The image Woody Allen cultivates -- the balding, bespectacled, neurotic little Jewish intellectual Manhattan pedestrian -- is at odds with his almost unprecedented success as a "Hollywood" film star/director. While loud and boisterous fellow New Yorkers such as Scorsese, DePalma and Coppola attempted to bluster their way into Hollywood as "New Hollywood auteurs" in the early 1970s only to have their ears pinned back by studio owners in search of profit-formula entertainment, the unprepossessing Allen has emerged with total control over his own product. As Coppola himself observed, "Woody Allen sits down and writes the script and goes out and makes the movie. His is, in a way, the career that I most -- not that I'm in awe of, but that I respect. I always wished that I could have done that."
Not bad for a guy (born on this day in 1935 in Brooklyn, New York) who started out as a teenage joke writer for Sid Caesar TV shows (alongside such future luminaries as Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart) in the 1950s. Frustrated by having his idiosyncratic material mangled by mainstream personalities, he worked up the courage to begin doing his own stand-up act in Greenwich village coffee houses.
By the early 1960s, he became a favorite talk show guest, which led to his entry into films as writer and performer in What's New Pussycat? (1965), followed by his outrageous parody, What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), a low-budget Japanese spy movie which Allen overdubbed with an absurd dialogue track about a secret egg-salad recipe. In 1969, he made his directorial debut on Take the Money and Run, the first of several "earlier funny movies" (so-named by Allen in Stardust Memories, 1980, echoing the lament of his critics): Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973, the first of his own films with his 1970s paramour Diane Keaton) and Love and Death (1975).
Annie Hall (1977) marked a turning point in his career: while the earlier films were essentially crazy sketches strung together around Allen as fish-out-of-water, Annie Hall and his often bittersweet later films (such as Manhattan, 1979; Stardust Memories; Zelig, 1983, his second of 11 films with 1980s paramour Mia Farrow; Hannah and her Sisters, 1986; Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989; Husbands and Wives, 1992; Mighty Aphrodite, 1995; Deconstructing Harry, 1997) bore stronger narrative outlines and character development, relied upon the shrouded comfort of a regular repertory company of actors, and were typically concerned with ethical issues and the impermanence of love.
All of his star vehicles, "earlier funny" and later movies alike, revolve in varying degrees around Allen's persona. Allen is not a classic "loser" as he is often misdiagnosed, but rather a post-modern manic-depressive who veers back and forth between an overripe self-confidence and superiority (evidenced, in no small portion, by his insistence on casting gorgeous Hollywood starlets as his love interests -- Charlotte Rampling, Mariel Hemingway, Mira Sorvino and Julia Roberts among them) and an acute awareness of his own identity as social misfit, his physical inadequacies and his mortality. Occasionally he finds that nostalgia and art fitfully assuage the latter conditions, a theme played out in such films as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984), Radio Days (1987) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999).
His intellectual playfulness has found an outlet in plays and short stories, notably "Mr. Big" (1971), a Spillane-style detective yarn about a missing-person search for God, and "The Kugelmass Episode" (1977) in which a college professor finds a way to jump in and out of books such as Flaubert's Madame Bovary in search of pleasure only to end up being chased for eternity by the irregular verb "tener" inside a remedial Spanish textbook.
Hollywood embraced Allen by awarding him Oscars for direction and writing on Annie Hall and for writing on Hannah and her Sisters, but rather than accept them in person he preferred to stay in New York, playing jazz clarinet at his regular Monday night gig. His protection of his privacy and emotional distance from the Hollywood scene probably contributed to the media-relished backlash he experienced when his break-up with Mia Farrow, with whom he had one child and adopted another, blew up in the tabloids with the discovery that Allen had begun a relationship with one of Farrow's previously adopted children, Soon-Yi Previn, in 1993. Farrow accused Allen of sexual abuse against their own two children during the ensuing custody battle, and although the charges were found to be unsubstantiated, the self-confident and superior side of the Allen persona took a serious drubbing in the press from which he only partially recovered. Allen and Soon-Yi later married and have since adopted two daughters of their own.
"Like a shark [which] has to constantly move forward or it dies" (Annie Hall) and with an underlying measure of persistent optimism even greater than the similarly beleaguered Chaplin -- Woody Allen continues to be the undisputed auteur of least one film per year.
"Love is the answer, but while you're waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions." -- Woody Allen.
Labels: Classic Cinema