The Inside Edge: Woody Allen in Manhattan

By Joanna Stevens.

"Human Beings are divided into mind and body. The mind embraces all the nobler aspirations, like poetry and philosophy, but the body has all the fun."
- Woody Allen.
Woody Allen's Manhattan, tale of social observation and romance, speeds along at an refreshing, yet frantic pace. Presented as a glimmering, cosmopolitan world, New York soars along with the rhapsody of Gershwin's music. Allen's presentation of Manhattan is remarkably personal with it's infusion of his own preoccupation, a visual representation of his personal views. In offering an explanation, Girgus suggests that, "a critical and interpretive study of Allen's films clearly also entails the construction of an interior biography of him" (Girgus ix). With this in mind, it is possible to see how Manhattan is considered as autobiographical. To define that which is and which isn't autobiographical, can be noted by comparison of actual events in Allen's life and scenes from the aforesaid movie. Brode declares, "Woody had a strong personal feeling about how his line ought be delivered . . . By becoming a performer, he could protect his work as a writer" (Brode 16).

Allen's use of first person narrator for the character Issac, provides insight into his life. His thoughts provoke reaction within the audience. Reflective conclusions result from this limited point of view. Woody Allen plays himself, and does it in such a way that, even he, cannot recognize this in Issac. Hick's review describes what could either be Woody or Issac. He says, "There he is, playing a neurotic New York Jew whose career involves entertaining the masses with his sense of humor and whose love life involves a continual string of mismatches and failures" (Hicks 1). Issac becomes the tool for Allen's own attitudes. Real life quotes compared with Manhattan scenes will provide evidence of Woody's past, present (at the time of filming), and predicted future biographical events. These are seen in forms of his preoccupation or obsessions with Judaism, his success, and his controversial underage love interest.

Girgus describes Woody's background and upbringing as being traditionally Jewish while saying that, "his movies reflect the enormous influence of ethnic cultures on his way of thinking, feeling, and creating" (Girgus 2). Issac, a creation that requires both thought and emotion, is often described as the typical neurotic Jew. He is the focal point of paranoia. An example of his self-consciousness is shown during an emotionless but enormously influential display; Issac says, "I finally had an orgasm and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind" (Torp 2). He is Issac Davies, out on the edge -- trying to produce an art form -- confidently finding acceptance, or not. In Lax's biography Woody says of his own childhood that, "'You know, when I think about it, it's so clear why I'm so neurotic and I've had such a neurotic life . . . think of the number of times that I changed . . . having to get acclimated . . . and then doing that again and again'" (Lax 42). Brode also suggests that Allen is in recognition of his neurosis and describes how he uses this knowledge in his films. He says, "Allen's great comic strength lies in his willingness . . . to share the personal terrain of his own neuroses with his audience . . . [and] summon the laughter of recognition" (Brode 20). Issac holds the key to a complex internal biography.

While debating his views on being a Jew, Allen concluded with, "To be a Jew was not something that I felt 'Oh, God, I'm so lucky.' Or 'Gee, I wish I were something else.'" (Lax 40). However, Woody shows his reluctant, pessimistic hope for a God through Isaac's comment to Yale, "'You're too easy on yourself' . . . 'It's very important to have some kind of personal integrity'" (Brode 196). Provided in this sentence is the resurrection of Woody's perpetual questioning -- the creation of Issac for a moralistic purpose.

As a successful auteur, Allen incorporated personal experiences of intellect and knowledge into Issac. His acceptance of professionalism and yearning for physical beauty are also at bay. Allen's depiction of Issac as an acclaimed writer, who spends an extraordinary amount of time in front of a typewriter is not coincidental. Playing a role that is so similar to who he is himself, allowed Allen to perfect every seemingly improvised gesture -- the shots always appearing unstructured and free. However, as a lover of the paradoxical, often the image of Issac and the words he speaks are contradictory to Allen's reality. While commenting on his changing economic situation Issac says, "What does money have to do with it? I've got enough for a year if I live like Mahatma Gandhi. My accountant says I did this at a very bad time. My stocks are down. I'm cash poor, or something. I've got no cash flow. I'm not liquid" (Torp 2). Eventually revealed is Isaac's rejection of a narcissistic culture, which remains constant to Woody's maintenance of a private world. Brode says that Allen, "hides from the public after fighting to achieve and maintain his celebrity status" (Brode 13).

Allen, who assigns himself mental tasks each day so that no part of his day is spent without thought development, says, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying" (Lax 183). The character of Issac reveals the romanticism behind the director-screenwriter-star. Allen tackles the themes and problems that are close to his personal experience. He projects the knowledge that his success has brought him through Isaac's words. Issac harbors a dream and it starts, "Chapter One: He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat . . . New York was his town. And it always would be" (Torp 2). In traditional Woody style, he contradicts the disillusionment of the great American novelist with comments that he made while thinking about Manhattan. He said, "I love it now like a boy who loves a father who is, say, an alcoholic or a thief" (Lax 20). Yet upon reflection of that statement he admitted that, "I not only was in love with Manhattan from the earliest memory, I loved every single movie that was set in New York" (Lax 20). This makes sense when looking at Isaac's need to produce a novel and his inability to commit himself and get past it's first sentence. With Isaac's rejection of ideas, Girgus says that he becomes a, "part of a mainstream ideological perspective that frequently seems to contradict his equally strong proclivity toward nonconformity and iconoclasm" (Girgus 9). Any knowledge about Allen's love of art, religion, and love makes this a fitting description of Allen's lifestyle.

Andrew Hick's opinion of Issac and Tracy's relationship is one of a typically immature and under-researched nature. He says that in Manhattan, "we get to see the charming pedophile side of Woody in this film as he enters a relationship with high school senior Mariel Hemmingway" (Hicks 1). As he continues with the statement that, "The mental image of those two together is almost as disgusting as Mariel's lesbian kiss with Roseanne", the word homophobic comes to mind (Hicks 1). So in rejection of that statement, where is the justification in Isaac's words of, "She's 17. I'm 42 and she's 17. I'm older than her father, can you believe that? " (IMD 1). His masochism appears in making women the focus of desire. Allen himself has said, "Manhattan is about the problem of trying to live a decent life amidst all the junk of contemporary culture - the temptations, the seductions" (Girgus 48).

Brode sees Woody's attraction to Tracy in a much more comprehensible way. He says that:

He [Issac] rejects Tracy mainly because, in their eyes [Mary and Yale], he is involved in an infantile embarrassing situation with a child. We sense Tracy is something else entirely -- perceptive and honest. Issac understands this. His attraction to Tracy shows that . . . he can lose his own innocence yet still recognize it in others (Brode 194).
Allen uses their relationship symbolically -- in recognition of his own romantic bent. A foreshadowing of the trouble Allen had yet to experience. Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film suggests that Allen's value of privacy was ruined after "his much-publicized separation battles with Farrow" (1996 BSF 5). The controversy became reality for Allen, it passed with a series of custody battles and 'underage' dramas.

Issac, surrounded by a sub-culture that Allen is completely comfortable with. He projects his sense of authenticity through his knowledge of language and lifestyles. Issacs favorite film was Grand Illusion, a prodigy of Jean Renoir. Allen says that through the movie, "he had hoped to communicate 'my subjective, romantic view of contemporary life in Manhattan. I like to think that, 100 years from now, if people see the picture, they will learn something about what life in the city was like in the 1970's'" (Brode 188). Allen's neuroses call his need for immortality, an abundance of examples exists. He says, "I'm not afraid of dying...I just don't want to be there when it happens." (Lax 21). In making Manhattan, Allen was leaving his portrait of time behind, and in it's creation he left parts of himself. Issac, on a rollercoaster of perceived irregularities, battles with complex internal issues about his culture, fame, and his sexual habits. The logical director/star/screenwriter finds in himself a simple solution. Issac complains that, "people in Manhattan are constantly creating these unnecessary neurotic problems of the universe" (Brode 191). Allen showed this sense of integrity when he insisted that, "until we find a resolution for our terrors, we're going to have an expedient culture" (Brode 191). Issac Davies was a chance for Woody to express his opinion of the time, to throw his 'bohemian lifestyle' on the edge. As Issac says, "I want you to enjoy me. My wry sense of humor and astonishing sexual technique" , so does Allen (Torp 2).


Brode, Douglas. Woody Allen: his films and career. N.J., Citadel Press, 1985.

Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film. Woody Allen (1935 -). Cinemania.
Netscape. Internet. 05/15/96.
Available: Allen.htm

Girgus, Sam B. The Films of Woody Allen. England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Hicks, Andrew. Manhattan(1979). A film review by Andrew Hicks. Netscape. Internet. 05/15/96.

The Internet Movie Database Ltd. Movie Quotes for Manhattan (1979). Netscape. Internet. 05/15/96.

Lax, Eric. Woody Allen. A Biography. N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Torp, Anders Herman. Manhattan. Favorite Quotes and Sound. Netscape. Internet. 05/15/96.