MANHATTAN (1979)

  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Writers: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
  • Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Michael Murphy, and Anne Byrne
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#93), 2 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actress – Mariel Hemingway, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi App, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

We have all changed a lot since 1979, in some ways that are very obvious and some ways that are subtler. In 1979, they did not have the internet. The Cold War was still going on. No one knew that Darth Vader was Luke’s father (sorry for spoilers). And somehow, Woody Allen made a movie where the main plot is a romantic arc between himself, in his forties, and a seventeen-year-old girl (Mariel Hemingway), and basically no one even batted an eye. The age difference is seen by the other characters in the movie as more endearing quirk than obvious abuse. The movie received rave reviews and became beloved by many. The only major critic to even comment on how weird all this was Pauline Kael (who, it is probably not a coincidence, was one of the only major female critics at the time), who wrote, “What man in his forties could pass of a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” It might seem sort of surprising that there was a time when we were all just apparently fine with this, but here is the evidence.

I think the credible allegations against Woody Allen are fairly well known, so before I get to the details of my thoughts on that issue, I think I’ll talk about this movie, Manhattan, so that we have some actual basis to discuss it. It is a fairly typical Allen movie, a lower-key romantic comedy about relationships among upper class, white New Yorkers, with lots of extremely erudite witticisms tossed between the characters. At one point Allen, attempting to criticize Diane Keaton’s character, says she’s “a graduate of the Zelda Fitzgerald school of emotional maturity.” We get about one of those every couple of minutes, and I’ll admit that it goes a long way for me. What sets the movie apart is the way it’s lovingly shot in black and white, in a widescreen aspect ratio that Allen absolutely refused to cut down for home video or TV, as was common practice at the time. 

The romantic foibles of the various characters are almost entirely set against a backdrop of Manhattan landmarks, museums and parks. Manhattan has been described as Allen’s “love letter to New York,” but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it’s his love letter to his own dream of New York, a New York where you can’t smell the trash because it’s not in color and there are, bizarrely, no minorities of any kind whatsoever. Allen plays a version of himself who writes for a weird TV talk show called Human Beings, Wow!, a job he quits halfway through because it’s “junk,” in order to write books. There is no discussion of how he’s still going to pay the rent. 

As the movie opens, he’s dating (openly, in front of all his friends) Hemingway’s beautiful high schooler. He spends all his time talking down to her, but she somehow finds him very sexually attractive, and there are plenty of discussions of their sex life that are sure to leave most modern viewers feeling “urpy” (I found this term in a New York Times article called “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Manhattan,” and of course the Grand Old Lady felt the need to define it as “a term for feeling as if you are about to vomit.”). His ex-wife (an entirely thankless role by played a mostly-pre-superstardom Meryl Streep) left him for a woman and is writing a book about their relationship, to his great chagrin. Despite Tracey’s professions of love, he eventually dumps her for his friends’ former mistress, Mary, played by Diane Keaton. It’s interesting, perhaps, that Keaton is not just playing another version of Annie Hall. Mary is a neurotic, not so different from Allen’s character, with random strong opinions about modern art and which authors are “overrated,” who prefaces many somewhat random statements with, “I’m from Philadelphia.” As in, “I’m from Philadelphia, I believe in God.”

Though I was left feeling that these two, if not quite made for each other, definitely deserve each other, Mary eventually goes back to sleeping with Allen’s friend (Michael Murphy), and he realizes that he actually does love Tracey and should have stayed with her all along. He runs through the streets of Manhattan to her apartment (her parents are never seen, mentioned once), a scene that was cribbed directly for the climax of When Harry Met Sally… He finds her about to leave for six months of studying abroad in London, and tries to get her to leave but to no avail. She says they will still be there for each other in six months, but he worries that hanging out with everyone in London will “change who she is.” “Everyone gets corrupted,” she tells him.

So yeah, this is a movie in which Woody Allen’s emotional arc is realizing that what he really wants from life is to date teenage girls. Given subsequent allegations of sexual abuse, along with Allen marrying his former-stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, even for devoted fans of his work watching his movies can be an exercise in cognitive dissonance. I admit that I once considered myself among those fans. Of all his films, Manhattan is the most cognitively dissonant of them all. The subtext you get from the things that are normally off-screen invades the actual text of the movie, and it’s really bizarre to watch, and even more bizarre to think that, again, nobody seemed to care about this at the time. Allen, it seems, had multiple relationships with teenage girls by this time, on which he loosely based some aspects of this movie’s plot. Hemingway, an up-and-coming star at the time who also happens to be the granddaughter of famous author Ernest, later said that Allen did not bother her during filming, but that afterward tried to get her to take a trip to Paris with him. She refused after figuring out there would not be separate bedrooms.

I was not there in 1979, but it seems to me that the basic difference in outlook is that most people today would find a relationship between characters of the ages of Allen and Hemingway’s characters to be, even if technically legal, fairly clearly abusive. Apparently, 17 was the age of consent in New York at the time, so what’s shown here is not “statutory rape,” but the power imbalance is absolutely clear throughout, and it’s that power imbalance that’s a huge problem. And if Allen’s character learns anything over the course of the movie, it’s not that he shouldn’t be doing this, it’s that he should do it more. This girl is actually into him, he seems to be saying, he shouldn’t reject that just because she’s young and beautiful. Only an anxious weirdo would do that, Allen seems to be saying.

And so those who love Allen movies are left between a rock and a hard place. Even Actor/Director Greta Gerwig, who appeared in Allen’s 2012 film To Rome With Love, named him in the past as her biggest influence, and even wrote the screenplay for her own-black-and-white paean to New York romanticism, Frances Ha (directed by her then-husband, Noah Baumbach), says she will never work with him again. The words of others are stronger: a quick Google search found one article that calls Allen “the Leni Riefenstahl of pedophilia” (which honestly feels like a line from this movie) and even suggests that “all the beautiful photography is there to distract us while [Allen] tries to make relationships with teenagers OK.” And honestly, given everything that’s happened since, perhaps it’s not a bad position to assume the worst intentions on Allen’s part unless proven otherwise.

Look, that photography really is beautiful. There’s a famous shot of Allen and Keaton’s characters, tiny against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge. Another sequence shows them walking through a darkened Planetarium exhibit, shot such that they seem to be talking about their relationship troubles on the moon. And, as I said, I’m a sucker for Allen’s usual one-liners: “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or catholics.” But not only is Allen’s icky subtext leaking all over the text here, he doesn’t seem to have learned anything in the years since. Word has it that part of the reason Amazon shelved his most-recent film, A Rainy Day in New York, is that it features a May-December romance between Jude Law and Elle Fanning. Allen’s lawsuit over that issue is ongoing, but he had to know that plot-line would have attracted negative attention. Right? Or maybe he’s still living in the late-70s, when our parents were apparently just blind to this kind of thing.

2 thoughts on “MANHATTAN (1979)

  1. I was once a Woody Allen fan. Didn’t like this movie as much as his other work when I saw some 25 years ago, although the cinematography and music is great. I have absolutely no desire to ever watch a Woody Allen movie now, especially this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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