Manhattan touches on themes which preoccupy Woody Allen; namely, the difficulty of connecting in intimate relationships, and the ambiguity and turbulence of romantic love. Yet it also happens to be a film with no shortage of witty banter throughout, which gives it an almost literary quality. This is what makes Allen’s films so enriching and entertaining.
Isaac Davis has a choice that many men can envy: a choice between two women. Isaac, played by Woody Allen, has had an informal relationship with a much younger woman, a 17 year old to be exact. He is 42 (though Allen was 44 at the time of filming). The young woman Tracy is played by Mariel Hemingway, who looks more than a bit like her father (yes, that Hemingway).
Isaac prompts Tracy to see other men her own age, to pursue her own education and her own life, which strikes one as magnanimous. Would just any 40-something man give such disinterested advice to a pretty young thing? After all, the 17-year-old is a senior in high school, “technically jailbait” (Schickel 21).
Isaac’s ex-wife, Jill, is played by Maryl Streep. Similar to her role in Kramer vs. Kramer, she plays an embittered ex-wife. In this case, she has become a lesbian, which serves as an ongoing joke about Isaac’s sexual prowess, having apparently made her give up on finding satisfaction with the male gender. To Isaac’s mortification, Jill releases a tell-all memoir, in which she dishes the goods on him and their sex life:
“Making love to this deeper, more masterful female, made me realize what an empty experience, what a bizarre charade sex with my husband was.”
Ultimately, though, Isaac casts Tracy aside for the more age appropriate Mary Wilkie, played by Allen’s film and sometime romantic partner, Diane Keaton. It is a youngish, 30-something Keaton (Manhattan was released in 1979). The film almost requires that Mary and Isaac will get together as soon as they first meet, though at the time they were both with other partners. Isaac meets Mary because Yale, Isaac’s close friend, had been having an affair with her, which makes Isaac and Mary’s romantic coupling a little complicated.
A Choice in Partners
There is a certain moral dimension to Isaac and Mary coming together, society almost demands it. For one, Mary is closer to Isaac’s age than Tracy. Middle-aged men dating younger women is usually depicted as folly in film (which is not to say that it necessarily is that). For another, Mary’s intellect makes her more of a challenge and equal to Isaac. Though he pokes fun of her opinionating, Mary at least has some intellectual prowess. Since Isaac is committing the film-world folly of dating a younger woman, we’ve been trained by romantic comedies to believe that Mary is therefore the “right” choice for him. But is she? At any rate, as a professional writer (a typical profession for Allen’s protagonists), one might expect him to match with an intellectual.
Meanwhile, Yale can’t decide whether he wants to stay with his wife, or keep his mistress Mary–who has run into Isaac again at a party and steadily build up a relationship. Yale’s first instinct had been to call things off with Mary, because he felt like he’s not the kind of guy to have an affair. But then he reverses that decision too, telling Mary he wants to leave his wife.
When Mary breaks the news to Isaac that she’s going back to Yale, Isaac comments cynically:
“I give the whole thing four weeks. That’s it.”
It’s a matter of audience expectation that Isaac and Mary will be together. It’s an expectation in part grounded on the fact that Keaton and Allen are always a couple in Allen’s films; but also, as stated, that they seem more appropriate for each other than Isaac and Tracy. But it is “appropriate” only in the sense of conventional morality, which is not exactly a system of value which Allen subscribers to. In an interview discussing Manhattan, Allen describes Mary as the worse choice of the two characters:
“Instead he falls for the annoying pseudo-intellectual–or probably intellectual to some degree–Diane Keaton. He instinctively, or habitually, has learned to go for that kind of woman, to go for the neurotic, difficult, complicated woman, and..and not see the forest for the trees, not see that right in front of him is really somebody he would be happy with, if he can just get rid of al this civilization that’s weighted on his shoulders” (Schickel 138).
Manhattan makes fun of the class of people involved in “opinion making and opinion mongering” (Schickel 41). Yet it is only gently making fun of them, seeing as that both Woody Allen and the character he portrays, Isaac, are steeped in this opinion mongering world themselves. Yes, Mary’s pretentiousness is a bit over-the-top, but there is also something romantic about couples discussing art and literature. One rather envies them rather than cringing at them.
When Mary leaves Isaac unexpectedly to go back to Yale, Isaac regrets his decision to cut things off with Tracy. Only now does he realize Tracy’s value:
“I think I really missed a good bet when I let Tracy go…I was just thinking about this at home last week and I think of all the women that I’ve known over the last years. When I actually am honest with myself, I think I had the most relaxed times and the nicest times with her.”
When Isaac has fully changed his mind and tries to convince Tracy not to go to England to study acting, it’s a hard sell. After all, he’s already broken her heart. She’s understandably reluctant to pick up where they left off. She assures him she’ll be back in six months. She urges him, in one of the film’s best lines:
“Six months isn’t so long. Everyone gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.”
One quibble is that a girl as uncorrupted as Tracy wouldn’t likely have this insight. If one is uncorrupted, they are hardly aware of their own potential for corruption. Nevertheless, it is a poignant conclusion to the film.
Manhattan reflects Allen’s view that relationships are fraught and ambiguous. They don’t have the neat “happily-ever-after” view so often presented by Hollywood. If one is scandalized by Isaac’s relationship with Tracy, one might also think of Allen’s relationship, and subsequent marriage to Soon-Yi. To put the scandal aside, they’ve been married for decades, so one can hardly argue with the fact that it’s a successful relationship. And in that relationship, Allen’s choice resembles Tracy more than Mary. He forgoes a woman equal in prestige an intellect to himself, and instead simply follows his heart. This, if nothing else, is Allen’s message: to follow one’s heart, however fraught that process might be.
Above all, the film is classy and elegant, shot in black and white with the opening scene playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a musical choice The Guardian calls “inspired.” Indeed, jazz is Allen’s favorite musical genre. The film’s setting gives the gritty feel of NYC too, such as when Isaac has to downgrade apartments paying $700 (in 1979) for a shabby, small apartment, with constant noise from neighbors and brown water. But Manhattan is ultimately an homage to the city.
Manhattan. Directed by Woody Allen. Performances by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Arts, 1979.
Schickel, Richard. Woody Allen: A Life in Film. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.
Follow me on Twitter
Sign up to be informed about new posts: