NY: In that same opening monologue to Manhattan, Isaac says, joking in part, that New York has become a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. Back in 1979, people would have understood what you meant. Now maybe a little less so, because New York isn’t in quite a state of decay. Have we lost something by losing the decay?
WA: We don’t miss the decay, but we do miss the middle class. It’s a shame that you can’t live on this isle of Manhattan unless you have money. When I first moved here from Brooklyn, I moved into a one-room apartment, but it was right off Park Avenue in the Sixties. And it was $125 a month. I don’t know how all these people who come to New York to seek fame and fortune do it. I guess they wind up living in Brooklyn and Hoboken.
NY: When you go to Brooklyn now, you must find it unimaginably different from the Brooklyn you grew up in.
WA: Yes, there are certain parts of Brooklyn that have become very, very desirable. My old neighborhood, as it turns out, became Hasidic. Which is, for me, the kiss of death.
NY: So many of the signature aspects of New York in your earlier movies—the independent bookstores, a grittier artists’ Soho, Checker cabs, revival houses … they’re all gone. Do you mourn that? Are you essentially nostalgic by nature?
WA: Yes, I mourn that, for sure. There are times where I’d finish a movie, like Everyone Says I Love You, and five places in the movie would be gone before it came out. Le Cirque would be gone. The bookstore on Madison Avenue would be gone. I couldn’t keep up with the rate of change, and the change was always the progression, really, of opulence. I especially mourn the movie houses, because when I grew up in Brooklyn, you only had to walk three blocks to go to a movie theater. They were ubiquitous.
NY: Do you still go to movies in theaters?
WA: I don’t, because I have this [gesturing to the screening room], and so it’s much easier for me to call up and say, “Can I get a print of The Women sent over here?” and I can just come in here with a couple of friends on a Saturday night and see it. But when I drive down the street and I see a marquee and now it says Duane Reade, it’s awful.
‘People still have existential anxiety. It just may not be expressed in Hebraic idiom.’
NY: Is there anything about the new New York that’s better?
WA: Uh, well, it’s safer. But, you know, I think change of this sort is almost always negative. Things degenerate.
WA: Look, I thought movies got better. They’re not now—
NY: I read an interview recently where you named your favorite movies in different categories. I think the most recent film you had on any list is Airplane.
WA: Yeah, I have a soft spot for that film. There have been other funny movies since, but that is a funny one. But I grew up in what they called the Golden Age of Movies. Really, it was the golden age of movie stars. William Powell and Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. The stars had some kind of charismatic hold that later stars don’t have.
NY: And why is that?
WA: Because the screens were big and the world was not as small, and Hollywood was a distant place. They acted out myths. Now, it would be hard to find better actors than, you know, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, but the public sees them as guys in the neighborhood. The world’s gotten much more casual; it’s not as dressy as it was. But the movies themselves, when you think back to the so-called Golden Age, were junk for the most part. When we started to get into the late sixties or seventies, though, there was a little rush when cinema moved away from centering on the star and started to center more on the directors. And suddenly, we started to have good movies. Of course, we’ve taken a turn recently when the studios realized that it was to their advantage to spend $100 million and up on a movie because they could make $300 million, and what is the point of making a fine movie that makes $15 million, which was good enough years ago? They want to gamble for bigger stakes, and who can fault them, that’s the business they’re in. So the films have taken a big hit.
NY: Do you think audiences are less sophisticated?
WA: People are always talking about the dumbing down of the country. Now, it’s hard to believe that they could be dumber now than they were in my time. Theoretically that can’t be. But when you look around at Broadway theater and films, it’s hard to argue with the fact that we’re going through a period of coarsened public taste. And yet you don’t want to be caught saying that because then it seems like you’re one of those people saying, In my day, it was great. You know, it wasn’t that great in my day either. I’m sure if you went back to the 1800s and the 1500s and the Greeks, they would say garbage sells, too.