In our Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City, Woody Allen’s Manhattan serves as an emblem for the shifting dynamics of ethnic cultures in the city’s literary and cultural history.
Manhattan was the follow-up to Woody Allen’s successful romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977), which used a failing love relationship to explore Allen’s sense of the differences not only between Jews and WASPs (the film critic Pauline Kael described the film as “the neurotic’s version of Abie’s Irish Rose”), but also between the cultures of New York and Los Angeles. Annie declares New York “a dying city,” but the film suggests that its virtue lies precisely in its connection to the past.
Annie Hall was a defense of New York in the aftermath of its celebrated fiscal crisis of the 1970s, but in Manhattan Allen resists the temptation to romanticize the city. The film begins in a romantic vein with a stunning montage of scenes from the city that shows off the film’s widescreen black-and-white cinematography, as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” plays on the soundtrack. But the romantic imagery serves only to heighten the contrast between the grandeur of the city and the smallness of the lives that the film goes on to depict.
Manhattan‘s New York is a rarefied place, consisting mostly of midtown Manhattan, from Lincoln Center to the Upper East Side, a reflection of the limited perspective of its protagonist, Isaac Davis. The choice of Gershwin’s music not only emphasizes Isaac’s propensity for nostalgia, but also serves as an emblem for both Isaac’s and Allen’s aspirations: Gershwin, after all, was a Jewish popular entertainer from New York who yearned to be accepted as a “serious” artist. Running throughout both Annie Hall, which begins with a jokey conversation about anti-Semitism, and Manhattan is the worry that Jews remain outsiders in some crucial way.
By the late 1970s, however, Jewish American literature could no longer be considered either marginalized or emergent. Saul Bellow had won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976 “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work,” and Allen’s Annie Hall had received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress. As Robin Bernstein points out in her Companion contribution on gay and lesbian theater, citing Cherri