For nearly a century, New York has enjoyed a kind of fictive counterpart, a place of the imagination brought to life on screen: a “dream city” of the movies, in fact, which has mesmerized and enchanted generations of audiences.
Like its real-life model, movie New York is a place of many sides — from the “mean streets” of its tougher districts to the glittering lights and signs of Broadway — but it is arguably the city’s glamorous upper social echelons that, over time, have exercised the strongest and most abiding appeal for moviegoers.
The reasons seem obvious enough. Depictions of the city’s most affluent and successful inhabitants carry to a logical conclusion the promise of New York itself, dedicated as nowhere else to the values of worldly achievement and advancement. Then, too, movies focused on the city’s elite offer of “insider” glimpses of a remote and exclusive sphere, otherwise unavailable to ordinary folk. Above all, filmic visions of this rarefied social circle provide a kind of apotheosis of the movie city itself — a place of almost infinite aspiration and desire, transporting audiences for a few hours to a world they might otherwise only dream of.
And though that world might be reflected, in the movie city, in refined modes of speech or manners, or in stylish fashions and costume, it comes to life above all in the extraordinary settings its inhabitants called “home.” A look at these domestic environments, on-screen and off, offers a tour of New York’s changing architectural styles, its evolving social structures, and, in the end, the story of the city itself.
Fascination with New York “society,” to be sure, predated the rise of motion pictures. In the early 20th century, Sunday newspaper supplements deployed a breakthrough process, the “rotogravure” — allowing actual photographs, rather than hand-drawn lithographs, to appear in newsprint — to feed the public’s voracious appetite with tantalizing glimpses of the city’s upper classes at play: debutante parties in lavish mid-town ballrooms, garden parties and polo matches on Long Island estates, promenaders sporting top hats and bonnets in Fifth Avenue’s Easter Parade (where, Irving Berlin’s lyric promised, “the photographers might snap us/And you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure”). But the arrival of talking pictures in the late 1920s supercharged the public’s obsession with the elaborate life-styles and settings of New York society — which by then had reached a pinnacle of grandeur and scale never equaled, before or since.
This spectacular efflorescence, in fact, had been nearly a century in the making, a social and stylistic evolution that was itself neatly captured in two landmark Hollywood films, each providing a retrospective view of the New York elite at an earlier, more nascent stage of its development.
Adapted from Henry James’s novel Washington Square, and set in the young merchant city of 1850s New York, the 1949 film The Heiress plays out nearly all of its intense and passionate story of wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), his daughter Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), and a handsome if suspect suitor (Montgomery Clift), in and around the doctor’s Greek Revival townhouse on Washington Square North. Constructing their sets at Paramount studios in Hollywood, the filmmakers found it necessary to scale up the dimensions of an actual Washington Square row house by a full 25%, recognizing that even the most prosperous New Yorkers of the day lived in sedate brick-and-stone structures that would not have looked especially “rich” to contemporary audiences.
Such architectural sobriety remained the rule among Knickerbocker families as late as the 1880s, the period of Life with Father — the highly popular 1947 film starring William Powell and Irene Dunne (along with a teenage Elizabeth Taylor), based on Clarence Day, Jr.’s 1930s stories in The New Yorker about his Victorian upbringing. Though the Day family household is, by our standards, a fairly elaborate operation — with half a dozen Irish servants scampering up and down the backstairs — the row house itself remains somber in style and relatively unassuming in scale, a dour, narrow brownstone affair sitting on a quiet residential stretch of Madison Avenue and 47th Street.
But all that would soon change, as the rise of a national corporate culture in New York in the 1890s brought with it an influx of the nation’s richest and most powerful businessmen from across the United States, who, converging on a single stretch of Fifth Avenue north of 50th Street — “Millionaire’s Row” — transformed it into a spectacular, two-mile-long series of marble-fronted mansions, castles, and palaces, more majestic and opulent than any rival street in Europe.
Although the movie city gravitated to these imposing residences almost from the start, the two most memorable filmic explorations of their palatial dimensions came only near the end of their reign, in the late 1930s, when the avenue’s classical piles had begun to be widely regarded as dinosaurs, as outdated monuments whose extravagance, architectural grandeur, and stratified social structure — with dozens of servants supporting a single privileged family — seemed not grand but stultifying to the “modern” sons and (especially) daughters who had grown up in them.
“Don’t expect simplicity here,” Linda Seton (Katharine Hepburn), the “black sheep” of the superrich Seton family, warns an iconoclastic newcomer named Johnny Case (Cary Grant) near the start of Holiday (1938). “Just think of our Fifth Avenue frontage.” Before the film is over, Linda, with Johnny’s help, will break down the barriers of architecture and social class upon which the great mansion is built, and find her destiny beyond its pillars.
In My Man Godfrey (1936), the dizzy but adorable heiress Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) follows a similar trajectory, her path paved by a valet named Godfrey (William Powell), who is perhaps not quite what he seems, and her escape made from a Fifth Avenue mansion which offers not the decorum of the Seton home but a screechy menagerie, filled with unappealing family members and bizarre hangers-on.
In truth, the day of the mansion had passed, replaced in the public mind with a new kind of upscale New York residence, as closely linked with the modern city as the classical mansion had been with the Gilded Age: the penthouse apartment. Once reserved for mechanical equipment and custodians’ quarters, the one-story structures that sat atop the city’s residential towers had been transformed by the 1920s into some of the most dramatic settings to be found in high-rise Manhattan, with views stretching out in all directions and a lush landscape of plantings lining their set-back terraces — the carefree indoor-outdoor way of life of a country estate, 12 stories in the sky.
Inspired by accounts of the fashionable penthouse parties given by the magazine publisher Condé Nast and others, feature films leapt at the romantic possibilities of these spectacular Art Deco environments, where impossibly sleek and stylish New Yorkers played out a dreamy fantasy of modern urban life — from elegant single women like Greta Garbo in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931) to the energetic bachelor Douglas Fairbanks in Reaching for the Moon (1930), whose butler, Edward Everett Horton, sketches out the opportunities for a special evening to come.
“Moonlight and love,” he predicts. “One of the advantages of a penthouse, if I may say so.”
For the glamorous denizens of the “dream city” of movie New York, the lofty reaches of the skyline seemed to be a kind of natural home, where they might spend not only their days but also their evenings — in the immense, dazzling rooftop nightclubs favored (in films such as 1936’s Swing Time) by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
So strong was the association of the penthouse apartment with the aspirational myth of New York that it easily survived World War II and was still driving the story lines of such 1950s Hollywood films as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), in which three struggling Manhattan career women pool their resources to rent a Sutton Place penthouse, the object being matrimony. “Where would you be more likely to meet a rich man?” Lauren Bacall asks her skeptical flatmates, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. “In a walk-up on Amsterdam Avenue, or in a joint like this?”
But the war had truly brought with it a great leveling, and in the postwar era filmic renditions of upper-class New York homes grew distinctly less flamboyant. The Beekman Place duplex that is home to married lawyers Adam and Amanda Bonner (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) in Adam’s Rib (1949) is certainly grand enough — with elegant reception rooms downstairs and a well-appointed bedroom and dressing suite above — but is placed discreetly within an otherwise sedate apartment house, the very model of the understated way of life that characterized the city’s upper classes in the postwar decades, on-screen and off.
In these years, it was only Manhattan’s handsome, successful bachelors — always a favorite subject of Hollywood — who were generally allowed to romp through wildly extravagant quarters, such as Dean Martin’s palatial East River–facing apartment in Bells Are Ringing (1960) or Frank Sinatra’s equally stylish “pad” in The Tender Trap (1955). In That Touch of Mink (1962), millionaire Cary Grant invites Doris Day up into the unfinished steel skeleton of a new apartment tower to plan out another such lavish spread, to occupy the building’s entire floor.
Indeed, by the 1970s, when relatively few New York families could still afford the sizable full-time staffs who once serviced the city’s larger residences, such homes could seem to be some-thing of an albatross — especially for wives who were now given responsibility for maintaining such quarters, more or less by themselves. The titular character of Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), played by Carrie Snodgress, is plainly overwhelmed by the demands of the outsize Central Park West apartment her social-climbing husband (Richard Benjamin) has insisted they live in; we see her scrambling exhaustedly from one end of the place to the other, Scotch in hand, simply to get her family through the day. Even the sophisticated art dealers Flan and Ouisa Kittredge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) — in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), based on John Guare’s play — sometimes seem at odds with the old-fashioned propriety of their Fifth Avenue apartment; when a mysterious yet friendly-seeming stranger (Will Smith) proposes to whip up an evening meal, they are delighted if a bit surprised to use their formal dining room for, of all things, dining. (By film’s end, Ouisa follows the well-worn path of Linda Seton and Irene Bullock, and, inspired by Smith — who is definitely not what he seems — liberates herself from the apartment’s lavish but stifling confines.)
Then, in the 1980s, the high-end New York home made a largely unexpected return, both on-screen and off — propelled largely by the Reagan-era torrent of capital, much of it generated and spent in the city. Whatever its flaws, the film version of Tom Wolfe’s epic fictive account of the era, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), perfectly captured the aggressive rebirth of the grandiose Manhattan home — this time a rambling Park Avenue duplex, laid out by the production designer Richard Sylbert, complete with a sweeping two-story stair hall linking the floors. Similarly grand domestic settings, also generated by the city’s newfound wealth, enveloped viewers of Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street and its 2010 sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
As it turned out, however, the 1980s influx of Wall Street money was merely a precursor to the stunning renaissance taking hold across the entire city in the late 1990s, when the startling drop in crime and increase in public order restored New York’s former status as the irresistible magnet for ambitious newcomers, especially the young, from across the country and around the world. As the lure of the metropolis radiated outward — thanks largely to films themselves — the “dream city” of an earlier era began to glow again in the minds of people everywhere, propelled by a vision of the unbounded possibilities and aspirational lifestyle of its most successful inhabitants.
One by one, the familiar models of high-end residential life in New York — rendered for nearly a century in feature films — were reborn in contemporary guise. The classic Manhattan row house, whose subdued exterior often gives little hint of the splendor within, made its formidable reappearance in such films as The Devil Wears Prada (2006), where the impeccably detailed Upper East Side townhouse of icy magazine editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) proves a minefield for her neophyte assistant, Andrea (Anne Hathaway).
The HBO mini-series The Undoing (2020), meanwhile, treated audiences to two updates of the stratospheric New York domicile. The eye-popping home of the Nicole Kidman character’s remote, domineering father, Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland) — a sprawling penthouse whose high-ceilinged drawing rooms, wood-paneled library, and park-facing terrace are actually a composite of two real Fifth Avenue apartments and a studio set — drew the most viewer attention. But it was another residence, visible early in the series — an immense, art-filled apartment in one of the thousand-foot-tall “supertowers” springing up across Manhattan — that reflected most accurately the latest evolution of the city’s domestic landscape: an apartment so high in the air that the skyline shrinks to the scale of a miniature, with glass-walled interiors so expansive that they can easily accommodate a couple hundred guests for a private-school fundraiser. (The scene was in fact filmed in an event space atop 1 World Trade Center.) In a knowing gesture, the actual hosts of the party, the Spencers, are nowhere to be found — a sly reference to the absentee owners of many supertower units, who have purchased their slice of the sky as financial investments rather than a place to live.
But nowhere was the city’s newfound 21st-century lure presented more explicitly — or ardently — than in Sex & the City, whose six television seasons powerfully reignited New York’s sense of excitement, of possibility, of aspiration. During the show’s run on the small screen, its producers restrained themselves — somewhat — by situating its four main characters in apartments that, if generous by the standards of actual New York working women, remained plausibly limited in scale.
But when the franchise begat a 2008 feature film, the moviemakers lost not a minute in expanding the canvas dramatically to reassert every myth of a dazzling cinematic New York. In its very opening, the show’s heroine, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), seemingly settled on the arm of her wealthy boyfriend, “Mr. Big” (Chris Noth), makes her way through the dignified canopied entrance and into the elevator of one of the great stone-fronted apartment houses on the great residential boulevard of New York: Fifth Avenue. Soon enough they rise into a spectacular palazzo penthouse in the air, the sun pouring in onto its fine plaster detailing and polished hardwood floors. “So this is where they keep the light,” Big observes, while Carrie, all but overwhelmed by her good fortune, swoons, “Oh my God, I have died and gone to real estate heaven.” After nearly a century, the highest aspirations of the “dream city” of the movies never seemed more vibrant — or dreamier.
Seen from today’s perspective, of course, these films all prompt the same poignant concern: Can the glamorous New York of the imagination survive or even prosper in the aftermath of a catastrophic pandemic that, with cruel precision, has seemed to undermine the very premise of New York and places like it, built on density, concentration, and the constant gathering and intermingling of peoples? Though New York’s current moment may seem grim indeed, it would surely be an error to discount the enduring power of this filmic city of aspiration and desire, this mythic setting in which Carrie, standing in the French doorway of her Manhattan dream house, can imagine herself, at least for a moment, as the woman who might announce, “Hello, I live here…”