Bright Lights Film Journal

Changeling: The Comic Art of Woody Allen

“‘You can’t control life,’ he tells us in that film. ‘”It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only art you can control. Art and masturbation.'”

Everyone knows Woody Allen. At least, everyone thinks they know Woody Allen. His plumage is easily identifiable: horn-rimmed glasses, baggy suit, wispy red (now graying) hair, kvetching demeanor, ironic sense of humor, acute fear of death. As is his habitat: New York City, though in recent years he has flown as far afield as London, Barcelona, and Paris. His likes are well known: Bergman, Dostoevsky, New Orleans jazz. So too his dislikes: spiders, cars, nature, Wagner records, the entire city of Los Angeles. Whether or not these traits represent the true Allen, who’s to say? It’s impossible to tell with Allen where cinema ends and life begins, an obfuscation he readily encourages. In the late seventies, disillusioned with the comedic success he’d found making such films as Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975), and Annie Hall (1977), he turned for darker territory with Stardust Memories (1979), a film in which, none too surprisingly, he plays a comic filmmaker dispirited with the direction his career has taken. “You can’t control life,” he tells us in that film. “It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only art you can control. Art and masturbation.”

This is the note that Allen prefers to strike, and the one that cinemagoers have long come to expect from him: a neat synthesis of the profound and the prosaic, delivered with a sardonic quip at the end. In his eighth decade now, he still averages nearly a movie a year. His profits are slim, by Hollywood standards at any rate, but so too are his costs. Actors will readily forego large portions of their salary, along with many of the standard perks — private trailer, personal hairdresser — to appear in his films, while studios offer him what must seem, to other directors, a shocking amount of artistic latitude. Sometimes as much as sixty percent of an Allen film will be scrapped and reshot at his behest. In the case of September (1987), the entire film was recast and reshot, not once but twice, until Allen relented. His artistic choices are  given equally deferential treatment. He writes, casts, directs, edits, and, at his peak, even had a say in the marketing of his films, with little studio interference. (Though Annie Hall won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Allen refused to have the fact touted on the movie’s poster, preferring to protect his masterpiece from the stain of advertising ink rather than reap the financial rewards.) That he is given such license is testament both to his efficiency — he rarely runs over budget — and the high regard in which he is held. He has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay twenty-three times, more than any other person in history, winning twice. Additionally, he has been nominated for Best Actor (once) and Best Director (six times), winning for Annie Hall, completing a hat-trick of accomplishment matched by few other filmmakers, not even Orson Welles, whose own oeuvre, in a cruel inversion of Nature, begins to look comparatively stringy and thin.

For anyone who has ever seen a movie being made, the auteur theory, the idea that a film springs from the mind of one person, like a novel or a sonnet, sounds either like a pipe dream or a sick joke. Yet, to those who wish to deny its logic, Allen stands as a glaring reproof. Not only do his films bear his distinct stamp, as inimitable as Faulkner’s prose or Sinatra’s voice, but they clearly have his fingerprints all over them, from the first to the last stage of production. Producer Bobby Greenhut explained, “There’s nothing to produce other than him. You get him to show up, you’ve produced a Woody Allen movie. He’s the star, the writer, the director . . . He’s a one-man band.”1

Ernest Hemingway once said that the best training for a writer is an unhappy childhood, a much-quoted dictum that applies doubly to comedians. In this regard, Allen is uniquely blessed, being both a writer and a comedian. He was born Allan Stewart Konigsberg on December 1, 1935 in the Bronx. His father, Martin Konigsberg, was a perennial business failure, and, consequently, the family moved frequently during his childhood, eventually settling in Brooklyn. The Konigsbergs held tightly to their Eastern European roots. Allen spoke German and Yiddish before he spoke English, and grew up in a household filled with a motley assortment of uncles, aunts, cousins, and the dross of his father’s moneymaking schemes. For anyone who has seen Radio Days (1987) the details of the scene should already be quite vivid — the bickering parents, the wiseacre kid, the spinsterish aunt, and the uncle with his sacks of fish from Sheepshead Bay — all of it as quaint and cozy as Peggotty’s up-turned boat in David Copperfield. The actuality, though, was certainly much bleaker, as Ralph Rosenblum, who edited Allen’s first six films, explained:

There was nothing comic or sensual or seductive about the Brooklyn Jewish community where I spent the first twenty years of my life. Bensonhurst was tidier, stabler, and more genteel than the commotion-prone Lower East Side where the newcomers thronged, but its lessons and ways were those of impoverished immigrants hanging on desperately to the niche they had made for themselves…Ten years later, when Woody Allen was growing up in the same milieu, its values and oppressive conformity would still prevail.2

The reality, for Allen, was probably closer to the world of The Floating Light Bulb, his 1981 play about marital discord and financial desperation in lower middle-class Canarsie, with its reek of “hopelessness and neglect.”3 Like the teenage Paul in the story, Allen was a shy, withdrawn youth. He avoided the company of other children and even, on occasion, his own family, preferring to eat his meals alone in the basement. He spent most of his time practicing magic, a passion that would endure all the way into high school, and one that continues to pop up frequently throughout his movies to this day; just think of his escape from the Strangler in Shadows and Fog (1991), the disappearance of his mother in Oedipus Wrecks (1989), and the marauding breast in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972). Considering his long-recognized status as America’s most literate filmmaker, it should surprise some to discover that Allen was, by all possible standards, a terrible student. “I was bad in spelling, worse in grammar, and I hated my teachers,” he said.4 They returned the favor, awarding him a C-minus grade point average upon graduation from high school. If anyone has had the last laugh, though, it is Allen, who either portrays them in his movies as cantankerous hags (Annie Hall) or strips their clothes off to dance naked before their students (Radio Days). “Don’t listen to what your schoolteachers tell you. Don’t pay attention to any of that,” Cliff tells Jenny in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). “Just see what they look like and that’s how you’ll know what life is really going to be like.” Behind the jokes, though, one can hear the rumblings of genuine resentment, towards teachers who failed to educate him properly and parents whose lack of affection made him the world-renowned neurotic he is today. Of his parents, Allen has said, only half-ironically, “When I was a child they’d give me a quarter to leave them alone. Now, I give them money to leave me alone.”5

Escape came, naturally enough, at the movies. Like his foil Clifford in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen was a chronic truant, playing hooky from school to visit the Kent Theater near his home. Indeed, if his films teach us anything it’s that movies themselves are sacred. In addition to their references to other directors (Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa), his films are replete with scenes in movie theaters, from Cecilia dreaming her afternoons away in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) to Mickey in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), renouncing suicide for Duck Soup (1933), to Chris seducing Chloe in Match Point (2005), the projector beam above their heads presaging her eventual pregnancy as infallibly as the light of Annunciation. Movie theaters are, to Allen, what parties in the Faubourg Saint-Germain were to Proust, places of wonderment, decadence, and delight. “It was a pleasure to be in there and a monstrosity to be outside,” he remembered. “You were transported to Arabia, and to Paris in the 1700s, but best of all to Manhattan, which was full of gangsters and showgirls. Afterwards, as you walked out up the plush red carpet, the music would be playing to end the picture or to start the next one. Then the doors opened and you were back in the blazing light.”6

Location is important. Had Allen grown up five miles to the north, it is likely we would have never have been given those iconic first shots of Manhattan (1979), the skyline rendered as lovingly in black and white as a David Hamilton nude, or the glittering opening vistas of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), berobed in the silky stylings of Cole Porter. Manhattan would have just been home to him: plain, ordinary, and dull. As it was, the metropolis took on heroic dimensions in the young boy’s mind, a shining emerald city across the water:

I was in love with it from the second I came up from the subway into Times Square…To me, people who lived in Manhattan would go from the Copa to the Latin Quarter; they’d hear jazz downtown, they’d go up to Harlem, they’d sit at Lindy’s until four in the morning. Then they’d come back home and go up in their elevators to their apartments, and their apartments were not like my apartment in Brooklyn where six million people lived together and it was small. They’d go to these apartments that were often duplexes. It was just astonishing. It was also so seductive that I’ve never really recovered from it.7

Perhaps for this reason, Manhattan has taken on what some consider an overly brilliant luster in Allen’s films. One of the most frequent complaints leveled against him is that the New York of his imagination bears only a passing resemblance to the city its other eight million residents know. As journalist Joe Kline once noted, “Woody Allen’s New York City — the city of his movies — has a peculiar geography. It ends at 96th Street, where Harlem begins. It extends south to SoHo, but not as far as Wall Street. It allows, grudgingly, for one outer borough, Brooklyn. In fact, there are only two crucial neighborhoods in his New York: Times Square and the quiet, elegant Upper East Side, where he and the characters he plays usually live.”8 Not that Allen lacks precedence in this matter. No one would confuse Ernst Lubitsch’s Budapest or Vincente Minnelli’s Paris with the real thing, either; Mexico never looked prettier than it did when Sam Peckinpah visited it; and Baltimore, as portrayed by Barry Levinson, always shines with an especially rosy glow. To call such portrayals dishonest would be callous but true. Yet there is an undeniable pleasure in such falsity, the pleasure of sharing a filmmaker’s love of place, and Allen’s films tacitly acknowledge this fact. “Forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past,” the narrator tells us in Radio Days, as the camera zooms out from the Rockaway seaside, cloaked in a delicate mist. “It wasn’t always as stormy and rain-swept as this. But I remember it that way because that was it at its most beautiful.” If Central Park has a tendency in Allen’s films to appear perpetually in shades of gold and grey, this is simply because he prefers not to shoot his exteriors in direct sunlight (he makes an exception for Los Angeles, that most hated of Allen cities), thus capturing New York at its sultry best.

Allen’s sense of humor developed early. Even before he was out of grade school he was already lacing his book reports with Bob Hope-like one-liners: “She had an hourglass figure, and I wanted to play in the sand.” By the age of seventeen, he was selling his jokes to the New York Post and the Daily Mirror. By the age of twenty-two, having dropped out of NYU after only a year, he was writing for Sid Caesar and The Garry Moore Show, earning as much as $1,700 a week, a small fortune at the time. But Allen was dissatisfied with his television career. Having already reached the top rung of the ladder, there was nowhere left for him to go. More importantly, he yearned to control his own material rather than seeing it butchered by lesser comedians. So, at twenty-five, secure in a job that other men work decades to attain, he took a daring step, quitting television to become a fulltime standup comedian. Two problems immediately presented themselves. One, standup comedy doesn’t pay, or at least in the beginning it doesn’t. And two, Allen suffered from near paralytic stage fright. Simply getting on stage was a trial, but staying there was even more difficult. On some occasions, he stood stiff as a post. On others, he covered his face with his hands, as if to hide from the audience. Worst of all, during moments of panic, he got in the habit of wrapping the microphone cable around his throat, a practice that provoked more gasps than laughter. Needless to say, his delivery was atrocious. “He would get up there and wrap that cord around his neck,” one audience member recalled. “You thought he was going to choke himself. Oh, and filled with nervous tics. Nervous, nervous. It was a sight.”9

Allen might not have succeeded at all, might have given up at the first chorus of boos, were it not for two men who entered his life just at the right time: Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe. As lionized by Allen in Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Rollins and Joffe were the type of personal managers one imagines exist only in the movies: kindhearted, selfless, and tirelessly devoted to their clients. (In the movie, Allen, as Danny Rose, is so committed to one of his acts, a washed-up lounge singer name Lou Canova, that he risks execution by the mob to bring Canova’s girlfriend on an epic journey from New Jersey to Manhattan.) The pair took to Allen instantly, deciding not only to represent him but to train him as a standup comic, as well. They encouraged him, drove him to performances, pushed him onstage when he was too scared to go, and gave him extensive notes after each set. If such behavior seems quixotic for a pair of talent agents — Joffe was so devoted to Allen that he took his bride to his act on their wedding night — it was all part of a long-term strategy. “The big thing was the challenge to develop what we saw that other people didn’t,” Rollins explained. “If you develop someone properly, people will come to you offering more money than you ever dreamed to please use your act.”10 In this matter, the agents displayed remarkable foresight, seeing in Allen the makings of more than a mere comedian. “In talking to him, we felt for sure he displayed the talents of a director,” Rollins said. “We just thought he had the potential to be a triple threat, like Orson Welles — writer, director, actor.”11 Ultimately, the bet paid off. After becoming a successful filmmaker, Allen made Rollins and Joffe executive producers of virtually all his movies. By the nineteen-eighties, they had each made enough money to retire in style, but chose instead to limit their business to an honored group of clients, including Robert Klein, David Letterman, and, of course, Woody Allen.

For Allen, the dividends became apparent much more quickly. Within two years, he was commanding $5,000 an appearance. How did he do this? How did he transform himself from a nervous wreck into a comic impresario? Simple: by fashioning a character for himself that highlighted the very neuroses that had paralyzed him before. His persona, like the one he affected in his early films, was the classic schnook — priapic, pusillanimous, and self-aggrandizing — and his jokes reflected that persona: “I was breast-fed from falsies,” “My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch,” “On my wedding night, my wife stopped in the middle of everything and gave me a standing ovation.”12 Looking back, Allen would later cringe at this early self: “I hate what I [stood] for. All those stupid girl-chasing jokes and sex jokes and, you know, self-deprecating stuff. It’s repugnant to me now.”13 Yet it was in these early comedy routines that Allen laid the cornerstone for much of his future comedy. You can hear it in his long virtuoso monologues which, with their elaborate plots and multiple characters, are obvious forebears of his zany, sketch-driven early films. Likewise, the anxieties behind the jokes — sex, death, God, or the absence thereof — continue to appear in his films to this day, as does his habit of juxtaposing the cosmic with the mundane:

MICKEY’S MOTHER: Of course there’s a God, you idiot. You don’t believe in God?
MICKEY: Then why is there so much evil in the world? On a simple level, why were there Nazis?
MICKEY’S MOTHER: Tell him, Max.
MICKEY’S FATHER: How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works.

It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. It came in the form of producer Charles K. Feldman, a megalomaniac with a flair for finding properties that skirted the edges of sexual propriety, but only just skirted, wherever, at the moment, those edges happened to be. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962) all had his name on their credits. Now he wanted to cash in on the vogue for campy sex humor made popular by The Pink Panther (1963), and he asked Allen to pen the script. On the face of it, Feldman’s proposal was a poor one. His offer, $30,000 for untold months of work, was paltry in comparison to the $10,000 a week Allen was earning on the standup circuit at the time. But Allen desperately wanted to get into movies, had secretly yearned to get into movies ever since seeing Bob Hope in Road to Morocco in 1942, so when Feldman upped the deal to $35,000 and threw in a part in the picture, he snapped it up without even trying to negotiate a better offer.

By all logic, the film should have been a catastrophic flop. Eventually titled What’s New Pussycat? (1965), the movie follows the romantic entanglements of Michael James (Peter O’Toole), his psychoanalyst (Peter Sellers), and a slew of beautiful women, including Romy Schneider, Paula Prentiss, Ursula Andress, and Capucine, all of whom end up at a hotel together in the French countryside, changing beds faster than they can change costumes. Even more convoluted than the plot was the production itself. The cast and crew were dragged back and forth across Europe while Feldman made up his mind where to shoot. Actors fell by the wayside. Entire scenes were rewritten on the fly. Yet somehow, despite all this, the film was a success, a fact that baffled it’s author as much as anyone. “It was the whole approach to film-making that I hate and I’ve since demonstrated that it isn’t my kind of film,” Allen explained. “But I’ve never had anything as profitable. Pussycat was just born to work. There was no way they could screw it up, try as they might, they couldn’t.”14 Yet much as Allen has tried to distance himself from Pussycat, the film is hardly dissimilar to his later work. The story, with its thorny tangle of unrequited loves, would reemerge in countless other incarnations, appearing in everything from Interiors (1978) to A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) to September (1987), though perhaps it is summed up most humorously in Love and Death (1975):

It’s a complicated situation. I’m in love with Alexei. He loves Alicia. Alicia’s having an affair with Lev. Lev loves Tatiana. Tatiana loves Simpkin. Simpkin loves me. I love Simpkin but in a different way than Alexei. Alexei loves Tatiana like a sister. Tatiana’s sister loves Trigorin like a brother. Trigorin’s brother is having an affair with my sister, whom he likes physically but not spiritually…

Comedy is, in large part, defensive. Freud recognized this when he wrote The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, and no one knows it better than Allen, a devoted Freudian if ever there was one. “I was always identifying with the comedian. It was a very painless way to get through life,” he has said. “If you found yourself in real-life situations that were otherwise painful to you and you were never at a loss for a wonderful comic remark, then it was great. I was very good at that.”15 The most suggestive joke of Allen’s I have found, however, comes not from his standup routines or his movies but from the back of his book of short stories, Without Feathers, on the “About the Author” page:

After he was ejected from both New York University and City College, WOODY ALLEN turned to a professional writing career, at first for television and comedians. In 1964 he decided to become a comedian himself . . . His one regret in life is that he is not someone else.16

There is something particularly revelatory in that last sentence that goes beyond the simple insecurity displayed by his usual digs at himself. The quip is meant to be ironic but, as with much of his comedy, the irony masks a darker truth: Allen has spent his life trying to be someone else. Indeed, one sometimes wonders whether Zelig, the human chameleon of Allen’s 1983 film, was not so much a spoof of the typical documentary subject as many viewers believed, but actually a sly piece of self-reference. Again and again, Allen has transformed himself: from the shy Jewish boy to the successful television writer, from the television writer to the standup comic, from the standup comic to the comic filmmaker, and finally from the comic filmmaker to the highly respected artist, at each step of the way adopting a new persona to go with it. (Though he is known for being reclusive and camera-shy today, during his standup years Allen was a very visible member of the New York entertainment scene, throwing lavish parties, hosting television shows, and lending his name to advertising campaigns. He even boxed a kangaroo on the British TV show Hippodrome.) And, of course, before it all, there was that first transformation, so familiar to entertainers in America, particularly Jewish entertainers: the shedding of his family name. In Allen’s case, however, the decision may have been motivated by more than simple business considerations. He has long displayed an aversion towards his upbringing that he hardly bothers to conceal. In Radio Days, he plays this discord for nostalgic humor — the parents’ bickering turned funny, their poverty made charming — but more often than not the jokes come with a bitter twist: “Where I grew up in Brooklyn, we were too unhappy to commit suicide.”

Jewish families have a tendency in his films to get noticeably malign treatment. They are apt to be noisy, cantankerous, boorish, unsophisticated, frequently feuding with each other, and chronically dissatisfied with life. WASP families, by comparison (Annie’s family in Annie Hall, for instance, or Hannah’s family in Hannah and Her Sisters) are pictures of contentment: warm, polite, good-looking, well-spoken, well-read. To Allen’s critics, these are symptoms of a deep-seated self-loathing or, even worse, a veiled form of anti-Semitism. But this is patently unfair. Hyperbole is one of the hallmarks of comedy, and these are simply the antipodes Allen is creating, his clumsy Laurels and snobbish Hardys. Besides, the WASPs in Allen’s films are hardly perfect. Behind their pretty facades lie demons darker than any his Jewish characters face: madness (Interiors), alcoholism (Hannah and Her Sisters), suicidal depression (Another Woman), and marital infidelity (all the above). Allen’s distaste for his origins is, in this sense, not so much cultural as financial. Like many people who came up from the bottom, he developed a reverence for the moneyed aristocracy — thus his veneration of the Hamptons, the Upper East Side, and William F. Buckley — and a scorn for his own lowly beginnings. It is therefore hardly surprising that one of his first acts as a young adult was to remove that name, that inescapable stamp of otherness, from his person. Of course, removing it from his memory proved more difficult. “It’s an amazing thing when I think back on the awful days in that little school, and coming home and sitting at the oilcloth-covered table,” he recalled with ill-concealed shame. “Sometimes when I look in the mirror I’ll see myself back there and I’ll say, ‘You’re Allan Konigsberg from Brooklyn. Shouldn’t you be eating in the basement?'”17

The arts have long provided a refuge for those attempting to escape their past. In Allen’s case, this escape came not before the camera, for he has essentially played the same character — himself, or some version of himself — for the last forty years, but behind it, where he has reshaped himself in the mold of his cinematic and literary idols. His short stories, which first began appearing in The New Yorker in the late sixties, hardly bothered to conceal their influences (S.J. Perelman and Robert Benchley for the most part) and his early films were no different, flaunting his appreciation of Keaton, Antonioni, and Fellini. If Allen has tried to reshape himself as anyone, though, it is as Ingmar Bergman. He even wanted to name his son Ingmar, before Mia Farrow, his partner at the time, talked him out of it. Allen first stumbled upon Bergman while still a teenager, when he and his friend Mickey Rose snuck into a showing of Summer with Monika (1953) hoping to catch sight of some nudity. For Allen, it was love at first sight. “Seeing Bergman the first time was pleasure, just pleasure,” he recalled years later. “It was never homework, never a noble endeavor or artsy or anything. We couldn’t wait for them to open in our neighborhood. They were not boring, they were not abstruse or turgid. They were fun.”18 On the surface, the attraction seems an odd one. Bergman’s style is austere, aloof, and cerebral, as cold and remote as the mute northern landscapes he depicts so well, and about as far removed from the febrile, lowbrow antics of Allen’s early movies as Vermeer is from Rubens. Consequently, many audience members were put off when, coming off the nostalgic high of Annie Hall, Allen presented them with the icy desolation of Interiors, his 1978 tale of an upper crust family crumbling from within. But for those who knew him well, the shift was hardly surprising. “Even before he made a movie, he had that Bergmanesque streak,” Ralph Rosenblum commented. “He was going to make funny movies and pull the rug at the very end…He says that comedy writers sit at the children’s table and he’s absolutely right about that. He wants to be remembered as a serious writer, a serious filmmaker.”19

One of the pleasures of following a young director is seeing him try on the appurtenances of others. Brian De Palma made no attempt to disguise his fetish for Hitchcock during his younger days, and David Gordon Green unabashedly looted from Terrence Malick when he made George Washington (2000) and Undertow (2004). As a novice filmmaker, Allen was no different, and part of the joy of returning to his early films is charting their growth, like the evolution of Man, from the Neanderthal-like crudity of Take the Money and Run (1969) to the cosmopolitan sophistication of Manhattan. His early films are rife with techniques lifted from the Swedish master: the black and white cinematography, the wide shot to cover an entire scene, the habit the camera has of staring at people through closed windows or down long hallways as they pass in and out of frame. The oddity in Allen’s case is that the fixation that began during his formative years continued into adulthood. Another Woman (1988) — the story of a woman (Gena Rowlands) who is forced reexamine her life after discovering that her closest friends and family members secretly scorn her — is clearly lifted from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), as is Deconstructing Harry (1997), though in a more comic vein. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) is a direct descendent of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), while Hannah and Her Sisters is practically a kissing cousin of Fanny and Alexander (1982), with their spookily similar theatrical families gathering each year at the holidays. Allen himself has tried to disclaim the resemblance. Asked once whether he consciously modeled Interiors on Bergman’s work, he replied, “I was consciously trying to avoid it,”20 which is rather like Cormac McCarthy claiming to have never heard of William Faulkner. The muted colors, the self-examining dialogue, the empty landscapes denuded of light: all the hallmarks of Bergman are there, right down to the framing of the final shot, as the three heroines align themselves before a window, staring out in stately anguish at the turbulent sea.

Consequently, a divide has opened up amongst Allen’s followers, between those who love the comedies and those who prefer his darker, more serious efforts. The split was conspicuous enough that Allen even made light of it in Stardust Memories. When movie director Sandy Bates (Allen) asks the super-intelligent alien beings whether his work needs greater meaning, their leader simply replies, “We enjoy your films, particularly the early funny ones,” and advices him, “You want to do mankind a real service, tell funnier jokes.” Yet, as the eighties wore on, it became clear which camp Allen preferred, and it wasn’t with the nasal-voiced spacemen. After the box office fiasco of Stardust Memories, he resorted to comedies for a time — A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1985) — but when the financial success of Hannah and Her Sisters gave him some breathing room, he turned again for more desolate terrain with September (1987), Another Woman (1988), and Husbands and Wives (1992), stopping only when these projects too failed to be sufficiently marketable. Of course, Allen is hardly the first artist to balance heavier dishes with lighter fare. Graham Greene also drew a line through his oeuvre, separating the “novels” from the “entertainments,” though in retrospect that line can appear a bit fuzzy, and Steven Soderbergh seems perfectly willing to make the same distinction, offsetting fluff like Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) with more earnest endeavors like Che (2008). In Allen’s case, though, the dichotomy appears less harmonious, as he himself has been willing to admit: “My conflict is between what I really am and what I really would like myself to be. I’m forever struggling to deepen myself and to take a more profound path, but what comes easiest to me is light entertainment.”21

What Allen seems unwilling to admit, or, to be more precise, seems unwilling to believe, is that comedy might ever be the equal of tragedy. Manhattan Murder Mystery is as daffy as anything Preston Sturges ever dreamed up, but nonetheless I’ll take it over the dour pretentions of Bergman’s Persona (1966) any day. Romance and nostalgia fit him more comfortably than misery and silence, which perhaps explains why Fellini has been a more profitable model for him than Bergman. Manhattan and Celebrity (1998) were both replete with allusions to La Dolce Vita (1960), though few critics took notice, in no small part, one suspects, because the sensibilities of the directors blend so seamlessly. Radio Days owes much to Amarcord (1973), Fellini’s coming-of-age tale set in Fascist Italy, yet feels as redolent of 1940s New York as matzah ball soup and Joe DiMaggio. For those who distain such emulation, these films will undoubtedly seem a drag, although, then again, they might do best to avoid Allen altogether. Still, when some twenty-fifth century Gibbon tries to explain to future generations what movies were, what they did, what the big fuss was all about, he could do no better than showing them a few frames of Radio Days. There’s nothing weighty or existential about it, yet there is something deeply affecting in its comic wistfulness that makes the strident solemnity of Bergman seem unearned and trivial by comparison. When the narrator at the end tells us that the voices of his past grow dimmer by the year, the moment is doubly poignant, underlining, as it does, the bittersweet nature of remembrance: the joy of memory mixed with the knowledge that all happiness is fleeting. That Allen manages to play this note so precisely, neither allowing it to turn overly grim nor overly precious, is surely a testament to the competing sides of his nature: the dour Bergman-loving cynic and the sentimental comic with a Fellini-like love of the past.

So who is the real Woody Allen? The fact that he shares so many qualities with his screen persona has long made it difficult to separate the two, and intentionally so. He did, for instance, submit to over thirty years of Freudian psychoanalysis, before giving it up in the nineties. Like his screen counterparts, he is well-read, self-critical, and acutely hypochondriacal. Don’t expect a laugh a minute, though — he rarely cracks jokes in person — or buy into all that clumsy buffoonery he displays onscreen. As a boy, Allen showed promise both as a baseball player and an amateur boxer, training for the Golden Gloves until his parents told him to stop. Also, contrary to everything he says in Manhattan Murder Mystery, he is a superb card player. For years, he supplemented his income on the standup circuit by taking other comedians at high-stakes poker. In this sense, Allen is just following in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, fellow comics who used their weedy frames and bumbling antics to mask their true athleticism. Like his silent forebears, Allen fashioned a persona for himself, complete with tics, neuroses, and wardrobe, which he carried from film to film, so that, by the late seventies, his stuttering Brooklyn accent and horn-rimmed glasses were as recognizable as Chaplin’s cane or Keaton’s deadpan stare. But these are just superficial characteristics. What of Allen the man? For that, here is another perspective:

Woody the actor had long ago invented his screen persona: a loveable nebbish, endlessly and hilariously whining and quacking, questioning moral and philosophical issues great and small. He was a guy with his heart and his conscience on his sleeve, whose talk was peppered with quotes of Kierkegaard and Kant; an insightful and unthreatening mascot of the intelligentsia. A guy who is nothing like the real Woody Allen.22

If you detect a note of bitterness in that statement, bear in mind that the author is Mia Farrow, Allen’s longtime lover, leading lady, and the mother of his only biological child, Ronan. In 1992, Farrow discovered that Allen had been carrying on an affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. The custody battle for their children that followed made for juicy headlines, complete with threats, slurs, and charges of child molestation that seriously tarnished Allen’s reputation. If on occasion the level of outrage was disproportionate to the crime — Soon-Yi was twenty-one at the time and had never been officially adopted by Allen as his daughter — so too was the level of surprise considering the perpetrator involved. It is, after all, hard to defend yourself against charges of statutory rape when you’ve previously cast Mariel Hemingway as your seventeen-year-old lover. For years, Allen had shown a predilection for young girls that he’d only half-concealed, like the nude Polaroids of Soon-Yi that Farrow found under a tissue box on the mantelpiece. In the seventies, before he met Farrow, he carried on correspondences with several adolescent girls, including a thirteen-year-old named Nancy Jo Sales whom he invited to his Fifth Avenue apartment when her stepmother brought her to New York. Mostly, he offered them fatherly advice, recommending books, consoling them about their insecurities. And certainly it is possible to read too much into these things, attuned as we are to any hint of indecency these days. In hindsight, though, particular sentences have a way of standing out. To one eleven-year-old girl, he responded: “If you’re really the age you say you are, it’s phenomenal. But if you’re not, don’t write to me again and waste my time.”23 More damning was his relationship with Stacey Nelkin, upon whom he based the character of Tracy in Manhattan. He was forty when the affair began; she was seventeen. To People magazine, he commented at the time, “If I was caught in a love nest with fifteen twelve-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him.”24

That Allen’s romantic involvements have been at times tempestuous is hardly a secret. Indeed, he has been more than willing to scavenge his personal life for material, like a faithful correspondent reporting back to us from the battleground of relationships. In 1967, his first wife Harlene Rosen, or, as Allen dubbed her, “the dread Mrs. Allen,” sued him for $1 million after he repeatedly made her the butt of his standup jokes. His second wife, the actress Louise Lasser, battled drug addiction and depression, and would provide the basis for numerous Allen heroines, including the troubled Dorrie in Stardust Memories and both Rain and Harriet Harmon in Husbands and Wives, women who, as Allen explains, make your life miserable twenty-nine days a month in return for a single day of bliss. “I don’t consider any girl perfect until she rejects me,” he once, tellingly, stated.25 But self-awareness doesn’t necessarily impede disaster, as demonstrated by Husbands and Wives, a film whose plotline spookily prefigured the wreck of Allen and Farrow’s own relationship. Among other parallels, the movie has Gabe (Allen) contemplating an affair with a college girl (Juliette Lewis) while his marriage to Judy (Farrow) crumbles after he refuses to have a child with her. In one scene, Allen tells the viewer, “I’ve always had this penchant for what I call ‘kamikaze women.’ I call them kamikazes because they crash their plane…into you, and you die with them.” If he seemed oblivious to the fiery Zero headed for his own life at the time, perhaps this was because his relationship with Farrow was, at least until the affair with Soon-Yi, comparatively tranquil and bland, if a bit out of the ordinary. In the twelve years their relationship lasted, they never married. They never lived together, even after the birth of their son. Instead, their apartments faced each other across Central Park, allowing them to communicate by signal. Ominously, though, Allen refused to accept an equal share of the child rearing responsibilities, an unchivalrous if understandable decision considering Farrow’s proclivity for adopting orphans from the Third World. When even this no longer sated her maternal yen, she began pressuring Allen to get her pregnant again, and the relationship quickly deteriorated.

On the plus side, their union produced some of the best movies of either of their careers. Farrow provided Allen with a steady muse, a living model of female beauty, intelligence, and emotional complexity, while Allen, for his part, provided Farrow with more substantial and complex roles than she’d ever received before or, for that matter, has received since. Because of her pale skin and rail-thin physique, the result of childhood polio, directors had tended to portray her as fragile waifs, an image that was shattered the instant Allen cast her as the tough-talking Tina in Broadway Danny Rose. Smoking, storming around her apartment, and sporting her perennial sunglasses, she steals the movie from her first second onscreen. Buxom and blonde, she has a personal credo to match her overblown wardrobe: “It’s over quick, so have a good time. You see what you want, you go for it.” When she reveals to Danny, “You know what turns me on? Intellectual,” you can almost see him gulp. From then on he’s putty in her hands. Farrow’s range, though, was capacious. In A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, she was sexy and self-assured, in September, the opposite, frumpy and insecure. She was ditzy in Radio Days, cerebral in Zelig, and suicidal in Another Woman. In Husbands and Wives, her restlessness tore the marriage apart, while in Hannah and Her Sisters she was the sturdy hinge that held the family together. Thus, at the height of their relationship, it seemed only natural for the New York Post to declare: “Woody Allen is the best thing that ever happened to Mia Farrow.”26 I doubt anyone would say so today.

There is, however, one fact that no one, not even Farrow, denies: that Allen has an uncanny talent with actors. He has directed fifteen different actors to Academy Award nominations, with five wins (six if you count the fact that Dianne Wiest has won twice, for Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway (1995)). This is why he continues to get the names he does to appear in his films: Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Leonardo DiCaprio, Penelope Cruz, John Cusack, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Charlize Theron, Colin Farrel, Winona Ryder, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Kenneth Branagh, Marion Cotillard, Edward Norton, Natalie Portman, Josh Brolin, and that’s just in the last of couple years. Allen’s technique, however, is not gentle. He neither coddles nor rehearses. He rarely improvises, especially not for the sake of character exploration, and flatly refuses to work with Method actors. Scripts given to performers in smaller roles are generally denuded of all scenes except their own, thus giving away as little information as possible. His style, he explains, is one of correction rather than direction:

Not surprisingly, Allen’s sets are not known for their warmth. Gene Wilder, used to the jolly antics of Mel Brooks’ films, was shocked when he first came onto an Allen production. “It was like walking on a Bergman set,” he said, “people talking in whispers, serious looks on Woody’s face.”27 Allen is the first to acknowledge this fact, even joking about it:

I try not to tell the actors anything at all and just have them do it…If they do the part wonderfully from the start, the best thing a director can do is get out of their way and let the vitality come through. But in a sneaky way, I’m doing something, and if needed, I help guide them to the best reading I can.28

There are certain directors, such as Sidney Lumet, who have affectionate relationships with actors, but I’ve never been able to work that way. I give as much contact as is required professionally. Socially is a whole other world; I know there’s not a buoyant atmosphere on my set…I hear there’s a sense of enjoyment on Mel’s set. I hear people on his movies love the experience so much that they wish it would go on forever. On my movies, they’re thrilled when it’s over.29

Results, though, are what count. If you ever want a lesson in screen acting, just watch Dianne Wiest in September. In the final act of the film, she confronts Lane (Farrow), who is contemplating suicide after discovering that Stephanie (Wiest) has been sleeping with Peter (Sam Waterston), the man she loves. At first Stephanie is petulant with Lane. It wasn’t her fault a relationship developed with Peter. Besides, Lane has no claim over him. Then, in the middle of her speech, Wiest stops, and simply by the look on her face you can read the thought crossing her mind: this is no way to win her friend back. She begins again, this time more gently, and what emerges is a creature rarely seen in Hollywood today: a complex, humane, and intelligent woman. There was a time, of course, when this would not have seemed so strange. Directors like George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, and Howard Hawks served up an array of headstrong females who were more than a match for their male counterparts. Sometime between The African Queen (1953) and The Silver Streak (1976), though, Hollywood traded in the screwball comedy for the buddy comedy, and the strong-willed heroine has been an endangered species ever since. This makes Allen something of an anomaly in the movie world. His titles alone contain more women than most movies these days: Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Alice, Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Melinda and Melinda (2004), Cassandra’s Dream (2007), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). My own favorite Allen heroine has always been Sally (Judy Davis), one of the eponymous wives from Husbands and Wives, recently separated from her philandering husband (Sydney Pollack). In a scene both terrifying and hilarious to behold, she arrives at the home of a colleague for a date, accepts a glass of white wine, then absents herself to violently castigate her husband over the phone while her mild-mannered suitor listens aghast in the other room. Calmly returning moments later, she asks what opera they will be attending that night, only to learn that it will be Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Don Juan story in two acts. “Fucking Don Juans,” she snaps. “They should have cut his fucking dick off.” Take one look at the face of her quivering date and you’ll know which side is destined to win this battle of the sexes.

It is at moments like these that Allen, rather than simply treading in the footsteps of Bergman, actually outpaces the master. While the former has struggled to achieve solemnity, the latter has failed to find its opposite. Indeed, if anything could relieve the hollow tedium of a film like The Magician (1958) it would be the joie de vivre of a Zelig, an Oedipus Wrecks, or a Mighty Aphrodite. The genius of Crimes and Misdemeanors was its ability to straddle these competing demands so perfectly. The film weaves together two stories: that of Clifford (Allen), an under-employed documentary filmmaker who falls for Halley (Mia Farrow), only to see her won instead by his hated brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda); and that of Judah (Martin Landau), a respected ophthalmologist who murders his mistress (Anjelica Huston) after she threatens to expose their affair to his wife. While the Cliff tale sizzles with wisecracks (“What’s the guy so upset about? You’d think nobody was ever compared to Mussolini before”), the Judah tale tackles thornier questions of eschatology and ethics: guilt, faith, justice, and the power of human morality in the absence of God. Yet, ironically, at the end of the picture it is Cliff whose story has ended tragically, all his personal and professional hopes shattered, while Judah, despite his wickedness, receives nothing but rewards for his terrible crime. So much for light entertainment.

All of which is to say that Allen is a rarity to be prized. While his peers churn out increasing numbers of bromances, shuffling around the same collection of actors — Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen — like interchangeable aces in a winning hand, Allen has obstinately clung to more old-fashioned tales of romance. His particular brand of comedy comes from the same vintage as that which Lubitsch and Wilder swilled in the thirties, forties, and fifties: light, literate, and sexy. If most American comedies follow the Capra line — that happiness, like a rosy red apple, is ripe for the picking: you just need to find it first — these three filmmakers take the opposite tack: that the fruit, once bitten, may prove more sour than you first imagined. Is it only a coincidence that all three are Jewish, or that they each use humor to poke fun at the tragic nature of life? Perhaps Allen’s most famous joke comes at the beginning of Annie Hall, in which, paraphrasing both Freud and Groucho Marx, he tells us, “I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”

Undoubtedly, this is how the world will remember him. But if being Woody Allen has been a tragedy, as he so often suggests, then it has been the most felicitous tragedy imaginable. He may play a schnook in the movies but in life he has been a brilliant success. It is a testament to his unfaltering modesty that he remains so self-critical. “I think I’ve made some decent movies and a large number of okay movies, but I’ve never made a great movie,” he told his biographer, Eric Lax. “[My] biggest thrill would be to make a film that when I finish it I can say, ‘This picture ranks with Bunuel’s best and Bergman’s and Kurosawa’s.’ That would give me a nice inner feeling of warmth. So far, I haven’t even come close.”30

Works Cited

Allen, Woody. The Floating Light Bulb. New York: Random House, 1982.

Allen, Woody. Without Feathers. New York: Random House, 1975.

Baxter, John. Woody Allen: A Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1998.

Canby, Vincent. “‘Interiors,’ a Departure for Woody Allen: Culture Shock.” The New York Times. August 2, 1978.

Dart, John. “Woody Allen, Theologian.” Christian Century. June 22-29, 1977.

Kapsis, Robert E. and Kathie Coblentz. Woody Allen: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

Lax, Eric. Woody Allen: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Turner Classic Movies. Interiors.

  1. Lax, p. 323 []
  2. Baxter, p.12 []
  3. Allen, p. 2 []
  4. Baxter, p. 19 []
  5. Ibid, p. 152 []
  6. Lax, p. 29 []
  7. Ibid, pp. 20-21 []
  8. Baxter, p. 21 []
  9. Ibid, p. 73 []
  10. Lax, pp.148-49 []
  11. Baxter, p. 69 []
  12. Lax, p. 129 []
  13. Ibid, p. 190 []
  14. Baxter, p. 117 []
  15. Lax, p.70 []
  16. Allen, Without Feathers []
  17. Lax, p.83 []
  18. Lax, p.65 []
  19. Lax, p.335 []
  20. Kapsis and Coblentz []
  21. Lax, p. 285 []
  22. Baxter, p. 167 []
  23. Ibid, p. 224 []
  24. Ibid, p. 223 []
  25. Baxter, p. 15 []
  26. Baxter, p.324 []
  27. Baxter, pp.204-205 []
  28. Lax, p. 294 []
  29. Lax, pp.295-96 []
  30. Lax, p. 371 []