New York has been celebrated so many times in movies. In the 1980s alone, we had kids dancing on yellow taxis in Fame, the public library being haunted in Ghostbusters, and the ongoing visions of Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, to name only a fraction of offerings. But I think that the romantic comedies that set their stories in the Big Apple during the ’80s created a real and lasting charm about the city that can still be felt today.
Here’s a look at three of those romantic comedies that highlighted different aspects of life in New York. When you watch them, nearly 40 years on, it’s easy to feel a nostalgia for it all: the big hairdoes of the feisty heroines; the shoulder pads of the heroes; the Manhattan skyline with the World Trade Center reaching to the stars.
It’s only hindsight, of course, that makes it seem like a better, less complicated world back then. But if you fancy losing yourself amid its movie magic for a few hours, here’s a closer look at three great films:
Loretta Castorini (played by Cher) is a Sicilian-American accountant, living in Brooklyn, who believes in her own bad luck. Her first husband was killed by a bus, so when she gets engaged again, she chooses a man she doesn’t love, and hopes containing her emotions will bring a longer, happier marriage. But then she meets Ronnie Cammareri (Nicolas Cage), the passionate, wounded brother of her fiancé, and…
Well, this is a romantic comedy. You can guess what comes next. But as with all rom-coms, the fun is in the anticipation
Cher won an Oscar for her performance, but to be honest everyone is just brilliant in this. Nicolas Cage is as mad and unpredictable onscreen as ever, but there’s also a vulnerability to him here that wins me over every time. Then there’s Danny Aiello, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis, and John Mahoney. It’s a classy cast, and what’s even better is the dialogue they get to work with. Warm and alive with insight into families and feelings, the script gives every character depth. Nothing is cheapened or played purely for laughs, and yet it is very funny throughout. Love, with all its problems and secrets and strangeness, is a funny business, after all.
For all the great bombastic Cage moments here, my favorite scene is a much quieter one, between Loretta’s mother (Dukakis) and a lone diner at the local restaurant. The diner is played by John Mahoney, and as he falls into conversation and starts to try to use his charm, we see a heap of surprise, pleasure, and sadness in Dukakis’ eyes that she should be on the receiving end of his wiles. They talk together about why men chase women, and every inflection and movement reminds us of why it’s impossible for either a man or a woman to answer that question objectively.
Working Girl (1988)
Working Girl is so much fun. It has its good guys and its bad guys beautifully in place, and a heroine that you love to root for in Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith). She’s from Staten Island but dreams of being an executive in the city. She wants to get there on her intelligence and ability, but all she meets are men who want to take her to bed and then take credit for her ideas.
So a female boss in the form of Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) should thus be Tess’ chance to prove her worth; a woman boss would never screw her over, right?
This is a Cinderella story, complete with a makeover scene (Moonstruck has one too; the makeover/transformation scene has long been a favorite in romantic films) and a getting-to-go-to-the-ball-and-meet-Prince-Charming scene. It has a great Prince Charming, too; an executive called Jack Trainer, who is played with all the laid-back appeal you’d expect from Harrison Ford. He has a light touch with comedy, as does Sigourney Weaver. But there are also some extremely clownish turns from actors such as Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey – they are both so slimy here that they still make me shudder.
And then there’s Joan Cusack as Tess’s friend, getting all the best lines, and not just the funny ones. She gives it a reality, showing perfectly the divide between Staten Island and Manhattan, and how so many people have given up dreaming of a better life because they’re well aware that their dreams will never come true. She underpins the whole business perfectly.
Just like with Cinderella, this fairy tale is about whether you should accept your place in the world, and what kind of person you have to be if you wish to escape it. Resourcefulness is needed, yes, but what good does that do you if you’re not young and pretty to start with? But that prickly truth doesn’t diminish the comedy, I think, much like with the next film on this list…
Crossing Delancey (1988)
Izzy Grossman (Amy Irving) works for an amazing bookshop in the city. You know the kind – tall shelves of poetry, and famous authors giving late night readings with admirers sitting at their feet. One of these authors is Anton Maes (played by Jeroen Krabbe) and Izzy thinks he’s her dream man. But her grandmother (Reizl Bozyk) would prefer her to marry a nice Jewish boy, and so the local matchmaker is contacted and Izzy ends up on a date with a pickle shop owner called Sam.
Sam is played by Peter Riegart, and his performance is intelligent and well-balanced. We see a character who works hard, has common sense, but is also deeply romantic although trying to hide it. I think he’s the reason why Crossing Delancey is enjoyable. Izzy is a more difficult character to warm to; she seems brittle, and she does some things during the course of the film that are harder to forgive. So thank goodness for Sam, who soaks his hands in vanilla to get rid of the smell of pickles every night, and who understands Izzy better than she understands herself.
Crossing Delancey, much like Working Girl and Moonstruck, is about the disparity between what we want and what we get, represented within the communities in New York City. Izzy wants the rarified life of intellectualism represented by publishing, but she can’t escape her own heritage, and her Grandmother’s desire to contain her within the Jewish community. There’s something uncomfortable about this unresolved issue. How happy could Izzy be as a pickle-seller, even if she has discovered love? How can a balance between her dreams and emotions be reached?
These aren’t questions that belong only to the 1980s, of course. But all three films mentioned here made the struggle to live with your family, your ancestry, and also with your own hopes, the key driving force behind their heroines. And New York was a brilliant location for that. It represented the possibility of unity – unity of thoughts and feelings, desires and reality, family and individual purpose, all within the space of one city. The New York of the rom-com has a magic to it, characterized by that big bright moon shining over the sidewalks in Moonstruck, the sleek offices and parties of Working Girl, and the beautiful bookshops and delicatessens of Crossing Delancey. These films made that time, and that place, into a city of wondrous possibilities – the kind of city that really only can exist within the movies.
If you have a favorite New York-based romantic comedy, leave a comment! We’d love to hear it…