The Pulse of NYC: Examining Party Scenes in Film

By Wagiha Mariam

The progression of film in the last couple of decades can provide a lens to examine the socioeconomic context of New York City. Films are based on fiction, but are rooted in telling stories about what these time periods reflect and the types of people that interact and celebrate with one another. These parties may or may not be homogeneous due to certain racial or economic groups choosing to live in the same areas, creating more exclusive parties. The party scenes in these movies can reveal the  exclusivity or inclusivity of different socioeconomic and racial groups. By studying different party scenes, one can examine the relationship between films’ depiction of these scenes and New York City’s sociopolitical context. This project involves a case study of films spanning from seventy years ago to contemporary time. Older films are defined by films that were made before 1990. Newer films are defined by films made after the year 2000. The movies that are being analyzed are  Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Rosemary’s Baby (1968). American Psycho (2000) and Spider Man Homecoming(2017). 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

In the film Rosemary’s Baby, the protagonist Rosemary is a pregnant young woman who lives with her husband Guy, a screen actor, in a Renaissance styled apartment in Manhattan. The film tells the story of her life shortly after moving into the apartment, and her neighbors who she is suspicious of, who are overly friendly towards her pregnancy. Throughout the film, her husband Guy dismisses her feelings towards the matter and Rosemary’s health which begins to deteriorate with her pregnancy. Rosemary decides to throw a baby shower party, which is the first time she’s making contact with people besides the immediate people she’s around like her neighbors, doctor and husband. In the party scene, the guests are all direct friends of Rosemary who she hasn’t seen in months since her move in. The party was a house-party in their apartment, assumed to be in the Lower East side, and all the guests were white. The party has both men and women present, but most of the male guests seem to ignore Rosemary and the pain and discomfort she is experiencing. It isn’t until Rosemary breaks down that a couple of her female friends comfort her privately, where she opens up about her husband’s neglectful behavior of her physical pain. The economic class of this party seems to be upper class, as they seem to be a part of an affluent group that interact with successful Hollywood actors like Gus; they are also dressed in expensive attire and jewelry, suggesting that they are wealthy, just like Rosemary and Guy. The party is not inclusive, as it only ranges to a very narrow socioeconomic strata of wealthy individuals who are white. The film later reveals that Rosemary’s husband and other guests were a part of a satanic cult and were forcing Rosemary to conceive with Satan. The film Breakfast at Tiffany’s is about the free-spirit life of wannabe socialite Holly Golightly and how she navigates her life among New York City’s elite. The party scene takes place in the Upper East Side in Manhattan and is also a house party which takes place in Holly’s apartment. The party is thrown as almost a social-networking event where Holly attempts to charm potential suitors that she could marry. The atmosphere of the party is depicted as fun as guests indulge themselves in extravagant food and alcohol, and partake in a care-free attitude. This is juxtaposed with Holly’s tense nature, as she searches for something more sincere than the shallow interactions she has at the party. The guests are predominantly white, with the exception of a few Japanese guests present, wearing stereotypical oriental clothing and makeup. The scene features an interruption from Holly’s neighbor Mr. Yunioshi, who is the cranky Japanese upstairs neighbor. The character Mr. Yunioshi is played by a white actor who uses yellowface and a heavy accent to portray a racial caricature of a Japanese man. The gender inclusion depicts both male and female, where the men are mostly behaving in a lascivious manner towards the women in the party. The scene is portrayed in a highly romanticized manner with a lot of smoking, jazz music and lavish alcohol consumption to underscore the liveliness of the party. Due to the homogenous economic and racial makeup, this party scene cannot be classified as diverse.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

The film American Psycho is a psychological thriller film about a man named Patrick Bateman who is a successful investment banker in NYC, who leads a double life as a psychopathic serial killer. In American Psycho, the scene is a Christmas holiday party at one of Patrick’s coworker’s lavish mansions. The guests are all white and are around the same age in their late twenties to early thirties. The party depicts both genders, as most of the guests are couples who are there to flaunt their material status. The economic makeup of the party is upper class, as all the guests come from wealthy backgrounds working in the financial industry. Their interactions are shallow, and they barely have meaningful conversations, but rather they engage in superficial small talk. While the location of the party isn’t disclosed, it can be assumed that it takes place in Lower Manhattan and maybe near the financial district. The guests’ conversations mostly focus on cursory details about their work as investment bankers or where they enjoy eating lavish meals in the city. The party scene is depicted through Patrick’s lens where he feels that no one can really see him for who he really is. This is underscored by the interactions in the party which Patrick views as one-sided and inferior. His narcissism makes him detached from his partner Evelyn and his colleagues, viewing them all as superficial and less intelligent and successful compared to him. Through his lens, the party is not depicted as fun. Furthermore, the party has an entirely exclusive guest list who share similar economic backgrounds and feature no representation of an underprivileged community. Thus, this party cannot be deemed inclusive. 

American Psycho (2000)

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the party was a high school house party at the home of one of Peter Parker’s friends, named Liz. The party scene can be classified as racially diverse as multiple different races are present from Black, white, Asian and Native Hawaiian. The party features guests that are both male and female. The guests are mostly highschoolers from a fictional public high school in NYC called Midtown high school, so the guests are economically diverse. It can be assumed many of the guests are middle-class, but there may be some that are more wealthy or less wealthy. The party is in the Toomes Residence, which is the fictional home of Liz’s parents, located in Queens. The party is depicted as fun, with music playing, and guests dancing and enjoying themselves. They are drinking from red cups, and there is a DJ who is playing different genres of music like Hip-Hop and Pop. This party scene can be classified as diverse, as there are different racial groups present. It can also be assumed that it is economically diverse as well, because the guests are public high school students who may come from an array of socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)

In general, it seems that the older movies are less socio-economically and racially diverse than the newer movies. It should be noted that the age range of the guests plays a huge role in the diversity of the party itself. For example, in Spider Man Homecoming, the guests were all teenagers who went to a public school in Queens. This widens the economic strata and racial diversity by a lot because public schools tend to be more inclusive of different groups of people. This is different from the parties in Breakfast at Tiffanys where the guests are meant to network amongst themselves as a part of the top one percent, or in Rosemary’s Baby, who are all guests of Guy, who is a well known actor in NYC. Older films tend to be less diverse, as Hollywood did not prioritize casting different racial groups. There were much less opportunities for diverse representation and casting preferences often geared towards “established” white actors and actresses. Due to the specific location that each of these films were based in, gentrification may also have played a role in the diversity of each of the party scenes. Most of the films were shot in Manhattan, specifically the Upper East Side, where there are more wealthier and white residents. 

In other areas such as Harlem, neighborhoods were more racially diverse and had more lower-income residents there. However, this area was still victim to gentrification. During the 1970s, Harlem experienced a significant rise in property owners failing to pay taxes and abandoning their buildings. Consequently, the city of New York took ownership of approximately 70% of the properties in the borough. Furthermore, other social changes contributed to the different party scenes present for different socioeconomic groups. The commercialization and gentrification of pubs were driven by the desire to wade off state interference and criticism of the industry. While this may seem helpful to the residual groups created by the working class, the growing power of the gentrified public house life led to a steady decline of the pub for the working classes. This was due to the fact that the working class were accused of the “crime, laziness, and immortality” actions of upper class individuals responsible for the commercial culture of increased social groups of the higher classes. Furthermore, many of the house parties in these films do not feature these excludable groups, but rather a niche group of guests that represent a homogenous group of people who are both wealthy and white. This is a theme that recurs in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where the social climate allows for actors to perform yellowface, and in Rosemary’s Baby which features all wealthy and white guests. This is also present in American Psycho where all the guests are white upper class individuals who work in finance and share a privileged background. Spider Man: Homecoming diverges from this as it allows for a group of racially diverse students to come together in a scene. The film takes place in Queens, which is a different borough then every other film, but also Queens is one of the most racially diverse urban areas in the world. This can explain why many different racial groups are present in a high school party, and why this party is considered fun. 

While both new and old films have differences in the type of guests, they also share some similarities in representing how people who live in privileged backgrounds often form a homogenous circle of people. This is easily reflected in a party scene where guests invite people who they want to network with or they feel close to. Thus, these party scenes are emblematic of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and how they shape a party scene in New York City.