Growing up in California in the 1970s, I was captivated by watching movies set in New York City. Films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and The World of Henry Orient (1964) offered a visual chronicle of the city in the 1960s, the locations gave me a cinematic peek at the city in which I was born.
George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient was particularly enthralling. The film, which follows two teenage friends as they engage in a game revolving around their obsession with a famous pianist, Henry Orient (played by Peter Sellers), leads viewers through a variety of locations, from Central Park to the streets of Greenwich Village.
The film, based on the 1958 novel by Nora Johnson, featured two young actors in the leading roles, Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker. Their relationship onscreen was perfectly rendered, with the adult characters played well by the supporting cast, including Angela Lansbury, Paula Prentiss, and Tom Bosley.
Shot in NYC from June 1963-October 1963, the film documents the friendship between the two young women as they navigate not only the city streets, but also their relationships with their parents, their insecurities, their dreams. And thus the city becomes their stage, a place to run and play, to lose themselves in fantasies as they struggle with their lives. The city is also a place where they catch glimpses of a slightly more jaded world, the world of adults and entanglements, that awaits them. And the city is also, sadly, a landscape upon which they wander in the face of a coming winter, with a heavy heart. Accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s lovely score, the visual images of the city parallel the evolution of the friendship between to the two women; Framed by the city itself, their journey, once young and flourishing and green, soon becomes darker, snowy and quiet.
The extensive use of the city as a location is so central to the film’s narrative that the two become inseparable. The “world” of Henry Orient, it turns out, is really the world of these two young women. Theirs is a world of culture and play, cosmopolitanism and naivete. The 1960s, in the film’s hands, are not rendered as a place for wild, counterculture, but as home to real people, struggling with growing up in a world that is mysterious and not always very kind.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Barefoot in the Park also shot on location in the city (most famously at Tiffany and Co. on 5th Avenue and at Washington Square Park). But the majority of these films are set in the apartments of the main characters. Indeed, the films are also documents of NYC in that the private space, one’s personal “location,”–even if it’s just one room in a six-floor walk up–is the city’s primary place and fittingly, both films include important relationships between the characters and their own apartments. Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), of Breakfast at Tiffany’s refuses even to unpack since she is on a serious quest to move up in the world; while the Bratters (Jane Fonda and Robert Redford) of Barefoot in the Park find their very relationship reflected in the pitfalls of their very first NYC apartment.
Another 1960s NYC film making use of the city’s locations is Roman Polanski’s 1968 Rosemary’s Baby. Filmed in the famous Dakota, the Upper West Side apartment building made famous by its famous residents, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the film also concentrates its story on the location of its main characters, albeit with a decidedly sinister twist. As Rosemary (Mia Farrow) settles into her dream apartment, making window seat covers and buying furniture, I always wished that she could get all she wanted. After all, finding your dream location–“home sweet home”– is one of life’s quests, and in New York, it’s a monumental task.
When set in NYC, it seemed to me, life was always bigger, more colorful, and more dramatic. Whether running through the park barefoot or drinking coffee on 5th Avenue at dawn, the inhabitants of the city seemed to be living out scenarios on a grand scale.