Woody Allen's Manhattan Tells Us Why Life is Worth Living

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Latest Classic Film for Movie Night is a serio-romantic masterpiece
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By Mark R. Gould

Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we're just people. We're just human beings, you know? You think you're God.
Isaac Davis: I... I gotta model myself after someone.

*****
Tracy: Let's fool around, it'll take your mind off it.
Isaac Davis: Hey, how many times a night can you, how, how often can you make love in an evening?
Tracy: Well, a lot.
Isaac Davis: Yeah! I can tell, a lot. That's, well, a lot is my favorite number.
****
Isaac Davis: I had a mad impulse to throw you down on the lunar surface and commit interstellar perversion.
****

Isaac Davis: Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face...

By his own admission, Woody Allen’s hilarious early movies were gags that drove the plot. They were often expanded comedy sketches with great punch lines. Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas, (1971), Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex, (1972), Sleeper, (1973) and Love and Death (1975) were crowd-pleasers that won Allen an enthusiastic following and helped him leave the world of stand-up comedy and become a popular film maker.

His first directorial stint Take the Money and Run was such a mess that the film’s editor had to reshape much of the footage and give it a coherent structure so it wasn't just staggering from one gag to another.

Allen told critic Richard Schickel: “Take the Money and Run was an early pseudo-documentary. The idea of doing a documentary, which I later finally perfected when I did Zelig was with me from the first day I started movies. I thought that was an ideal vehicle for doing comedy, because the documentary format was very serious, so you were immediately operating in an area where any little thing you did upset the seriousness and was thereby funny. And you could tell your story laugh by laugh by laugh... The object of the movie was for every inch of it to be a laugh.”

So when Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), both written with Marshall Brickman, were released, many people were surprised by the relationships explored and the serio-dramatic tone that captured the spirit of the times and a great city. Humor became an outgrowth of interactions and audiences were amused and moved. Comedy writer Larry David said the feeling in New York City at that time was that Allen had 'made the earth move' by creating this fresh dramatic-romantic-comedic film.

screenshot:Manhatten by woody allen, According to Allen, the film evolved from his love of George Gershwin's music. He was listening to one of the composer's albums of overtures and thought, "this would be a beautiful thing to make ... a movie in black and white ... a romantic movie". Allen has said that the movie was "like a mixture of what I was trying to do with Annie Hall and Interiors (1978).”

Allen says the film deals with the problem of people trying to live a decent existence in a junk-obsessed contemporary culture without selling out, admitting that he himself could conceive of giving away all of "[his] possessions to charity and living in much more modest circumstances," continuing, "I've rationalized my way out of it so far, but I could conceive of doing it."

Allen discussed his vision for the film with respected cinematographer Gordon Willis, who would film all three Godfather films, All the President’s Men, and Klute, and would go on to work on seven Allen films. They discussed how a black and white film would be "a great look at New York City, which is sort of one of the characters in the film." Allen says he decided to shoot his film in black and white "because that's how I remember it from when I was small. Maybe it's reminiscence from old photographs, films, books and all that. But that's how I remember New York. I always heard Gershwin music with it, too. In Manhattan I really think that we — that's me and cinematographer Gordon Willis — succeeded in showing the city. When you see it there on that big screen it's really decadent."

Allen says the conclusion of the film was inspired by the great Charlie Chaplin film, City Lights (1930). Allen says he was touched by the ending in which the blind girl has regained her sight after an operation and finds out that the Tramp is the one who has been helping her by the touch of his hands.

J. Hoberman in the Village Voice wrote, “Forty-four when he made Manhattan, Allen was never more vividly himself than as the self-absorbed, Nazi-obsessed, horny TV writer and babe magnet Isaac. As a further improvement, the artist lopped two years off his character's age and gave him a 17-year-old adoring girlfriend, a Dalton senior named Tracy (18-year-old Mariel Hemingway). Whether or not Manhattan is Allen’s most personal movie, it enshrines everything from his morality to his milieu. The opening, Gershwin-scored skyline montage segues naturally to a table at Elaine's, the then über-fashionable boîte for literary celebs, where Isaac and Tracy are introduced sharing a table with his insecurely married friends Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne).

“Isaac's liaison with the perfect, preternaturally perceptive Tracy gives Manhattan an outrageous premise (or so it seemed back then; it took another dozen years for the power of this fantasy to become evident). But it is Diane Keaton's Mary, the alluring neurotic with whom both Yale and Isaac fall in love, who provides Allen's psychodrama with both psycho and drama. Manhattan is famously a movie about relating to 'relationships,' but the key relationship is to oneself. All the characters, save the sublimely innocent Tracy, are in analysis and/or working on a book—most provocatively, Isaac's second ex-wife (a scary Meryl Streep), who has written a hostile memoir of their marriage. With this character, Allen acknowledges the Other.”

Believe it or not, Allen was very unhappy with Manhattan. He said, "I just thought to myself, 'At this point in my life, if this is the best I can do, they shouldn't give me money to make movies." He offered to make a film for free for United Artists if they did not release Manhattan. The studio, critics and the public disagreed—vehemently.
Allen’s first film was What's New Pussycat? (1965). Warren Beatty hired him to re-write a script and to appear in a small part in the movie. Over the course of the re-write, Beatty's role became smaller and Allen's increased. Beatty was upset and quit the production. Peter O'Toole was hired for the Beatty role, and Peter Sellers was brought in as well; Sellers was a big enough star to demand many of Woody Allen's best lines/scenes for himself.

From this experience, Allen realized the importance of having the final say over his work. Allen remains one of a handful of writers and directors who has been able to maintain complete control over his own work in recent decades This despite that his films are not huge money makers. Budgets are tight and the actors work for much below their usual fees.

Allen's first directorial effort was What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966,) written with Mickey Rose, in which an existing Japanese spy movie – “Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kagi no kagi (1965), "International Secret Police: Key of Keys" – was redubbed in English by Allen and friends with entirely new, comic dialogue.

Allen also appeared in follow-up to What's New Pussycat?, the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. Allen wrote a portion of the script.

At the age of 19, he started writing scripts for “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “ The Tonight Show,” specials for Sid Caesar post-“Caesar's Hour” (1954–1957), and other television shows. By the time he was working for Caesar, he was making $1500 a week.

In 1961, he started a new career as a stand-up comedian, debuting in a Greenwich Village club. Allen had something different, a decidedly neurotic, nervous, and intellectual persona for his stand-up routine. He also was talked about being Jewish and the travails of his early family life. He appeared on many national television shows and developed a following among college age people who saw him as a friendly contrast to the straight-laced establishment entertainment idols of the era.

Allen started writing short stories and cartoon captions for magazines such as The New Yorker. And he became a successful Broadway playwright and wrote “Don't Drink the Water” in 1966. A film adaptation of the play, directed by Howard Morris, was released in 1969, starring Jackie Gleason.

Allen then wrote Play It Again, Sam, which he also starred in. The play opened in 1969 and featured Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts. Allen, Keaton and Roberts would reprise their roles in the film version of the play, directed by Herbert Ross.

Allen spoke to The Guardian and said, "I feel the only way you can get through life is distraction. And you can distract yourself in a million different ways, from turning on the television set and seeing who wins the meaningless soccer game, to going to the movies or listening to music. They're tricks that I've done and that many people do. You create problems in your life and it seems to the outside observer that you are self-destructive and it's foolish. But you're creating them because they're not mortal problems. They are problems that can be solved, or they can't be solved, and they're a little painful, perhaps, but they are not going to take your life away.

"In fact, if you were to see me around what you would call, but isn't really, my entourage, that is my wife, my sister, people close to me, loved ones, you'd think, 'The poor guy. They don't like his movies, they're critical of this, they're critical of that.' That's not really so true. They love me and are supportive in a meaningful way but they are very critical of what they would euphemistically call an eccentric. Although they think it's worse than an eccentric, it really is much more like an idiot savant.

"Life is so much luck. And people are so frightened to admit that. They want to think that they control their life. They think 'I make my luck'. And you want to keep telling yourself that you're in control, but you're not in control. Ninety-nine per cent of it is luck, the luck of the genes, the luck of the draw, what happens during the day, the bomb that goes off on the other guy's bus.

"There were never children in my films. I didn't care about children. I mean, I didn't dislike them but I just had no thoughts about children. If my wife, years ago, when I first married as a young man, had wanted to have 10 children, it was fine with me, or no children; it didn't matter. And then I remember when I did the movie ‘Manhattan’ I made a list at the end of the movie of the things that made life worth living, and I got a letter from a lady saying, 'You didn't mention your child.' Because I had a child in the movie with Meryl Streep, a young boy.

"And you know I'd mentioned Louis Armstrong and Marlon Brando, and I figured, so, I didn't mention my child, so what? I mentioned things that were meaningful. It was only when I had children, over a decade later, that I realized what an egregious blunder that was. That of course someone with a child would mention it. So children have become very, very meaningful to me. Because they add an amazing dimension to your life. But even then, I'm aware of the fact that nature is nature in its most brutal way. You devote yourself to them, it's a one-way street, its unconditional positive regard, no matter what happens, and they grow up and go out on their own and you become a very minor annoyance.

About his films, "I'm always disappointed in my movies. We bring them in here to see them and it's always like taking a cold shower," he says.

In the Los Angeles Weekly he talked about his legacy, "I was thinking with great horror the other day that, since I'm a known person, 100 years from now someone will make a movie about New York in my time, and I would be, let's say, not an important character in it but a peripheral character," he says. "Someone will go into Elaine's, and there I'll be, played by some schlemiel, because I'm conceived of as a schlemiel, and he'll have glasses on, and he'll be a gloom-ridden recluse who shivers at the thought of going out into the country — some execrable exaggeration of what people think I am. And that will be my hell. If I'm ever in a work of fiction as part of the atmosphere, they'll be doing to me the same unjust things as when I show Ernest Hemingway sitting at a bar talking the way he talks in his film, 'Midnight in Paris.'"

Allen is the subject of an excellent two-part, three-hour PBS American Masters documentary "Now, I say this with no false modesty: I cannot imagine why anyone would want to see it," Allen says.

"It's funny, I'm always interested in those things about people that I like, so I guess there will be people who will be interested. But to me, I feel there's not enough. With the exception of my one encounter with scandal with Mia [Farrow], my life's been very, very dull. I mean, I work, I've always worked, and even that thing with Mia was really blown way out of proportion by the press; the actual facts are not very fascinating. But there's been nothing to even approach that in terms of excitement in my life."

 

You can obtain resources about Woody Allen at your local library, including:

 

The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity Industrial Complex
by Maureen Orth, (2004).

Woody Allen – A Biography
John Baxter, (1999).

Woody Allen: Conversations with Filmmakers Series, ed. R. E. Kapsis and K. Coblentz, (2006).

Woody Allen On Location
by Thierry de Navacelle, (1987).

Woody Allen: Profane and Sacred
Richard A. Blake, (1995).

Fun With Woody, The Complete Woody Allen Quiz Book by Graham Flashner, (1987).

 

Online Resources

The Official Site of Woody Allen

"Stardust Memories: Visiting Woody"
Michael Žantovský recalls a memorable meeting between two giants, Woody Allen and Václav Havel

Essay by Victoria Loy on Woody Allen's career

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