Is it just me or was there more New York City than ever before in TV shows and movies in 2019? Granted, there is simply more of everything — more TV shows than ever, on a growing number of streaming platforms.
And generally speaking there were a lot of films released in 2019 — even it became more difficult to get audiences into seats. As a result, theaters can’t survive apparently unless they serve full-course meals and elaborate cocktails.
The entire changing landscape was embodied in this year’s real-life drama of the Paris Theatre.
In 2008, I wrote “The Paris Theatre, as eccentric as any film its ever played, has the benefit of having the Plaza Hotel and Central Park to ensure it never goes out of style.” Unfortunately it did go out of style.
In September the Paris seemed to close for good — until it was scooped up by Netflix, transforming it into a venue for its splashier feature film launches. Today you catch the Noah Baumbach movie Marriage Story within one of New York’s most historic film venues. Or you can watch it on your couch. It’s your choice!
It’s a pretty good venue for Marriage Story, a drama couched in tropes from old Woody Allen movies — important theater people involved in rocky relationships.
Other movies this year used New York City’s recent past to illustrate the nation’s economic desperation and the changing dynamics of men and women. A short cab ride will take you to all the major cinematic stops this year — the Manhattan strip club Scores (Hustlers), the Diamond District (Uncut Gems), the Sixth Avenue offices of Fox News (Bombshell).
Going back to New York’s recent past was so trendy this year that even the Avengers, in the year’s highest grossing film, took a literal time machine to 2012 to witness younger versions of themselves protecting Grand Central Terminal from attack by aliens. (You think that vision of New York City is bleak? You should see what happened to New York City in HBO’s Watchmen series.)
But it was a good year for seeing old New York City in the movies this year too — whether that be the Gilded Age or the grimy streets of 70s Times Square. Here are six scenes from six films which used the history of New York City in interesting ways:
Little Italy (The Irishman)
Martin Scorsese‘s epic tale of the mob spends most of its time outside of New York City — a rarity for the city’s greatest director — but that’s only a well-dressed illusion; most of the film was shot here and in Long Island, its exceptional production design transforming New York streets into those of other American cities.
But we do get an extremely vivid depiction of the assassination of real-life gangster Joe Gallo.
Today the restaurant Da Gennaro (129 Mulberry Street) sits on the site of the infamous Umberto’s Clam House. On April 7, 1972, the mobster Joe Gallo was brutally gunned down here while celebrating his forty-third birthday with his family. The gruesome hit plays out — in real life and in The Irishman — something like a scene out of The Godfather, which, incidentally, was released just three weeks before Gallo’s death.
Should you wish to experience Umberto’s today, it’s located just down the street (132 Mulberry Street).
Penn Station (Motherless Brooklyn)
Motherless Brooklyn, a radical retro transformation of Jonathan Lethem’s book of the same name, refits the bright noir of the movie Chinatown into 1950s New York City. If you’re a history lover, any film with Alec Baldwin playing an even more ruthless version of Robert Moses asks to be watched. And you could not envision a better set piece than old Penn Station, lovingly recreated by director Edward Norton in all its dim and gritty detail. (I wrote about this film earlier this year.)
Pearl Street Station (The Current War)
You probably didn’t see The Current War — an illuminating drama about the battle of electric power — because it was barely in theaters, a victim of bad timing and publicity. (It was supposed to arrive in theaters in 2017, but its distributor was the Harvey Weinstein Company.)
But do seek it out when it arrives to video and streaming. The depictions of Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla are interesting, even if the central struggle is not well visualized. But the set pieces are wonderful — from the Chicago World’s Fair to the grand opening of Manhattan’s Pearl Street Station, the first electrical power plant in the world.
(You can read my full review of the film here.)
Riding the Subway (A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood)
Yes, Mr. Rogers actually wrote the New York City subway! Believe it or not, Fred Rogers got his start in New York City, working essentially as a NBC floor manager on early broadcast television shows.
The film A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood, an adaptation of an 1998 Esquire Magazine article, reenacts a touching moment near the end of his career.
“Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn’t have an umbrella, and he couldn’t find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains.
It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.”
I wrote about Fred Rogers’s relationship with New York City in a 2018 article.
Hell’s Kitchen Playground (The Kitchen)
The grimy streets of Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s! The bloody battles of the Irish mob! A bold take on gender and organized crime! Unfortunately these juicy concepts couldn’t really save The Kitchen, nor could a brilliant quartet of actresses (Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elizabeth Moss and Margo Martindale).
The Kitchen delivers a pretty hot look at ’70s 42nd Street (although nothing near as good as the genius of HBO’s The Deuce, in its final season this year.) But if you’d like a pretty good look at the dreary grit of 70s Hell’s Kitchen, the film manages to capture some of the neighborhood’s ragged, pre-gentrified energy.
For instance, pay attention to a scene involving McCarthy on a playground with her daughter. There’s so much trash just randomly blowing around the asphalt that you might be forgiven if you thought a crew member accidentally knocked over a trash can. No that’s pre-90s New York!
The Staircase (Joker)
Joker is technically set in the fictional Gotham City. Except it’s totally and obviously 1970s New York City, a ridiculously over-the-top version of the New York City captured by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets), John Schesinger (Marathon Man) and Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon).
The scene with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker dancing down the Bronx staircase has already — weirdly — become an iconic film image. Located between Shakespeare and Anderson Avenues (at West 167th Street) in the Highbridge neighborhood, the staircase has already become a tourist destination.
As a heap of borrowed movie references from the 1970s, Joker is virtually willing itself into becoming a movie classic. Some may find its paranoid sentiments shallow and exploitative, but its use of New York’s darker days is apt.
As we explored in our podcast Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books, the fictional world of Batman has always been a stand-in for the Big Apple — although Chicago could also lay claim to some of its more atmospheric contours.
With Joker, director Todd Phillips has eliminated such ambiguity. As with the main character, this is a volatile New York City wearing a eerie cartoon face.