A Eulogy for New York City’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

Photo: Jed Egan

I suppose it would be worse if Zabar’s or Barney Greengrass or the original Fairway closed. Or Lincoln Center. But those venerable institutions aside, the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which screened its last films this past Sunday, was about as old Upper West Side-y as the Upper West Side was still able to manage, circa 2018. For nearly four decades, the theater, with its six screens (originally three), had been a welcoming (if claustrophobic) home for foreign and independent films — not necessarily the edgiest movies, but an intelligent, tasteful mix, resonant with the Channel 13 or New Yorker tote-bag crowd. Once upon a time, you could catch late-period Rohmer or Fellini there; more recently, mid-period Almodóvar or Baumbach or Ozon; and most any day, at least one film with a corset or a muddy peasant or both.

The menu wasn’t radically different from the fare at other independent movie theaters in town; it was the audience that made Lincoln Plaza distinctive. Its crowd trended older and kvetchier and harder-of-hearing than that of the Angelika Film Center or the Metrograph or Film Forum. Irritated cross talk and loud quarrels, whether between couples or random filmgoers, was such a mainstay of the Lincoln Plaza experience that last fall, my wife and I made a point of going there to see The Meyerowitz Stories, with Dustin Hoffman playing an ill-tempered sculptor and bad father, because we knew it would be like seeing the film in Sensurround. (A confession: I enjoy making fun of the theater and its patrons, but I also love it and them — in no small part because, if I am honest and drop the ironic distancing, I am as earnest a movie lover as the best and most querulous of them.)

When news broke last December that the Lincoln Plaza would soon be closing, it prompted much gloom and angry petition-signing among cineastes. The lease was up, though the landlord, aiming to deflect suspicions of the usual money grab, insisted the issue was only that the space sorely needed renovation, and that some sort of movie theater would return … at some point. We shall see. In the meantime, I decided to pay my personal last respects a little early; I figured that the final weekend would be a madhouse, so I attended last Thursday afternoon’s 1:35 matinee screening of Wonder Wheel, the latest Woody Allen movie, starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake, which had been playing at the theater for nearly two months despite mostly terrible reviews. More aptly still, the screening was open captioned — i.e., subtitled in English for people with hearing issues.

Matinee. Woody Allen. Open captioning. I would take my place among the hardest of the hard core. Indeed, if you arrived from the hinterlands in New York with inchoate cultural ambitions as I did in 1981 — the very year the Lincoln Plaza opened — you likely came because, in part, you were stirred by the urbane romanticism of Allen films such as Annie Hall and Manhattan. At least, they seemed urbane and romantic at the time. But times and perspectives change, and with multiple actors vowing never to work with Allen again — and with two in his upcoming film, A Rainy Day in New York, announcing they have donated their salaries to charities fighting sexual harassment and abuse — one wonders what kind of a release, if any, the picture will get. Possibly two eras were ending last week.

The Lincoln Plaza Cinemas reside in the basement of an ugly, late-’70s-vintage, yellow-brick building on Broadway at 62nd Street. I bought my ticket at the street-level box office, tucked along the least welcoming arcade in town — and particularly forbidding on a frigid, windy day — and descended down the elevator to the lobby, with its dark gray carpeting, light gray walls, and a layout that exists somewhere on the continuum between “eccentric” and “warren-like.” There I found Agnes, an elegantly dressed older woman with a shy smile, who was waiting for a friend. I asked how she felt about the closing.

“I’m very, very upset,” she replied, in a voice with a viola-like register and an accent that hinted at the European Jewish diaspora. She told me the theater had been a revelation to her and her family. “We used to live in the suburbs, and when we moved to the Upper West Side, we discovered Lincoln Plaza. This was wonderful to us! The kinds of movies here you couldn’t see in the suburbs. And you could just walk over. You could come late.” She seemed to be searching for a way to encapsulate what the theater had meant to her. “It was always here,” she finally said. A landmark, until it wasn’t.

Another patron, Kitty, was sitting on a bench. Her bobbed grey hair and the “RESIST!” button pinned to her stylish-but-not-too-stylish winter jacket seemed to identify her as another local, but she told me she lived up in the Bronx. Nevertheless, she was a frequent patron at the Lincoln Plaza. “Basically there are only two theaters in the city now that show movies I like,” she said, the other one being the Angelika.

A woman standing nearby started to interject. “Oh, are we doing a group interview thing now?” Kitty asked, in a loud tone that very much said we were not doing a group interview thing. Turning back to me, she said she was here to see “the Annette Bening movie” (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) and had been to the theater earlier in the week to see “the Churchill movie” (Darkest Hour). “I’m not that much of a moviegoer,” she claimed.

Photo: Jed Egan

A second woman started to kibitz. “Could you please?” Kitty asked. “Let’s not be stereotypical.” Here was the Lincoln Plaza I knew and loved. Kitty went on, telling me how she used to live in the Village, where she had moved in 1971, and what a haven it had been in those days for “art films.” (“Now they’re ‘independent,’” she added, “but ‘art films’ is what we called them then.”) She mentioned the long-vanished theaters: the 8th Street Playhouse, the Greenwich Twin, the Bleecker Street Cinema, and, uptown, the Thalia and the New Yorker. She looked around the lobby and laughed. “There’s a lot of gray hair,” she observed, correctly. “I feel young when I come here.”

Rafika was one of the kibitzers. Her own gray hair was in a not-very-disciplined bun. Her sweater had a bright floral pattern and she had a big, comfy-looking red scarf wrapped around her neck and shoulders. Her accent also betrayed a European origin. “I came here every day this week — I’m so upset!” she told me. “I’ve been coming here for the last 30 years. It shouldn’t be closing.” The consistent programming was what drew her back again and again: “It’s always quality. The movies always leave you questioning, always leave you thinking. They expect audiences to be engrossed in movies here.” I asked if she found herself getting into arguments with other moviegoers when the lights came up. “Always!” she said.

That day, Rafika was seeing My Jewish Friends. She had already seen Wonder Wheel. And …? “It’s wonderful!” She was sorry it had received no Oscar nominations. I asked what she thought of Woody Allen. “He was immoral,” she said, referring to the accusation that he had molested his daughter, Dylan Farrow, but Rafika didn’t feel people should bring that with them into the theater. She mentioned that she was a pianist and said when she performs, she doesn’t aim to please an audience. “I play because I love the pieces.” The analogy with separating the artist from the art in Woody Allen movies didn’t perfectly track, but I thought I understood what she was getting at.

It turned out that the other kibitzer, Sarah — small, with an engaging, even mischievous smile — was here, like me, to see Wonder Wheel. “I’m not going to judge Woody Allen as a person,” she said, “but as a moviemaker — he is a genius.” She added, in an accent I correctly pegged as Russian, “Most genius people are not such good people anyway.” Like everyone else, she was saddened by the Lincoln Plaza’s closing, adding that she saw a movie here at least once a month. She sometimes ventures to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Theater, a couple blocks away. “It’s okay, but not the same. A lot of the movies are political movies. I feel they sometimes have an agenda there.” She also travels downtown to the Angelika, on occasion, but she said she finds the smell of popcorn there oppressive. The Lincoln Plaza is her place. “But what can you do? Building needs renovation,” she said, with all due Russian fatalism.

It was time to see the movie. I counted 16 people — 13 women and 3 men – in a theater that looked as if it could seat between 200 and 300. Sixteen was more than I had expected, though. There were two groups of two, one group of three; the rest of us were singletons. As the lights went down, one woman kept looking at her cell phone. I waited for a classic multiparty Lincoln Plaza verbal conflagration to erupt — “Would you mind with the cell phone?” “It’s only the previews!” “What? I thought this was the Woody Allen picture?” “It is the Woody Allen picture! These are the previews!” “All of you, shut up!” — but that was not to be.

The movie unspooled, to use an anachronism. What can I say? It was yet another late-period Woody Allen movie. He was playing the pieces for himself, to cite Rafika’s analogy.

Lights back up. To broaden the demographics of this report, I spoke to Lili and Alexa, who I guessed to be the two youngest people in audience, both appearing to be in their late 20s. “We work next door. This was my first time here,” said Lili. Alexa had been maybe twice before, she thought. So neither was all that invested in the Lincoln Plaza experience, but when they heard about the closing, Alexa said, “We thought we ought to say good-bye.”

Were they fans of Woody Allen’s? Both were mixed on him and his work, but agreed that Manhattan and Annie Hall are good. Alexa said they hadn’t come intending to see Wonder Wheel, but while every other movie “looked depressing,” the poster for Wonder Wheel at least had “bright colors.” She laughed, suggesting she knew this was a larkish reason to pick a movie, and nothing wrong with that.

We started to discuss the film and what they thought of it — I liked Justin Timberlake; they didn’t – but Sarah, the second kibitzer, walked by and interjected, “I thought it was a great movie! I loved it!”

Further analysis felt impolite, so we went back to talking about theater itself.

“I remember the place looking run-down but it’s not too bad,” observed Alexa.

“You’d think it would be run-down from the outside, but it’s not,” said Lili.

Alexa: “This was a nice way to spend a lunch hour.” (Or more like two.)

Lili: “I’m glad I came at least once. I feel like I’ve been missing out on a good thing.”

A Eulogy for New York City’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas