Woody: Movies from Manhattan

By Julian Fox

Overlook Press

Copyright © 1996 Julian Fox.All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-87951-692-5



You go to a Bergman film and you know he will be dealing with God's silence. Whenever you see a Scorsese film you know there's going to be a sociopath in it. With me it's this thing, the unfathomableness of desire. It's there over and over again. You can't help it, you need to deal with it and live.

Woody Allen

More, perhaps, than any other contemporary American film-maker, Woody Allen has been both consistent in his enthusiasms and, in his choice of themes and subject matter, infuriatingly difficult to categorize. Apparently settled in during the late 1960s and early 1970s as a sort of hip, urban neurotic successor to Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers - as well as a master parodist of everything from science fiction to Russian literature, Italian movies to Third World politics - he then assumed the role in the following decade of a middle-class, New York Jewish Chekhov, dealing with the moral and sexual complexities of intellectual over-achievers like himself.

From that base, he was soon branching out into dazzling experiments with fake documentary, Pirandelloesque fantasy and bizarre goings-on in country houses. Critical eyebrows have been raised at some of Woody's more perverse departures, especially, the so-called `serious' films, while, in the 1990s, a not altogether valuable foray into `German Expressionism' and a well-publicized off-screen `scandal' have led to widely-voiced speculation that his ongoing love affair with an admittedly specific audience must finally be coming to an end.

However, long-time fans of Woody's multifaceted talent (confirmed at the time of writing by a triumphant return to comic form) have stayed with him through many a change in his life and cinematic fortunes. The wider, more commercial audience, which prefers Spielberg and Schwarzenegger and has turned less than half a dozen of Woody's movies into anything even approaching a blockbuster, has continued to stay away in droves. Part of the problem is that Woody's films have always reflected the concerns of his own generation: though many of his fans from the 1970s and 1980s have remained loyal, the bulk of today's youth audience simply isn't there.

`But what Woody does brilliantly', wrote Steven Schiff, `is reinvent himself with every film'. Those of us who are still switched on to his largely minority brand of movie-making have been delighted to follow him on his personal, highly idiosyncratic progress which, in American cinema as a whole, is formidable in terms of invention, imagination, insight, visual imagery, literacy, humanity and range of expression.

Early in his career, Woody insisted that he does not see society as the focus of art and says that he has never deliberately presented himself as a moral commentator. He has also claimed, through the character of Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, that his themes are psychological, not political. However, despite his once-held view that whether comic or serious, `in the end it's all entertainment', to some observers Woody's moves towards the more sober side of his artistic muse have always been problematic. One of Woody's early collaborators, Larry Gelbart, has identified the dilemma of the funny man wanting to play Hamlet as being largely the fault of those who fail to give credit where credit is due. `Serious people somehow are more admired than clowns', said Gelbart, `it's the idea that serious ideas should be rewarded more than comedic ideas and that comedy is easier and trivial.' Gelbart's view has been voiced often enough by Woody himself. Although he admires the talent of film-makers like Spielberg, Woody admits that he finds their subject matter uninteresting. `Spielberg has said he makes the kind of pictures he enjoyed as a child', says Woody, `I like to make the kind of pictures I enjoy as an adult.'

A great deal of his international appeal has undoubtedly been due to the romantic humanization of the Allen screen character through his personal and professional relationships with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. In his early comedies, often featuring Woody's second wife, the improvisational comedienne Louise Lasser, the female characters were little more than appendages to his comic persona - even though, in Take the Money and Run, Woody's easy rapport with the excessively pretty Janet Margolin does lend that agreeably hit-and-miss entertainment some moments of appealing Chaplinesque lyricism.

He is known as a great admirer of women and, as a child, the female influence in his family was strong. He noted that, until quite recently, he rarely thought in terms of male characters, except where his own screen persona was concerned, and this, in turn, placed certain proscriptions on the subjects he chose. `I'm not interested in all that stuff that others like to direct', he told Hot Press in May 1988. `Action, gangster movies. That's not my bag. I'm into human interest. And my main interest is what makes women tick ... psychologically.' Yet those who have nothing but praise for Woody's sensitive handling of the female characters in his recent films may be surprised to be reminded that in the 1970s he was lumped together with the likes of Hugh Hefner of Playboy by the Women's Liberation Movement. Indeed, as Adam Gopnick has recently suggested, the social trend of feminism has continued to pull against Woody's work and may well be an important factor in the failing box office of his recent films in America.

Other commentators have insisted that Woody, in his films, is the antithesis of the arch male chauvinist frequently complained of and point, quite justifiably, to the way he has employed female characters to reflect more sensitive areas of his work and personality which could not be expressed by male protagonists. John Updike, in discussing the main trend in American fiction, has referred to `a narrow stoic universe' where the hero always acts right and looks good and the heroine exists simply to satisfy his needs. `But I love the relationship of women to women', says woody, and he has intimated that he would dearly have loved to make a movie featuring Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Judy Davis and Meryl Streep - all his favourite actresses together. Sharon Stone, an early Allen cast member, has noted that `When a man writes in the voice of a woman, he writes his fantasy of a women.' woody, on the other hand, writes roles for women who are recognisably women. In a July 1991 BBC radio interview, he spoke of his earlier inability to create women characters but how, having cracked it, it had become one of his `greatest strengths'. He also paid generous tribute to his two most famous co-stars who, he said, had always given him a great deal of feedback, advising on his scripts, with Diane, in particular, demonstrating `e wonderful story sense' which he found invaluable.

Woody's involvement with Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton led directly to his three biggest box-office successes to date - Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, which represent an unofficial trilogy on the way sophisticated New Yorkers would like to see themselves. Along the way, Woody has made seven appearances in the Top Money-Making Stars lists and was revealed in a Quigley Poll survey as the eighth biggest drawing card of the 1970s - trailing Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen and John Wayne. He won a Best Director Oscar forAnnie Hall and Best Original Screenplay Oscars for that film and Hannah. He is the only film-maker, apart from Orson Welles and the twice cited Warren Beatty, to have been nominated as actor, writer and director for the same film.

At the same time, Woody has never achieved the more potent box-office success of his erstwhile chief comedy rival Mel Brooks. Though they are both Jewish, refugees from Brooklyn, literate, hypochondriacs and graduates of the Sid Caesar comedy-writing team, they are not otherwise much alike, especially since woody has long since developed his talents beyond mere genre parody which has remained Brook's mainstay. Woody has described genre parody as simple and pleasurable, and that it is very tempting to be `doing your comic version of the thing you'd like to be doing for real'. Given that opportunity, however, Woody's propensity for homage, especially as regards his idol, Ingmar Bergman, has often been blatant.

Early on, Woody had named Bergman as one of the two artists (the other being Martha Graham) `who had most profoundly affected him'. He also admitted that his interest in `doing' Bergman was to see how well a Scandinavian sensibility could be transferred into an essentially American, middle-class, setting.

The influence of Martha Graham on Woody has been less in terms of his films than of his artistry in general; if he draws much of his philosophic and artistic sensibility from Bergman, from Graham he derived a sense of movement and form. He also wrote the first draft of a film script, Dreams and Furies, `heavily influenced by Martha Graham's exploration of the hidden connection between psyche, myth and dramatic movement'. It would be one of an increasing number of Allen movie ideas to remain unrealized.

As well as paying repeated homage to the various artists he admires, Woody has proved especially adept at `plagiarising' himself. Characters and plot lines from his night club routines have turned up in his TV sketches and short stories. Ideas from all of these have, in turn, fuelled his stage plays and movies. Gags and episodes from his films have appeared again, honed and amended, within the pages of The New Yorker, The Evergreen Review and other prestigious periodicals to which he has contributed. `A man in his life tells only one story', said Jean Renoir, and Woody, quite recently, admitted that, like any artist, he has only so many good ideas in him. It is to be hoped that his ability to continue to recycle himself with uncommon ingenuity does not, finally, descend into mere repetition.

Like a number of his contemporaries, Woody has combined the best of traditional Hollywood story-telling with the more innovatory techniques and aesthetic leanings of the European film-makers he admires. However, unlike some other directors, he has resisted the more recent massive swing back to overtly American-style movies, retaining the same closeness to the influences which have, to some observers, all but disembodied him from the Hollywood mainstream. His films, like those of the French New Wave, have long assumed a degree of culture and intelligence in the audience which may flatter but can also irritate. At the same time, his wide appreciation of European culture has been tempered with elements of American popular art (old movies, city architecture, classic jazz) which he patently adores.

Critic Elvis Mitchell's recent view - that the concerns of Woody's movies `are increasingly out of touch with contemporary America' - has been echoed by any number of commentators. Indeed, the progress of Woody's career has been marked by some dramatic shifts in critical opinion Although the likes of Vincent Canby and Richard Schickel have remained loyal, Woody found particularly galling the hostility of one-time admirer Pauline Kael. Falling into the convenient trap of equating Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories with reflections on Woody's life and personality, Kael declared herself personally `betrayed' by the film and barely had a kind word to say about his work thereafter.

Earlier, Kael had described Woody as `an erratic comic genius' and, with the release of Zelig in 1983, Jack Kroll in Newsweek echoed the view of many in recognizing him as `Our most intelligent comic and most comic intelligence'.

At least in recent years, Woody's films have been better received by European critics and there has been a simultaneous increase in the world audience. Until Annie Hall, few European countries, apart from France and Italy, were on Woody's wavelength. He was notably slow to catch on in Britain where, accompanied by fairly downbeat reviews, his earliest films were invariably released some time after being shown in the US. However, as his films have become more expensive and, in most instances, more difficult to market, the profit margin has been small to non-existent. It has been said that the takings on such films as September, Another Woman and Shadows and Fog barely paid for the processing costs. September and Another Woman only received limited distribution, while a great deal of Woody's work has yet to be shown in rural areas where his backers fear it might prove indecipherable. None of this, surprisingly, seems to have damaged Woody's credibility with his successive studios, while his stock company approach and freedom to make what he wants regardless of success or failure has meant that, in the 1980s at least, he was able to turn out more movies in total than almost any other US director. The fact that each one of his films has been inimitable and in most cases, highly regarded, may be considered one of the consistently sustained miracles of contemporary American cinema.