Classic film – Manhattan

Classic film – Manhattan

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By Arthur Flynn

The 1979 film Manhattan could be regarded as literally a one man show from the brain, skill and pen of Woody Allen. He starred as the central character Isaac Davis, directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Marshall Brickman. Allen described the film as a combination of his previous two films, Annie Hall and Interiors.

In Manhattan, Allen played a television writer, Isaac Davis, based in New York. In reality Allen himself had been a television comedy writer during the 1950s.

For the 1970s it was unusual for a film to be shot in black-and-white and widescreen but Allen always broke the rules. He never followed set patterns. The film also featured the melodious music of George Gershwin, including Rhapsody in Blue that inspired the idea behind the film.

As usual with Allen’s films he assembled a strong production team headed by cinematographer Gordon Willis and editor Susan E. Morse. The film was shot on a budget of $9 million for United Artists.

The other leading members of the cast included Diane Keaton as Mary Wilke, Michael Murphy as Yale, Mariel Hemingway as Tracy, Anne Byrne as Emily, Wallace Shawn as Jeremiah, Karen Ludwig as Connie and Meryl Streep as Jill.

Meryl Streep, then an emerging star, shot her scenes for the film during the breaks in filming of Kramer vs. Kramer.

The plot for Manhattan centred on Isaac Davis, a twice-divorced, 42-year-old television comedy writer dealing with the women in his life and quitting his unfulfilling job. He is dating Tracy, a 17-year-old girl who is still attending school.

His best friend, college professor Yale Pollack, married to Emily, is having an affair with Mary Wilkie. Mary’s ex-husband and former teacher, Jeremiah, also appears.

Isaac’s ex-wife Jill is writing a confessional book about their marriage. Jill has also since come out of the closet as a lesbian and lives with her partner, Connie.  

When Isaac meets Mary, her cultural snobbery rubs him up the wrong way. In spite of his growing attraction for Mary, Isaac still continues his relationship with Tracy. Isaac has to try and come to terms with his complicated life style and career and bring some order to it.

In the film Isaac has surrounded himself with a circle of friends, all of whom are writers. Yale is writing a biography of Eugene O’Neill and Mary is a critic. The script is littered with references to creative artists from Strindberg to Bergman, Fellini to Groucho Marx.
The film was like a travelogue of Manhattan cultural landmarks and those included in the film were Central Park, Broadway, Park Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Greenwich Village, Bloomingdales, Madison Avenue and the Upper East Side. One elaborate shot is of dawn coming up over the skyscrapers of the Big Apple.

It was Allen’s tribute to New York as was Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai and La Dolce Vita, Vittorio De Sica’s tribute to Rome. When Allen saw the rough cut of Manhattan he was totally disappointed and stressed. He asked the producers if they would consider destroying every frame of it if he did his next film for them for free.
They thoroughly disagreed with him. Thankfully to editor Sandy Morse, this tribute to his home town emerged as his most highly regarded film by cinemagoers.

For Manhattan Woody Allen got some of his best reviews. The following are a sample: ‘A masterpiece that has become a film for the ages by not seeking to be a film of the moment.’ ‘Woody Allen’s great leap forward into character development and dramatic integrity.’

As expected the film was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress for Mariel Hemingway and Best Writing, Screenplay written directly for the Screen for Allen and Marshall Brickman.

Despite Allen’s misgivings many critics and cinemagoers classed it as being his best film. Allen himself regarded it as being his least favourite of the films he directed but yet it was the most commercially successful.

Following the huge success of Annie Hall and Manhattan, the United Artists executives told Allen’s producers: “From now on, make whatever you want.” He followed their advice and is still producing, directing and starring in first class films to day. ÷