Alan Welner/AP
Philippe Petit, "Man on Wire"

5 New York City Films

October 07, 2008
by Michael Koegel
There’s probably no other place on earth that’s inspired and produced as many cinematic pleasures as New York City. In the last 75 years, three giant apes have been shot down from the Empire State Building, while three lovers waited for their soulmates atop the same tower. It’s a helluva town and we’ve got it on film.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

A movie about Time Square street hustlers back when Time Square still had street hustlers, John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” is the only X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture (the rating was later altered to an R). John Voight, a virtually unknown actor at the time, plays the title role, a naive dishwasher from Texas who comes to New York to sell his services as a stud. Dustin Hoffman is his friend Ratso Rizzo, an ailing petty thief who speaks the film’s most quoted (and entirely ad-libbed) line: “I’m walkin’ here!” The film is no valentine to the city, but it captures the essence of New York at a particular time, and its images linger.

Although it won three Oscars (Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay) Midnight Cowboy is really about the performances of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Both men were nominated for Best Actor for their roles in the film but lost out to John Wayne in “True Grit.”

Manhattan (1979)

Any list of movies about NYC could be filled entirely by the oeuvre of Woody Allen. And while “Manhattan” may be the obvious choice, it is for good reason. “Manhattan,” shot entirely in black and white, begins with a beautifully shot 4-minute montage of iconic Manhattan sites scored to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Meanwhile, a voiceover from Allen’s character tries several times to explain his relationship to the city. Each attempt is radically different but essentially true.

“Manhattan” stars Mariel Hemingway as his current 17-year-old lover, Diane Keaton as his potential new lover and Meryl Streep as his ex-lover, now a lesbian. But without question the central character is New York City. “Manhattan” is shot in a variety of locations including the Guggenheim, MoMA, and even John’s Pizzeria in Greenwich Village (still touted as having the best pizza in NY). Its most famous shot though, might be of Allen and Keaton sitting on a bench along the East River, beneath the 59th Street Bridge.

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Melanie Griffith wanted the part. So did Ellen Barkin, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. But the title role in “Desperately Seeking Susan” went to a little-known singer on the cusp of her career, some downtown club kid named Madonna. As soon as the film hit the streets, teenage girls everywhere donned lace gloves, headbands, and tons of rubber bracelets, trying to get into her groove. They shopped in the East Village at Loves Saves the Day. Just like Madonna! They bought their sunglasses from a street vendor on St. Marks Place. Just like Madonna! They posed for pictures in front of the Statue of Liberty. Just like a tourist!

Not known for her chops as an actress, Madonna has nevertheless appeared in nearly 20 films, some successful (“Evita”) some not so much (“Swept Away”). For those who still insist that the Material Girl’s acting abilities propelled her film career, consider this: “Dick Tracy,” “Shanghai Surprise” and “Swept Away” were all made with her lovers at the time (Warren Beatty, Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie, respectively). The audio commentary on the “Desperately Seeking Susan” DVD includes a female executive’s story of Madonna getting down on her knees in front of her and saying, “I’ll do anything to get this part.” The executive declined her “offer,” saying she wasn’t gay. To which Madonna allegedly replied, “That’s all right. You should try everything.”

Do the Right Thing (1989)

A pizza shop in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn on a hot summer day becomes the epicenter of racial tension in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” As all important films do, the specifics of the plot speak to a larger, more universal truth. And the truth was that there was a lot of bubbling racism in New York in the 80s, exemplified by such incidents as the Tawana Brawley case, the Tompkins Square Riots, the Howard Beach assaults and the shootings by subway vigilante Bernard Goetz. Lee builds the tension between the Italian owners of a pizza shop and their black and Latino customers slowly; you know something is going to happen, you just aren’t sure what or when. It was a lot like living in New York City at the time.

The film set off a media firestorm. Did Lee stack the deck to make his point? Could this really happen in New York? Were the characters real or caricatures? But that wasn’t the point. Lee got us talking about racism on a national and visceral level.

Man on Wire (2008)

One late summer morning, a foreign mastermind and his accomplices carried out a carefully orchestrated plot involving a New York landmark, outwitting American security and pulling off a terrifying stunt that shocked the world. It was 1974, the year that Philippe Petit strung a wire from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other and danced across it. While it almost seems blasphemous to use words like “plot” and “shocking” in this context, but that's how Petit’s feat was described at the time. The documentary “Man on Wire” brings us back to a much more innocent time.

“Man on Wire” thankfully allows New Yorkers to look at the WTC as something more than the memorial it has become. And for the first time in years, viewers are allowed to experience the towers with a touch of nostalgia, without feeling the dread and guilt that normally accompanies such memories. There is also a lot of remarkable footage of the Towers being built, and it’s nice to see them going up once again. NPR’s review is typical in its enthusiasm for the film.

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