Manhattan: Extraordinarily fine and funny | Sunday Observer

Manhattan: Extraordinarily fine and funny

11 July, 2021

Manhattan is a 1979 American romantic comedy film directed by Woody Allen and produced by Charles H. Joffe. The screenplay was written by Allen and Marshall Brickman. Allen co-stars as a twice-divorced 42-year-old comedy writer who dates a 17-year-old girl (Mariel Hemingway) but falls in love with his best friend (Michael Murphy)’s mistress (Diane Keaton). Meryl Streep and Anne Byrne also star.

Manhattan was Allen’s first movie filmed in black-and-white, and was shot in 2.35:1 widescreen. It features music by George Gershwin, including ’Rhapsody in Blue’, which inspired the film. Allen described the film as a combination of ’Annie Hall’ and ’Interiors’.

The film received critical acclaim and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Hemingway and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for Allen and Brickman. Its North American box-office receipts of $39.9 million made it Allen’s second biggest box-office hit (adjusted for inflation). Often considered one of his best films, it ranks 46th on AFI’s 100 Years...100 Laughs list and number 63 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies”. In 2001 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Making of the film

According to Allen, the idea for Manhattan originated from his love of 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 Manhattan was “like a mixture of what I was trying to do with Annie Hall and Interiors” and that it deals with the problem of people trying to live a decent existence in an essentially 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,” adding that he has “rationalized way out of it so far, but could conceive of doing it.”

Allen talked to cinematographer Gordon Willis about how fun it would be to shoot the film in black and white, Panavision aspect ratio (2.35:1) because it would give “a great look at New York City, which is sort of one of the characters in the film”.

Allen decided to shoot his film in black and white because that was how he remembered it from when he was small. “Maybe it’s a reminiscence from old photographs, films, books and all that. But that’s how I remember New York.” He always heard Gershwin music with it, too.

In ’Manhattan’ he really thinks that he and Willis succeeded in showing the city. “When seeing it there on that big screen, it’s really decadent.” The picture was shot on location with the exception of some of the scenes in the planetarium which were filmed on a set.

Critical response

The film received largely positive reviews and currently holds a rating of 94% “Certified Fresh” on ’Rotten Tomatoes’ based on reviews from 68 critics, with an average rating of 8.5/10.

The website’s consensus reads, “One of Woody Allen’s early classics, ’Manhattan’ combines modern, bittersweet humor and timeless romanticism with unerring grace.” Gary Arnold, in ’The Washington Post’, wrote: “Manhattan has comic integrity in part because Allen is now making jokes at the expense of his own parochialism. There’s no opportunity to heap condescending abuse on the phonies and sell-outs decorating the Hollywood landscape. The result appears to be a more authentic and magnanimous comic perception of human vanity and foolhardiness.”

In his review for ’Newsweek’ magazine, Jack Kroll wrote: “Allen’s growth in every department is lovely to behold. He gets excellent performances from his cast. The increasing visual beauty of his films is part of their grace and sweetness, their balance between Allen’s yearning romanticism and his tough eye for the fatuous and sentimental – a balance also expressed in his best screen play yet.”

In his review for the ’Chicago Sun-Times’, Roger Ebert, who gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, wrote, “Diane Keaton gives us a fresh and nicely edged New York intellectual. And Mariel Hemingway deserves some kind of special award for what’s in some ways the most difficult role in the film.”

Ebert included the film in his list of ’The Great Movies’. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded a full four out of four stars, calling it “a remarkable motion picture. ‘Manhattan’ may turn out to be the year’s best comedy and drama.”

Vincent Canby of ’The New York Times’ called the film “extraordinarily fine and funny” with “superb” performances from Keaton and Hemingway. Charles Champlin of the ’Los Angeles Times’ called it “harder, harsher, crueler, deeper-going, more assertive but in the end no less life-affirming than ‘Annie Hall,’” and declared ’Manhattan’ “even better” than that film. Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote, “’Manhattan’ is a faulty film, but it’s moderately amusing”.

Alexander Walker of the ’London Evening Standard’ wrote: “So precisely nuanced is the speech, so subtle the behaviour of a group of friends, lovers, mistresses and cuckolds who keep splitting up and pairing off like unstable molecules”. In 2007 J. Hoberman wrote in ’The Village Voice’: “The New York City that Woody so tediously defended in Annie Hall was in crisis. And so he imagined an improved version. More than that, he cast this shining city in the form of those movies that he might have seen as a child in Coney Island — freeing the visions that he sensed to be locked up in the silver screen.”

In October 2013, readers of ’The Guardian newspaper’ voted it the best film directed by Woody Allen.