Thriving and Surviving Onscreen: How the ‘New York Woman’ Does It


In their 1977 track “Native New Yorker,” the disco band Odyssey sang of the New York woman as such: “You’re no tramp, but you’re no lady, talkin’ that street talk. You’re the heart and soul of New York City.” While the phrase “New York woman” can carry so many different connotations, this is probably how you picture her in your mind: She’s independent, fashionable, strong-willed, powerful. And talkin’ that street talk. This unfathomably cool, not-to-be-messed-with “New York Woman” is the subject of the Quad Cinema’s most ambitious series yet, a retrospective that includes fifty-plus titles about women thriving and surviving in the Big Apple.

These twentieth-century classics and hidden gems (playing through July 19) span decades and genres, but the newest movie of the series dates back twenty years: Whit Stillman’s 1998 Last Days of Disco, which actually takes place even earlier, in the decaying disco days of the Eighties. Because of this, the New York depicted in many of these films reflects earlier eras: the crime-ridden metropolis that endured the fiscal crisis of the mid-Seventies; the 1977 blackout that led to looting and arson; the crack and heroin epidemic of the Eighties; the statistical homicide peak of the early Nineties. It was during this lattermost era of New York’s highest crime rates that Kathryn Bigelow released Blue Steel (1990), about a rookie cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) who, in her first week on the job, must face off with a psycho criminal and survive her male-dominated workforce.

Our hypothetical notion of an exciting New York City can often lend itself to imagery of seedy alleyways — and the films that depict New York as such thus make survivors out of their female protagonists, the heroines weathering the dangers of spaces in which men prey upon women. A terrifying rendition of this New York City can be found in Roman Polanski’s 1968 Rosemary’s Baby, which, with its tensions amid close living quarters, breeds to a demonic degree a certain New York–specific anxiety about invasive neighbors (and the idea of raising a child in the city). Then there’s Abel Ferrara’s 1981 horror Ms. 45, which takes on the vulnerable point of view of a young garment worker woman named Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) who’s mute but not deaf to the roving catcallers who yell out despicable comments like, “Hey, girl, you wanna sit on my face?” (Women, both of the past and present, in or out of New York, are sadly familiar with such jeers.)

In Ms .45, the unspeakable happens to Thana — she gets raped, not once, but twice in the span of one day. Her second rapist she kills with a clothes iron — the symbolic feminine object — but the first assailant (played by the director himself in a curious cameo) flees, inspiring Thana to become an angel of vengeance and vigilance. She doesn’t exactly seek out the anonymous masked man who brutalized her, but rather all men who might. Her transformation includes a smoking-hot, red-lipped makeover — as bait to seduce men and kill them — but her greatest means of survival comes from the gun that gives her that special nickname indicated in the title. In overpowering men, Thana adopts a phallic weapon — which perhaps speaks volumes as to how a woman must acclimatize in order to live.

Thana isn’t the only gun-toter in the Quad series. Another weapon-wielding woman can be found in John Cassavetes’s 1980 Gloria, in which the filmmaker’s long-time collaborator and wife, Gena Rowlands, plays one of her toughest roles: a former mob mistress tasked with protecting the young son of her friend after that person’s entire family is killed by gangsters. With a gun in one hand and a child in the other, Gloria makes mad dashes around the city, a place that can simultaneously make you feel so seen and yet so anonymous. Gloria seems to have a tougher time babysitting than beating the bad guys — a defiance of maternal gender roles — and, when asked what she’s afraid of, she coolly replies, “Nothing.”

Street-roaming is a key trait of the New York survivor, as can be additionally seen in two cult misfit-teen studies about punk runaways: Susan Seidelman’s pre–Desperately Seeking Susan picture Smithereens (1982) and Allan Moyle’s pre–Empire Records film, Times Square (1980). In a similar fashion, in Bette Gordon’s risqué 1983 Variety, Gordon’s protagonist, Christine (Sandy McLeod), embraces — read: fetishizes — the seediness New York has to offer, by taking a job as a ticket-taker at a pornographic theater. She later gets caught up in a dangerous chasing game after becoming obsessed with a mafia-connected patron.

Other Quad selections broach the idea of female survival in New York in a less life-or-death manner. Hugh Wilson’s score-settling comedy The First Wives Club (1996) finds middle-aged women enduring divorce while battling ageist double standards; one scene takes a musical break for a feel-good sing-along of “You Don’t Own Me,” a quintessential independent-woman anthem. Likewise, Paul Mazursky’s 1978 An Unmarried Woman sees Jill Clayburgh unexpectedly alone after her husband abandons her, leaving her to start over at an age where she may not be prepared to do so. But domestic perseverance arguably takes the biggest toll in Frank Perry’s 1970 Diary of a Mad Housewife, which opens with a husband being condescending to his wife barely one minute into the movie before continuing to show him belittle her for the next ninety minutes. (See who breaks first: you or Carrie Snodgress.)

Between the female horrors and the domestic dramas are all sorts of works in this sprawling Quad series: films about women surviving the workplace (most famously, 1988’s Working Girl); women surviving high school and a particularly shocking childbirth (1992’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.); women surviving … well, each other (1978’s Girlfriends; The Last Days of Disco). Then there’s a movie literally titled Survival in New York (1989), the rarely-screened Rosa von Praunheim documentary. It’s one of the many movies playing at the Quad over the following weeks that I’m eager to seek out. Even the most prolific of New York women cinephiles should be able to find here metropolitan tales they’ve yet to discover — and, of course, ones they’re giddy to rewatch.

‘The New York Woman’
Quad Cinema
Through July 19