Why you should care
Because if all the world’s a stage, there’s no spotlight better than Times Square.
There’s a reason New York’s Times Square is one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions. Even if it’s traded gritty glamour for corporate overkill, it pulses with an electric throb of brute creation felt by each one of the 39 million who come to visit it annually. No pyramids, no hanging gardens nor Taj Mahal-esque reflecting ponds — Times Square has the juice because it has the juice. If you don’t visit it when you visit New York City, you probably don’t feel like you’ve visited New York City.
Credit is due to Times Square’s long theatrical past and present and, perhaps even more significantly, to how lovingly its image has been tended via cinema magic — most recently in the Oscar-nominated Birdman, where a near-naked Michael Keaton nervously picks his way through the Square, recalling some of the silver screen’s more special moments at the Crossroads of the World.
So, forthwith, our most-loved Times Square slices of cinema life.
Actor/director John Cassavetes’ improvised indie flick is the stuff of legend. Filmed with a 16mm handheld camera, it captured Times Square during the Eisenhower years. The atmosphere wasn’t quite the full seed that would hit the Square in the 1970s, but Shadows played the at-the-time taboo of interracial relationships against the jittery backdrop of jazz and klieg lights. The film killed at the Venice Film Festival and set the tone for mood and moodiness that informed many and any that came after it.
Midnight Cowboy, 1969
We said it before and we’ll say it again: Midnight Cowboy is the distillation of Times Square’s significance. It’s the story of a hard-put hustler played by pre-Republican Jon Voight, and co-stars Dustin Hoffman as one of the screen’s great Square-dwellers, Ratso Rizzo. Voight’s character, Joe Buck, the erstwhile hustler, makes his first stop in the city at the former Hotel Claridge, smack dab at the corner of 44th Street and Broadway, with a bird’s-eye view of the Square. The now-demolished Claridge was both beautiful and doomed, like everything else in this movie. Excepting Times Square itself.
By 1971, the age of Aquarius had screeched to a halt and peace and love and any interest in the admixture of both had given way to whatever people meant when they said “urban grit.” This made the mechanized bustle of 1970s Times Square the perfect shorthand for the kind of badass on display when Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft came up out of the subway right into the thick of it. On the soundtrack: Issac Hayes declaring Shaft one bad mother … well, you get the idea.
Taxi Driver, 1976
Vietnam vets were back, and found themselves knee-deep in personal hells they couldn’t leave behind in ’Nam, street crime galore, junk and junkies, and the ass-end of the sexual revolution via endless porn and prostitution, all on display in mid-’70s Times Square. And all of it captured lovingly in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” says Robert De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, about Times Square. A statement that seemed nothing if not lunatic. At the time.
Fame / I’m gonna make it to heaven / Light up the sky like a flame! Those words were part of the signature opening song and summed up the aspirational boost that fueled this take on New York’s premier arts high school, LaGuardia. Kids dancing on cars, in the street, leaping over handrails, fire hydrants and parking meters and bursting with the brio that fuels a belief that you might just have a chance. Times Square was the backdrop, and its waning grit provided the perfect counterpoint to what could happen if you didn’t succeed.
Goodbye 42nd Street, 1986
An art film by estimable photog Richard Kern, Goodbye 42nd Street is by no means any kind of cinema gold. With no real plot and interspersed with scenes of staged horror, Goodbye 42nd Street is counted among the so-called “cinema of transgression.” It is noteworthy for one reason only: It captured what would be the end of Times Square sleaze. “One day this is all going to go away,” said Kern, eerily recalling Bickle’s take on Times Square. And he was right.
Vanilla Sky, 2001
Forget for a second that this is just a remake of a much better Euro flick, Open Your Eyes. Forget the Tom Cruise couch-jumping incident of years past, and forget the mixed reviews. Vanilla Sky actually managed to get its hands on something few had seen before or would see again: In the “city that never sleeps,” Times Square is rarely bereft of people, but it is here. We have no idea what strings director Cameron Crowe had to pull to get this to happen, but it’s well worth a viewing if you’ve ever wanted to consider the empty Square in all of its architectural glory.