In 1952 Charlie Chaplin, after a long, historic career as a comic, for the first time signed a new film “Charles Spencer Chaplin.” The new film was Limelight, the story of a master vaudevillian of mature years, named Cavallo and played by Chaplin, who is loved by a beautiful young Englishwoman, played by Claire Bloom. There was almost nothing funny in the film, the story being unabashedly one of sentiment and love, and not so much of Cavallo being in love as of other people, almost the world, one felt, being in love with Cavallo. In a key scene Cavallo—who has wisely and nobly been telling Claire Bloom, perhaps one-third his age, that he is too old for her—is told in return with overwhelming emotion, the music swelling, “But I love you, Cavallo.”
Chaplin was politically persona non grata in the United States at the time, but Limelight was received in London, Paris, and other European capitals with praise nothing short of dithyrambic. Chaplin having already been compared with Aeschylus and Sophocles (not Aristophanes, mind you), critics now reached desperately for new hyperbole. The opinion was nearly universal, in any event, that Chaplin had at last attained his magnificent maturity. Other majestic works would surely follow. What did follow, of course, were works of such appalling shoddiness (A King in New York, The Countess from Hong Kong) that it is an act of charity to pass over them—although it is perhaps worth noting that Marlon Brando, presumably still awed by Chaplin’s greatness, lent his services to the latter film.
The chorus of praise that has greeted the appearance of Woody Allen’s Manhattan is reminiscent of the European reception of Limelight. “A Comic Genius” proclaimed the cover of Time magazine (subtitle: “Woody Allen Comes of Age”); a cover story on “The Maturing of Woody Allen” in the New York Times Magazine; “genius” in the New York Daily News; “masterpiece” in the Los Angeles Times; “the one truly great American film of the 70’s” in the Village Voice.
Allen’s interviews themselves have set the new frame of reference. Once, he seemed reasonably content to be considered a compulsive funny man, moody, even morbid in private life, but an author of screen farces—farces which contained parodic bits from the high culture (Freud, Kierkegaard, the usual thing), but farces nonetheless. Now, in Time, he announced his concern with “the meaning of life.” “You have to deny the reality of death to go on every day.” He also seemed to be taking his distance from the Jewish ethos which had provided him with his point of view, characterizations, identity, almost his raison d’être. Things distinguishing Jews from Gentiles were “largely superficial,” he said, and being Jewish never consciously entered his work.
Manhattan is not signed by Allen Stewart Konigsberg (Woody Allen’s real name). But the titles are a somber white on black. In fact, the entire film is in black and white—which in the prevailing conditions of the contemporary film market can hardly be seen as other than a gesture of austere ambition, if not arrogant defiance. We also learn from the credits that Zubin Mehta directs the New York Philharmonic, that Bella Abzug is a “Guest of Honor,” and that “Mr. Allen’s wardrobe is by Ralph Lauren.”
The film opens on a long series of “glamor” shots of Manhattan: the fashionable East Side in the UN Plaza-Sutton Place area seen from the East River; the Central Park West skyline seen from Fifth Avenue; the Midtown skyline; the long southward view of Park Avenue under the snow. Over these postcards of luxury New York in 1979 we hear George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, written in 1923, and sounding it. Still over the images, we hear the voice of Woody Allen, who seems to be making several false starts at writing an autobiographical novel. “Behind his black-rimmed glasses is the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.”
The opening scene proper takes place at Elaine’s, an Upper East Side restaurant which has received an immense amount of publicity as a meeting place of prominent writers and intellectuals. We find Isaac (Woody Allen), a highly successful television comedy writer; his best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), a college literature professor; Yale’s wife (Anne Byrne); and Isaac’s seventeen-year-old girl friend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of Ernest). They are conversing, yes, about the nature of art. (“Artists get in touch with their own feelings. . . .”) But the talk soon drifts off into funny chat from Isaac about Tracy’s youth. “Do you realize I’m dating a girl who still does homework?” And indeed Tracy has to go off to do her homework.
Even the greatest stories can be reduced to vapidity in summary (as Woody Allen himself knows, having done it to Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a skit in his own Love and Death), and I am perhaps doing an injustice to Manhattan by synopsizing it. Nonetheless: Isaac Davis is a talented, witty, fashionably dressed television writer, attractive to women, who is having a low-key affair with Tracy, a schoolgirl with the voice of the mouse in a Tom-and-Jerry cartoon. In a situation reminiscent of Limelight, she is hopelessly in love with him, but he discourages her from taking the “relationship” too seriously. “You’re going to meet a lot of terrific guys. I know you love my dry humor and astonishing sexual technique, and you’ll have fond memories, but you’ll look back on me later as a detour on the highway of life.”
Meanwhile, his friend Yale has begun an adulterous liaison with a literary intellectual lady named Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton). Described as “nervous, high-strung, elusive,” Mary drops more intellectual names per minute than I have ever heard from any human being, in art or in life (Jung, Isak Dinesen, Heinrich Boll, Van Gogh, Fitzgerald, Mahler, Ingmar Bergman, etc.). Yale, torn between his book on Eugene O’Neill and a new Porsche, his wife and his mistress, decides to palm Mary off on Isaac. Isaac has been having a difficult time with his ex-second wife, who has left him for a lesbian and is now bringing up their child “with two mothers,” and he picks up with Mary where Yale left off. He also drops Tracy, who is very hurt. Then Yale changes his mind and picks up with Mary again, who drops Isaac.
At this point, Isaac realizes that the one he has really loved all along is Tracy. Unable to reach her on the telephone, he races across New York to find her in the lobby of her luxury apartment building, about to take a plane for London. He reverses himself on everything he has ever told her about being a detour on the highway of life and entreats her to stay. But it is too late: her parents are already in London looking for a place for her to live. The melodies of George Gershwin love songs have been recurring relentlessly throughout the entire film, and, its words unheard, the one that swells up now is: “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me.” But the effect is softened. The London trip will only be for six months. Perhaps he hasn’t lost her after all. “Six months isn’t so long,” says Tracy, who assures Isaac earnestly in her little voice that she still loves him. “Have a little faith in people,” she says appealingly. The last shot in the scene is of Isaac’s face, gazing at her shyly, lovingly. A wistful smile comes to his lips. We cut to the Manhattan skyline. The screen goes black, bearing the legend, “Directed by Woody Allen.”
The first thing to say is that Manhattan is not a comedy at all, though Woody Allen himself has many funny lines. He is gloomily unoptimistio about the lethal effect of satire on Nazis, for instance: “Satire doesn’t work on guys with shiny boots.” He thinks people should mate for life “like pigeons or Catholics.” When in an argument with Michael Murphy he is told he thinks he’s God, he answers, “Well, I’ve got to model myself on someone!”
But no one else in the film has a scrap of wit. Michael Murphy and Mariel Hemingway are both excellent actors, but neither gets a laugh in the entire movie. Diane Keaton does get a few, but as a fool and a butt. There is, on the other hand, no laughter at the expense of Meryl Streep, who plays the lesbian ex-wife with a truly forbidding humorlessness; nor is any fun made of her lesbian lover or their relationship. Indeed, one is tempted to think that Mr. Allen, who has been known to needle sanctimony, now has a list of subjects that he feels it would be particularly unseemly, or perhaps too risky, to use for humorous purposes. Chevy Chase could let fly at Gerald Ford, but Woody Allen will not let fly at Bella Abzug, who appears in Manhattan as herself at a black-tie Museum of Modern Art fund-raiser for the ERA and is treated solemnly and even reverentially by the film.
In short, the only character allowed to have any wit at all in Manhattan is Woody Allen himself—and his wit is “justified” in the sense that it is his profession to be funny. What we are offered in Manhattan, as in Limelight, as indeed in the true ancestor-work, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, is a perfectly serious story about the private life of a professional funny man.
Accordingly, Allen has transformed the nature of the character he assigns himself. Until now his formula has been a comparatively simple one: he was the nebbish triumphant, the nebbish in excelsis. But not only does Woody Allen not want to do comedy any more, he doesn’t want to play a nebbish any more either. In line after line after line of Manhattan, Isaac Davis gives us to understand that he is personable, assured, witty, muscular, attractive to women. He feels it necessary to assert his self-assurance even when told he is funny. “I don’t need you to tell me that, I’ve been making good money off it.” In the scene at the Museum of Modern Art, during a discussion of how best to deal with Nazis, he says maybe “a bunch of the guys” should get together and (here he raises a clenched fist) go over to Jersey and show them. Woody Allen is going to go over and brawl in the streets of Jersey with Nazis.
Similarly, meeting women, as he says, is “no problem.” The only woman in the film who does not have powerfully loving or admiring feelings toward Isaac is his lesbian ex-wife, but it hardly reflects on a man’s virility or sexual attractiveness if a woman he fails to hold isn’t interested in men at all. For the rest, the Diane Keaton character falls under his spell, his friend’s wife is utterly devoted to him, and Tracy, the schoolgirl, is hopelessly in love with him.
Intelligent people have found something “authentic” in this Tracy-Isaac relationship. I do not. I think Mariel Hemingway gives an extremely touching performance. Isaac (since after all he is gradually brushing her off) is quiet and unassuming with her—as opposed to the conquistador manner he forces himself to assume in other parts of the film. But Tracy has no distinguishing characteristic whatever other than her love for Isaac. She is a teenager. She is beautiful. She has a little voice. And she loves Isaac. She was created for this sole purpose and, more than anything else in a film whose own main purpose seems to be the adoration of Woody Allen, she is its personification.
It is interesting in this context to compare the closing scene of Manhattan with the closing scene of Chaplin’s City Lights, which undoubtedly served as its model. The scene from the Chaplin film is awash with sentimentality also. It is derived from Victorian literature: a good deed found out by accident. The beautiful salesgirl in the flower shop, formerly blind, realizes from the feel of his hands that this ridiculous looking tramp standing before her is the noble stranger who paid for the operation which restored her eyesight. Despite its contrived nature, it is a scene of wild emotion, ranging from embarrassment to shame, horror, anguish. Chaplin fidgets giddily, grimaces. He is pleased but his confusion is excruciating. It is hard to imagine how anyone who has seen Chaplin perform this scene can ever forget it. But Chaplin does not win the girl. There is no possibility that the beautiful salesgirl will walk off into the sunset with the tramp. The loser must lose. It is inexorable. The strength of the scene derives from this. What happens at the end of Manhattan? Tracy goes off to London for six months, promising to return to Isaac.
Is Manhattan, then, nothing more than the story of a group of people in love with and devoted to Woody Allen? Allen certainly thinks it is more. He told an interviewer that in his film he “intended Manhattan to be a metaphor for everything wrong with our culture,” and that he believes, inter alia, in the “futility of obtaining immortality through art.” This, if we take him at his word, is what the picture he gives us of intellectual life in New York is supposed to reveal. But it is a ludicrously distorted picture—a provincial’s idea of how intellectuals talk and behave. “I just saw your article on Brecht in the Atlantic.” “You know I was always a sucker for Germanic theater.” “I loved Ingmar Bergman when I was at Radcliffe, but you grow out of it, you grow out of it.” The characters in Manhattan go relentlessly to art shows, concerts, seminars on semantics. They review new books on Virginia Woolf. They use words like “allegorical” and “didacticism,” expressions like “textual negative capability” and “mired in 80’s radicalism” (not to mention “liberal Jewish paranoia”). It has been suggested that the closest approximation to chatter of this sort would have come from the Greenwich Village of the 50’s—the same period during which Woody Allen first came to Manhattan—and I think the evidence is rather strong that he has never learned more about the New York intellectual world than what he gleaned there in those days.
Bendel’s. Bloomingdale’s. Paul Stuart. Gucci. The Carlyle. The Pierre. Zabar’s. The Russian Tea Room. Elaine’s. Rizzoli. This is the world not of the intellectual or even of “our culture,” but of the gossip columnists and Women’s Wear Daily. In this movie, used as they are, these places do not for one second become a “metaphor” for spiritual emptiness or corruption. If anything, they suggest glamor and a more interesting life than one in which people buy their clothes at Sears, Roebuck. Thus too with the musical score. Gershwin’s music dates from the 20’s and 30’s. Manhattan takes place in the 70’s. Does the contrast inform the film with any special perspective? Allen, who says he is very much interested in historic change in New York, claims the music stresses “the poignancy of where the city’s gone” (its “deterioration”). But since the exteriors of the film consist exclusively of the hauts lieux of New York luxury consumerism, the claim seems quite nonsensical. The music is never used as contrast in any case, but supports the film’s romantic moments in the most uncritical way possible.
Woody Allen has never been a giant of the American box office. People in New York seem to think that Annie Hall was a commercial blockbuster, but it ended up nationwide in twenty-sixth position in 1978, below The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, and well below Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. Still, it is true that all Allen’s films have been at least moderately profitable. Surprising as it may seem, in Hollywood today, as in baseball, a man who hits once out of three times at bat is considered a heavy hitter. A batter who gets a clean hit five times out of ten is wondrous indeed. Woody Allen has, unbelievably, hit virtually 1.000. In the month in which I write, moreover, Manhattan is leading all other films at ticket windows across the country. Unexpectedly, unprecedentedly Woody Allen is number one.
The core of Allen’s support is obviously the affluent neighborhoods of the great American cities. In these neighborhoods Jews are no doubt overrepresented, certainly with respect to their proportion in the general population. But the most significant part of Allen’s audience, and the majority in the country at large, is made up of young, well-to-do, non-Jewish liberals, marked (and here I offer my own impression) by a degree, and sometimes a very high degree, of philo-Semitism. Astonishingly, Allen now says that Jewishness is “no part of my artistic consciousness,” yet for the liberal Gentiles who pack the theaters to see him, his Jewishness is his most conspicuous feature, he is the Jew par excellence.
But Woody Allen and his audience differ on a whole series of things. Allen thinks his artistic consciousness is not Jewish. The audience thinks it is. Allen claims Manhattan is about futility and spiritual emptiness. The audience, I believe, knows a pleasing romance when it sees one. Allen says his film is about the decay and deterioration of New York City. The audience, I suspect, believes no such thing; it knows New York is glamorous. Ironically, the success of Manhattan may be the result of exactly these differences in interpretation. If Woody Allen had made the movie he claims he made, his audience might not have liked it one bit.