Tuesday, December 13, 2011

new york in the movies — the myth, the legend

I grew up in New Jersey, where our nightly news came from New York City stations. The trickle-down effect was that New York was our city, the city. I grew up believing New York was my Gotham City, my Oz, and as soon as I could I applied to art school and off I went. Everyone I encountered in the many years I lived there (first in Manhattan, then Brooklyn, then Manhattan again) was convinced that we were living in the navel of the world. Newspapers, television, and especially movies confirmed this. But was it true? Was New York really all that? Or is the way New York has been depicted in the movies a vast conspiracy, just an extended "I Love NY" tourist commercial?

Well, it's probably a little bit of both. New York is always moving and changing, so each generation that moves there feels that they have discovered it and lay claim to it. I first arrived in the '80s. For me, that era will always be New York's prime time. As the '40's must have been for my dad, and the 50's for my mom during her post-college adventures there. I've been back to visit since the Twin Towers fell, but it isn't the same city, my city, anymore. I really enjoyed walking through Times Square, but it was undeniably sanitized, Disneyfied. But which New York is the real New York doesn't matter in the movies, which most of the time gloss over the city's rough edges.

Here are some quintessential movies featuring New York:

Woody Allen for many years set all of his films in New York, but his love letter to the city is Manhattan. The opening montage, set to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue sets the tone for the rest of the film. Another fabulous movie love letter, or maybe series of postcards, is On the Town. Again, the opening number, New York, New York, performed by Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin, perfectly captures someone's wide-eyed first view of the big city.

For dream chasers who want to believe that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, there are all those old black and white musicals of kids trying to hoof it on Broadway like Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street. Breakfast at Tiffany's is also of this ilk, if on the bittersweet side. Who can forget Holly Golightly, after an evening out, making her breakfast pilgrimage to Tiffany's windows, or the crazy, overstuffed party in her apartment? Rent, in a great number, Santa Fe, staged in a subway car, has its New Yorkers fantasizing about leaving the city.

Get More: Rent - Santa Fe

Some of my most favorite New York movies focus on apartment life. New Yorkers will put up with a lot just to get a place to live in the city. Devil worshipping neighbors are just a few of the problems the heroines of Rosemary’s Baby (the Dakota apartment building another character in the movie) and The Seventh Victim have to contend with. A roommate to help share the exorbitant rents turn can lead to difficult relationships (The Odd Couple and The Goodbye Girl). The streets around Central Park can be scary at night when exotic women turn into cats (Cat People). But even if you stay inside, drug dealers might try to sneak into your basement apartment (Wait Until Dark). Once you've reached the heights of Manhattan society you still may have to fake your own death to avoid an unwanted suitor (Laura). Peeping Toms and wife murderers may be your neighbors (Rear Window). The huge city can become incredibly claustrophobic when you're paranoid, on the run and hiding out in Faye Dunaway's apartment, like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor.

Kim Hunter on the subway in The Seventh Victim

So many movies depict New York as a magical place, but some filmmakers have not been afraid to show its grittier, more dangerous side. Martin Scorsese's brilliant Taxi Driver is a prime example. Scorsese showed he city's slightly less scary, but still a bit dangerous and crazy side in After Hours.

But Manhattan isn't the only borough in New York City. What could be more iconic, but still New York, than John Travolta as Tony Manero strutting the streets of Bay Ridge in Saturday Night Fever? Spike Lee also has brilliantly showcased the borough of Brooklyn in She's Gotta Have It, and Do the Right ThingMoonstruck! also shows off Brooklyn to great advantage (while still having its gaze firmly focused over the river). Working Girl captures the life of people who live outside the big city in Staten Island, but yearn to cross the river permanently.

New York is also used as a great backdrop in comedies. Ghostbusters cruises by on the wit of Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis, but settings like the New York Public Library, a tony hotel, Tavern on the Green, and a fancy Upper West Side high-rise add to the fun. When Harry Met Sally is not just a rom-com, but a rom-com about New Yorkers. It uses the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington Square Park as locations, but undoubtedly its most famous scene is set in Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side. Dudley Moore's Arthur sees Manhattan (and Queens) through the windows of his limousine. Men in Black proved that aliens are difficult to distinguish from all of the other wacky New York oddballs. Love At First Bite transplanted George Hamilton's Dracula to Manhattan with funny results. Musicals like Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying bring the colorful characters of midtown gamblers and account executives to life. Wall Street isn't the only New York business movie. People in very different professions populate Miracle on 34th Street, My Favorite YearDesk Set and Eyes of Laura Mars.

Movies set in New York can also be time capsules of another era. The Godfather Part II has one of the best depictions of the Little Italy immigrant experience (albeit with gangsters.) The scene where young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) shoots mob boss Fanucci dead in his tenement stairwell while a religious street festival is celebrated outside is amazing. All About EveThe Producersand Sweet Smell of Success depict people who lived and breathed Broadway. An Unmarried Woman showed how a woman's path through her life also brought her through different parts of the city, from uptown to downtown.

This is only a gloss of the hundreds of Big Apple-centered films, but they include some of my favorites. Even though I no longer live in New York, nor desire to, I will always have a fondness for the city. But as the years go by I wonder if my memories of my time in New York have become as mythical as the New York of the movies.
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