Originally posted on 11.26.11: Speaking of miserable, I was at one of my lowest ebbs in the late summer or early fall of ’78. I was living in a roach-infested Soho tenement on Sullivan Street and writing reviews for free, pitching freelance articles to people who thought I was marginally competent as a writer (if that), working at restaurants as a host for chump change, barely able to pay the rent at times, borrowing money from my father when it got really awful, occasionally taking a train to Connecticut to work as a tree surgeon on the weekends. Swamped by feelings of powerlessness, futility, despair.
But one fairly warm day I was walking near West Broadway and Prince and noticed some people clustered in front of an art gallery with generator trucks and cables leading upstairs. So without asking questions or making eye contact with anyone I walked right in and bounded up the staircase. Upstairs was a large, high-ceilinged space with many people milling about. A casual vibe. Nobody said “excuse me, can I help you?” I just walked over to craft services like I was part of the crew and helped myself to an apple and a cup of coffee. I figured I’d spot a recognizable someone — a director, an actor — and figure out what the “show” was.
And then I walked into the main gallery room and there, sitting in a canvas chair and reading something intently, was young Woody Allen. He was being left alone, nobody hovering. Glasses, dark brownish-red hair, green-plaid flannel shirt…and sitting absolutely still, like a Duane Hanson sculpture. He might have had a bit of makeup on, or so I recall.
But it was Woody, all right, and right away I said to myself, “I’m gonna get busted if I stand here and just stare at him.” So I walked around a bit more with a guarded expression and then went downstairs and asked somebody what the movie was called. “It’s a Woody Allen film….that’s all I know,” some guy said.
I’m not sure anyone knew the title at the time, but the following April, or about seven or eight months later, the movie opened with one — Manhattan.
My emotional and financial states were so precarious and I was so close to depression at the time of the Allen sighting that just glimpsing him sitting there gave me a real lift. For a minute or two I was part of a very elite and highly charged environment, if only as a secret visitor, and I felt good about myself for momentarily slipping inside and smelling the air of that set. The experience lasted for maybe three minutes, tops, but I’ve never forgotten it.
I was still living on Sullivan, still eeking out a living when Manhattan opened on 4.25.79. I knew relatively few people in the film-journo world, and some of the older ones I was vaguely acquainted with regarded me askance. I was working at restaurants to make ends meet and enjoying damn little comfort. And one of the reasons I loved every minute of Manhattan is that it provided a great fantasy trip into the kind of New York world I wanted to know and live in, but couldn’t afford.
Of course it was a smart Woody Allen uptown dream movie. Of course it bore little relation to the city I was confined to, or to the one that I imagined most New Yorkers knew. I wished time and again that year that I could live in a world that was at least akin to Manhattan‘s — cultured, clever, moneyed and buffed by Gordon Willis in black and white and a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The fakery was what everyone found so delightful about the film. Because it was very sharp and sophisticated and nicely burnished.
Life can be so miserable when you’re poor, especially when you’re unsure of your creative or professional abilities.