When American Movies Grew up: New York in the 1960s
The 1960s was a decade divided, a transitional period from the old classic Hollywood studio system with its shiny, plasitc, soundstage look to the French New-Wave-inspired authenticity of shooting on location—on the city streets that overflowed with rich sounds (not always pleasant) and colors (or lack of), cold frozen-breath winters and steaming-pavement summers—a big vibrant outdoor soundstage called New York City.
New York City in the mid-sixties witnessed big changes for location shooting. In 1966, the previously overly complicated and expensive bureaucacy was streamlined with the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting. Suddenly, making films in the Big Apple not only became doable but enticing. Mayor John V. Lindsay rolled out the welcome mat, and filmmakers came, paving the way for one of the greatest eras in American film. Of the urban realism of the late sixties and seventies, Pauline Kael, the noted film critic, said, “The City of New York has helped American movies grow up.”
–John David West
David’s Top Five 1960s New City Movies
Midnight Cowboy(1969) “I ain’t a f’real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!”There’s an endless line of damaged folks who have immigrated to the Big Bad Apple in search of success, starting anew with hopes of becoming something better than what they were before. That’s just what Jon Voight’s Joe Buck does, and just like all the other transplants, he finds it’s not so easy to make it in NYC—and he’s starting off where many runaways with idealistic dreams end up: prostitution. John Schlesinger’s rated X Midnight Cowboy stands as a gateway from the old innocent, pre-MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rated films of the ’60s into the gritty, sleazy, dangerous R-rated (and X) NYC of the ’70s. Shot all over New York City, Cowboy is a most excellent example of a NYC movie. Come on! Who doesn’t think of Dustin Hoffman’s “Ratso” Rizzo when they’re cut off in the middle of the street by a freakin’ taxi? “I’m walkin’ here, I’m walkin’ here!”
The Dakota apartment building anchors this horror-genre picture to Manhattan, just as the King-Kong-ornamented Empire State Building anchors adventure to New York City. NYC is all over this film, and what could be a better place than the Big Apple for the son of the Devil to be born? Who wouldn’t mind giving up their first born to the Devil in exchange for one of the Dakota’s beautifully spacious apartments? Roman Polanski masterfully directs John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow (looking twiggy-like and giving one of her best performances). The energetically adorable neighbor, with evil behind her charm, earned awell-deserved Oscar for Ruth Gordon.
West Side Story (1961) “Beat it.” – Riff
New York City’s racial tensions were explored both musically and balletically as directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins begin the film by taking viewers on an aerial glide over New York City (Wise did the same with The Sound of Music). Starting in lower Manhattan’s financial district, then up through midtown, and eventually panning down into a playground (still in existence on 110th Street), and cutting to the soon to be demolished 68th Street (the neighborhood was razed for Lincoln Center Apartments) for the prologue ballet. With this shot they took us from the money-conscious Wall Street to the poor and racially-tense Upper West Side.
The World of Henry Orient (1964) “You know, I don’t know whether I ought to or not, but I feel awfully happy . . . in a sort of sad way.” –Val
As the title character, Peter Sellers plays Henry Orient, an oversexed concert pianist. Seller’s may be the biggest star in the movie, but the central characters are two fourteen-year-old girls, Val and Gil (Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth), who form a special friendship that includes a game of following the famous pianist all over Manhattan. This fairly unknown and delightful film contains loads of fantastic location shots that transport viewers back to ’60s Manhattan—from the Upper East Side along the river, the West Village and Washington Square Park, to Central Park during the summer, fall, and winter. This is a film that, while it’s no Midnight Cowboy, possesses enough depth and joy to make it worth watching.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Tiffany’s salesman:”That’s nice to know… It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past, that sort of thing.”
Unfortunately the film’s racist depiction of Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese man, played by the late Mickey Rooney (sorry, Mr. Rooney) is a shameful stereotype that spoils an otherwise well-made film. Despite that unfortunate casting, there are many wonderful exterior shots in New York City—Central Park by the Bandshell; in front of Holly Golightly’s apartment on East 71nd Street; and, of course, the iconic shot of Audrey Hepburn doing the walk of shame, oh so glamorously, in her black Givenchy dress, and stopping before a Tiffany’s window, having her breakfast of a Danish and a cup of takeout coffee.
Myrna’s Top Five 1960s New City Movies
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) “He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son!”
Newlyweds Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes), her husband and a struggling actor, set up housekeeping in the Bramford (played brilliantly by the Dakota on 72nd St and Central Park West ), a looming Gothic apartment building in New York City. Roman Polanski, the director, exquisitely captures the paranoia growing beneath the seemingly ordinary in their lives (other than being able to live at the Dakota on a struggling actor’s salary). The film just oozes New York tone. You know when their little devil is born, he is going to love it here.
Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger, is a valentine to New York’s darker days. Joe Buck (Jon Voight), Texas cowboy and a striving hustler, arrives in New York planning to take the city by the horns; but we all know how that story goes. It takes an unlikely friendship with real New Yorker and scoundrel “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) to show Buck the ins and outs of this town. It is the bromance between Joe and “Ratzo” that is our tour guide through a ragged and bruised Big Apple. New York, you are a pimp with a heart of gold.
So you want to be a star? What better place to do it than in old New York. Funny Girl follows Fanny Brice’s life as a young ugly duckling from New York’s Lower East Side to a headlining star with the Ziegfeld Follies. Hired into the Follies as a singer, Fanny (Barbra Streisand) causes a sensation with her immense talent and becomes one of the Great White Way’s (Broadway’s) brightest stars.The stuff of dreams.
Compulsive, neat, and uptight Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is thrown out of his house by his wife. He wanders aimlessly through the unkind streets of New York, toying with the idea of suicide, before gravitating to the apartment of his best friend, incorrigibly sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau). Worried that Felix will try something desperate, Oscar, also in the process of being divorced by his wife, invites Felix to move in with him. An unrelenting New York is the perfect backdrop for these unlikely friends.
The Producers (1968) “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi party.”
The Producers star Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock, a failing Broadway producer, and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom, a nebbishy accountant. Bialystock raises money for his productions by seducing checks out of little old New York society ladies, who come to his office to fool around (“We’ll play the innocent little milkmaid and the naughty stable boy!”). One of the best New York moments in this film is at the end of a long day where Max and Leo have been walking around Manhattan, refining their scheme. They finally find themselves in front of the fountain at Lincoln Center, and, with music swelling in the background, Leo bellows, “I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies!” And then the fountain leaps up, perfectly punctuating the scene.
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