When the Movies Took Manhattan: NYC Through the Eyes of Hollywood in the 1980s

Jason Takes Manhattan

Paramount Pictures

“The big city? Cops? Shootings? Car chases? That kind of thing?” “Well, no. No shooting stuff. It’s more like songs and dances.” – Exchange between Dabney Coleman and Kermit the Frog, The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

“It’s like this. We live in claustrophobia, the land of steel and concrete. Trapped by dark waters. There is no escape. Nor do we want it. We’ve come to thrive on it and each other. You can’t get the adrenaline pumpin’ without the terror, good people. I love this town.” – Radio DJ, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

“When people see New York in the movies, they want to come here.” – Mayor Ed Koch, The New York Times (1985)

Two movies released in the 1980s used the phrase “Take(s) Manhattan” in their title. The first was the latest G-rated feature starring lovable puppet characters from a popular children’s variety show. The second was the latest R-rated installment of a slasher horror franchise. Released almost exactly five years apart, they each saw their familiar — iconic even — characters visit New York City, and with slightly varying results they each made light of the rotting of the Big Apple at the time, creating pieces of virtual tourism that either dismissed or embraced the fact that the place was turning into a terrifying cesspool that no outsider should dare enter.

Turning 30 this week, The Muppets Take Manhattan arrived in the middle of 1984 on the heels of a few other mainstream hits set in New York, notably Splash, Moscow on the Hudson and Ghostbusters, the former two also being focused on characters moving to the city. It was an important election year for incumbent mayor Ed Koch, who makes a cameo in the Muppet movie. When these features were being made, actual tourism was thought to still be in a downswing following a brief peak at the end of the previous decade (following the introduction of the famous “I Love New York” campaign — an ad from which can be seen in the Muppet movie — albeit without provable connection). Crime, particularly murder, was still at a high point (though there’d be a slight dip in ’84-’85), a problem for Koch’s reputation after two terms and a believed deterrent for visitors.

Muppets Take Manhattan I Heart NY

TriStar Pictures

The upsurge in positive portrayals of NYC followed many years of more faithfully dark movies focused on the mean streets and the scum of the city — stories of drugs, prostitution, gang warfare, bank robberies, subway hijackings, the mob, police corruption, murder, muggings, mercenaries, the figurative prison of life in the South Bronx and a fantastically literal prison that Manhattan has become in the near future. There were a few exceptions, such as the New York-as-Metropolis of Superman and the love letters to Manhattan from Woody Allen. But the 1970s in particular were a time when New York’s representation was mainly owned by grittier directors like Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet as well as the crime films of the Blaxploitation genre.

“When Mayor Lindsay began his efforts to attract the movie production business, it probably didn’t occur to him or his associates that they were ushering in a new movie age of nightmare realism,” wrote Pauline Kael in her 1971 review of The French Connection, referring to Lindsay’s substantial increase in access to public property for film crews and his ending of censorship regarding what kinds of scenes could be shot in those spaces. His successor, Abe Beame, made continued attempts at wooing production, in spite of Hollywood being turned off by the city’s crime and corruption (Lumet noted in the Times article linked to above that he used to have to spend $400 a day in police payoffs, or “tips”).

Koch, a huge movie fan (and even a film critic in his later years), furthered efforts through his support of the reopening of Astoria Studios, clean-up of the NYPD and offering of accommodations and incentives to productions. There’s no evidence, however, to indicate that he influenced the more favorable content in movies made while he was in office. You’d think he’d had a hand in Splash for all its postcard-ready shots of the city’s landmarks and whitewashing of its negative traits (it’s probably a coincidence but a notable one that Tom Hanks’s character seems to be named after Woody Allen, while Daryl Hannah’s mermaid immigrant is named after an avenue known as the center of advertising). It was the perfect start, though, to a half-decade of fantastically romantic depictions of the city that never sleeps — except from Hollywood’s POV, through which it’s all dreams and nightmares.

Who could guess via the Muppets’ singing and dancing through Manhattan that in reality it was then even more of a “horror city” than when Kael labeled it as such 13 years earlier? Sure, there’s a brief hostage situation involving Camilla and Gonzo, and later there’s a purse snatching in Central Park where Miss Piggy gets to remind us she’s no one to mess with, but especially the latter sequence portrays the crime situation in New York as a weak issue. Similar comedic downplays of serious problems facing the city would come in the following years with such movies as The Brother From Another Planet, Crocodile Dundee, Batteries Not Included, The Secret of My Success, Three Men and a Baby, Coming to America, Short Circuit 2 and Big, all of these involving a fish out of water in the Big Apple, whether foreigner or alien or robot or child.

Rather than a reject, Christopher Campbell is a film school dropout. But he has since gotten a master’s degree in cinema studies and has been blogging about movies since 2005. Earlier, he reviewed films for a zine (a what?) that you could buy at Tower Records (a what?). He is married with two children.

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