Is time finally up for Woody Allen’s Manhattan?
I was introduced to Woody Allen's Manhattan by a not-quite boyfriend. That was a decade ago, but I vividly remember his insistence that it was a masterpiece. He pointed to the wit of the dialogue, the beautiful cinematography that rendered New York's most fashionable district in monochrome. Yet the film troubled me: all I could see was a 42-year-old man pretending to be the victim in a relationship with a 17-year-old schoolgirl.
“Manhattan”, starring Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway.
Manhattan was released in 1979. But while many have since pointed out the uncomfortable age gap between Isaac (Allen) and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, 16 at the time of filming), it never really detracted from the film's recognition as an accomplished piece of art. Reviews from the time are telling: The New York Times praised Hemingway's Oscar-nominated performance but also described her as a "beautiful nymphet". The Washington Post admits that the liaison could have lacked credence without Allen's "most convincingly paternal" performance. It is now considered a classic and is a frequent entry in lists of the greatest films ever.
All I could see was a 42-year-old man pretending to be the victim in a relationship with a 17-year-old schoolgirl.
However, my original personal anxieties about this film feel justified in light of the recent revelations that art was imitating life when it came to the narrative. "Babi" Christina Engelhardt, a former model and actress, claims in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that she was 16 when she embarked on an eight-year relationship with Allen (then 40) in 1976. Engelhardt had been forced to grow up quickly: according to the interview, she was repeatedly raped during adolescence and had come to Manhattan to start her career. She describes her teenage self as "pretty enough… discreet, and nothing shocks me."
Christina Engelhardt has revealed the details of her relationship with Woody Allen when she was a teenager.Credit:IMDB
But she was taken aback to find herself at the heart of Allen's film, which he made without her knowledge.
To watch Manhattan in light of Engelhardt's story is a startling experience. We meet Isaac and Tracy in the famous restaurant Elaine's, where Engelhardt says she gave Allen her number. Tracy is an aspiring actress, as Engelhardt was. When Isaac breaks up with Tracy, her bewilderment and sadness could have been lifted from Engelhardt's memoir: "How could he have felt this way? How was our partnership not something more than just a fling?"
Much as Isaac leaves Tracy for the older Mary (Diane Keaton), so Engelhardt was one day presented with Mia Farrow, Allen's "girlfriend" (a role Engelhardt thought she occupied) who was 14 years her senior. Englehardt writes that the meeting made her "feel sick… yet I couldn't find the courage to get up and leave. To leave would mean an end to all of this." Englehardt says Allen asked the two women to have a threesome. She claimed it happened a "handful" of times. Neither Allen nor Farrow have commented on the claims.
Engelhardt has said that she actively pursued Allen, much as Tracy repeatedly pronounces her love for Isaac. But this cannot be used as a defence, either of Allen or the script. It highlights the problem of power play. Allen was a successful director, while Engelhardt was a vulnerable teen hoping to become an actress. Similarly Tracy's innocence is described by Isaac as "the thing I like about you".
A footnote to Manhattan makes it even more troubling. When Hemingway turned 18, she wrote in her 2015 memoir that Allen pursued her, flying to her home in Idaho to ask her parents for permission to take her to Paris. Hemingway knew he would expect her to share his room and refused to go. We are left with a film whose merits are harder to enjoy. Manhattan is famous for its comedy. Perhaps people once laughed at Isaac's quip that "I've never had a relationship with a woman that's lasted longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun" – Braun being the 17-year-old who first met the dictator when he was 40 in 1929. But laughter feels impossible now; it is yet another example of the preoccupation with teenage girls that defines Allen's work.
Englehardt's claims, which Allen has not responded to, surely mean the film must be further reassessed. It is important to try to understand art through the lens of the time in which it was created. But are some works so fatally compromised that it is a moral imperative to bring contemporary awareness to bear on their themes and supposed insight to the human condition?
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