Tracy / Mary / Wendy…

The plot of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” is simple: boy has girl, boy thinks he is trading up when he ditches girl to date his friend’s mistress, boy realizes too late girl was the right person for him. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this movie, but each time, I relate to it differently, depending what’s going on in my life. I think I first saw the film when I was about 17, the age of Tracy, Mariel Hemmingway’s character. Like her, I was at the time dating a much older man, a relationship that the movie totally validated. “See?” I wanted to say to everyone. Two people can still be right for each other even if they don’t appear to be Right for each other.

I’m not sure I was right about that, as the relationship didn’t last. I was Tracy, going off not to London but to college, and while I’m not sure I would say I got corrupted, the 21-year-old me was certainly flintier than the 17-year-old me. I think the next time I saw the movie, the Soon-Yi of it all had happened, and I was more creeped out by the Isaac (Woody Allen)/Tracy relationship, unable to watch the movie without seeing Woody Allen as himself and not an actor playing a role. I suppose on some level, I was shocked and creeped out that I too could date someone so much older. That couldn’t me be. No. Surely.

Seeing it Saturday with Bryan, I watched the movie as a person who once wrote mash notes to a married guy. I watched the movie this time as Mary, Diane Keaton’s character. What the hell was I doing sending along bad poetry to a guy with a ring on his ring finger? Well, there wasn’t a ring on his ring finger. But after I found out that he was otherwise engaged – beyond engaged – full-on married – I didn’t exactly go quietly into that good night. I tried to leave, just like Mary tries to leave Yale (Michael Murphy). But my Yale followed me, texting me into that good night until again, it was morning. Shit, this couldn’t be me, could it? No. Surely.


Perhaps people aren’t meant to mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics. Love & commitment are central questions of “Manhattan.” No matter how they try to convince themselves of otherwise, the couples that are together at the start of the film are coupled up as the movie ends. And yet at the start of the movie, both partnerships are portrayed as mismatched: Yale and Mary are having an affair and Isaac is old enough to beat up Tracy’s father. Isaac and Mary each convince themselves that their relationships aren’t working, either because they want to be together or because they want to conform more closely to what society deems a normal relationship. Isaac in particular is trying to feel his way to normalcy after his second ex-wife left him for a woman and wrote a tell-all book about their marriage. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” Isaac says, “because I’ve never had a relationship with a woman that’s lasted longer than the one Hitler had with Eva Braun.”

So in an effort to find said relationship, he leaves the lovely Tracy for a woman who he had previously described as the “winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald emotional maturity award.” And it seems to make sense: Mary is his age, from Philadelphia, runs in his circles and pronounces Dutch painter’s names with guttural glee. She’s older and booksmarter than the teenager who wants to stay up late to watch the WC Fields movie on the late show. Isaac works hard to make Mary The Right One for him, taking her away for the weekend and suffering through the great outdoors for the sake of love.

Yet the movie tells us again and again that Mary and Yale have a bond that can’t be broken, no matter how hard they try to love other people and the movie tells us again and again that Tracy – even though she may not look right or be the right age – is the better match for Isaac. (I’ve always wondered how he and Tracy met and where where are her parents?) Tracy buys Isaac a harmonica to “open up that side of him.” She leaves him a message on his machine that Grand Illusion is on TV that night. She knows him. And he can finally only see her, really see her as The One after it’s too late. He distrusts his own feelings and comes to see Tracy like Mary sees her, as a child. “Don’t be so precocious,” he tells Tracy. As he’s standing in the lobby of her building after he’s had his Great Revelation and she’s on her way to London, she assures him that six months is not that long for two people to be apart if they love each other. “Don’t be so grown up,” he says in response. “Do you love me?” she asks him. “Yeah, I love you, that’s what this is all about,” he says, as he catches his breath from the city-spanning run he made to her doorstep.
Who is in front of us right now that we are unable to see, that we are to love, if we are courageous enough? I never expected love to come into my life in so many different shapes and sizes and ages – the older man, the married man – neither of them “good” or Right matches for me. Maybe I love these people because the parameters they come with make lasting love one hell of an uphill battle. They are Forbidden Situations, like Isaac & Tracy and Yale & Mary, and perhaps that’s what makes them all the more attractive. And impossible. The movie leaves Isaac and Tracy’s future in doubt. She urges him to have faith in people, that not everyone gets corrupted. Yet we know they always always do. Or is that a low-on-faith view of life?

Big Discussions About Love in the movie take place against the backdrops of time – the planetarium, standing next to a skeleton that looks like it has a perpetual grin. The who-do-we-love-and-how-do-we-love-them questions are strands of human DNA that haven’t evolved; they are as common and essential as breathing. And the answers aren’t look-up-able – “nothing worth knowing can be understood with the    mind” – no matter how hard we might try to reason and justify our way into and out of relationships.

Right before Isaac makes his list of why life is worth living, he says he has an idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves because it keeps them from dealing with the more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe. This is our way of corrupting ourselves.

Yale has a classic mid-life crisis – new woman, new car – as a way of avoiding looking 40 in the face, and also as a diversion from his wife, from really dealing with his wife, and figuring out how he might learn to love her again. But that struggle isn’t sexy and doesn’t do 110 on the freeway. Isaac creates problems in his relationship with Tracy because he likes her too much. He convinces himself to love Mary because it’s terrifying to love Tracy.

It’s terrifying to love. That couldn’t be me, could it? No. Surely. It’s terrifying to be loved. To have someone accept you for all your flaws. If you’re lucky enough to find that person at all, regardless of what size or shape or age they might come to you. Can we sustain the faith that, as the Daniel Johnston song goes, true love will find us in the end? Will we be able to recognize it when it arrives, and not fuck it up?

5 responses to “Tracy / Mary / Wendy…”

  1. bacon says:

    As you point out Wendy, The Right One is at the center of this movie. It took me 40 long years to realize what a silly idea that was.

    No one I know has a sustained, interesting…i emphasize interesting…dynamic relationship with The Right One. Want to have a really good, challenging life? Shack up for the long term with The Wrong One.

  2. hey — are you trying to show me up here, lady? i loved your take on the show. i usually identify with woody\’s characters, which becomes more and more disturbing to me over time.

    i was going to respond to ruben\’s comment over on my thread, but i think i\’ll just keep it here — re: that list at the end. yes it\’s pretentious and predictable (though i myself wouldn\’t have thought to lump sinatra and willie mays together with beethoven). but i think your post, wendy, helped me realize that it\’s also a list of things that are perfect: almost incredibly so. certainly they can\’t be replicated or reexperienced for the first time. repeated exposure makes them underwhelming. even tracy works this way. by film\’s end she\’s 18, legal. she\’s not what she represented to him in the beginning. even so, just about the only thing from that list that *is* perfectly preserved — which never fails to deliver — is, in fact, tracy\’s face.

  3. PB says:

    Toast to Bacon–Here’s to the “The Wrong One”! You are right, much more interesting.
    TWO cool posts in one week on one of my favorite movies?
    The music swells.

  4. andrea says:

    How to feel…that you are “the wrong one”???

  5. i think he meant it as a compliment. isn’t he sweet?