In Hollywood’s eyes, New York is generally either a glistening paradise of glamour and romance or a backstabby cesspool of depravity and lies. I’ve always preferred the latter vision, not only because it may be more accurate but because it’s usually tinged with a barbed, titillating wit that makes the cesspool seem like so much fun.
Those black-and-white classics All About Eve (’50) and Sweet Smell of Success (’57) are the ultimate watch-your-back representations of New York as a highfalutin’ showbiz garbage pit. In Eve, Joseph Mankiewicz’s tale of an upstart actress (Anne Baxter) who does a single white female on doyenne Bette Davis, New York’s a land of smoky, potentially lethal interiors—theaters, dressing rooms, and awards banquets, where the grown-ups can get away with such childish behavior mainly because they’re so bloody articulate about it. The theeya-tuh is a vicious place to be, you learn, and by the end of the film, you can’t wait to knock someone over and get there.
The gossip world, it turns out, is not exactly a wellness center either. (Don’t look at me.) Sweet Smell of Success serves up an amoral but alluring metropolis—a place of boozy jazz clubs and darkened restaurants, where careers can be ruined between courses and where “a cookie laced with arsenic” is your dinner date, not your dessert. Smell—shot in crisp nocturnal tones by James Wong Howe—starts with the nighttime delivery of the gossip-drenched New York Globe to a Times Square newsstand and ends on its only glimmer of hope, with a traumatized character emerging into some actual daylight.
Cinematic depravity, it turns out, has always brought out the best in edgy New York. In The Lost Weekend (’45), Billy Wilder managed to find the poetry in a writer (Ray Milland) who goes on a four-day drinking binge—again, don’t look at me—losing another piece of soul with every Singapore Sling. The film’s New York is an alternating succession of seductive bartenders and nice people trying to help you get away from them. But there are no easy retreats in Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger’s poison pen letter to the dusky, seedy New York of ’69, way before the Toys R Us Ferris wheel was the most dangerous tourist attraction in town. Cowboy is your basic buddy picture but way ickier, as wide-eyed prostie Jon Voight bonds with sicko-with-a-hack-cough Dustin Hoffman to battle the Times Square of my filthiest dreams. The cabbies, coffee shops, and craggy faces are captured with an almost verité grit, and the result reads like a travel agency promo—for the West Coast.
But wait, I’m not a total Grinchy perv. Flicks that show off New York as an irresistible love cradle appeal to me too, as long as there’s something scary-jangly-uneasy about the romance—like in ’77’s Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s valentine to the neurotics who light up our city with shared angst and cabaret acts. The middle-class answer to Woody, Neil Simon (Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite), is an expertly sardonic Gothamist too; he sprinkles just enough New York stick-to-itiveness and adult humor onto his relationship gags to make midtown look like a smart, soigné place to be. Even when Neil appears to hate New York (The Out-of-Towners, The Prisoner of Second Avenue), his obvious affection for the city’s excesses seeps through the bad-luck shtick, and you can tell he’s faking the hostility just like I am.
I’m so smitten by any New York representation, I’ll even take it by way of pseudo-Simon—like Stuart Rosenberg’s The April Fools, a delicious 1969 comedy in which perfectly coiffed Catherine Deneuve improbably falls for tired businessman Jack Lemmon with the help of the flick’s other major character, Central Park. But my ultimate New York romantic comedy is Blake Edwards’s ’61 Breakfast at Tiffany’s because, like Midnight Cowboy, it’s basically a love affair between two hustlers with a dream. (Even better, these ‘hos have style.) The extremely loose adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel has prostie Audrey Hepburn and kept fiction writer George Peppard forcing each other to look in proverbial mirrors, but not before indulging us in mod parties, sunglassed strolls down Fifth Avenue, and glamorous whoring rituals. New York has never looked as sophisticated as it does in this celebutante classic, and I’ve been starting the day with a cup of diamonds and orange juice ever since.