Starring Lincoln Center: 11 Films That Cast the Center for the Performing Arts
Peter Bowen June 28, 2015
Starring Lincoln Center: 11 Films That Cast the Center for the Performing Arts
Lincoln Center, Movie Star
Since its groundbreaking in 1959, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts has been an iconic landmark for New Yorkers, as well as filmmakers hoping to capture the spirit of New York. While occasionally getting a supporting role, Lincoln Center has for the most part been cast as a backdrop against which various comedies, musicals and mysteries have play out their plots. From the start, Revson Fountain has been a star, a favorite place for lovers to meet, strangers to hang out, and lost souls to come to an epiphany. In other films, the rich red walls and cantilevered chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera House have been enlisted to add grace and grandeur. Even the loading docks have on occasional helped bring a touch of realness. While Lincoln Center has helped countless films tell their tales, in turn, these films over the last fifty years have also created a cinematic history of this cultural landmark. From its early cameos, sparkling as a youthful beacon of hope for a modern city, to its later walk-on roles as a sage figure of established culture, Lincoln Center has been a star.
West Side Story | "Something's Coming, Something Good"
When Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins adapted the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story to film in 1961, they wanted the real New York City to make a cameo. Although most of the film was shot in a Santa Monica soundstage, two New York City exteriors––West 68th Street and an abandoned playground on 110th—were chosen to give real grit and grime to the dance number rumbles between the film's two gangs, the white, working-class Jets and the newly emigrated Puerto Rican Sharks. Such realism came at a price: dancers ended up with injuries from pirouetting on uneven streets and cops had to be called in when real juvenile delinquents started hurling bricks and bottles onto the set. It is rumored that the film company even contacted local gangs about providing protection. In retooling Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet for modern America, West Side Story showcases the tumultuous reality of class and race in '50s New York City, a world in which new emigrants were constantly changing the face of streets and new construction was refiguring traditional neighborhoods. In 1961, as West Side Story was being filmed, the 16 acres bordering West 68th street were being razed for the soon-to-be Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. It seemed only fitting that the artists––like Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Robbins––who originally imagined the world of West Side Story, would find a home for their creative work in theaters that now reside in the same area where their fictional characters once lived. [Photo: MGM]
A Thousand Clowns | All Play and No Work
Fred Coe's 1965 comedy A Thousand Clowns, adapted by Herb Gardner from his own hit 1962 play, tells the story of how not to grow up in New York City. Jason Robards plays Murray Burns, an unemployed children's television writer who is raising his 12-year-old nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) in his cramped studio apartment. When the Department of Social Services gets wind of this unconventional arrangement, they threaten to remove his nephew from his care. To keep his ward, Burns attempts to charm the bureaucrats, showcasing the educational benefits of his freewheeling lifestyle, touring about New York City, diving in and out of such haunts as the West Side docks, the Statue of Liberty, Greenwich Village, and Central Park. Following a new form of natural history, Burns stalks Fifth Avenue with binoculars in hand to track the migratory patterns of the "North American Commuter." Manhattan becomes a major character in the film, as Salon's Erik Nelson points out, in the way much of the play's original "brilliant dialogue is played in '60s indie style on the streets of New York." Despite Burns using the city as a giant playground, riding a bike while playing ukulele here, and flying a kite there, the city itself won't let him forget that it's constantly at work, a point made abundantly clear when he walks through Lincoln Center. The Metropolitan Opera House with its half-finished arches and building cranes isn't taking a day from the job of getting built.
The Producers | Turning the Fountain On
In Mel Brooks' 1967 comedy The Producers, when Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) finally decides to join Max Bialystock's (Zero Mostel) scheme to bilk investors with a Broadway show that's sure to fail, he does so at Lincoln Center. With the spout from Revson Fountain rising up behind him like an emphatic watery exclamation mark, Bloom yells out, "I'll do it." But this classic scene almost never happened. Brooks, who originally wanted Coney Island's parachute jump ride for Bloom's emotional epiphany, only turned to Lincoln Center when the amusement park was out of order. But the locale marked the perfect ending to Max and Leo's day out. Having started with an "alfresco lunch" (meaning eating at a local hot dog stand), Max and Leo wandered through Central Park, taking a spin on the carousel and floating lazily on boat ride in the pond, before heading to the top of the Empire State Building and ducking in for a burlesque show. This perfect day convinces Bloom of the possibility of happiness. As the two stand before the Metropolitan Opera House, Bloom yells, "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies." Wilder wasn't completely acting here; he also was being transformed by his time with Mostel and Brooks. He recounts filming this scene in his autobiography Kiss Me Like A Stranger: "I was in love––for the first time in my life––and I knew that I had been part of a unique film, working with the two most unusual people I had ever met…And the fountain was turned on, in the film and in my life."
No Way to Treat A Lady | The Cutting Edge of Murder
Jack Smight's 1968 thriller No Way to Treat A Lady is by turns macabre and melodramatic, horrific and hammy, a film that perfectly captures the irreverent style of the Sixties. Rod Steiger plays an actor turned serial killer, who uses his thespian skills to murder women who remind him of his mother. Mo Brummell (played by George Segal) is a Jewish detective who lives with his kvetching mother and falls for Lee Remick, a possible witness to the true identity of the murderer. All the characters are tongue-in-cheek caricatures of typical New York types. To showcase the modern sensibility of Lee Remick, the hip tour guide who flirts with Segal, the filmmakers have her lecturing tourists on the giant Henry Moore "Reclining Figure" sculpture set in Lincoln Center's reflecting pool. Moore was one of number of cutting-edge artists, like David Smith, Jasper Johns and Lee Bontecou, who were commissioned to provide original work to grace the camps of the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. When Moore's was originally unveiled, board member Frank Stanton paraphrased Kenneth Clark's comment, "If I had to send one man to another planet to represent the human race, it would be Henry Moore." And if there was a sculpture to convince tourists, like those in Ms. Remick's group, of Lincoln Center's––and by association the film's––hipness, it was Henry Moore's.
Sweet Charity | Hey Big Spender
Bob Fosse's adaptation of the musical Sweet Charity (itself a loose adaptation of Federico's Fellini's Nights of Cabiria) is a lavish, choreographed ode to optimism. With the subtitle, "The Adventures of a Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved," the film follows Charity (Shirley MacLaine), an indefatigable dancehall hostess, as she jumps from bad relationships to even worse ones, always with her head high and a song in her heart. To illustrate her free-flying spirit, Fosse framed her in long shots that included iconic New York landmarks, including the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, the Empire State Building and Yankee Stadium as larger-than-life reminders of Charity's enormous energy. The image of Charity enthusiastically throwing her arms in the air at Lincoln Center's Revson Fountain may be the film's most exuberant illustration of this. For Philip Johnson, Revson Fountain in Lincoln Center's plaza was designed to like "the focal point a fireplace gives a home." The New York Times suggested it might be "the most sophisticated blending of light and water in this country." For Sweet Charity, and for other films, like On a Clear Day you Can See Forever and Sweet Home Alabama, the fountain was a symbol of hope and high spirits. With just such hope, Universal invested nearly $20 million to make Sweet Charity a lavish musical to rival films like The Sound of Music, which had been such a big hit a few years earlier. While the film flopped, earning less than $4 million, the fountain kept hope alive. Four years later, the 1973 film adaptation of Godspell had Jesus and Judas dancing around it singing "All For the Best." [Photo: Universal Pictures]
Annie Hall | A Familiar Face
Although Woody Allen is New York City's most ardent filmmaker, Lincoln Center appears rarely in his work. It appears luminously in Gordon Willis's transcendent black-and-white beginning montage in Allen's 1979 Manhattan. And in Allen's 1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery, we see a shimmering Lincoln Center at night in the rain. Perhaps the most poignant use of Lincoln Center is at the end of Allen's 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall. A while after Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) have broken up, the two old lovers meet for lunch at O'Neal's Balloon at the corner of West 63rd and Columbus Avenue. In voice over, we hear Allen nostalgically comment, "After that it got pretty late. And we both hadda go, but it was great seeing Annie again, right?" Through the window of the restaurant, we see the two in the late afternoon light lingering on the street with Lincoln Center glowing behind them. In the film, the Upper West Side, bathed in the soft light of dusk, feels as familiar and comfortable as the couple talking outside. The only problem is, as many ardent New York fans have been quick to point out, the lighting is all wrong. For Lincoln Center to be lit from the east, as it is in this scene, it would have be early morning, not dusk. [Photo: United Artists]
Ghostbusters | The Spirit of New York
While most of Ivan Reitman's spirited 1984 comedy Ghostbusters was actually shot in Los Angeles, the film is filled with New York spirit. So chocked full of iconic New York locales, the film, much like its intrepid ghost-busting team (Billy Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis), seems to be in a mad rush across the isle of Manhattan. From the Ghostbusters' headquarters in an old Tribeca firehouse, the team zips about town, touching down at the New York Public Library, Columbia University, Rockefeller Center, City Hall, Central Park's Tavern on the Green, Times Square, and many other spots. To celebrate the film's hometown spirit, the New York Post in 2014 highlighted its "10 most iconic NYC scenes," including, of course, Lincoln Center. There, Peter Venkman (Murray) takes a break from his ghost-busting schedule to wait by the Revson Fountain for Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), a cellist whose apartment is possessed. After twirling about a roller skater and making fun of Dana's friend, "one of the finest musicians in the world," by greeting him with "Who's the Stiff?", Venkman is sadly left alone on the plaza. But perhaps even sadder, as some Ghostbusters fans have pointed out, is the flag in the distance flying half-mast in recognition of US Marines killed in the Beirut barracks bombing on October 23, 1983, an eternal reminder of what was happening when this film was being made. [Photo: Sony Home Entertainment]
Moonstruck | The Magic of Opera
In Moonstruck, Norman Jewison's 1987 joyous anthem to the mysteries of love, Lincoln Center provides the catalyst to release passions the characters barely know simmer inside them. Loretta (Cher), an Italian-American accountant living in Brooklyn Heights, is engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). But when Johnny's brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage), a moody baker with a wooden prosthetic hand, asks Loretta to the opera, something magical happens. Chosen by the Gothamist as one of the "16 Best NYC Movie Scenes," Ronny and Loretta's night at the opera contain all the ingredients—"The pre-construction Lincoln Center plaza fountain! The Met Opera House! La Boheme! Forbidden love! Cher!"—that can turn a evening out into a fairy tale come true. Loretta, who rarely comes to the city and has never been to the opera, finds her heart melting as Mimi sings Puccini's heartbreaking aria of goodbye. And on Loretta's cheek is a single tear that only we can see. More magic happened the next year when the film was nominated for six Oscars, winning three for Best Screenplay Directly for the Screen, Best Supporting Actress (Olympia Dukakis) and Best Actress (Cher). [Photo: MGM]
Center Stage | Backstage Steps Forward
While most films use Lincoln Center as a backdrop, Nichols Hytner's 2000 Center Stage, a teen drama about a group of dancers, attempted to get back stage. The film's fictional school, the American Ballet Academy, is loosely based on the real School of American Ballet, which is associated with the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. Even the film's star Ethan Stiefel (who plays the bad boy dancer Cooper Nielsen in the film) was a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, which performs at Lincoln Center's Metropolitan Opera House. If, like many Hollywood films, Center Stage often feels less than on pointe in providing a realistic vision of the arts, its focus on the background, rather than center stage, succeeds exceedingly well. "I've always loved backstage movies," Hytner explains, "I've been to countless jazz and ballet classes; I've directed plays at Lincoln Center. It seemed like something I should do." As such, the film shows a side of Lincoln Center, the workaday home of students and professionals, that few of us see. As Salon's Stephanie Zacharek notes, "Hytner has a feel for the performers' insular world, and he opens it up to the rest of us… there's no image that better shows both the tenacity and the delicacy that are needed to make it in the dance world than Hytner's shot of sassy ballerina Eva, just after she has been kicked out of class for being a wiseass. Still wearing her toeshoes, she lounges outside Lincoln Center, having a smoke." [Photo: Columbia Pictures]
Black Swan | The Painful Reality of Art
In Darren Aronofsky's psycho-thriller Black Swan, Lincoln Center is both the stage and the backdrop for his dancers caught up in crazed dream of jealousy, ambition and violence. Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer set to play the white swan for a New York City company's production of Swan Lake. As she dives deeper into the role, paranoia and fear overtakes her as she begins to feel shadowed by the dancer playing the black swan (Mila Kunis). While many of the performances were shot at the performing Arts Center at State University of New York at Purchase, Aronofsky used Lincoln Center and area around to give the story a metropolitan feel. But Aronofsky also turned to Lincoln Center to research the world he planned to represent. After talking to a range of professional dancers about their experiences, the director watched firsthand. "I got to stand backstage when the Bolshoi came to Lincoln Center," Aronofsky recounts. While some dancers questioned the veracity of Aronofsky's vision, others, like New York City Ballet soloist Ellen Bar, felt the film really captured "the psychological torture of being an artist." [Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]
While We're Young | Getting Real
Noah Baumbach's 2014 comedy While We're Young recycles a previous generation's generation-gap comedy in a very hip way. Rather than being about parents and their darn kids, Baumbach pits documentary filmmakers and their protégés against each other. A middle-aged couple, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), are befriended by a younger, hipper couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who teach their elders the ways of hip-hop classes, fedora hats and street beaches. But eventually jealousy and ambition remind Josh and Jamie, both documentary filmmakers, on which side of the generation gap they belong. The tensions reach a comically uncomfortable head at Lincoln Center during a gala tribute for Josh's father-in-law (played by Charles Grodin), a celebrated documentary filmmaker from the Maysles brothers' period. It seems only right that Lincoln Center, whose New York Film Festival and cinema programs have consistently shaped the world's cinematic conversation, should be the backdrop for three generations of documentary film makers debating, either overtly or by default, the ethics of cinema. Lincoln Center was certainly important for the filmmakers. "It was our most expensive location," remembers cinematographer Sam Levy to MovieMaker Magazine. "The Lincoln Center has big windows looking out on Central Park South….We were trying to integrate the twinkly Manhattan lights into the frame." [Photo: Jon Pack / A24]