Friday, July 4, 2014

Stubs - Manhattan

Manhattan (1979) Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Produced by Charles H. Joffe. Run Time: 96 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Romantic Comedy, Drama

Following the success of Annie Hall (1977), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Woody Allen made Interiors (1978), an Ingmar Bergman-styled drama which showed that Woody was fallible. The film not only wasn’t a commercial success, making more than $100 million less at the box office than Annie Hall, but it was not a critical success either.

But Allen is nothing but prolific. He was back the next year with a new screenplay, having once again chosen to write with Marshall Brickman, who also co-wrote Annie Hall. He also return to more familiar themes, including his beloved New York, psychoanalysis, the state of television, film, writing and love. The same themes he touched on so brilliantly in Annie Hall.

While there is humor, the film is less dependent on it than any other Allen film, save Interiors which seems devoid of it. No longer would Allen films be jokes with story stringing them together. From now on, they would deal with adult themes with an adult sensibility. There would be jokes and humor, but his work would also be filled with pathos and ethos.

When I made up a list of favorite films to begin my writing for Trophy Unlocked, I listed Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). There is a complexity to that film that is hinted at in Manhattan, but which was still a few years off for the writer/director. Manhattan is a signpost of things to come and there are elements of this film that are still present in Allen’s more current films. The loving street scenes of Paris that open Midnight in Paris (2011) are reflections of the loving shots of both the streets and skyline of Manhattan.

This is one of those films that seems to be autobiographical, but probably really isn’t. Allen would famously have an affair with a much younger woman he would later marry, Soon-Li Previn, the adopted daughter of his lover, Mia Farrow, but this would not be for another decade. (Note: Actress/Relationship Expert Stacey Nelkin claims Manhattan is partially based on her relationship with Woody Allen that started when she was 17. Allen has never acknowledged such a relationship.)

Woody Allen’s name, at the time, was synonymous with New York, and we’re told the character Isaac cannot function anywhere else. Like his characters, in this film, as well as many others, Allen was in analysis for many years. His character is a writer and, like Mickey Sachs from Hannah and Her Sisters and Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, writes for television, a profession Allen himself held, most famously for Sid Caesar.

Also this movie is filled with music, but it was not something written for the film, rather the instrumental works and instrumentations of songs written by George Gershwin. Isaac remembers the city in black and white and accompanied by the jazz age compositions of Gershwin. The composer is probably best known for his composition, Rhapsody in Blue, which premiered at An Experiment in Modern Music concert in 1924. Perhaps one of the best known American compositions, Rhapsody in Blue combines elements of classical music with jazz.

What's the 4th of July without fireworks? The opening montage is
full of loving images of the film's namesake, Manhattan.
This piece accompanies the film’s opening montage of Manhattan, which is also narrated by Isaac Davis (Allen), who sets up his story by talking about his identification with the city. Isaac is writing a book about his love of New York City and is trying to find the right tone to use. A twice-divorced, 42 year-old comedy writer, he is dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17 year-old high school student attending the Dalton School. We first see them on a double date with Isaac’s best friend, college professor Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy), and his wife of many years, Emily (Anne Byrne), at Elaine’s, a New York eatery.

Mariel Hemingway plays Tracy, Isaac's (Woody Allen) 17 year-old love interest.

Yale confesses to Isaac on a post dinner walk that he’s met and fallen in love with another woman, Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), who is a cerebral journalist/writer.

Isaac, in a fit of self-righteousness, quits his writing job to concentrate on his own book. Yale thinks it’s a good idea, but Isaac is worried. He will have to move to a cheaper apartment and he won’t be able to send as much money as he has been to his parents.

On a subsequent trip to a museum, Isaac and Tracy run into Yale and Mary. Isaac is not taken with the very opinionated Mary’s cultural snobbery. Mary and Yale have started an overrated club which includes many of Isaac’s heroes, including Ingmar Bergman.

An uneasy foursome: Yale (Michael Murphy) and his mistress Mary
(Diane Keaton) meet up with Issac and Tracy. Mary is not shy with her opinions.

Isaac and Tracy beg off from spending more time with the couple and go shopping. They discuss Yale’s affair and talk about monogamy. Tracy seems to believe that people should perhaps have several relationships in their lives, rather than one long one until they die.

Meanwhile, Isaac finds out that his second ex-wife, Jill Davis (Meryl Streep), who left him for another woman, Connie (Karen Ludwig), is writing a book detailing the end of their marriage. Isaac tries to talk her out of writing it, but Jill will not be swayed.

Meryl Streep plays Isaac's ex-wife Jill, who is writing a book about their relationship. 

Isaac runs into Mary again at an Equal Rights Amendment fund-raiser at the Museum of Modern Art, hosted by Bella Abzug. Mary’s friends, like her, are very cerebral and opinionated. Isaac mentions how outraged he is about a Nazi rally in New Jersey, but they are satisfied with a satirical op-ed piece about it in the New York Times.
Isaac accompanies Mary on the cab ride home. They start talking and end up chatting until sunrise. This shot is the iconic one of the Queensboro Bridge that made it onto the posters for the movie.

The next Sunday afternoon, bored in her apartment and with Yale busy at his in-laws, Mary calls Isaac to see if he wants to go for a walk. The pleasant Sunday afternoon is disrupted by a rain storm and the two seek refuge in a space museum in Central Park. They are starting to find common ground and starting to fall in love.

Isaac and Mary spend some time together and fall in love. Above is an example
 of the excellent cinematography of Gordon Willis, as he films the actors in a dark museum. 

But Isaac can’t yet break it off with Tracy. She has an opportunity to study acting in London and Isaac encourages her. He keeps telling her that she shouldn’t count too much on their relationship, since she’s so young and there is a great difference in their ages, 25 years.

Yale breaks it off with Mary, not wanting to end his marriage for the uncertainty of their relationship. He suggests over squash that Isaac should call Mary. Isaac finally breaks it off with Tracy one day after school over a milkshake. He tells her that he’s met someone else that he’s in love with; someone closer to his own age.

Isaac breaks it off with Mary after school over a milkshake.

Time passes and Emily asks Isaac why they’ve never met his new girlfriend. In what has the makings of an uncomfortable double date, Emily finally meets Mary and the two women seem to hit it off. One day, while the four are walking around together, they see a window display for Jill’s book, which they naturally buy and dissect it. Emily even reads some of the passages out loud.

Soon afterward, Isaac goes to Yale and Emily’s with news that a publisher is interested in his book. Yale comes home late. When Isaac goes back to his apartment, Mary is there and confesses that she and Yale have started to see each other again and tells him that she never stopped loving Yale.

Feeling betrayed, Isaac goes to the college where Yale teaches and pulls him out of class. In a nearby empty classroom, Yale argues that he saw Mary first. Isaac then discusses Yale’s affair with Emily, who blames Isaac for introducing the two. Isaac, despite everything, doesn’t betray Yale’s previous affair with Mary.

Alone, Isaac tries to come up with a short story idea and starts to discuss the things that he loves that make life worth living. Listing out his favorite things into a microphone, Isaac includes Tracy’s face.

While listing his favorite things, Isaac mentions Tracy's face and realizes he's not over her.

Suddenly desperate to see her, Isaac tries to call her, but the phone is busy. He goes out onto the street and when he can’t hail a cab, he starts to run. When he arrives at the lobby of her family’s apartment building, Tracy is about to leave for six months in London. Selfishly, Isaac tells her he doesn’t want her to go as he fears what six months apart will do to her and to their possible future together. But Tracy stands her ground. Plans have been made and she’s going through with it. After all, it’s only six months. She ends the movie by telling Isaac that he’s “got to have a little faith in people.” Isaac acknowledges with a slight smile.

Perhaps not the most satisfying of endings, but perhaps one that is closest to reality. We’re not privy to what happens during or after Tracy’s time in London. So we’re left with the same uncertainty Isaac is facing, not a happy ending.

There is a real sense of maturity in this film as opposed to Annie Hall. The relationships are much more complicated and love is more uncertain. While in Annie Hall, Annie and Alvy at least get together to reminisce, Isaac seems to be cutting the cords on his relationships in Manhattan. He won’t be getting together with Mary or Yale to talk about the past and their betrayal. While the decision to split up was mutual in Annie Hall, in Manhattan, Isaac is betrayed. He really thinks he has a future with Mary, they even discuss having children, before she runs back to Yale. Somehow this seems more real.

And as with real life, sometimes people turn back to someone they discarded along the way. In this case, Isaac returns to Mary, though long term that relationship does seem doomed.

The story-telling, too is also more complicated. We can see Allen tackling more non-linear approaches. Allen’s hero is not in control of his destiny as much as he had been in previous movies. While Isaac is in practically every scene, the world goes on without him. Events happen off screen without his knowledge that have a big impact on him. The beginnings are there for more films without the Allen hero in every scene or even in every storyline. The Allen hero is actually part of a subplot in Hannah and Her Sisters, rather than the main characters.

We are seeing his films moving towards more ensemble acting rather than simply concentrating on the Allen hero and his love interest. In time, Allen would stop appearing in his films and the Allen hero would not always be the center of every film.

At the time Manhattan came out, it was a bit of a revelation. Interiors was the first of many films Allen has made that have bombed with audiences. Manhattan was a return of sorts for the filmmaker. Gone were the pure “funny” ones, but in their place was a sense of tackling life’s bigger issues.

And let’s face it, the film looked different than any other film out in release at the time. Not only was Gordon Willis’ cinematography amazing, it was also done in widescreen black and white. What had once been so commonplace now always seems to get attention in our colored film/video/digital world, see Nebraska (2013).

The use of black and white makes Manhattan more of a statement film. Not just a return to form, but showing that things were going to be different now.

While the story-telling is what carries the day, Allen seems to be able to get the best from his actors as well. Many of his best films have been made with Diane Keaton. While her first big break came in the role of Kay in The Godfather (1972), she is best known for her work with Allen.

Having met during the Broadway run of Play It Again, Sam, their romantic relationship, which seemed to be at the center of so many movies, had already peaked by the time Play It Again, Sam (1972) was made. They would go on to make seven more films together: Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975), Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), Manhattan, Radio Day (1987) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Keaton would win an Academy Award for her role as Annie in Annie Hall and would co-star in the three Godfather films; Reds (1981) with Warren Beatty, another man she was romantically linked to; Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977); Baby Boom (1987); and The First Wives’ Club (1996).

Woody Allen (center) met Diane Keaton (far right) during
 the Broadway run of Play It Again, Sam in 1969.

There are elements of Annie in the Mary character. But they’ve been turned a little eschew. While Mary admits to believing in God and being from Philadelphia, she does not resonate with the same warped Normal Rockwell aesthetics Annie had. She is willing to have an affair with a married man, something I couldn’t see Annie doing.

Like Annie, Mary is also a creative person, this time a writer. But while Annie seemed more passive about her career, Mary is a more determined/modern woman. She is willing to do what she has to do to survive, writing novelizations of movies, a craft Isaac scoffs at, and trying to move on from her first love, Jeremiah (Wallace Shawn), whom was a major force in her early adulthood. A woman’s romantic interest in a professor is a theme Allen returns to many times in his films.

Michael Murphy seems to be a stand in for Tony Roberts, who played a similar best friend role in Annie Hall. But Yale is a much deeper character than Rob. He is an old friend and intellectual equal, but he is also a rival lover for the affections of Mary. While Alvy lost out to Tony Lacey (Paul Simon), in Annie Hall, he was across the country, not someone Isaac is close to. While Lacey might be an idealized rival, Isaac has to know all of Yale’s warts and blemishes. Losing out to someone so much like yourself, someone who knows what they’re doing hurts you, makes the loss harder.

Mariel Hemingway was only in her third film when she played Tracy and all of 18 years old, too. She speaks with a quiet, restrained voice and though we’re told she’s a good actress, there is really no sign of it in this film. She is very beautiful for a teenager, but she is often hard for me to read. She does cry on cue, I’ll give her that, but she seems to be almost devoid of emotion otherwise. While I’m not that impressed by her performance, I’m in the minority apparently, as she was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Tracy.

Even though I wasn't impressed, Hemingway did receive an Academy Award nomination.

The bit parts are, as usual, well cast, though I’ve heard that credit really goes to Juliet Taylor. Over the years, she has been responsible for introducing many of the actors and actresses who have had memorable roles in Allen’s films. As an example: Meryl Streep, still fairly new to films, plays the small role of Jill. But perhaps the most brilliant bit of casting is Wallace Shawn as Jeremiah. Mary’s first husband and former professor gets quite the build up by her for his mental and sexual prowess. Isaac has to be wondering how he could ever compete with him, that is until he meets him. Shawn is a fine actor, perhaps best known for My Dinner with Andre (1981), but he is still a small, balding fellow. If Isaac thinks he can take Tracy’s dad, he must certainly think he can take on Jeremiah.

In a brilliant bit of casting, Wallace Shawn plays Mary's first husband Jeremiah.

Woody Allen is not everyone’s taste, nor does he try to be. His earlier films, the so-called “funny ones” are easier to watch. Somewhat repetitive, they are still very funny with much broader humor than Annie Hall and the films that followed. Allen is still capable of broader humor, see Small Time Crooks (2000), but he wants to be taken as a more serious filmmaker. He has stories he wants to tell and he has gone to great lengths, including going overseas to get funding, to keep his independence. We see those first steps in Manhattan. He’s learning to balance his stories and you can see the growth. I see in Manhattan the beginnings of what will eventually become Hannah and Her Sisters.

As someone who used to look forward to every new Allen film, when Manhattan came out, I felt that he had righted his ship after his Interior disaster. At the time, I couldn’t see into the future to see what he would eventually do, but I did see it as a new beginning for him and a departure from his past filmmaking. If Annie Hall was a culmination of what he’d learned with the “funny ones”, then Manhattan can been seen as the beginning of the next phase in Allen’s career.

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