"Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath
his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I
love this. New York was his town, and it always would be..." - Isaac Davis (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen wrapped up the '70s with Manhattan, a film with faultless tone and beautiful black-and-white cinematography from Gordon Willis. The movie received two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Writing and one for Best Supporting Actress (Mariel Hemingway). AFI lists Manhattan at #46 on their “100 Years…100 Laughs” compilation and the U.S. Library of Congress has deemed it “culturally significant.”
Allen’s film is intricate, but not excessively so. The writer/director stars as Isaac Davis, a 42-year-old comedy writer with two divorces behind him. Long before George Constanza, he has a lesbian ex (Meryl Streep). Isaac is also in a relationship with a 17-year-old girl, Tracy (Hemingway), but he sees no future in it. While spending time with his friend Yale (Michael Murphy), Isaac discovers that he might be in love with Yale’s mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton).
Manhattan is about sorting out one’s closet, about living within the untidiness of relationships and emotions, and about establishing integrity. Isaac struggles in his relationship with Tracy, spending half of the film trying to break up with her. He loves spending time with her, yet doesn’t see a future in it because he doesn’t feel she is exceptional enough for him. Like many of the other characters in the film, save Tracy, Isaac is driven by his self-worth and by his sense of what he “deserves.”
Mary, too, is driven by what she “deserves.” She spends time with Yale, a married man, yet tells herself (and Yale) that she deserves better because she is gorgeous and intellectual. Yale is also driven by this same sense of pat superiority and this circle of individuals feeds off of one another continuously. Isaac’s only “out” lies with Tracy, yet his incapacity to be with her keeps him locked in the same rotation.
The splendour of Manhattan lies in the tangled sophistication of Allen’s characters. They rise like unlit skyscrapers over the title city and knit like telephone wires. The men in Allen’s film cannot deal with the notion of love, instead choosing to hide behind their words. This is likely why both men fall for Mary, who is the classic epitome of the pseudo-intellectual and provides them with a sense of similarity. Mary isn’t genuine in any way, shape, or form within her relationships, but she does give both men what they want.