Sunday, January 11, 2015

Celluloid City

When the weather doesn't even have the decency to be in the 20-degree range, falling instead blisteringly below into the teens, sometimes all I want to is curl up on my couch with a giant blanket, my La Cage Aux Folles mug filled with raspberry tea, my space heater, and a good movie. In celebration of snuggly nights in, and in spite of the current temperatures in the city, here are some of my favorite films set in New York should you find yourself in similar weather conditions in the not-so-distant future (or even if you just love a good flick!). New York has inspired countless filmmakers, and I know these films have certainly inspired me, be they in terms of writing, costume, cinematography, or what have you. This is by no means an exhaustive list of my favorites, just a few--maybe you've heard of them and maybe you haven't! So grab your popcorn or your own favorite fruity tea and enjoy.

The Thin Man (1934)
William Powell stars as the clever, charming, martini-swilling Nick Charles in the film based on the book of the same name by author Dashiell Hammett. Myrna Loy matches his wits as his feisty spouse. Nick is a former detective, but now enjoys a lifestyle of leisure with Mrs. Charles; the two decide to solve a murder, well, just for the fun of it. Cue witty repartee, gorgeous gowns, men who can wear fedoras without looking like idiots, sleazy underground mobsters in tuxedos, crime solved in high style, and plenty of martinis. If you like this one, it's the first in a series of Thin Man films Powell and Loy made together.

You Can't Take It With You (1938)
The Sycamore-Vanderhof household is bursting with eccentrics--a daughter who dances her heart out in pointe shoes at all hours of the day, a grandfather who refuses to pay taxes and goes to graduation ceremonies for fun, a father who makes fireworks in the basement, and a mother who started writing plays when a typewriter showed up at her door, among others. What happens when their more straitlaced daughter takes up with a young man who comes from a wealthy banking family? Chaos and lessons in happiness ensue. Directed by Frank Capra, it won the 1939 Oscar for Best Picture.

The Seven Year Itch (1955)
How could I not put a Marilyn Monroe movie on this list? The Seven Year Itch was actually originally a hit Broadway play, but came to the screen with my beloved Marilyn and Tom Ewell in 1955. Named for the point in a marriage at which a man feels he may start to stray, the film follows Richard Sherman as he awkwardly and hilariously crushes on and gets to know his very delightfully oblivious and very curvaceous blonde upstairs neighbor. It capitalizes on the infamous New York summer heat to tell the story, especially with Marilyn's now-famous 'white dress on the subway grate' scene.

The Apartment (1960)
The Apartment is the story of C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, a lonely yet affable man who allows higher-ups at his company the use of his apartment for affairs with women who aren't their wives, hopefully in exchange for career boosts. One of these women is Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine, an elevator operator in the building where he works. One night, in despair, she ends up staying longer than either of them anticipates, and the film follows the development of their interaction. The Apartment won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1960.

Cactus Flower (1969)
For a long time, dentist Julian Winston (Walter Matthau) pretended to be married to avoid commitment to his girlfriend, Toni (Goldie Hawn). But he falls for her and now has to dream up a wife to divorce, so he asks his loyal dental assistant Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman) to help him. This movie is in so many ways what I think of when I think about the phrase "the swinging Sixties"-- groovy music from longhaired musicians at cafes, love beads, record stores, and lots of eyeliner. The cast is utterly perfect, and Hawn even won an Oscar--it was her first starring role.

The Owl and the Pussycat (1970)
Felix Sherman (George Segal) is a quiet, nebbishy writer who gets annoyed when his neighbor Doris Washington (Barbra Streisand), a part-time prostitute, is making too much noise. He lodges a complaint against her, she loses her apartment, and foists herself upon him, demanding he give her a place to stay. Throughout the film, they are hilariously at each other's throats, sometimes in more ways than one.

Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976)
Set in the 1950s, aspiring actor Larry Lepinsky moves out of his parents' home in Brooklyn and into a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. He encounters a cast of unique, bohemian characters, all the while trying to be an actor, save his relationship and deal with his overbearing Jewish mother (Shelley Winters). At the time, except for Winters, most of the cast were unknowns (including a very young Christopher Walken).

The Goodbye Girl (1977)
Based on Neil Simon's play of the same name, The Goodbye Girl stars Marsha Mason as Paula McFadden, an unemployed dancer and single mother who needs to rent an extra room out when her  live-in boyfriend leaves her. Enter Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss, who won an Oscar for the part), a quirky actor who first infuriates then charms Paula and her precocious 10-year-old daughter, Lucy (Quinn Cummings).

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
This Sergio Leone epic (it's nearly four hours long) follows the lives of David 'Noodles' Aaronson (Robert DeNiro) and Maximilian 'Max' Bercovicz (James Woods), two Jewish kids turned gangsters growing up in the Bronx before and during Prohibition. As any epic should, it features elaborate sets and costumes and of course some excellent shots of New York. I'm named after James Woods's character.

Working Girl (1988) 
Working Girl,  directed by the recently departed genius Mike Nichols, is the story of Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), a smart secretary from Staten Island whose Wall Street boss (Sigourney Weaver) double-crosses her. With the help of the enthusiastic finance executive Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), she sets out to outsmart the woman. Prepare yourself for visions of the finance world in 1980s New York--big hair, big cellphones, shoulderpads, sneakers with suits on the way to work, fantastically dated computer technology--and a very uplifting story. You never know where the big ideas could come from, you know?

A Bronx Tale (1993)
Written by Chazz Palminteri and directed by Robert DeNiro, A Bronx Tale takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. It follows the life of Calogero (Lillo Brancato), a teenager whose friendship with a local gangster, Sonny (Palminteri) worries his father, a bus driver (DeNiro) who only ever wanted him to make good. It's based on a one-man show Palminteri did of the same name and features several events from his own life. One of the reasons I love this movie so much is because my dad is also from the Bronx, and watching it with him feels like seeing what part of his experience in the borough might have been like at the time. Excellent Bronx accents, excellent music.

Party Girl (1995)
Easily not just one of my favorite New York movies but one of my favorite movies of all time, Party Girl is about Mary (Parker Posey), a quick but aimless girl with an utterly amazing wardrobe--the movie is fabulous for the wardrobe change montages alone--who gets arrested for throwing an illegal party. Her godmother bails her out and hires her as a library clerk to make up the money, but doubts her ability and disapproves of her friends (which includes Guillermo Diaz as Leo, an aspiring DJ). Can Mary grow up? It's a rad look at '90s club culture in New York (cameo by Lady Bunny, hello!), fashion, and also saucily funny. Can I have a falafel with hot sauce, a side order of Baba Ghanoush and a seltzer, please?

 The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
I actually saw The Royal Tenenbaums in theatres when it came out and I was struck by its dry humor and gorgeous cinematography. The film tells the tale of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), a broke, disbarred lawyer estranged from his family--an archaeologist wife from whom he is separated (Angelica Huston) and three former-prodigy children (Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson)--who re-enters their lives only to tell them he's terminally ill (when the whole time we know he's not, and we get to enjoy visuals like seeing him eat a fast-food cheeseburger while hooked up to faux medical equipment). Another that's easily in the top 5 of my favorite movies of all time.

City Island (2009)
City Island is a comedy of errors that takes place on the eponymous island in the Bronx. In it we learn about the Rizzo family who, over a few weeks' time, don't share some major life events with each other and subsequently become embroiled in each other's drama without knowing it when an ex-con is invited to stay in their home. Andy Garcia is the family patriarch, Vince, and Juliana Margulies is his wife, Joyce. It won the Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award in 2009.

And that's what I got! What are some of your favorite New York movies?

1 comment:

  1. There are eight million stories in the The Naked City (1948), and this one contains some stunning on-location footage of a post-war Lower East Side and Williamsburg Bridge.

    Killer's Kiss (1955), an early Stanley Kubrick noir that ends with a showdown in the eerily empty streets of an industrial DUMBO (and an even eerier mannequin factory).

    Vigilante (1983), a Death Wish knockoff featuring a car chase through a very pre-Girls Greenpoint. Also makes great use of an abandoned and well-graffitied McCarren Park Pool.

    Pull My Daisy (1959), the experimental collaboration between photographer Robert Frank and writer Jack Kerouac set primarily in a Lower East Side apartment.

    The Landlord (1970), directed by Hal Ashby, in which an idealistic upper-class Beau Bridges buys property in the "slums" of 1970s Park Slope and becomes invested in the lives of his tenants.

    The Squid and the Whale (2005), Noah Baumbach's recreated Park Slope of the eighties is less slummy than The Landlord's but the stroller brigade is still a long way off.

    And of course Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), The French Connection (1971), Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976).