MANHATTAN (1979) – A pain in the “But”

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

When I saw Manhattan upon its first release, I was only 18 years old, I was already a rabid Woody Allen fan, and the 1970’s were…well, the ‘70s. But the movie is getting a radical revisiting in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and I now see the movie as a mass of contradictions — or, to put it more plainly, a lot of “But’s.”

The movie begins smashingly, with a gorgeous montage of New York scenery sumptuously photographed by Gordon Willis, and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” playing in the background. Amidst this assertive opening, we soon hear the reedy voice of TV writer and author Isaac Davis (Allen) “writing” the first chapter of his book (i.e., dictating it into a tape recorder). It’s a beautiful visual and a funny introduction to the movie’s themes.

But…Isaac’s description of New York includes a reference to “street-smart guys who know all the angles,” juxtaposed with a shot of leering construction workers eyeing a curvy brunette who’s crossing the street. Don’t look now, but some ‘70s sexism is slipping through the crevices.

Meryl

In what is probably the movie’s most underwritten character, Meryl Streep, in an early movie role, plays Jill, Isaac’s second ex-wife and the mother of their only child, whom Jill is now raising with her lesbian partner Connie (Karen Ludwig). A major plot point of the movie is that Jill has written and published a tell-all book about her marriage with Isaac and his reaction to his later discovery of his wife’s lesbianism (he tried to run them both over with a car).

But…this entire part of the plot seems contrived and unfocused. At one point, Isaac freely admits to a friend that he tried to run the couple over, but later he tries to claim to Jill that it was an accident. Worse is Streep’s strange acting in the movie. In her first, confrontational scene with Isaac, Jill is cocky about having the book to hold over Isaac’s head, but later, in her own apartment, Jill nervously tries to avoid Isaac’s inquiries, as though he still has some unknown power over her.

Another major plot point is that of Isaac’s longtime best friend, a professor named Yale (Michael Murphy). Unbeknownst to Yale’s wife Emily (Anne Byrne), he has been having an affair with a neurotic and pretentious woman named Mary (Diane Keaton). Yale, Mary, and Isaac have quite the partner-changing routine, as Yale nervously “passes” Mary off to Isaac when he decides to stay true to his wife, only to later selfishly reclaim Mary and destroy both his marriage and his friendship with Isaac. This is meant to serve as Allen’s moral compass of the movie, as he has Isaac give Yale a kiss-off speech telling him how selfish he is.

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But…this moralistic high ground doesn’t easily gel with the movie’s May/December elephant in the room: Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), Isaac’s high-school-age girlfriend who is a full quarter-century younger than Isaac. Even if you are willing to separate the art from the artist (you know — Allen, who infamously married his much younger [not-really-his] stepdaughter), Isaac cannot completely joke his way out of a relationship that seems, at best, morally iffy. (Where are Tracy’s parents throughout this roundelay? Strangely unseen and undiscussed, at least until movie’s end, where Tracy is given a throwaway line about their looking for an apartment for her in London, where she has just earned a scholarship.)

And there’s no question that the Isaac-Tracy romance is the movie’s biggest moral quagmire. Isaac is forever making speeches about ethics, but he is forever leading Tracy on while keeping her at arm’s length, until he finally gets a shot at Mary and breaks off with Tracy. And as soon as his chance with Mary goes kaput, he goes running back to try to get Tracy back into his life.

So there are a lot of wonderful touches to enjoy in Manhattan, as long as you can evade the “But…” angel who keeps tapping you on your shoulder and telling you that this is not really a cautionary tale, for the 1970’s or any other decade.

(POSTSCRIPT: It’s worth noting that even Allen himself seems torn by contradictions about his own movie. When it became his biggest box-office success to date, he said, “People really latched onto Manhattan in a way that I thought was irrational.” Yet in 1980, when New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote a long and scorching diatribe against not only Manhattan, but Allen’s movies Annie HallInteriors, and Stardust Memories, Allen felt compelled to end his years-long friendship with Kael.)

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3 responses to “MANHATTAN (1979) – A pain in the “But”

  1. I try — not always successfully — not to let an artist’s personal life color how I experience their work (“separate the art from the artist”), and so I don’t have a problem judging this film on its own merits. In fact, it is one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, along with MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and some of his earlier comedies….though I can appreciate your point of view.

    Liked by 1 person

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