For me, having lived in the city for almost half a century, Woody Allen has been as vital to New York as Hendrik Hudson was. In between, there was a long string of greats, men and occasionally women with extraordinary accomplishments who walked our streets. They include Washington and Lincoln, passing through on the way to immortality; Melville prowling the waterfront and Customs House; Whitman just prowling; Olmsted designing a park that some consider the greatest work of art of the 19th century; Teddy Roosevelt wishing police commissioner was an equestrian position; D. W. Griffith inventing a new art form on 14th Street; Eugene O’Neill hobnobbing with Reds and drinking himself silly in the Village; Ruth hitting them out of the park and Robinson stealing home; Elia Kazan talking dirty in his tiny office at the old Astor-Victoria theater; Chaplin and Welles navigating the hallways at the Plaza Hotel; Garbo, Gish, and Hepburn exchanging neighborly visits on the East Side; our neighbor, Cary Grant, hanging out at the Warwick; and Andrew Sarris giving us the auteur theory.
Woody shot a key scene in Manhattan here at the Museum. With the assistance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the recently deceased super-cinematographer and native New Yorker Gordon Willis (The Godfather parts I and II, Annie Hall, Zelig), Manhattan must have made many envious of those of us who lived here. I remember seeing an Allen film in some forsaken redneck venue (probably in Florida), expecting that his humor was “too New York,” but they got it. There is a kind of universal romanticism to which Woody, at his best, plays, often sacrificing likelihood and reality for emotion. As his character says, “the brain is the most overrated organ,” and for all the Godardian essays and varieties of verité, the movies are ultimately about feelings. Griffith had it right a century ago when he could offer up, with a straight face, titles like True Heart Susie and A Romance of Happy Valley.
Woody’s New York City, of course, is no more real than Griffith’s idealized pastoral paradise. Jim Hoberman has even suggested that Allen’s vision of the City is derived more from his remembrance of the old movies of his youth than reality. Yet it is the New York most of us came here seeking—and would like to think we’ve found.
Ultimately, Woody is a comedian, perhaps the most successful one as an actor/director in the sound era. It seems all the more appropriate, then, that the final scene of what may be his best film pays homage to the final scene of the best film of his predecessor in the silent era, Chaplin’s City Lights—the scene that James Agee famously called “the highest moment in movies.”