Bright Lights Film Journal

“A much more thoughtful and (is it possible?) more mature director”: Woody Allen at Eighty

Screenshot from Manhattan

Years from now, there will be little question as to his place in film history – a prominent seat at the grownups’ table, with a place card highlighting his run of sixteen films from 1977 to 1992, one of the greatest streaks in the history of American cinema.

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Can Woody Allen be eighty? So it would seem; Allen Stuart Konigsberg was born on December 1, 1935. And years from now, there will be little question as to his place in film history – a prominent seat at the grownups’ table, with a place card highlighting his run of sixteen films from 1977 to 1992, one of the greatest streaks in the history of American cinema. (Over two dozen more movies would follow, and those who grumble that they did not routinely reach the commanding heights of his golden age share the cloistered cynicism of those who insist Dylan peaked in 1966.)

Half a lifetime ago, few would have seen this coming. In late 1975, the forty-year-old Allen was warmly regarded as the writer-director of half a dozen humorous movies (the “early funny ones”). But surprises were in store. Less than fourteen months later, Roger Ebert would write, “From a filmmaker who would do anything for a laugh, whose primary mission seemed to be to get through the next five minutes, Allen has developed . . . into a much more thoughtful and (is it possible?) more mature director.” Allen’s writing, always sharp, funny, and insightful, improved – dramatically, as the published versions of his outstanding late-seventies screenplays attest. And after a decade of on-the-job training, his directing became increasingly sophisticated, ambitious, and visually articulate, with precise and masterful attention to color, composition, and movement.

Screenshot: with Marshall McLuhan (right) in Annie Hall

Allen’s relatively late arrival reflected the circuitous route that led him to filmmaking. After briefly dropping in and out of NYU and City College, Allen went off to Hollywood on a writer’s apprenticeship, where he ascended the ranks, meeting with enormous success working in television for the legendary Sid Caesar. Then, in a move that remains head turning, Woody walked away from all that, abandoning that lucrative perch in 1960 to launch an uncertain (and for some stretches catastrophic) career as a stand-up comic, scraping for peanuts before small audiences six nights a week. Hanging in there through several threadbare years, by 1964 Allen established himself as one of the leading figures in the new, revolutionary stand-up comedy of the era, his visibility further enhanced in 1965 with a performance in (and screenwriting credit for) the star-studded if otherwise dismal hit film What’s New Pussycat?

The headlining comedian soon became a fixture on television, most prominently as a guest and guest host of The Tonight Show. In 1969 Allen hosted a TV special, starred in the Broadway production of his second play (Play It Again, Sam, alongside Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts), and, in August, released his first film as a director, Take the Money and Run. Allen, like so many screenwriters before him, felt powerless and was left deeply dissatisfied during the production of Pussycat, and first turned to directing to protect his writing. It was an auspicious beginning to a career as a filmmaker that can be seen in retrospect as unfolding in five phases.

  1. A Comedian Who Made Films (1969-1975)

Take the Money and Run (co-written with Mickey Rose) was a movie saved in the editing room, as the overused cliché holds. But indeed it was – the first, rough cut was not working, and Ralph Rosenblum was called in and did some heroic rearranging. The film’s reconstitution and rescue was notable and fortuitous for the emerging filmmaker. It established the early, crucial working (and teaching) relationship between Allen and Rosenblum. Additionally, reworking Money established a winning precedent, and subsequently Woody would be open to radical revisions to his films in post-production, often with enormous success. Most famously, and again collaborating with Rosenblum, the initial assembly of Annie Hall (1977) was cut down by a full third. As shot, the movie was more loosely knit, included a mystery story, and lingered even more on Allen’s just-turned-forty anhedonia (the film’s working title); as edited, it honed, brilliantly, on the spine of the Alvy-Annie love story. Rosenblum’s last film with Allen was Interiors (1978), at which point the editor felt that Allen was more in command of his own cutting – but Woody’s after-the-fact filmmaking continued throughout his career. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), flawless in its release version, was considerably re-sculpted after the completion of principal photography; September (1987) was completely reshot, with some new players introduced and others switching roles. Finally, saving Money mattered, because the film, as finally released, won a rave review in the New York Times and led directly to Allen reaching a three-picture deal with United Artists – a contract that featured fixed, modest budgets in exchange for no studio interference.

The United Artists deal reflected a New Hollywood sensibility that was in the air at the time (the legendary BBS five-picture contract with Columbia that yielded Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show was the exemplar of this precious, fleeting phenomenon). Woody Allen was not a New Hollywood filmmaker – his formative, depression-era influences leaned even earlier than his birth year might suggest (vaudeville, jazz standards, and classical Hollywood) – but the UA arrangement established the enduring template for Allen’s closely guarded creative independence, and it can be argued that his small-scale, introspective films picked up the banner dropped by an exhausted New American Cinema in the late 1970s.

A number of those early, funny films followed, including the uproarious Bananas (1971), also co-written with Rose, and the more polished Sleeper (1973), co-written with Marshall Brickman (who would also collaborate on Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Manhattan Murder Mystery). Sleeper pushed harder on some of the themes about media and politics that had been raised gently in Bananas, and reflected the influence of silent films (and especially Chaplin); as initially conceived, silent sequences would have been even more prevalent in the movie, others were shot and trimmed down. Love and Death (1975) was another step forward; broadly comedic, but embracing still more ambitious and even existential themes. The rhythm and delivery of Love and Death’s writing and dialogue also illustrate most clearly the imprint of Bob Hope, whom Allen has repeatedly acknowledged as the “biggest comic influence on my performing.” (Other influences included Chaplin, as noted, and Groucho Marx, who checks in at key moments of Hannah and Her Sisters and Everyone Says I Love You.) All told, Woody was still funny in Love and Death, but serious philosophical issues were already peeking out from behind the Bergman parodies.

Screenshot from Love and Death

  1. Movie Star (1976-1984)

Allen was indeed a movie star in 1976, carrying the lead role in Martin Ritt’s The Front. But that was nothing compared to the reception of Annie Hall, which was not only a huge hit, but also swept the Academy Awards, taking home statues for best picture, director, screenplay, and actress (Diane Keaton). Annie Hall was also Allen’s first collaboration with cinematographer Gordon Willis, another crucial partner (and tutor) who would shoot eight straight Allen productions. Willis, whose resume included both Godfather pictures and Alan Pakula’s spellbinding “paranoid trilogy” (Klute, The Parallax View, and All The President’s Men), was an innovative and master craftsman, known for his willingness to push the envelope with regard to shooting in darkness and shadow. And Annie Hall was a visually ambitious film (it is so entertaining this often gets overlooked, but watch for not one but two elaborate circular pans), with intricate shots, long takes, and, with Willis’ encouragement, actors speaking outside of the frame (which would become an Allen signature). The narrative also drives the story purposefully forward while navigating a complex and fragmented temporal structure, seamlessly integrating past and present (and most of the entire film, technically, occurs in flashback).

Annie Hall, as Vincent Canby wrote in his review, put Allen “in the league with the best directors we have.” Moreover, in addition to establishing many of the visual motifs that would characterize future efforts, the writer-director also put a marker down for what would become a well-deserved reputation – as a wellspring of narratives engaging the concerns of multifaceted female characters. Annie Hall is, after all, ultimately Annie’s story (she matures and changes, Alvy stays the same). Interiors (1978) is also a story of women; at the time, many found the severe, Bergman-inflected drama jarringly incongruous, but they ought to have paid closer attention to Annie Hall’s tip of the hat to the Swedish director’s then-most-recent effort, Face to Face. Interiors, with its fixed camera, washed-out colors, and repressed, tormented characters, was sandwiched uneasily between Annie Hall and the masterpiece Manhattan (1979). Seen today, it more comfortably stands on its own, is very much worth revisiting, and can now be viewed as pointing toward September and Another Woman (1988), two more serious dramas about women.

Manhattan, with its bravura black-and-white photography, reflects the apogee of the Willis collaboration and is the definitive articulation of the “Woody Allen” character, 1970s style. Stardust Memories (1980), excellent and underappreciated, nevertheless arguably stretches each of these to their limit – the ambitious black-and-white constructions are more self-conscious and less in service of the narrative; Woody (now Sandy) plays hard on the more discordant notes of his persona. Allen was taken aback by the negative, even angry reception that greeted Stardust; he was surprised – perhaps more than he should have been – that many viewed the film as a self-indulgent obscene gesture, a pointed flip-off directed squarely toward his most loyal fans. (Perhaps smarting from the backlash, Allen’s subsequent three films, which close out this phase of his career, are safer, more conservative entertainments, though Zelig (1983), best known for its technical sleights of hand, should not be underestimated.) In any event, Stardust’s ninety close-up seconds of an institutionalized Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) are riveting, and worth the price of admission alone (and it ought to be remembered that the heartbreakingly prescient film was released three months before John Lennon was murdered). And, as with each film that preceded it, Stardust Memories climbed still higher in terms of textured writing and visual complexity. Woody Allen the filmmaker in 1980 was simply unrecognizable as compared with the same writer-director of 1975, a consequence of the accumulated lessons learned from Rosenblum and especially Willis. As Allen would later state plainly, “my maturity in films began with my association with Gordon Willis.”

Screenshot: Charlotte Rampling in Stardust Memories

  1. An American Institution (1985-1992)

Somewhere between The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), with its textured, sophisticated use of a soft-colored palate, and the rich, assured (and commercially successful) Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), an intricate tapestry of multiple characters that featured an increasingly recognizable, confident visual style, Allen was widely acknowledged, properly, as a Major American Filmmaker. And one who had and would continue to carve out his own distinct identity, drawing on and building from a core set of themes and designs. Magical realism (surprisingly frequent), documentary framing, and episodic structures recur throughout his oeuvre, as does an obvious reverence for the classics of the Hollywood studio era, and, through the 1990s, a welcome experimentation with diverse forms of visual expression. Philosophically, the mysteries of love (especially its fleeting and unpredictable nature) are ever-present, of course, as well as a more ominous emphasis on the role of blind chance in determining outcomes (frightening, Allen insists, because it implies an utter lack of control over our own destinies), and more generally, an air of implicit melancholic resignation weaves its way through much of the work. Allen, like many pessimists, insists that this latter characteristic is just “realism,” and characterizes Purple Rose (one of his own favorites) as presenting the choice between fantasy and reality. In choosing reality, “which we all must do,” Cecilia (Mia Farrow) “is inevitably crushed by it, as we all inevitably are.” Urged at the time to consider a more upbeat conclusion, he explained, “the tragic end of the movie was the only reason I did the picture.”

Hannah and Her Sisters, in contrast, had quite the happy ending, and met with considerable commercial success (“always a dubious sign,” the filmmaker grumbles), and for those reasons Allen has never much embraced the effort; he experimented with a far more downcast ending, but decided he had “not justified that level . . . of Chekhovian sorrow.” But Woody underestimates the film, which was the first of eleven he made with cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, who had previously shot Red Desert, Blow Up, and Identification of a Woman for Antonioni. One of the great collaborations of Allen’s career, Di Palma described it as “the most enjoyable period of my professional life,” and the results are visible on screen. Hannah is characterized by assured, confident visual storytelling that provides an essential complement to the narrative, seen most vividly when the constricting camera winds around the sisters during a tension-filled lunch.

But Allen has never been the best judge of his own work – this was a man who once begged UA not to release the completed Manhattan, promising to deliver an alternate movie for free instead. Woody also regards the under-seen gem Another Woman as a failure. Woman is another Bergman-inflected effort – its short opening sequence is lifted straight from Wild Strawberries, and the film even boasts Sven Nyquist as its cinematographer – but it is unambiguously recognizable as an Allen original, and a plainly and deeply personal film. “I put all I felt about turning fifty” into Marion (Gena Rowlands), he told one interviewer. “It took me at least a year to get over it.” Nyquist also shot Crimes and Misdemeanors (as well as Celebrity in 1998), which Allen described, with remarkable accuracy and efficiency, as an effort “to illustrate in an entertaining way that there’s no god,” although that pithy summary does not capture the breadth and scale of the movie’s achievement. It is the sort of film where shots of a dimming headlight and construction platforms suspended beneath the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge inspire the viewer to contemplate the precariousness of life.

Screenshot: Jerry Orbach and Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors

The large, splendid cast of Crimes is also a particularly fine and representative reminder of the fact that Allen’s roles, for men as well as women, have routinely attracted accomplished actors eager to sink their teeth into meaty, three-dimensional characters and routinely come back for more. For a decade at least, an Allen film was the place to pre-register with the Academy for honors (to date, eighteen nominations for acting and seven wins), and smaller roles are often filled by then unknowns who would go on to achieve prominence and success. Considerable credit here surely must belong to casting director Juliet Taylor, who has worked on every Allen picture for forty years.

Yet another stellar set of players, including film director Sydney Pollack and Allen favorite Judy Davis (also outstanding in 1997’s Deconstructing Harry), brought still another masterpiece to life, Husbands and Wives (1992). Overshadowed at the time by the personal upheavals that coincided with its release, Husbands was unlike any Allen film that came before (though for a study in contrasting visual storytelling, compare its opening with that of Interiors – two films set in motion by the consequences on others of the dissolution of a marriage). There was obviously something festering below the surface of Di Palma’s jumpy, agitated camerawork, hinted at by Gabe (Allen), in a red sweater standing in a red kitchen, indicating a suppressed rage fundamentally at odds with the character’s professed ease in the midst of the chaos surrounding him.

  1. Consistency (1993-1999) and Drift (2000-03)

Screenshot: Deconstructing Harry

From the 1990s to the present day, Allen would continue to follow, uninterrupted, an established film-a-year rhythm: shooting one, editing the previous, writing the next. Nevertheless, the shocking revelation, in 1992, of Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime girlfriend Mia Farrow, necessarily marked a new phase of operations, if only because Farrow had been a fixture in a dozen of Allen’s films in the preceding decade. In addition, his relationship with the public was of course necessarily and irretrievably transformed by the revelation of the affair (Allen and Previn would marry in 1997), the bitter public split and ferociously acrimonious battles that followed, and, surely, the sense of personal betrayal felt by some members of his (relatively modest but until then fairly faithful) core audience. Allen, when pressed, insists that his audience would have diminished anyway as he continued to evolve as a filmmaker and moved on from familiar characters and comfortable themes. But audiences largely stayed away from his first post-scandal effort, Manhattan Murder Mystery, which was accessible, good fun, well received critically, and a pleasure to watch – with Woody, reunited with Keaton and returning players Alan Alda and Angelica Huston off on a nifty romp that checked in with Double Indemnity, Vertigo, and, unforgettably, The Lady from Shanghai.

Throughout the 1990s Allen continued to produce remarkably consistent, high-quality pictures that, despite all protestations to the contrary, would appear to reflect the influence of issues that resonated with the reverberations of his private life. Bullets over Broadway (1994), which picked up seven academy award nominations and a second win for Diane Wiest, and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), for which Sean Penn and Samantha Morton were nominated, each address the relationship between artists and their audiences, friends, and lovers. Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity also touch on similar themes, and, more notably, even though the former is often laugh-out-loud funny, both have a hard, bitter, vulgar, and even angry edge that is not seen in any other Allen effort, before or since.

As the millennium approached, Woody was by all accounts humming along, unfazed by public maelstroms and drawing on an endless reservoir of story ideas, when, without warning, he seemed to lose his way, letting go of an unprecedented four clunkers in a row from 2000 to 2003. It was a period that coincided with more personal acrimony, in the form of a sharp (and litigious) break with long-time close friend and more recently producer Jean Doumanian. With Allen pushing seventy, it was perhaps ungenerous to write him off, but it was reasonable to speculate that he was entering a period of ultimate decline. Few directors had thrived after hitting that milestone. Hitchcock and Wilder slowed down considerably, Preminger went into a tailspin ten years younger, at sixty; even Bergman, capable of greatness deep into old age, announced his “retirement” at age sixty-five, after Fanny and Alexander. What chance did Woody have?

  1. Still Something to Say (2004–)

As it turned out, a pretty good chance. Allen’s output in his seventies was less consistent than that which came before, and it’s fair to say that half the time in the twenty-first century Allen seems content to settle for indifferent compositions, a dispiriting shrug that stands in marked contrast to the savvy craftsmanship and reaching experimentation of decades past. But consider the rest, and, with apologies to all the realists and pessimists out there, this is a glass we might want to see as half full – few late careers have had as much to offer. Melinda and Melinda (2004) was a wining comeback from his four-year slide; shot by New Hollywood legend Vilmos Zsigmond, it features a wonderful turn by five-timer Wallace Shawn (first seen on screen in Manhattan), a winning performance by Will Farrell, and it really does have something to say about the meaning of life. Match Point (2005) is even better, revisiting themes of Crimes and Misdemeanors and displaying a new (and unexpected) facility with suspense and sensuality. Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) is nimble and clever and plays like a winning comedy Eric Rohmer never made. Midnight in Paris (2011), magically shot by Darius Khondji, is a delight. And check out the Alec Baldwin segment in To Rome with Love (2012) and entertain the interpretation that it’s his story, and everyone else is a projection. Blue Jasmine (2013) features brilliant performances from an outstanding cast.

The inevitable “Untitled Woody Allen Project,” his fiftieth original feature, is on the schedule for 2016. We’re lucky to have it.