Manhattan (1979): One of Woody Allen’s Best Films

“Manhattan” is considered by many critics to be Woody Allen’s masterpiece, right up there with “Annie Hall (1977) and “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986).


Theatrical release poster

The movie was made right after “Interiors,” which divided critics, with most dismissing it as pretentious and self-conscious, dominated by angst that was too much of homage to Ingmar Bergman (Allen’s hero).

Dropping his imitations of Bergman and Fellini, Allen refined his distinctive voice and special serio-comic, bitter-sweet tone that defines his best work. In this lyrical love poem to Manhattan, co-written by Allen and Marshall Brickman, Allen returns to the self-confessional format of “Annie Hall,” again playing the Jewish intellectual nebbish bewildered by relationships with attractive shiksas and confounded by his own anxieties and neuroses.

Allen cast himself as Isaac Davis, a TV comedy writer who’s fed up with the dictates and demands of the medium, and contemplates a switch to a more respectable kind of writing, “serious” literature.

In a characteristic manner, we get a portrait of his neurotic, unstable relationships with various women, after being left by his harsh lesbian wife (the young Meryl Streep at her most beautiful, with long blonde hair). He’s first involved with a teenager (played by Mariel Hemingway), a drama student who’s immediately smitten with him, and then with the married Mary (Diane Keaton), which implies betrayal of his best friend.

The excellent ensemble includes Meryl Streep as Allen’s lesbian ex-wife, Michael Murphy, Anne Byrne, Karen Ludwig, and Wallace Shawn.

In this picture, Allen refined the themes that have preoccupied him in his former works: The enduring yet inexplicable appeal of Manhattan (the movie is a valentine to the city), emotional neuroses and sexual hang-ups, which are integral and endemic in urban life, love and betrayal, intellectual fads, pretentious New Yorkers, and so on.

The film’s heroine is Diane Keaton, who would soon give way to a new lover and leading actress, Mia Farrow.  But the film is all but stolen by Mariel Hemingway (sister of the model), who, not surprisingly, is both more honest and emotionally mature (ready to commit to an older man) than Allen’s Isaac and the rest of the adult characters.

Comparisons between “Annie Hall,” which also stars Diane Keaton and is set in the Upper East Side, and “Manhattan” were inevitable.  Most critics consider “Annie Hall” to be more likeable and fun (what with its large share of witty and hilarious one-liners), but less fully realized a film than “Manhattan,” in which the characters are more sharply and deftly developed.

Elegantly shot in a stylized black-and-white by ace cinematographer Gordon Willis (who somehow failed to be Oscar-nominated), Manhattan benefits immensely from the gorgeous, melodic, and evocative George Gershwin score.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Screenplay: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

Supporting Actress: Mariel Hemingway

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Original Screenplay Oscar was Steve Tesich for “Breaking Away,” a comedy directed by Peter Yates.

Meryl Streep won her first Oscar (in the Supporting league) for “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” which also won Best Picture.


Isaac Davis (Woody Allen)

Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton)

Yale (Michael Murphy)

Tracy (Mariel Hemingway)

Jill (Meryl Streep)

Emily (Anne Byrne)

Connie (Karen Ludwig)

Dennis (Michael O’Donoghue)



UA (Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe production)

Directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Charles H. Joffe
Written by Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Music by George Gershwin, played by the New York Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, Michael Tilson Thomas
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Edited by Susan E. Morse
Distributed by United Artists

Release date: April 18, 1979 (Premiere); April 25 (U.S.)

Budget $9 million
Box office $40.2 million