opening scene of “Manhattan.” He’s on Chapter One of a new novel about a guy from New York who absolutely loves his city. His problem is that he can’t get the words to come out quite right. It’s all coming off either too preachy, too angry, or otherwise just plain wrong. Finally, after much backtracking, he stumbles upon what to him sounds like the right introduction to both the main character and his story. It’s a satisfying feeling, knowing that you’re on the right track and could be on the verge of creating something special. What’s particularly special about this three and a half minute beginning to “Manhattan” is that it is set to the music of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a tune that has become synonymous with the city of New York itself. Introductions like this are hard to come by, and the one bestowed upon “Manhattan” is one of the greatest of any movie I’ve ever seen.

Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is a 42-year old writer for television comedy. Rather bad television comedy, as he and associates of his are quick to point out. Eventually, he becomes so frustrated with his job and the drug addicts who work with him that he impulsively walks out. Unfortunately for Isaac, acts of impulse are a common thread, especially when it comes to the women in his life. When we first meet Isaac, he’s in the middle of a relationship with a sweet-natured 17-year old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). He’s older than Tracy’s own father, he observes. Part of him recognizes the immoral, socially unacceptable nature of the relationship, and part of him doesn’t care. Isaac is also twice divorced. His second wife, a bisexual-turned-lesbian named Jill (Meryl Streep), is writing a tell-all book about their marriage. Naturally, Isaac finds this disgusting and humiliating, as it will mean that all of his friends will know every last juicy detail. He tries to force the issue, to no avail. Not exactly the most mature behavior on either person’s part.

The immaturity does not end with Isaac and his former partner. Isaac’s best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is endangering his marriage with an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), an opinionated, self-appointed art critic and writer of film novelizations. She uses big words to make herself sound more brilliant than she actually is, and makes observations like “I’m from Philadelphia. We believe in God,” as if everyone is supposed to know what she means. Mary and Isaac have virtually nothing in common, apart from their ability to enter into a relationship they know is wrong.

Upon this first meeting, Isaac finds Mary repulsive. Later, upon further encounters, Isaac finds himself growing strangely attracted to Mary. Although one should not always go with their first impression of another person, Isaac should have listened to his instincts this time, especially as his decision comes at the expense of Tracy and their relationship. Eventually, Mary proves just how flighty she can be, deciding that she was in fact in love with Yale all along and going off to live with him after he leaves his wife. They deserve each other. Hard to say what Isaac deserves, but can it really be someone as kind and as sweet as Tracy? He certainly thinks so, as her image comes to mind when he asks himself “What makes life worth living?” He catches Tracy just as she’s about to go to London for six months, as Isaac had suggested she do when he was trying to end things between them. Isaac pleads with her not to go. “I don’t want that thing about you that I like to change,” he tells her. It’s in this moment when you realize that Isaac could just as easily be talking to/about the city of New York.

What a bunch of assholes these people are, huh? But the actors playing them are nothing short of professional, and all are at the top of their game. Keaton proves once again why she’s just a great on-screen match for Woody Allen. The chemistry between them is undeniable. At tonight’s Academy Awards, Meryl Streep finds herself nominated for an acting award for the 19th time. Though her unparalleled career was still in its early stages in 1979, she nonetheless provides a terrific supporting performance. Jill’s unashamed confessional about her marriage to Isaac puts to mind all the singers over the years who’ve turned out hit songs based on their failed relationships, and how the airing of their dirty laundry is sometimes scrutinized. It may not be particularly tactful of her, but we can’t entirely fault her for it, either. We weren’t there for the marriage itself, only the messy aftermath.

The best acting in the movie, hands down, comes from Mariel Hemingway. She presents Tracy as a very loving individual, perhaps a bit too eager to put her trust in others but, as Isaac said, we like that about her. Most importantly, she’s very mature for her age. Despite this, her age is the very thing that is always held against her, even by Isaac whom she loves. As it so happens, among this group of selfish, spiteful and flaky adults, Tracy comes off as more mature than any of them. Folks, Hemingway will break your heart in “Manhattan.” Woody Allen himself could not have come up with a more autobiographical role. As it turns out, he really did have a 17-year old girlfriend when he was aged 42. His relationship with actress Stacey Nelkin, which he did not publicly acknowledge until fairly recently, is said (by Nelkin) to have been the basis for “Manhattan.” Additionally, in the years since the movie, Allen has had a tell-all book written about him by an ex: his girlfriend of 12 years, actress Mia Farrow. He couldn’t possibly have seen that one coming. Doesn’t make it any less bizarre. Even though it stands as one of his all-time greatest films (and my second favorite behind only “Annie Hall”), Allen himself was so displeased with his own work that he asked United Artists not to release it, instead offering to make another movie for free. Thank goodness the studio made him see reason. “Manhattan” takes the best parts of “Annie Hall” and “Interiors” and combines them into a single, classic accomplishment of filmmaking.

Beyond the great performances and the strange blurring of the lines between fiction and fact, “Manhattan” is also further enhanced by its sights and sounds. Kids today don’t seem to understand that Black & White does not automatically make a movie “old” or “boring.” When used effectively, as it is in “Manhattan,” it makes the film a more personal experience. Scenes like the famous bridge shot would not have the same power if shown in Color. The music is just as important, becoming an additional character within the movie. You must have a heart of stone if you’re not emotionally stirred by “Rhapsody in Blue,” or the instrumental versions of “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” Admittedly, it took me until my third viewing of “Manhattan” to finally “get it.” Like Isaac, I had been put off by the ugliness of the adult characters while simultaneously failing to appreciate the beauty that was right in front of my face.

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