Filmsite Movie Review
Manhattan (1979)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

Manhattan (1979)In the setting of the chic Elaine's Restaurant (on Second Avenue at East 88th Street, no longer existing), the twice-divorced Isaac was seated at one of the tables next to his date - Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, the granddaughter of writer Ernest Hemingway). They were speaking with his insecure married friends: best friend Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy) and his wife Emily (Anne Byrne) of twelve years. Yale asserted that art was a way for people to get in touch with their subconscious feelings. Isaac counter-argued with a statement about courage: "Talent is luck. I think the important thing in life is courage." It was a long-running argument they were having that contrasted talent (in works of art and intellectualism) with courage (in moralistic, behavioral actions).

One of the most crucial themes of the entire film was brought up by Isaac's hypothetical question about rescuing a drowning swimmer. It demonstrated mortal man's existential reluctance to address serious issues of life and death when confronted by them - as evidenced by his own dismissive, uncourageous answer (no one else answered the question either):

If the four of us are walking home over the bridge, and then there was a person drowning in the water, would we have the nerve, would one of us have the nerve to dive into the icy water and save the person from drowning?...That's a key question. You know, I-I, of course, can't swim, so I never have to face it.

Although he wasn't a smoker (fearing cancer), avowed hypochondriac Isaac lit a cigarette anyway, claiming it made him look more glamorous, masculine, "handsome" and "provocative." When Tracy excused herself for a restroom break, Isaac revealed a few things about himself:

  • he felt squeamish about his relationship with the much-younger female - a 25 year gap in age; Tracy was a sweet, innocent, 17-year old high-school-aged drama student ("She's 17. I'm 42 and she's 17. I-I'm older than her father. Do you believe that? I-I'm dating a girl wherein I can beat up her father. That's the first time that phenomenon ever occurred in my life")
  • he was twice-divorced after his first wife had left him
  • Isaac's lesbian (or bisexual), second divorced ex-wife Jill was writing bitter and hostile memoirs - a "Tell All" expose about their marriage and breakup - and he was depressed by the revelations: "You know, she's gonna give all those details out, all my little idiosyncrasies, and my quirks and mannerisms and-and, mm, mm, not that I have anything to hide, because, you know, but there are a few disgusting little moments that I regret"

Yale agreed with Isaac's assessment: "It's just gossip, you know. Gossip is the new pornography." Their dinner broke up when Tracy returned and stated she had an exam to study for. Isaac joked: "She's got homework. I'm datin' a girl who does homework."

As Yale and Isaac left Elaine's Restaurant (walking down East 76th Street), the guilt-torn Yale confided privately about how he had met a woman at a dinner party about seven or eight weeks earlier, and she had quickly become his mistress during their affair. She was a journalist - described as "very beautiful" but "nervous, high-strung, elusive." He regarded the growing relationship as "pretty serious" and a real threat to his marriage to Emily, even though he admitted that it was uncharacteristic of him to have an affair ("I hate the whole idea of it"). Isaac cautioned Yale that he wasn't the best one to offer advice, since he was emotionally deficient:

When it comes to relationships with women, I'm the winner of the August Strindberg award.

Emily and Yale continued speaking about Isaac's relationship with Tracy as they entered their home (Yale: "He could do a lot worse. He has done a lot worse"). Yale thought that Isaac was wasting his life as a TV comedy writer: "He writes that crap for television." He also revealed his own lack of professional fulfillment as a university English professor/teacher who kept putting off writing a biography of Eugene O'Neill, or starting a literary magazine. Although Emily thought it was time to settle down and raise a family, he conjectured that children were out of the question. She suggested they could get a place in Connecticut where he could write and be less distracted, but he thought it wasn't "practical" and "just the wrong time."

Later on a busy downtown sidewalk (in front of the Time-Life Building, at West 50th Street and 6th Avenue), Isaac confronted his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep in her third film) about the book she was writing about their marriage. Although she had supposedly moved on from him, she was still completely enmeshed in thinking about her past relationship, and wallowing in all of the "humiliating" details of their "hot stuff" sexual life. He also was concerned about the raising of their son Willie by two lesbians ("Does he play baseball? Does he wear dresses? What?"). She dismissed his issues, and didn't want to discuss it any further:

Jill: We've said everything that needs to be said to each other...I'm free to do as I please....What do you do? Do you spy on me?...Well, I don't care to discuss it...It's an honest account of our breakup....Look at you, you're so threatened.
Isaac: Hey, I'm not threatened because I, uh, of the two of us, I was not the immoral, psychotic, promiscuous one. I hope I didn't leave out anything.

In the interior of Isaac's dark apartment where Tracy often studied late, he descended a spiral staircase in the far right of the frame as Tracy was reading a book on the sofa in the far left of the frame (in the only well-lit place in the entire apartment). He was slightly mind-boggled that even at her young age, she had admitted to "three affairs" before him, but she told him that the boys were insignificant compared to him: "They were really immature boys. I mean, they were nothing like you...Well, I told you before. I think I'm in love with you." Appearing non-committal and detached, Isaac tried to convince her that they had no future together. He discouraged both her serious romantic interest in him and her desire to make a habit of staying overnight, ironically to the tune of "Our Love is Here to Stay."

Hey, don't get carried away, ok? This is, this is a terrific thing - move over, love - 'cause you know, and that it's a wonderful, you know, we're havin' a great time and all that. But you're a kid, and - and I never want ya to forget that, you know. I mean, you're gonna meet a lot of terrific men in your life and, you know, I want you to enjoy me, my - my wry sense of humor and astonishing sexual technique, but never forget that, you know, you've - you've got your whole life ahead of you....of course, I've got nothin' but feelings for you, but, you know, you don't wanna get hung up with one person at your age. It's charming, you know, and - erotic. There's no question about that. As long as the cops don't burst in, we're - I think we're gonna break a couple of records, you know. But you can't, uh, you can't do it. It's not, uh, it's not a good thing. You should think of me sort of as a detour on the highway of life. So get dressed because I think you gotta get outta here.

[Note: There was the implication that 17 year old Tracy's and Isaac's relationship was illegal in New York state, if the "cops" could burst in and arrest them for having sex, on charges of statutory rape. At the end of the film, Tracy turned 18 and declared: "I'm legal, but I'm still a kid," confirming this interpretation.]

In the next sequence, Isaac and Tracy (in shirt and jeans) were in the crowded Guggenheim Museum (on Fifth Avenue at East 89th Street) observing some black and white photographs. He compared her voice to "the mouse in the Tom and Jerry cartoons" - and she chuckled back: "You should talk! You have a whiny voice." They turned and noticed Yale who appeared from off-camera (to the right) behind them in the museum, accompanied by his new mistress Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), who also arrived from off-camera. She revealed her snooty pseudo-intellectual nature when she commented on the downstairs Castelli Gallery's photography exhibition: "I-I really felt it was very derivative. To me, it looked like it was straight out of Diane Arbus, but it had none of the wit." And contrary to Isaac's views about two other sculptures on display, she also criticized a Plexi-glas sculpture, while praising an "absolutely brilliant" steel cube ("To me, it was - it was very textural. You know what I mean? It was perfectly integrated and it had a-a-a marvelous kind of negative capability. The rest of the stuff downstairs was bulls--t").

Afterwards on the street (on Broadway at Prince Street) as they strolled along (during a long backward tracking shot), Mary made a snide comment about high-schooler Tracy as a Lolita character: "Somewhere Nabokov is smiling, if you know what I mean." Mary and Yale admitted their frequent game of criticizing over-rated notable cultural figures and placing them into their invented "Academy of the Overrated" - candidates included Sol LeWitts, Gustav Mahler, Isak Dinesen, Carl Jung, Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer, Walt Whitman, and Heinrich Boll. Isaac vehemently disagreed with the denegration of so many courageous and "terrific" artists:

I think those people are all terrific, everyone that you mentioned.

He was clearly put off by her snobbish, pretentious and flippant comments about art. Isaac was upset when they continued to undeservedly trash artists such as Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh (she mis-pronounced it as a very gutteral "Goghhh" - later criticized by Isaac), and his favorite cinematic director Ingmar Bergman: (Isaac: "Bergman's the only genius in cinema today, I think"). Although Mary praised Isaac's "brilliantly-funny" TV show writings, he whispered to Tracy: "Get her away from me. I don't think I can take too much more of her." Mary explained her rationale for "fashionable pessimism" that she had obviously first acquired at Radcliffe:

Don't you guys see that it is the dignifying of one's own psychological and sexual hangups by attaching them to these grandiose philosophical issues? That's what it is.

As they parted ways, Mary made one final contradictory, incongruous, fraudulent, and non-sensical disclaimer - claiming that she was innocent and virtuous due solely to her proper Philadelphian roots and upbringing:

I'm just from Philadelphia. You know, I mean, we believe in God, so-uh, okay?

With Tracy in a small specialty grocery store (Dean and Deluca's on Broadway in SoHo), Isaac continued to complain about Mary's "pseudo-intellectual garbage" - personally calling her a "creep...nervous... overbearing... terrible...all cerebral... Where the hell does a little Radcliffe tootsie come off rating Scott Fitzgerald and Gustav Mahler and then Heinrich Boll?...She was pedantic.... And if she had made one more remark about Bergman, I would've knocked her other contact lens out." Isaac was disbelieving that Yale was deeply involved in an extra-marital relationship - betraying his "wonderful wife" Emily for the false, vacuous intellectualism of Mary:

He prefers to diddle this little yo-yo that-that you know. Uh, but - but he was always a sucker for, uh, th-th-those kind of women, you know, the kind, uh, who'd involve him in discussions of existential reality, you know. They probably sit around on the floor with wine and cheese and mispronounce 'allegorical' and 'didacticism.'

Isaac made a declarative announcement about his views on fidelity to Tracy, and then was incredibly dismissive of her amazingly mature perceptions beyond her years - ironically, she was the only one in the entire film who was consistently honest, truly innocent, authentic, and level-headed. He even criticized her because she was raised in the current generation - based upon TV, drugs, lack of responsibility, and easy birth control:

Isaac: I'm old-fashioned. And I don't believe in extramarital relationships. I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics.
Tracy: I don't know, maybe people weren't meant to have one deep relationship. Maybe we're meant to have, you know, a series of relationships of different lengths. I mean, that kind of thing's gone out of date.
Isaac: Hey, don't tell me what's gone out of date, ok? You're seventeen years old. You were brought up on drugs and television and the pill. I-I-I was World War Two. I was in the trenches.

In a television studio (at Filmways Studio on East 127th Street in East Harlem) during the airing of Human Beings Wow!, (a show designed to appeal to city sophisticates), an interviewer spoke to two guests: Gregory and Caroline Payne Whitney Smith. In the control booth overlooking the set, Isaac stood watching and complaining to the show's director Dick (Gary Weis) about the presentation of the comedic material that he had written, calling it "embarrassing...antiseptic...empty....there's not any substance to the comedy...It's worse than not insightful. It's not funny. There's not a legitimate laugh in that." He also noted how the live audience's laughter was not a proper gauge of the comedy, due to their very low standards of humor:

You're going by audience reaction to this? I mean, this is an audience that's raised on television. Their standards have been systematically lowered over the years. These guys sit in front of their sets and the gamma rays eat the white cells of their brains out.

When Isaac threatened to quit his TV writing job ("I can't write this anymore"), Dick suggested: "Take a lude." Isaac was disgusted by the drug-taking habits of his show's producers/directors, and rejected the idea of medicating himself with pills or cocaine in order to relax:

All you guys do is, uh, drop ludes and then take Percodans and angel dust. Naturally, it seems funny...You should abandon the show and open a pharmaceutical house.

In the next sequence set in a crowded bookstore (at Rizzoli's original location between West 55th and 56th Streets) with Yale, Isaac was already regretting his impulsive decision to quit without a back-up plan, and feared that he would run out of money, unless he lived for a year like Mahatma Gandhi. He knew how difficult it would be to live in the city without an income (his financial burdens were enormous, including two alimonies, child support, apartment rent, and other extras):

What did I do? I made a terrible mistake... I've screwed myself up completely. You know, for about thirty seconds, I was a big hero. And then - now it's directly to unemployment....My accountant says that I did this at a very bad time. My stocks are down. I, uh, I-I-I'm cash-poor or something. I got no cash flow, or I'm not liquid or, uh, something's not flowing....Yeah, plus I got two alimonies and I got child support and I got, you know, I gotta cut down. I'm gonna have to give up my apartment. I'm not gonna be able to do the tennis lessons, I'm not gonna pick the checks up at dinner or, you know. I won't be able to take the Southampton house....Plus I'll probably have to give my parents less money. This is gonna kill my father. He's gonna - he's not gonna be able to get as good a seat in the synagogue. He's gonna be in the back, away from God, far from the action.

When the topic of conversation turned to Tracy, Isaac was resolute about his urge to break up: "I gotta get out of that situation. She's a young girl. What am I-I'm - You know, it's ridiculous....And what happens if a year goes by and, uh, and my book doesn't come out?" Yale attempted to be supportive and understanding:

Your book is gonna come out. Your book is gonna be wonderful. And the worst thing that can happen to you is that you're gonna learn something about yourself, right? Listen, listen, I'm really proud of you. This is a very good move.

The next scene was a reception set at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) (in the Sculpture Garden) (on West 53rd Street), during an Equal Rights Amendment fund-raising gala. The Guest of Honor Bella Abzug (as Herself) was speaking to an assembled group of black-tie guests. Isaac happened to encounter Mary for the second time, and he began chatting with her and other acquaintances, including Jerry (Victor Truro), Helen (Helen Hanft), Polly (Tisa Farrow, the sister of Mia Farrow) and aspiring film director/scripter Dennis (Michael O'Donoghue). [Note: During the scene, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" played.] After Jerry noted that Isaac had recently quit his job, he replied: "Yeah, a real self-destructive impulse. You know, I wanna write a book so..."

When Jerry and Helen praised an editorial on the Op-Ed page of the NY Times about a Nazi march in New Jersey, claiming that they liked its "really biting" and "devastating" satire, Isaac instead expressed a preference for physically confronting the Nazis with physical force rather than with cerebral pressure or persuasion:

A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point down there.... true physical force is always better with Nazis, uh, because it's hard to satirize a guy with, uh, shiny boots on.

And then, Dennis described his new film venture that he had been discussing with Mary:

I'm just about to direct a film of my own script and, uhm, the premise is: This guy screws so great...that when he brings a woman to orgasm, she's so fulfilled that she dies, right?

Offended, Mary called out the pompous, misogynistic would-be auteur Dennis, and gave her own opinion of his script: "God, it's worse than hostile. It's aggressive-homicidal," and then explained the reason for Dennis' strange plot idea: "He's Harvard direct to Beverly Hills....It's Theodore Reich with a touch of Charles Manson."

Polly inappropriately interjected: "I finally had an orgasm and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind." Isaac quipped about his own orgasms:

Did you have the wrong kind? Oh, really? I've never had the wrong kind, ever, never. My worst one was right on the money.

The group shared a taxi-cab ride, after which Mary and Ike exited together. He described her friends as "like the cast of a Fellini movie." When she casually mentioned that she met Helen through her ex-husband, Jeremiah, Isaac further pried into the reason for her divorce - and she became offended by his very personal question, but then answered: "We had a lot of problems. We fought a lot and I-I was tired of submerging my identity to a very brilliant, dominating man. He's a genius." Isaac thought that with all the geniuses she surrounded herself with, she should "meet some stupid people once in a while. You know, you could learn something."

Isaac then described his own marital situation -- "I got a divorce because my ex-wife left me for another woman." Mary called it "really demoralizing," and a cause for "incredible sexual humiliation. It's enough to turn you off of women." Her thoughts prompted her to mention his lack of risk with the "little girl" that he was dating: "Sure, I understand, believe me. Sixteen years old and no possible threat at all."

[Note: Given the fact that Isaac had been consistently and repeatedly 'sexually humiliated' in his relationships with women, and later confessed his constant failures ("I've never had a relationship with a woman that's lasted longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun"), Mary was right to suggest that Isaac had sought out "little girl" Tracy because she would pose no grown-woman threat as an adolescent. He could easily exercise his narcissistic self-importance over her, due to the age difference.]

Isaac corrected her and defended his 'Lolita-esque' relationship: "She's seventeen. She's gonna be eight-een. You know, sometimes you have a losing personality, Mary." She agreed that she could be too forthright at times: "I say what's on my mind. And if you can't take it - well, then, f--k off." He called her expressions "pithy yet degenerate."

Mary described her dating life as very active, but she still harbored low self-image perceptions of herself:

You'll never believe this, but I never thought I was very pretty. Oh, what is pretty anyway? I mean, I hate being pretty. It's all so subjective anyway....I mean, the brightest men just drop dead in front of a beautiful face. And the minute you climb into the sack, if you're the least bit giving, they're so grateful.

Isaac revealed he had a child being raised by two women, and then joked: "I always feel very few people survive one mother." She proposed walking her dog, a dachshund named Waffles that she called "a penis substitute." He suggested a Freudian interpretation: "Oh, I would've thought then, in your case, a Great Dane." Shortly later, to the tune of "Someone to Watch Over Me" that played during the entire sequence, the two walked her dog (at Sutton Place near East 58th Street), then visited an all-night luncheonette where they ordered take-out grilled hamburgers. She mentioned that her life needed straightening out, now that she was having an affair with Yale - a married man. Her wavering psyche was being psycho-analyzed by her therapist Donny:

Donny tells me that I get involved in these situations and that it's deliberate, you know. I mean, especially with my ex-husband, Jeremiah. You know, I mean, I was his student...He failed me and I fell in love with him. It's so perfect, right?...I was sleeping with him and he had the nerve to give me an F.

When she complimented Isaac on his "good sense of humor," he admitted his worries after quitting his job: "I've been making good money off it for years till I quit my job to write this book. And now I'm very, very nervous about it." After paying for the order, the two continued their discussion late into the night (or next morning) as they proceeded to walk by the river to a viewing spot in the park across from the 59th Street Bridge (Queensboro Bridge). Isaac described the content of his new novel:

My book is about decaying values. It's about - see, the thing is, years ago, I wrote a short story about my mother called "The Castrating Zionist." And, uhm, I wanna expand it into a novel.

By dawn, as the two sat romantically silhouetted in the distance on a park bench next to the East River (their backs to the camera), they observed the iconic bridge, accompanied by "Someone to Watch Over Me." Both were contented and peaceful, as Isaac mused: "This is really a great city. I don't care what anybody says. It's just so - really a knockout, you know?"

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