Woody Allen, Manhattan, 1979.

Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:   I think this is one movie where you’ll have a better experience if you know what’s coming. I recommend that you know something of the plot beforehand. Here’s a very brief synopsis:

There are four characters at the center. Isaac “Ike” Davis (Woody Allen) writes for a bad television show, but quits in order to start a novel. He is going with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a prep-school student. His good friend Yale (Michael Murphy), a literature professor, is married to Emily (Anne Byrne), but he is having an affair with Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), a small-time journalist. Mary leaves Yale, though, and takes up with Ike who then dumps Tracy. But Ike lures Mary back. She leaves Ike and goes back to Yale. Ike berates Yale for his betrayal and tries to return to Tracy.

Let’s stop there.

Enjoying:  Woody Allen is ever Woody Allen. His heroes hover between two ethically defined worlds. To enjoy Manhattan fully, you need to recognize those worlds as they appear in the film. Check out the essay below at least as far as the first five paragraphs.

    For all its visual and aural beauty, I think, Manhattan is a very verbal movie. Sure, Woody Allen is always verbal, but usually he’s firing off of one-liners. This movie depends on a number of longish speeches to make its points. The first, predictably, opens the movie.

    Ike Davis, the Woodyish hero, is trying to write a story or a memoir, perhaps the novel he quit the tv show to write—it’s not clear. He makes a number of false starts, each one of which introduces one of the themes of Manhattan. All through the speech, he speaks against the background of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” notably the opening long clarinet note (the clarinet being Woody Allen’s instrument).

‘Chapter one. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.’ Uh, no. Make that, ‘He romanticized it all out of proportion. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.’ Uh . . . no. Let me start this over.

Ike makes New York into a work of art, a black-and-white movie, that is, a forties movie, the kind he or Woody Allen himself would have seen as a child. He makes it a movie set to Gershwin tunes. He makes New York into this movie.

    That’s what this movie is about—art. The characters talk endlessly about art, they meet in museums and galleries, they write and teach about art, they create art. and, very much in tune with Woody Allen’s move in this speech, they equate works of art with the people who make them or vice versa. In a dialogue, Mary and Yale, a pair of critics, snarkily dismiss a whole group of creators as the Academy of the Over-Rated: Sol Lewitt, Gustav Mahler, Isak Dinesen, Carl Jung, Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer, Heinrich Boll, and Ingmar Bergman. All of these, however, Ike, in his sincere way, thinks are “terrific.” But he himself sarcastically dismisses the arty crowd he was talking to at the ERA party, “An interesting group of people. Like the cast of a Fellini movie.” At its core, this movie is about making people into works of art and treating them as such, judging them, consuming them, talking and writing about them, and discarding them.

    Back to the beginning where Ike continues to dictate his novel:

‘Chapter one. He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle, bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles.’ Ah, corny. too corny for a man of my taste. Let me . . . try and make it more profound.

But this speech is not true. Even during Ike’s opening monologue, Allen shows us pictures of repellent people on the streets of Manhattan as well as beautiful women. His guys, Ike and Yale, are not very street-smart. Both blunder where their relations with women are concerned. Is it street-smart to marry a bisexual? Is it street-smart to have a seventeen-year-old girlfriend? (Mariel Hemingway was actually only sixteen when she played the part!) Is it street-smart to leave your wife for someone who says of herself, “I’ve got too many problems. I’m really not the person to get involved with. I’m trouble . . . My problem is I’m both attracted and repelled by the male organ.” Ike calls Mary “the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald emotional maturity award.”

    Ike tries again to open his novel—and the film:

‘Chapter One. He adored New York City. To him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of integrity to cause so many people to take the easy way out . . . was rapidly turning the town of his dreams . . . ’ No, it’s gonna be too preachy. I mean, face it, I wanna sell some books here.

This theme of lack of integrity Allen develops all through with Yale’s cheating on his wife and then Mary’s leaving Yale for Ike and both Mary’s and Yale’s betraying Ike. Yale betrays his own better self. He wants to start a literary magazine, but he uses the money to buy a Porsche. When Mary tells Ike that she is going back to Yale, Ike bursts into Yale’s class. He pulls him out to an empty classroom with “anthropology club” on the blackboard, anthropology being the study of man. Standing among skeletons, Ike chews out his erstwhile friend for his dishonesty: “You rationalize everything. You’re not honest with yourself.” “You are so self-righteous,” replies Yale. “I mean, we’re just people. We’re just human beings.” And that, I suppose, is just the trouble that Ike was pointing to in the prologue.

    Ike answers Yale, “You know, someday we’re gonna be lIke him,” pointing to the ape’s skeleton beside him, “and he was probably one of the beautiful people, dancing and playing tennis. And now look. This is what happens to us. You know, it’s important to have some kind of personal integrity. I’ll be hanging in a classroom one day and I wanna make sure when I thin out [become a skeleton] that I’m . . . well thought of.” It’s one of Allen’s funny-touching speeches. Part of the joke is that this gorilla was never “one of the beautiful people.” But the joke makes death the background against which all the shoddy behaviors take place. Woody Allen always brings in death.

    One can joke about death, but death is not to be taken lightly. I don’t know that any critic has suggested as a source for Manhattan the medieval morality play, Everyman. But Ike is caught between two sets of values just as Everyman was. As he suggests here, facing death as Everyman did and we all do, he has to make the right choice. He made the wrong one when he left Tracy for Mary, hurting the girl cruelly in the process.

    Mary and Yale are corrupt and self-deceiving, exact exemplars of Ike’s complaint in the prologue, “the lack of integrity,” “taking the easy way out.” The alternative to their casual cruelty is Tracy’s treating people as people. The difference comes in the opening conversation among Mary, Yale, Ike, and Tracy, when Ike contrasts talent and courage. With talent, you make works of art. With courage, you save people. The opposite of Mary and Yale, Tracy represents innocence and trust. When she leaves for London, her final words are, “Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.” Ike can reply only with a wry but eloquent smile, the last shot of the movie, a wonderful cinematic moment that has been compared to Charlie Chaplin’s smile at the painful end of City Lights.

    Manhattan—like all true New Yorkers, Ike (and Woody Allen?) assume that when you say, “New York,” you mean the city, never the state, but you may say “New York City” when addressing non-New Yorkers (here, the movie audience). And by “New York,” you mean only Manhattan, never the “outer boroughs,” which are full of what New Yorkers call “bridge and tunnel people.”

    In this movie, outside of Manhattan exist Connecticut, where there are parents and children, and Philadelphia, where, Mary tells us, people believe in God and don’t talk sex and violence. New York, by contrast, stands for things going from bad to worse.

‘Chapter one. He adored New York City, although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitized by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage  . . .’ Too angry. I don’t wanna be angry.

In this movie, though, we see little in Manhattan to justify this complaint, just a couple of shots of garbage and urban blight in the prologue and some of the Manhattan we see in Ike’s last desperate run uptown to Tracy’s apartment building. Possibly Woody Allen is reminding us that he has created a beautified Manhattan, not the real thing, but a work of art.

    For Ike’s final comment in the prologue, we get not city, not art, but his bravado. He makes himself into a work of art:

‘Chapter one. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind 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. ’

A dreadful line! Bad Dashiell Hammett or Damon Runyon. Like much of this opening prologue, clichés like “decay of contemporary culture” or “take the easy way out.” Here, Ike turns himself into a caricature, the final version in this prologue of turning people into works of art or some other non-human thing.

    Also, what Ike says here is false. The people with sexual power in this picture are not the men, Ike or Yale, but the women, Tracy and Mary and Ike’s previous wife, Jill (Meryl Streep). The women define both the worlds that Ike and Yale are to choose between, the corrupt and the innocent. Women define a man’s masculinity. They can administer what Mary terms, “incredible sexual humiliation.” Throughout, we see Ike’s fears that he will be outdone sexually. At the end he is afraid of Tracy’s having affairs in England. He is terrified that his ex-wife’s book will talk about the sex in their marriage. He fears that his ex-wife and her lesbian partner will have his boy wearing dresses. Mary and the ex-wife can cancel his sexual powers, while Tracy can praise them. Mary sneers at Ike’s going with Tracy, “the little girl,” she’s “no possible threat at all.” That may be true of both Ike and Woody Allen (whose propensity for younger women is well known). But Ike is being, like other Woody Allen heroes, Pygmalion. He is working out a Woody Allen fantasy that a middle-aged man will educate a younger woman into sophistication.

    Tracy and Mary form polar opposites that define the two opposed worlds of this movie, as do Ike’s five attempts to start his novel or memoir. In starts three and four, Ike defines two worlds, one with integrity and civility, one with dishonesty and a trash culture. In starts one, two, and five, Ike defines one of those worlds, the bad one: it involves treating people or the whole city into works of art to be casually consumed, discussed, judged, and perhaps dismissed.

    Woody Allen defines those two worlds most clearly in a soliloquy by Ike late in the movie. Emily, deserted by Yale but still entangled in his deceptions, blames Ike for introducing Yale to Mary when it was the other way round: Yale introduced Mary to Ike. Taken aback, Ike doesn’t undeceive her. Instead, he goes back to his apartment and starts talking to his tape recorder again, where, we now realize, this movie began. He tackles his writing once more as in the opening prologue.

An idea for a short story about, um, people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves cos it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about . . . the universe.

That’s, of course, this very movie with its famous planetarium scene bringing in the universe.

Let’s . . . Well, it has to be optimistic. Well, all right, why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile. Like what? OK . . . for me . . . Ooh, I would say Groucho Marx, to name one thing. And Willie Mays. And . . . the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony. And . . . Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues.” Swedish movies, naturally. Sentimental Education by Flaubert. Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra. Those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne. The crabs at Sam Wo’s. Tracy’s face.

As soon as he mentions Tracy’s face, Ike stops taping and gets out the harmonica Tracy had given him (harmonica standing for harmony, critic Maurice Yacowar suggests). He tries to call her, fails, runs across town, and finds her packed and ready to leave for London.

    In these last speeches, Tracy defines the good world of the two worlds. “Six months isn’t so long,” as earlier she had said, “ “We have laughs together. I care about you. Your concerns are my concerns We have great sex. What’s six months if we still love each other?” “Not everybody gets corrupted.” And finally, “You have to have a little faith in people.” In other words, you need to treat people as people, laugh with them, share concerns, have good sex. You shouldn’t treat people as objects, not even objets d’art. You need to have faith in people instead of just consuming them like the crabs at Sam Wo’s. (Incidentally, they are described in a New Yorker piece. ).

    All those things that make life worth living for Ike are man-made, works of art, cuisine, or people like Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra who have been made into works of art, until the last item, Tracy’s face. That’s something that no human, not even an artist, can make.

    Earlier, during their carriage ride in Central Park, Ike had said something very sweet, and very Jewish, to Tracy: “You’re God’s answer to Job. You would have ended all argument between them. He’d have said ’I do a lot of terrible things, but I can also make one of these.’ And Job would’ve said, ’OK, you win.’”

    The film makes many references to God, mostly just people swearing, “Oh, God!” But some are more pointed, like that one. The first comes when Mary dismisses Ingmar Bergman (a terribly bad thing to do in Woody Allen’s book): “Real adolescent, fashionable pessimism. I mean, the silence. God’s silence. OK, OK, OK. I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but, all right, you outgrow it.” And then she explains, “I’m just from Philadelphia, you know. I mean, we believe in God so . . . OK?” Which, Ike points out, means nothing at all. If Tracy defines the good world, Mary defines the bad one,

    Later, Ike trivializes God when he quips that his father won’t have enough money to get a good seat in the synagogue. “He’ll be in the back, away from God, far from the action.”

The opening shot

The name of he picture

Talk about art at Elaine's

Tracy and Ike

Yale tells Ike about Mary

Yale and Emily—children?

The first wife and the book

Mary talks about art

At the ERA party

Ike and Mary at the planetarium

The iconic shot

A carriage ride in Central Park

Mary's dynamite first husband

Among the skeletons

The final smile

    Then, when Ike bawls out Yale (”What are you, six years old?”), Yale accuses him, “Don’t turn this into one of your big moral issues.” “You think you’re God!” Ike snaps back, “I gotta model myself after someone.” It’s a joke but it’s also part of what critics call Woody Allen’s “Jewish sense of moral rectitude.” And that sense is much in evidence in this film, but inverted.

    This film—any film— does just what this film condemns: it makes people, Ike, Tracy, Yale, Mary, Emily, into art. It also makes Manhattan into a work of art, greatly simplifying it in the process. Woody Allen’s Manhattan is inhabited by well-to-do Jews and WASPs, no poor people, no blacks, Hispanics, Italians, Haitians, Guatemalans, Filipinos, any of the ethnic groups that make New York New York. He shows us just a few locales, a couple of bedrooms, Yale and Emily’s kitchen, the lobby of Tracy’s apartment building. There is his last wonderful run past all kinds of New York storefronts, but mostly we see a prettified New York, a New York for tourists: Elaine’s, Central Park, the Dalton school, Fifth Avenue, the Plaza, the Pierre, the old Hayden Planetarium, the old Museum of Modern Art, art galleries, and these four people who talk endlessly about art. The first line of dialogue in the movie after the prologue is Yale’s saying, “I think the essence of art is to provide a kind of working-through situation.” The line introduces not only art but another of Ike’s and Woody Allen’s favorite concerns, psychoanalysis. In a way, this film is Ike’s therapy through Tracy, her getting him on the right track.

    The iconic shot for this movie, the one on the publicity posters, the one people remember, shows Ike and Mary sitting at night on a park bench in Sutton Place, looking out over the East River with the Queensborough Bridge (specially lit up) over the heads of the couple. Shot at 4:00 a.m., it’s a more gorgeous Manhattan than Manhattan could ever be. And it sets Ike and Mary in a work of art—a still photograph.

    Interestingly the dialogue over that shot is Ike saying, “Years ago I wrote a short story about my mother called The Castrating Zionist. and I wanna expand it into a novel.” He converts even his mother into a work of art. And talk of sexually powerful women! This is presumably the novel he is working on in when he tapes the opening prologue and in his later taping just before he runs to Tracy.

    Woody Allen and Gordon Willis, his immensely gifted cinematographer, shot this film in black and white, very unusual for the ’70s. Willis, known around Hollywood as “the Prince of Darkness,” was famous for his blacks, but in this picture he emphasized shades of gray, light for Tracy, darker for scenes with Mary. He and Woody Allen were deliberately making photographic art. They also shot it in Panavision (one of Hollywood’s many efforts to outdo television). Panavision has an aspect ratio of 2.35 to 1 (as contrasted to the traditional 1.33 to 1). Manhattan is the only film Woody Allen made in so widescreen a process.

     The widescreen processes lead to an interesting variation in photographing dialogue. Instead of the usual shot-reverse shot, a Panavision (or Cinemascope or VistaVision) dialogue typically has the two speakers on two sides of the one wide screen. Here, it enables Willis and Allen to do things like having four people converse as they walk abreast down the street or five people talking at the ERA black-tie affair. I think it gives you a feel for one form of New York social life: fleeting contacts among small clusters of acquaintances as opposed to the intense relationships between couples.

    Those are, of course, sexual. The Pill had triumphed. Fifteen years before this movie, 1.2 million women were already using it. This movie takes for granted the Sexual Revolution of the ’60s and 70s. Sex in this movie is the opposite of abortion: not safe, legal, and rare, but unsafe, illegal, and common. Sex in this movie can easily make people into interchangeable sexual objects less than fully human.

    In an odd way, the characters’ names transmute them into something else, if not works of art, then historical figures. “Ike” is both Hebrew prophet, Isaac, and the nickname for Dwight Eisenhower, quintessential WASP and U.S. president from 1952 to 1960. Curiously, Mary’s last name, Wilke is pronounced Willkie, like the Republican candidate for president in1940. Woody Allen is a liberal, and these two Republican names suggest his disapproval. Yale, of course, refers to the university, and this Yale is a professor. Woody Allen thinks little of professors, and he certainly does not approve of Yale in Manhattan. Tracy echoes the famous cartoon character, and Ike even tells her, “You know, you sound like the mouse in Tom and Jerry,” the cartoon. In much the same way, Maurice Yacowar has shown, the song titles of the various Gershwin tunes comment on the action they accompany, making the action and characters part of the song.

    People as works of art or other consumable objects (like politicians) as opposed to human beings being treated as human beings—those are the two ways of relating, the two worlds that this film pivots around. At least that’s the way I see Manhattan.

    But this movie does just what it condemns. Like any movie, it converts people into consumable, dismissible art. This is a movie that bites its own tail. Manhattan says that Manhattan itself is immoral. It deconstructs itself in the best self-reflexive manner of art in the ’60s and ’70s. And, in doing so, it creates the very kind of self-testing artistic paradox postmodern audiences admire. And I willingly confess to being a card-carrying postmodern. I think this is a wonderful movie.


Items I’ve referred to: Yacowar, Maurice. Loser Take All: The Comic Art of Woody Allen. New York: Continuum, 1991.



The End

— N. N. H.