Starring New York, City of Grit and Glamour
Starring New York, City of Grit and Glamour
By CARYN JAMES
Published : May 25, 2007 / The New York Times
To walk through the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal is to step onto a real-life movie set. Cary Grant passes through it while escaping his would-be killers in “North by Northwest.” Jim Carrey grabs Kate Winslet’s hand and dashes across it in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” watching people vanish one by one as his memory is erased. Most tellingly, it is the site of a pivotal moment in “The Fisher King,” when Robin Williams, as a pure-hearted, emotionally unbalanced man, spots the quite plain woman of his dreams heading for her train. Suddenly everyone in the room breaks into a waltz, as this grimy, everyday place becomes a scene of glittering romance.
Its magical role on screen makes Grand Central the ideal location for “Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies,” an ambitious exhibition of films, photographs and sets that begins today in Vanderbilt Hall, adjacent to the main concourse. The project was put together by James Sanders, based on his 2001 book of the same title, which shrewdly observes that two New Yorks — the real city and the screen fantasy — feed each other in a never-ending circle.
The exhibition and its offshoots, including a series on Turner Classic Movies and special material added to Grand Central’s tours, do more than take viewers behind the scenes and through the city’s history on screen. They illustrate how film has made New York a communal experience, familiar even to people who have never been here. Hemingway applied the phrase to Paris, but New York in the movies is another kind of movable feast.
But what is a New York film? It’s not one that simply happens to be set here; whether it’s shot here doesn’t matter either (though that helps). In a genuine New York movie the characters and their stories can’t be separated from the life of the city. There is a dynamic between character and place like the one that makes Mr. Williams in “The Fisher King” lead a band of homeless people in song — “I like New York in June, how about you?” — and insist that no threat of criminals will chase him out of Central Park because “This park is mine just as much as it is theirs.”
Mr. Sanders is right to point out how reality fuels the movies’ fantasy of New York, which in turn helps shape real New Yorkers’ perceptions of the city. Push that idea further, and you see that those fantasies are almost always close to the soul of the city, to what New York is or wants to be.
As the country struggled out of the Depression, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced through a city of dazzling, black-and-white Deco elegance, in nightclubs created with all the artifice Hollywood sound stages could offer.
The changing, freewheeling ’60s saw the tawdry street hustlers of “Midnight Cowboy,” as well as the glamorous Holly Golightly (a more refined hustler) in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The crime and deterioration of the ’70s were handled by Neil Simon as a comic nightmare in “The Out of Towners” and ominously by Charles Bronson as a vigilante in “Death Wish.”
Today the bracing, multiethnic realism of Spike Lee in “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “25th Hour” make him the pre-eminent New York filmmaker, capturing the city’s varied elements — racial tensions, upscale ambitions, drug-dealing street scenes — with a clearsighted, trenchant vision. He doesn’t romanticize the city as Woody Allen did in his classic comedies from the ’70s, “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” but obviously loves New York every bit as as much. Mr. Lee, like Martin Scorsese in ’70s masterworks like “Taxi Driver,” depicts it without sugarcoating.
Even the most cartoonish versions of New York are connected to something real. “Spider-Man 3” is a virtual tourist ad for Times Square today; the camera swoops among the bright signs like the hero himself. The city of “King Kong,” old and new versions, and the Gotham City of the Batman movies all play off New York’s larger-than-life quality.
Celluloid is an archaic word in the digital age, and much of the exhibition explores how the magical images of New York were created. The rarest items include four gigantic, colorful painted backdrops (each about 25 feet high) used on stage sets, including one for “North by Northwest,” a movie whose plot has plenty to do with New York before Grant is chased by crop-dusters or climbs onto Mount Rushmore.
The film begins on Madison Avenue — in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous cameos, the doors of a bus slam shut on him — then follows Grant for a drink in the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel. By the time he follows the villains to the United Nations, the production gets trickier.
Hitchcock didn’t have permission to shoot there, so he hid a camera on the street to film Grant walking toward the General Assembly building. A scene in the lobby is a set that includes the painted backdrop. Barely glimpsed in the film, the backdrop blends in perfectly.
No movies were actually shot in the United Nations until Sydney Pollack made “The Interpreter” with Nicole Kidman. The building was the liveliest thing about that 2005 thriller, proof that an authentic location is never enough to make a good New York film.
Another of the giant backdrops comes from Vincente Minnelli’s creaky wartime romance, “The Clock” (1945), in which Judy Garland meets a soldier on leave (Robert Walker) at the old Penn Station. The station’s entire waiting room was reconstructed on a set. (The exhibition’s painted backdrop was part of it.) The story doesn’t hold up — they meet, fall in love and marry in two days — and while the film is full of New York streets and scenes, at times it’s all too conspicuous that the actors are superimposed against background film.
Such background images can be intriguing in themselves, though. Two large rear-projection screens in the exhibition show bits of film without actors, some meant only to establish a setting and others projected behind the stars. Among the most valuable snippet of film is a lush black-and-white sequence shot in the real, lost Penn Station, torn down in 1963.
Those establishing shots include many old images of Broadway through the decades. The buildings look familiar, but the signs and shops are different, creating an eerie, dreamlike overlay of past and present. In 1929 the news ticker in Times Square (an earlier version of the one still there) refers to President Hoover. The neighborhood looks more familiar in color film from the 1950s, except for Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar next to Romeo’s Spaghetti.
Visitors to the exhibition are meant to stand before these screens and feel as if they’re stepping into a movie. But too many scenes are unfamiliar, and fantasies about entering films are always more specific. Moviegoers want to enter a way of life that calls out to them and meet people they already know.
It’s the fantasy that comes true for Cecilia, Mia Farrow’s character in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” who escapes her dreary, Depression-era existence by going to the movies so often that one day the actor Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) walks off the screen to join her; eventually she steps into the film herself. It’s not the New York location that matters, but an experience viewers either envy (“We can take you night-clubbing,” Tom Baxter offers, with Astaire-like panache) or, with evil-New-York movies, feel smugly, safely apart from.
That interplay works in this exhibition once: If you’ve ever watched “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” all you have to do is see the establishing shot of a yellow taxi cruising up Fifth Avenue (yes, up — traffic went both ways then) and you can hear “Moon River.”
The most amazing films in “Celluloid Skyline” have little to do with such fantasies. They are black-and-white shorts that go back to the early days of movies themselves. (They are shown on monitors in the exhibition and are also linked on celluloidskyline.com.) Called “actuality films” because they captured actual life, they are wonderful artifacts of New York’s past.
In 1903 men and women — including a policeman who might have stepped out of a Keystone Kops comedy — are blown around in a windstorm at the foot of the Flatiron Building. A street scene on lower Broadway in 1902 shows a city in transition, as horse-drawn carts mingle with trolleys, and pedestrians jaywalk among them.
One of these so-called actualities was staged. As a man and a woman walk on 23rd Street, she steps over a sidewalk grate, and the wind blows her skirt up over her knees, anticipating a more famous staged photograph, when Marilyn Monroe stood over a subway grate to promote “The Seven Year Itch.”
But the 1905 film inside a subway tunnel was genuine, and the subway system itself was just eight months old. Except for the color, the film looks a little too much like any shot in the subway today. Look closely and you can even read the sign on the platform where the passengers get off: Grand Central.
“Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies,” an exhibition of background paintings, film clips, production stills and archival photographs, will be on view through June 22 in Grand Central Terminal, Vanderbilt Hall; grandcentralterminal.com. In addition, films with New York City settings will be shown Saturdays at noon and 2 p.m. through June 30 on Turner Classic Movies.