Movies have been shot in Central Park for over a century now (the first was “Romeo and Juliet” in 1908) and I thought it would be a great idea to pick the ten best of all time. The criteria used in the selection process were admittedly biased, but we did use the results of the best Central Park movie poll that we’ve been running for the past two months. Other factors in judging the results were how the park was depicted in the movie, and, of course, the quality of the film itself. Let me know what you think of my choices.
In terms of pure fantasy the best example of the park in cinema would be “A Troll in Central Park”, Don Bluth director, 1994. It’s an animated fairytale about a troll, named Stanley, that is banished to New York City for having a green thumb, the punishment being the assumption that there is no greenery to be found amidst Manhattan’s concrete canyons. Much to his delight, however, little Stanley finds himself dropped in Central Park, in mid-spring. The park is drawn beautifully, with remarkable respect given to geographic detail. The park becomes a final battle ground between powerful forces for good and evil. Of course the forces of good prevail and the park becomes an Eden-like garden in the process.
It is difficult to imagine a Woody Allen movie shot in New York that doesn’t include scenes in Central Park. From his very first film – “Take The Money And Run“ to the more recent “Anything Else“ it seems that every one of Mr. Allen’s films contains scenes shot around the park. While it never quite seems that the locale is essential to the action taking place (they are almost always scenes of exposition between characters) it does become apparent that the park is a crucial element in the urban landscape as imagined by the director. So we’ve picked “Hannah And Her Sisters“ as the Woody Allen entry in the Central Park Top Ten. One of his best movies, it is also representative of six decades of cinematic work featuring Central Park as a movie sound stage.
In the 1980’s Central Park was just beginning to go through the transformation that has produced the pastoral gem we have today. After years of neglect the grime and graffiti of misuse and under funding was scraped off and the beautiful park we now enjoy every day began to re-emerge. The first movie to really celebrate this transformation was “The Muppets Take Manhattan“ There are gorgeously pastoral scenes of Kermit and Miss Piggy in Central Park that convey a sense of bright optimism as the two share a sunny day around the brightly lit landscape. The park is once again proudly portrayed as the lovely center of the city that we know today.
When you take a fairytale princess out of the animated world of make believe and drop her into the gritty reality of Manhattan you have the makings of a very entertaining movie. The perfect place for the city to meet the wonderfully imagined universe of Disney filmmakers is Central Park, and the movie “Enchanted“ is the perfect product of that union. From the narration by Julie Andrews to the whimsically engaging character of the Princess as portrayed by Amy Adams director Kevin Lima captures all the magic of Central Park by staging production numbers in various iconic sites around the park. The biggest of these is an amazingly choreographed song and dance that transforms Bethesda Fountain into the definition of the word Hollywood Spectacular. Central park never looked more magical.
“When Harry Met Sally“ – if not the quintessential Manhattan love story, then certainly the quintessential Central Park love story. A case of boy meets girl, boy estranges girl through inexcusably boorish behavior and then boy slowly discovers self, along with true feelings for girl, through a series of wryly drawn, semiotically witty scenes cast against a romantically understated backdrop. Sally’s luncheon with her friends at the Central Park Boathouse restaurant is a microcosm of 1980’s feminism – underwear incendiary defiance meets droll relationship realism. Their autumn stroll along the Mall is the perfect backdrop for the subtle change in their relationship as it slowly evolves into friendship. And the Temple of Dendor scene finishes the Central Park trifecta as Harry starts to realize that his latent expectations are needs that have to be acknowledged. Nora Ephron’s brilliant script captures the evolution of love between Harry and Sally, and Central Park provides the perfect canvas on which to paint this touchingly funny urban romance.
One example of Central Park in which the park plays a supporting dramatic role itself would be “The World of Henry Orient“, 1964, directed by George Roy Hill. In this movie the park is seen in autumn, a cheerful, pretty landscape that provides the back drop for the afternoon frolics of two young girls, played by Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth. It’s the scene of a day long fantasy, chasing over and under bridges, around lakes and statues that bonds the two together. It is also the trysting place of Peter Sellers and Paula Prentiss, which the girls discover to Seller’s everlasting chagrin. Later in the movie, when Spaeth is searching for her missing friend, we see her wondering through a snow covered park, a bleak and barren landscape, all grey frost and frozen ground. George Roy Hill uses the changing season and background of the landscape to echo the dramatic conflict taking place between the characters.
Another example of Central Park as one of the most romantic settings anywhere in New York City is “Serendipity“ starring John Cusack and Kate Beckingsale. The plot revolves around a chance meeting between the two at Bloomingdale’s while shopping for gloves. They wind up having a magical evening which includes skating in a gorgeously decorated Wollman Rink. Besides the evocative shots of them gliding around the rink there are amazing shots of the rink decorated for Christmas with a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline above that are absolutely breathtaking. The final shot also takes place at the rink where Cusack is finally reunited with Beckingsale at the movie’s admittedly unlikely, manipulative and totally irresistible climax. The film paints a beautiful portrait of Central Park by night that is almost haunting in its idealized winter splendor.
3. Home Alone 2
One of the most popular children’s films to use Central Park as a backdrop is “Home Alone 2“ starring Macauley Culkin, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Scenes include Wollman Rink and Kevin eluding his pursuers by hiding in a horse drawn carriage, Kevin running around Bethesda Fountain but perhaps the most memorable shot that is set in the movie is the one with Brenda Fricker giving her portrayal of a rather eccentric park character that is obsessed with pigeons. The scene is set at the beautiful Inscope Arch which runs beneath the Park Drive at the southeast entrance and connects the Central Park Zoo to the Pond. The Bad Guys (Pesci and Stern) are ultimately thwarted in their attempts to do away with young Kevin by being showered with bread crumbs and then inundated with hungry pigeons. The shot is eerily, yet beautifully, lit and gives the park a magical feel, even while it is showcasing some of its least notable denizens.
“Portrait of Jennie“ from 1949 is still one of the most romantically magical films ever shot in Central Park. Taken from a popular novel by Robert Nathan it is the story of Eben Adams (played by Joseph Cotton), a struggling artist that can’t seem to find his muse. One night, on a stroll through Central Park, he meets Jennie Appleton, a precocious pre-teen played somewhat unconvincingly by a decidedly post-pubescent Jennifer Jones. Suspension of disbelief aside, this is a lovely movie that, quite uncharacteristically for the era, is shot extensively in Central Park. Shots of the Dairy, the Mall and a lovely sequence filmed on the Pond evoke a New York that seems almost sepia-tinted sixty years later. The ethereal nature of Eben’s meetings with Jennie (she seems to age by five or six years in between seasonal meetings) adds to the timeless nature of the the park settings. It seems that it could be 1859, 1909, 1949… The movie is a timeless evocation of Central Park as a world separate from the city that surrounds it, a place where the improbable is possible.
The most romantic view of the park can be found in the movie adaptation of the musical “Hair“, 1980, directed by Milos Forman. The film opens with an extended version of the song “Aquarius” that has Twyla Tharp choreographed dancers writhing about the lush autumn landscape, along with police horses that prance in step to the music. It is a wild and joyful place filled with hippies and hope. It is their home, a place filled with promise and life; counter culture experimentation throwing down an exuberant challenge to the concrete canyon dwellers that surround it. It is, of course, wildly simplistic and naive, but still it seduces you into thinking that even if it wasn’t exactly like that it should have been. For that matter it convinces you that that is the way it should still be. There are long shots that include the leafy vistas of the fall in New York and upwardly angled cameras that frame each character against the skyline. This is place you wanted to come to when you first heard about New York. It’s a place where people dance and sing and experience life vividly and viscerally. The place you never quite found. The one you still dream about.