Silver Screen Icons #1: Mary Wilkie

Mary Wilkie, Manhattan. 1979. Played by Diane Keaton.

“Chapter One. He adored New York City…” Opening with a montage of establishing shots romanticising the landscape and social scene of the Big Apple, the smooth intensity of George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ bellowing in all its glory over the top, Manhattan is Woody Allen’s 1979 classic romantic comedy that pays true homage to the most famous city in the world. It was his masterpiece, and, personal scandals aside, it remains the exemplar of Allen’s early career.

Allen plays Isaac Davis, a 42 year old TV comedy writer who is dating a high schooler 25 years his junior when he meets Mary, his best friend’s mistress. The tragi-comedy of his life is exacerbated when he quits his job and embarks on a relationship with Mary, whose stark intellectuality and honesty rubs him the wrong way at first, but becomes a new thrill for two time divorcee Isaac. Like most of Allen’s films, this is heaving with personal influence and largely deals with the themes of Allen’s neuroticism, provincialism, dissatisfaction, sex and relationships.

Mary Wilkie is initially the mistress of Allen’s best friend in the film, and so she is introduced as a kind of ‘naughty bit on the side’. But what sets her apart from all other mistress characters before and since Manhattan, is that not only does she hold a traditionally ‘masculine’ job as a journalist (or so it was in 1979) but she repeatedly outwits the males.

Despite her pretentiousness and elitist tendencies, Mary Wilkie is fundamentally a feminist icon. She is not afraid to admit her flaws or apprehension about dating a married man, she is frank about her sexuality (a rarity for its time) but also recognises that she can do better because she’s a smart, strong, beautiful woman. Whereas other writers may have scripted Wilkie’s character as a callous, man-eating home wrecker, Allen presents her as a human defenceless to her baser urges, just like everyone else, who demonstrates a dual mindset and cacophony of emotions that is still identifiable in modern culture.

Above all, though, what I love most about Mary Wilkie is that she doesn’t hold back what she’s really thinking and if a situation requires profanity she’ll be the first to drop a few ‘F’ bombs. In fact, she’s the only character in the film that swears at all, and I think this is elucidatory of her struggle to balance the stubbornness of her ego with an underlying hunger for satisfaction that isn’t being met. Nearly 40 years after the film’s release, Mary Wilkie’s reign as the realest representation of a self-assured, successful working women remains unperturbed.

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