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“Manhattan” Revisited

The Woody Allen classic in the age of #MeToo

The current #MeToo-driven Woody Allen media show trial includes not only the belated embrace of his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow’s accusations of sexual abuse (with no new evidence) but more general attacks on both Allen’s person and his art, with a particular focus on his alleged misogyny, lechery and objectification of women. Not surprisingly, one movie that gets brought up quite frequently is Manhattan, the 1979 classic in which Allen’s alter ego Isaac Davis, a 42-year-old writer, has a 17-year-old girlfriend, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).

My view of the sexual abuse charges and the anti-Allen “mob justice” is in my new piece in The Forward. Allen’s art, about which I have always had mixed feelings, is a whole other subject; so are his attitudes toward women. But for now, I decided to rewatch Manhattan, which I have seen a couple of times before but quite a while back.

I should add that Manhattan has a bit of a personal dimension for me. I came to the United States in 1980, the year after it came out; for several months, my family lived in Queens and I had a job in Manhattan. The Manhattan I first saw was this Manhattan, at least time-wise; I certainly wasn’t eating at Elaine’s.

First of all: is the relationship between Ike and Tracy “problematic,” “creepy,” or “gross”? To me, the main issue is that it doesn’t feel real. Unlike the other characters, Tracy is a cipher. We don’t know how she and Ike met or started seeing each other; while she’s supposed to be a budding actress, she seems to have no real interests other than Ike and her feelings for him. Of course, that is arguably the problem: Tracy is less an individual than a male fantasy, beautiful, sexually eager, and endlessly devoted (even after Isaac dumps her, she leaves a message on his answering service to remind him that his favorite film, Grand Illusion, is going to be on TV).

But Allen may be subverting this fantasy at least as much as he is romanticizing it — especially in the overall context of the film, in which women’s liberation and the rise of female power are integral parts of the story. The extent to which Manhattan overtly deals with sexual politics quite surprised me on this viewing; it was something I hadn’t thought about before. From this perspective, the fact that a key scene in the film takes place at a Museum of Modern Arts fundraiser for the Equal Rights Amendment — with a cameo by Congresswoman Bella Abzug as herself, sporting one of her trademark hats — is less a marker of fashionable liberalism than a clue to the film’s feminist themes.

Consider: Ike’s ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), left him to live with a woman, Connie. She is also about to publish, much to Ike’s dismay, a book about her personal journey including their marriage and divorce. Toward the end of the film, the book, called Marriage, Divorce and Selfhood, hits the bookstores; Ike has to endure listening to his sympathetic but amused friends read excerpts from it, including extremely unflattering remarks about both his person and their sex life (described as an “empty experience” and a “bizarre charade”).

Humiliation aside, it is worth noting that Jill’s book seems to preempt Ike’s own autobiographical book about life in Manhattan that opens the film (with Ike, in voice-over, trying out different versions of the book’s first lines). He gets a deal with Viking and tells his friends that his editors are very pleased with the first four chapters; but after the release of Jill’s book, all mentions of Ike’s book disappears, and it’s unclear whether he’s even still writing it. (Instead, he is seen dictating an unrelated idea for a short story about neurotic Manhattanites creating problems for themselves to keep from “dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.”) We don’t know whether Ike will ever publish anything; in the meantime, it’s Jill who gets the power, within the film, of telling his story to the public. She even informs Ike that she’s likely to get a movie deal, potentially seizing the reins of the cinematic narrative as well.

Given her position of power, Jill could have easily been a misogynistic caricature: the man-hating lesbian harpy out to emasculate her ex-husband. But she is no such thing. Sure, she may not be the most sympathetic character; but she’s nowhere close to the odiousness of, say, Alan Alda’s Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanors. The film also validates her perspective: when Ike gets indignant at her description of him as prone to narcissism and “self-righteous misanthropy,” we are clearly meant to recognize that she is largely correct if mean-spirited, and that his protestations are ludicrous. (Interestingly, her catalogue of his flaws also includes “male chauvinism.”) Meanwhile, Ike is subtly shown to be an untrustworthy narrator of their marriage. He hotly denies — to Jill and Connie, and to his friends — the claim in Jill’s book that he tried to run down Connie with his car; yet he previously admitted it when telling Mary (Diane Keaton) about his divorce.

While we’re on the subject of Jill and Connie: it is rather remarkable that Manhattan, a film released in 1979, matter-of-factly portrays a lesbian couple — a lesbian couple raising a boy, no less — as an entirely normal family.

Meanwhile, Mary is another daughter of Women’s Lib: a smart, opinionated woman who says she got divorced because she was “tired of submerging [her] identity to a brilliant, dominating man” and who appears to be more successful at her career as a writer than Ike. To be sure, she is a somewhat comical figure (but then, of course, so is Ike); despite her strong-woman pose, she is an emotionally vacillating neurotic who is seeing a screwed-up analyst (but then, Ike is even more of a mess), and her escape from husbandly tyranny instantly turns ridiculous when the formidable patriarch is revealed as the puny Wallace Shawn. Yet she more than holds her own against the men. At one point she even “calls out,” as we would say these days, a pompous male would-be auteur for his misogynist movie concept, about a man who “screws so great” that women die when he brings them to orgasm. (“It’s worse than hostile. It’s aggressive-homicidal. Theodore Reik with a touch of Charles Manson.”)

Mary also bluntly tells Ike that his relationship with Tracy is an escape from the scary power of grown women: when he tells her that his wife left him for another woman, Mary says wryly, “I think it accounts for the little girl. … Sixteen years old and no possible threat at all.” Ike objects that “the little girl is fine” and that she’s actually seventeen going on eighteen; but we all know that the gentleman doth protest too much.

Having dumped Tracy for Mary — only to get dumped by Mary when she gets back together with his friend Yale — Ike comes to realize that Tracy is the one with whom he felt the most “relaxed” and had the “nicest times.” Finally, he decides to seek her out, only to find that she’s going away to London to study at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts — an offer she had previously hesitated to accept because she didn’t want to be apart from him, and that he had encouraged her to take. Flabbergasted, Ike tries to talk Tracy out of going, even though she tells him she’ll be back in six months. “You’ll change. … In six months you’ll be a completely different person,” Ike says despairingly, fretting that Tracy will be working in the theater and hanging out with actors and directors. “Don’t you want me to have that experience?” Tracy asks. “Yeah, of course I do,” Ike stammers, “but … I just don’t want that thing about you that I like to change.”

In her recent Allen takedown, writer Danielle Tcholakian cites this scene as evidence of Allen’s twisted, possibly quasi-pedophilic, fetishization of the young ingénue: what Ike wants is for Tracy to never grow up. But is Allen endorsing Ike’s wish, or is he viewing it through a wistfully ironic lens as an impossible — and narcissistic — fantasy? I would say the latter is far more likely.

Tracy, who is resolved to leave, reminds Ike that “not everybody gets corrupted” and suggests that they still have a chance when she returns (though she never actually answers Ike’s question, “Do you still love me?”). Ike’s wistful smile at the end is ambiguous: perhaps it signals his deluded, selfish hope that she’ll return “uncorrupted,” perhaps his acceptance that he will never get her back — at least not unchanged, and probably not at all. The girl who was a male fantasy is now a free agent with her own will.

Should Manhattan be considered a feminist classic? I wouldn’t go that far. But it is a much more nuanced, self-critical, and female-friendly portrayal of relations between the sexes than Allen’s detractors think. It is worth revisiting — as a complex and brilliant work, not an exhibit for the prosecution.

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Cathy Young

Cathy Young

6.7K Followers

Russian-Jewish-American writer. Associate editor, Arc Digital; contributor, Reason, Newsday, The Forward etc. https://www.patreon.com/CathyYoung