Fun City: New York in the Movies 1966-74 (pt. 1)

by J. Hoberman  posted August 5, 2013
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This is the introductory essay in a series of articles by J. Hoberman about the film series Fun City: New York in the Movies 1966-1974, which he curated for Museum of the Moving Image. The series runs from August 10 through September 1, 2013. Articles about all of the films in the series will be posted in the coming weeks. The schedule for Fun City: New York in the Movies, 1966-1974 can be seen here.

Read program notes about
You're a Big Boy Now, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Norman Mailer vs. Fun City, Bye Bye Braverman, and Serpico (part 2) here.

Read program notes about Rosemary's Baby, Little Murders, The Landlord, and The Angel Levine (part 3) here.

“In many ways, I felt this was a kind of crude poem to the city.”
—William Friedkin on The French Connection

In November 1965, New York City elected a young mayor with movie-star looks; less than six months after moving into Gracie Mansion, John V. Lindsay signed an executive order that would turn the city into a movie set.

The newly established Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting cut through existing red tape. Script approval was centralized in a single agency. A production now needed but a single permit to shoot on the city’s streets; a specific police unit would remain with the filmmakers as they moved from location to location. And so the Lindsay administration created the necessary conditions for the tough cop films, bleak social comedies, and gritty urban fables that captured the feel of the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Even before the changes went into effect, the new mayor intervened in support of two productions. “Within the last few weeks, Mayor Lindsay has overruled the vetoes of minor city officials who would have prevented the production here this summer of two major feature films, Seven Arts’s You’re a Big Boy Now and Warner Brothers’s Up the Down Staircase,” Vincent Canby reported in The New York Times in mid-May 1966, one day after a City Hall ceremony at which the producer, director, and stars of You’re a Big Boy Now presented Lindsay with a leather bound copy of the film’s script. “As the newsreel cameras recorded the event, the Mayor upstaged the professionals present by thumbing through the script and asking which was his part.”

Lindsay’s role was Hizzoner the Mayor—and he was something of ham who, at least for the first several years after the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting was established, would put in a personal appearance, with inevitable photo op, at virtually every feature production made on location in New York. (He also presided over the New York Film Critics Circle’s 1967 award presentations at Sardi’s, the first mayor to do so since Fiorello LaGuardia.)

Independent filmmakers had been making New York movies since the early 1950s; under Lindsay, Hollywood took notice. During the summer of 1966, Canby wrote a Sunday feature on the various movies then in production, noting that although directors like Sidney Lumet and Robert Mulligan were eager to work with New York actors, “The star that attracts the filmmakers to New York City—dirty, crowded, hot, frenetic, soaring, squalid and graffiti-covered as it is—is New York City.”

Over twenty feature films were produced, wholly or in part, in the city in 1968. In 1969, the year of Lindsay’s re-election, there were 45 and seventeen of them (including The Out-of-Towners, The Landlord, John and Mary, The Boys in the Band, Cotton Comes to Harlem, A New Leaf, and The Angel Levine) were made entirely in New York. Canby had ended his 1966 piece on “Sunset Boulevard, Manhattan” by citing an industry cynic who told him that he would believe New York was “Hollywood East” on the day Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis arrived to shoot a big-budget Western on 10th Avenue.

Mutatis mutandis
, the De Laurentiis production Serpico would be that movie, opening in December 1973 at the close of the peak year for local production, with 63 theatrical and television features, as well as Lindsay’s final year in office and thus the end of an era that, however unrealistically, had begun with enormous hopes.

Upper East Side congressman John Lindsay ran on the Republican and Liberal lines as a reformer and an anti-establishment outsider, garnering 43.3 percent of the vote to defeat both the Democrat, then city comptroller Abraham Beame and, representing the new Conservative party, National Review founder-editor William F. Buckley.

“He’s fresh and everyone else is tired” had been Lindsay’s slogan. The campaign was something of a lark but the collective drama of the Great Blackout that followed the election by a week was a harbinger of things to come. So was the transit-workers strike that greeted the new mayor on the morning he took office. The ironic coinage “Fun City” first appeared in a Dick Schaap column that ran in response to a remark made by the new mayor at his first press conference: “This is a fun and exciting city even when it’s a struck city.” That was one way to put it.

Born in a paralyzing strike, rife with turf wars and struggles for community control, ending amid the gas lines that followed the oil embargo of 1973, Fun City was a town in continuous crisis. Not that crises weren’t fun: While location comedies like You’re a Big Boy Now and Cotton Comes to Harlem took the notion of New York as amusement park literally, so too did The French Connection and even Little Murders. (Not Klute or Superfly but Across 110th Street is the great example of an anti-fun Fun City movie.)

Site of demonstrations, happenings, job actions, and all manner of street theater (official and otherwise), as well as movies, Lindsay’s New York was wildly theatrical and no less contentious. Jobs disappeared, welfare rolls lengthened, crime rose, heroin flooded the city. Services declined as the mayor variously battled sanitation workers, teachers, and especially the police department. Lindsay’s initial campaign speech had proposed to address and redress police abuse with the creation of a civilian review board; in October 1971, events compelled him to appoint the independent Knapp commission to investigate allegations of systemic corruption in the New York Police Department.

As made clear to anyone following the argument in the documentary Norman Mailer vs. Fun City, the Lindsay years pitted the working class against the poor, ghetto dwellers against the police, peaceniks against hardhats, Manhattan against the boroughs, and the city against all. Lindsay’s early opposition to the war in Vietnam further alienated white ethnics even as his identification with and prominent appearances in black neighborhoods can be credited with sparing New York the racial violence endemic to other large American cities.

Although not personally wealthy, Lindsay was perceived as the quintessential “limousine liberal.” Materializing on television in early 1971, disgruntled Queens resident Archie Bunker was the figure Lindsay called into existence. The near-criminal detective Popeye Doyle was another anti-Lindsay. (The closest the movies came to producing a pro-Lindsay cop, in fantasy if not life, would be the idealistic hero of Serpico.) Popeye Doyle “exists neither to rise, nor to fall—but to function,” Roger Greenspun wrote. “To function in New York City is its own form of heroism.” So too was the failure to function as with the protagonists of Midnight Cowboy, Panic in Needle Park, and Born to Win.

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City and this was one of them,” is the phrase with which Jules Dassin’s 1948 noir ended. While some Fun City movies, notably The French Connection, Serpico, and particularly Dog Day Afternoon drew on actual events, most were interested in another sort of authenticity—even if the ravaged, garbage-strewn streets around the Filmways Studio on East 127th Street, just off the FDR Drive between Second and Third Avenues, often stood in for Brooklyn, or the Bronx, or just “New York.”

Movies like Bye Bye Braverman, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and The Landlord, were about their locations. Rosemary’s Baby and The Angel Levine used locations to evoke an imaginary Manhattan appropriate to their supernatural stories; Coogan’s Bluff and Little Murders did the same to produce an abstract city suitable to their respective theories of New York. Taking Off documented New York faces; The Taking of Pelham One Two Three tried to embody the city’s tempo.

Made during the High 1960s, Fun City movies overlapped a number of tendencies and cycles: The Hollywood New Wave, the Hollywood Jew Wave, Blaxploitation, the law and order Nixon-era policier, the disaster flicks. Some directors, like Sidney Lumet and Jerry Schatzberg, were native New Yorkers; even more were Europeans making their first American movies (Roman Polanski, John Schlesinger, the three Czech émigrés). Don Siegel was one of the few Hollywood professionals to direct a Fun City movie and he does not seem to have enjoyed it much.

As noted by Canby, New York City was the star, not least in its indigenous actors—Godfrey Cambridge, Robert De Niro, Hector Elizondo, Elliott Gould, Walter Matthau, Zero Mostel, George Segal, and Barbra Streisand to name a few. The most flamboyant was Alfredo James Pacino, born in East Harlem, raised in the Bronx by his Sicilian grandparents, a high-school dropout, product of the Actors Studio, and Off-Broadway Obie winner before a succession of juicy roles in a series of New York movies elevated him to New Hollywood aristocracy. Pacino’s Sonny, the manic protagonist of Dog Day Afternoon, personified New York mishigas, at least until he was supplanted by two years later by Robert De Niro’s even nuttier fellow Vietnam-vet Travis Bickle.

“A gaudy street carnival of a movie,” as characterized by Canby, Dog Day Afternoon was the first Fun City period film; set during the summer of 1972, soon after the collapse of John Lindsay’s presidential aspirations, it was shot after Lindsay had left office and released a month before the legendary Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Dog Day Afternoon postscripts this series but Taxi Driver, the movie that best embodies the depths to which New York sank in the years after Lindsay left office, falls beyond its purview. A less enjoyable sequel—call it Sin City—could be made of the baleful late 1970s-early 1980s New York movies Cruising, Fort Apache: The Bronx, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Ms. 45, and Prince of the City, that fed off Taxi Driver’s fumes.

Disillusionment in these Koch-era movies is a condition; in the movies that preceded them, made in the High Sixties during the collapse of the Great Society and the period of “telling-it-like-it-is,” when the Knicks were on top and New York’s baseball team was not the Yankees but the Mets, disillusionment was a process. There is a broken heart for every light on Broadway and Lindsay’s was one of them.

Whatever the mayor’s intentions, the movies produced on his watch rarely glamorized New York. Rather, they created and still provide a compelling, chaotic, exuberantly downbeat spectacle of social upheaval and urban decay, ethnic tension, and street-smart chutzpah to celebrate America’s greatest city in all its glory and despair.


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J. Hoberman is a renowned film critic whose latest book, Film After Film: What Became of 21st Century Cinema, was published by Verso. He was the senior film critic at the Village Voice, and he now writes for numerous publications including and The Tablet. His writing is aggregated at his website,

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