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« Worst Best Picture Snubs Ever? | Main | The Planet of the Links »
Thursday
Jan182018

Months of Meryl: Manhattan (1979)

Hi, we’re John and Matt and, icymi, we are watching every single live-action film starring Streep.

#3 — Jill, our neurotic protagonist’s chilly lesbian ex.

MATTHEW: So, you’ve just played a chatterbox and a near-mute, the former defined by her gaucheness, the latter by her almost ethereal warmth. What role do you take on next? Why, an ice queen, of course!

The overarching worldview of Woody Allen’s beloved Manhattan is cruel, chaotic, and self-absorbed, even as its fleet, monochromatic presentation retains the smooth and deceptive romanticism of that rightfully-iconic opening montage...

There has always been an inescapable skeeviness to Manhattan’s most pivotal relationship, and that quality only felt more pronounced upon this most recent rewatch, for reasons that don’t need to be reiterated here. Suffice it to say that I had some difficulty reconciling my deep appreciation of Allen’s gorgeous execution with the toxic underbelly of his story, which is significantly strengthened by the gratifying contributions of legendary cinematographer and surefire MVP Gordon Willis, Diane Keaton (retaining Annie Hall’s insecurities but boldly ditching her charms), and, for a mere matter of minutes, Meryl Streep, fiercely slicing through any and all of Allen’s bullshit.

JOHN: I think I counted exactly five minutes? Either way, Manhattan functions primarily (for this series) as a vehicle for gorgeous black and white photography of a pissed, playful, and ravishing Streep. In 1979, she basically completed her brief “supporting actress” cycle, playing a frisky senator’s assistant (more on that next week) and two wives who leave their husbands. Shall we stan this BAFTA-nominated cameo scene-by-scene?

First, a surprise ambush from Allen’s lurking ex-husband, nervous about the prospect of her revealing unseemly marital details in a tell-all memoir. Streep exits a midtown building with a breezy gait, flipping her long, silken hair like a goddess, until suddenly Allen catches her off guard. She’s first surprised and then quickly annoyed and then a bit flattered to see how much she fuels Allen’s hysteria. “Look at you, you’re so threatened,” she laughs. My favorite thing about this scene is the way her stately nonchalance further irritates Allen, and the devilishly relaxed way she snarks, “I don’t care to discuss it.” I never for one minute believe that Isaac and Jill were ever married, or in love at all, or that they had a child together. I can’t imagine this regally acerbic woman would have any time for this feeble, nervous man; her long hair alone seemingly outstrips his height. Few Allen women have ever cut his self-absorption down to size with as sharp a stab as the line, “I’m free to do as I please.” What else about this scene makes you genuflect?

MATTHEW: To be quite honest, I think I started bowing the second Streep appeared on screen. I really can’t use enough words to adequately describe that hair, which practically glistens in Willis’ silky black-and-white, producing an effect that I can only imagine is similar to staring directly at the sun for an hour. In terms of the performance itself, I especially relish the haughtily self-possessed way in which Streep barely deigns to even look at Allen over the course of this single-take scene. By most accounts, this is maybe not too far from how Streep and Allen actually related to each other in real life?

“I don’t think Woody Allen even remembers me,” Streep told Ladies’ Home Journal in an incredibly candid, few-fucks-to-give interview from 1980:

“I went to see Manhattan and I felt like I wasn’t even in it. I was pleased with the film because I looked pretty in it and I thought it was entertaining. But I only worked on the film for three days and I didn’t get to know Woody. Who gets to know Woody? He’s very much a womanizer; very self-involved. On a certain level, the film offends me because it’s all about these people whose sole concern is discussing their emotional states or their neuroses. It’s sad because Woody has the potential to be America’s Chekhov. But instead, he’s still caught up in the jet-set crowd type of life, trivializing his talent.”

Aside from the fact that, in 1980, Allen had yet to make Hannah and Her Sisters, still the most pristine transplanting of Chekhov’s dramatic sensibility to the big screen, this statement should hardly come as a surprise. Streep is one of a handful of actors (including Midnight in Paris’ Marion Cotillard and September’s Sam Shepard) who have famously found Allen’s utterly unobtrusive, print-the-first-take directorial style more than a little difficult to navigate. Cotillard was already an Oscar winner and Shepherd a countercultural icon by the time each worked with Allen, so just imagine what it must have been like for a rising but still relatively unknown performer like Streep to grapple with a director who scarcely seemed interested in directing her. No wonder, then, that Streep assumed the task herself.

According to Michael Schulman’s "Her Again," a biographical account of Streep’s early years that we first mentioned last week, Streep conferred with Karen Ludwig, playing Jill’s partner Connie, before they shot the scene in which Allen’s Isaac drops by to pick up their pint-sized son, only to end up in another argument as he begs Jill not to publish her memoir. Together, Streep and Ludwig, seemingly left to their own devices by Allen, decided to act as if their characters had just finished having hot sex on the kitchen table before the scene commences. The final product showcases most of the behavioral choices we saw in Streep’s first scene. We get the arched brow, the straight-backed self-assurance, and the cool refusal to look Allen in the eye as Jill darts around the dining room, re-setting the table. But there’s a brief shot, early on, where we can obliquely glean some subtextual information that, for once, exists outside of Allen’s purview: Streep and Ludwig stand side by side at the table, not exactly looking at each other but naughtily smirking with a conspiratorial glee that neither cares to conceal from an off-screen Allen. For me, it’s easily the scene’s standout moment, precipitated by Streep’s (and Ludwig’s) self-motivated inventiveness. Do you see any other traces of Streep’s canny decision-making across this performance, particularly in her third and final scene?

JOHN: Before discussing her brief final scene, I’d be remiss not to mention that hilarious shot of her “Marriage, Divorce, and Selfhood” display in the bookstore window. Can you even imagine the goldmine of Allen dirt in a book like this? It probably wasn’t pretty. When Isaac confronts Jill again, she is even less inclined to deal with his neurosis, instead reacting with a preoccupied, carefree busyness that nonetheless digs the knife even deeper in Isaac’s back, while barely moving a muscle. A near-carbon copy of her previous scene, this scene offers little room for Streep to work any of her creative magic or show any new sides of the character. We don’t see Jill again after this standoff, and unlike The Deer Hunter’s Linda, Jill doesn’t throw a shadow over the scenes in which she isn’t present. Streep’s function in Manhattan may be slight, but she nonetheless offers a deliciously relaxed and remarkably assured cameo that gave seventies audiences a taste of her extraordinary knack for comedy and provided a pristine time capsule of her beguiling presence for future viewers. The film remains one of her highest-grossing — it banked an adjusted $137 million in 1979 — and surely served as a fun April precursor to August’s Karen and December’s Joanna.

Reader, how do you rate Streep’s abridged performance here? Did you ever fantasize about Streep nailing a juicier part in an Allen picture?

 

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Reader Comments (24)

Love this movie. You are correct that while Meryl is great in it, she doesn’t hover over the scenes she’s not in (perhaps because there is so much going on elsewhere in this busy film).

I could watch the opening sequence endlessly.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Streep is sublime, as are Keaton and Hemingway. Still among my all-time favorites.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

This film, while never one of my favorite Allen features, is an impressive work. You can see the influence on Philippe Garrel's later films in it: An American film inspired by French cinema that then turned around and inspired the next generation of French cinema.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDanniella

Love this film, and her opening scene is a total knock-out. One of my favorite moments in her career.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Scott C -- totally. such energy in that walk and as Matthew says, that glistening hair. I can't imagine what it must have been like for moviegoers to see Streep for the first time in the late 70s. She was such an original beauty.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

She is knockout beautiful in this film, the most stunning she ever looked.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJB

Not a fan of Woody Allen films but love Streep’s work in this one. She is icy and beautiful!

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

It really would be somewhat wonderful if Woody Allen would write a great leading role for Meryl Streep. They need to reteam.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

That hair!

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

One of Woody's top three films. Meryl looks terrific. Keaton's performance is killer. The planetarium scene almost makes you forget La La Land.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I've never been wild about Manhattan - there are a dozen Woody films I think are better - but that still leaves room for it to be very good in many ways. Streep's work in it is piercing and funny.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Is stan a verb now? Jump back Jesus...I am old!

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMary Clancy

Definitely one of my favorite films from Woody (who is becoming a pariah as of late) as I also enjoyed Meryl in that film.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I saw Manhatten in the theatre and hated the fact that Hemingway was so young, so I was uncomfortable with Woody's character from the start. But I loved the other performances in the film, chiefly Keaton & Streep. Also the music & the cinematography.

Back then seeing Streep was like getting only one tiny piece of chocolate instead of a whole bar. She had a radiance on screen that made an impression.
(I noticed Julianne Moore this way in "The Fugitive" & Annette Benning in "Postcards on the Edge".) Sometimes the camera just loves a face and we all fall in love.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

It's so true, but that first scene where she walks down the street in Manhattan with the long blonde hair is classic. I was a teenager and remember thinking ... wow, who is that? I forgot about the book cover. After seeing The Post, I realized that her movies often use photographs or paintings of her within the movie (like the Kay Graham photos in her office, or Death Becomes Her with the Warhol knockoffs of Madeline Ashton, or the book cover in Adaptation, etc.). I hope she keeps on working for many years to come. Amazing performer.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Lady Edith,
When I rewatched "Postcards..." I imagined what fun it would be to see Bening and Streep switch roles.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMary Clancy

I know we all LOVE Her Again. Fantastic book. And she was so exquisitely beautiful in this film.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Mary Clancy,
I just love Postcards so much as it is, but there is no denying that Benning could do that part justice. But seeing Streep with Shirley Maclaine is one of the best Mother/daughter duos ever.
Let's hope that Benning gets more parts & someday she gets some well deserved, long overdue love.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Wow, Meryl is sooo gorgeous!! 😍 she fits the Ice Queen role to a T. Like a Hitchcock Blonde.

Reading this review n the comments, I can't help but notice tt this article is longer than her part 😂

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I think this is one of my favorite Meryl Streep performances. She's so cold and contemptuous and completely unmoved by him. She is also beyond his revenge.

Sometimes in her other movies, where she is supposed to adore her male co-star, I see Jill peeking through, bored by her co-star and mentally counting up the ways he is ridiculous.

Too bad there wasn't a genre of evil dames in her era. She would have been vicious, funny, and scary in those.

January 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

The idea of a Woody Allen banking $137 million today just seems so insane.

January 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Probably in my Top 5 favourite Meryl performances (alongside The Hours, Adaptation, The Devil Wears Prada and Death Becomes Her).

Clearly I much prefer her playing contemporary, un-heavily-accented characters!

January 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

Last year you were all drooling over Isabelle Huppert but here we are discussing Meryl AGAIN.

January 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarie Antoinette

I'm not a fan of the film but thought that Meryl nailed her small role in it but as you mentioned I had a very hard time believing that these two people were ever married...or quite frankly would even date.

January 19, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

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