Back in 1979, my wife (then my girlfriend) and I saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan in… Manhattan, where we lived. I was something of a Woody fan at the time, going back to some of his goofy early films and then Sleeper and Annie Hall. But Manhattan left me profoundly uneasy.
Trying to recall my reaction the other night, I consulted my wife and we agreed that back in 1979 we shared the same opinion about Manhattan. Much of the film was very good, but it was severely compromised by its depiction of Woody’s character, at age 42, having an affair (including sex) with the Mariel Hemingway character, age 17, a senior in high school. It wasn’t the usual professor-and-college-student—more April/December than May/November.
But we also recalled that we were amazed back then how few critics at the time expressed any concern or complaint about that depiction. Of course, the film critic crowd was then overwhelmingly male. Yes, Woody at the end of the film decides that, hey, maybe she is too young, but still…
When Roger Ebert re-visited the film in 2001 he observed that the only criticism of the Woody-Mariel relationship by reviewers of the film was that it was not very credible—because the two “seemed to have so little in common” and Mariel idealized Woody more than he idealized her.
This seemed to sustain my recollection that very few critics shared our view when the film came out. I knew it was a critical favorite. Andrew Sarris called it the only great American film of the entire decade. Time magazine put the Woody man on the cover, and called him a “genius,” and their piece was titled (ouch) “Woody Allen Comes of Age.” Jack Kroll in Newsweek declared that his “growth in every department is lovely to behold.” And so on.
Sadly, Google let me down, as I searched for 1979 reviews, producing only a few from that year. I’ll keep searching. But for now, here are reviews from two leading male critics (which sustain my memory of how most critics responded) along with critiques from, ahem, two well-known women. I’m excerpting only comments about the aging man’s affair with the Mariel Hemingway character. Note Canby’s reference to Mariel as a “nymphet.”
Vincent Canby, The New York Times, April 25, 1979:
“Manhattan” is, of course, about love, or, more accurately, about relationships. Among those who are attempting to relate to Isaac Davis are Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton), a journalist who carries on like an Annie Hall who has been analyzed out of her shyness into the shape of an aggressively neurotic woman doomed to make a mess of things, and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a beautiful. 17-year-old nymphet with a turned-down mouth and a trust in her 42-year-old lover, Isaac, that is also doomed…
Roger Ebert, January 1, 1979:
The story follows several characters through several affairs. Woody himself is twice-divorced as the movie opens—most recently from a lesbian who is writing a book that will tell all about their marriage. He is having an affair with a seventeen-year-old girl (Mariel Hemingway). His best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), is married and is having an affair with a girl he met at a party (Diane Keaton)….
I’m most disturbed by the final scene between Woody and Mariel Hemingway. It’s not really thought out; Allen hasn’t found the line between the irony the scene needs and the sentiment he wants his character to feel…
And yet this is a very good movie. Woody Allen is … Woody, sublimely. Diane Keaton gives us a fresh and nicely edged New York intellectual. And Mariel Hemingway deserves some kind of special award for what’s in some ways the most difficult role in the film. It wouldn’t do, you see, for the love scenes between Woody and Mariel to feel awkward or to hint at cradle-snatching or an unhealthy interest on Woody’s part in innocent young girls. But they don’t feel that way: Hemingway’s character has a certain grave intelligence, a quietly fierce pride, that, strangely enough, suggest that even at seventeen she’s the one Woody should be thinking of during Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Pauline Kael, October 27, 1980, The New Yorker:
What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?
Joan Didion, August 16, 1979, The New York Review of Books:
In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is “Tracy,” the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family.)…
The message that large numbers of people are getting from Manhattan and Interiors and Annie Hall is that this kind of emotional shopping around is the proper business of life’s better students, that adolescence can now extend to middle age.
Note: Janet Maslin in the Times, in a profile of Mariel Hemingway at the time, observed that the affair might have come off as “sleazy”—that’s more than the male reviewers were admitting—but Mariel’s performance saved it.