Manhattan - 1979
Manhattan is co-written and directed by neurotic comedy legend Woody Allen. This movie is beautifully shot in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, in what many call the best New York has ever looked on film. This movie also marks the third time in a row that Diane Keaton worked with Allen, following up their collaborations in Annie Hall and Interiors. The story centers around a 42-year-old writer and his quest to find a meaningful relationship in the city, one of them being a 17-year-old schoolgirl.
There has always been a debate as to how or whether we should distinguish the art from the artist. Should we as an audience completely ignore the artist (in this case the director) and judge the art on its own? Allen isn’t unique to this debate, with Alfred Hitchcock and Mel Gibson having their personal lives interfere with how they are viewed as directors. So, while I always try my best to separate the men/women from their art, in this case is slightly difficult since Manhattan mirrors Allen’s real-life controversy.
Like I said in my opening paragraph, the story basically centers around a 42-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl, played by Mariel Hemingway, dating. In the movie, Allen’s character says, “I’m older than her father,” which brings me to the controversy of his relationship in real life with his former step daughter (35 years younger than him). He wrote his character in the movie as a manipulative and controlling person, taking advantage of the naïve nature of his younger girlfriend. During the beginning of the film he tries to distance himself from her, always talking about how they will end up breaking up, even though she is clearly in love with him. By the end, when everything around him falls apart, he tries to get back with her and manipulate her into not leaving for London. The way he puts himself above her happiness and how he knows he can control her due to her naïve view on the world, gave me the creeps. It just feels like this is the tactic he used with his step-daughter and why he’s with her. Quick note: Hemingway would later come out and say in an interview that Allen hit on her during filming despite her being the same age as her character.
But if we take that real-life controversy out of the way, this movie is hilarious and a pessimistic look at relationships.
There is not a single healthy relationship portrayed in this movie, not even the father-son relationship between Allen and the son he had with his ex-wife. Quick rundown of the relationships portrayed in this movie: You have the already mentioned 42-year-old and the 17-year-old, the best friends of Allen that are married but the husband is cheating on her with Keaton, you have Keaton and Allen even though she is in love with his friend and you have his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) who is writing a book about their past relationship clearly obsessed with the past and not paying attention to her lover. Even though this is classified as a romantic comedy, there is not true romance depicted in this movie outside of the characters loving themselves.
The screenplay Allen co-wrote with Marshall Brickman is top-notch, outside of the pedophile vibes you get. They created and maintained a fast-paced comedic tone throughout the entire run time. There are many jokes that can be completely missed if you aren’t paying attention. One of my favorite moments of the film is during a party Allen is attending, a snobby director is talking about the next film he is about to shoot centering around orgasms that are so good they kill the person having them. The following conversation is hilarious, enjoy.
The acting is solid, with Keaton playing a version of her award-winning performance in Annie Hall and Allen playing a version of himself. There has always been a critique that Allen always plays the same character. While his mannerisms and his tone of voice are consistent, his characters tend to change. Even if you went with that argument, this is 1970’s Allen, some would say the golden years of Allen, and he hadn’t worn-down this persona yet. The stand out is Mariel Hemingway since her delivery is so raw and natural, almost as if she is truly reacting to the events happening around he and not acting as the scrip demands her too. She would go on to receive a Best Supporting Role nomination at the Oscar.
With all that said, the crowning jewel of Manhattan is the cinematography of Gordon Wills. There is something truly beautiful seeing New York shot in black and white. How the light bounces of the tall buildings and the bridges cast a shadow over the waters running below it. If you don’t end up watching the movie for whatever reason, please just give the opening sequence a chance so you can understand how beautiful this city looks. It almost makes you want to move there and experience it for yourself. Enjoy below.
Manhattan is regarded as one of the best romantic comedies of all-time. While I don’t agree with that statement, since the romance part is severely lacking, it’s certainly extremely funny. It doesn’t age well thanks to some aspects I covered above but overall, I enjoyed watching the movie thanks to the beautiful cinematography. Willis’ love letter to New York is why I love movie.
Manhattan is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Even Allen’s worst ones are right on the money.
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