The Guardian profile: Woody Allen
"Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely"
If ever a film-maker represented a city, the Brooklyn boy Woody Allen represented New York. Now he's working in London. Can he achieve one more surprise and confound the legions of critics who are begging him to leave the stage for good?
Friday 30 July 2004
he 1979 film Manhattan opens with a breathless Woody Allen voiceover: "He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat ... New York was his town, and it always would be." Cue a crash of Gershwin on the soundtrack, a blaze of fireworks over the Central Park skyline, and a rash of romantic misadventures on the Upper East Side.
So far, so predictable. Through a 34-film career, Woody Allen has invariably cast the city as his chief supporting star. New York was his town. One assumed it always would be. And yet the director can currently be found at Ealing studios in west London, shooting a British romantic comedy with British money and a cast of homegrown talent.
Allen's London visit can be seen as the latest in a series of increasingly desperate manoeuvres to safeguard an ailing career. Ever since Orion Pictures folded in 1991, he has found himself shuttled nervously between studios, from Columbia Tri-Star to Sweetland Films (a consortium of foreign investors) to DreamWorks to Fox, as the box office shrank, the audience dwindled and distribution grew spotty.Despite their modest budgets, many of his recent films (Sweet and Lowdown, Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jade Scorpion) have struggled to break even.
The latest production (snappily billed as "Woody Allen's Summer Project") comes bankrolled to the tune of £9m (peanuts in Hollywood terms, but a substantial sum for a British film). David Thompson, the head of BBC Films, admits that he is taking a gamble. "What we're doing is backing a hunch that the combination of Woody Allen and the UK might be a real treat," he says. "If you're going to take a punt on anything, it might as well be someone with the track record of Woody Allen."
Certainly Allen has earned his place in the pantheon of film-makers. Born Allen Konigsberg to a working-class Brooklyn family, he wrote gags for Bob Hope and Sid Caesar before becoming a standup on the 1960s comedy circuit, where he would fumble with his glasses, gulp in faux-terror and deliver devastating one-liners with a boxer's timing.
Shifting into movies, he pioneered a new brand of romantic comedy, installing himself as an emblematic urban everyman; the nerd who gets the girl (and then usually loses her). He pursued a flighty Diane Keaton in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, romanced a teenage Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, and fell foul of the Mob in 1984's Broadway Danny Rose.
The melancholic Hannah and Her Sisters was galvanised by his turn as a hypochondriac TV producer, while in 1989's peerless Crimes and Misdemeanours he played a luckless documentary maker who laments that "the last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty".Throughout his 1970s and 80s heyday, Allen's patented blend of borscht-belt comedy, psychoanalysis and the tenets of the European art film was an intoxicating brew.
These days it seems to have lost its fizz. Critics say his films have grown complacent and overfamiliar, while a certain peevish quality has percolated his comic worldview. His public image, too, has taken a battering. Over the past decade Allen's films have sometimes played a distant second fiddle to the cacophonous noises off, be they from a protracted legal battle with his former producer and longtime friend Jean Doumanian, his messy break-up with Mia Farrow, or his eventual marriage to the actor's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
Anything Else, on general release from today, is widely viewed as another below-par effort. In the US (where it the was released a year ago) reviews ranged from the exasperated to the desolate.
According to the Village Voice, Anything Else plays as "an infinitely running spool of Allenian repetitions that could serve as entertainment in a relatively mild circle of the Inferno". For Moira MacDonald of the Seattle Times, "the title seemed like a taunt. Is there anything else, Woody? Please?" Over at the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell claimed that the man once hailed as the voice of his generation was now "increasingly out of touch with contemporary America".Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound magazine, would second that. "The last few films have been pretty disastrous," he says. "All the things we've come to expect just aren't there any more. The quality of the scripts is not as good. The comic timing is very rusty. My gut feeling is that he no longer has anyone around him who can be critical. In a way it's a King Lear moment. He's become so venerated and isolated by celebrity that he no longer connects with an audience. Perhaps it's a case of finding some new collaborators - or considering the dreaded word, retirement."
For his part, David Thompson is hoping that a change of scene will do him good. "I think that everyone is hungry to see him do something in a different key or colour palette. He has a singular voice, and a consistent vision of the world and how people relate. What's interesting is to see how that works with British characters, who are perhaps less prone to psychoanalysis, less up their own navels and more buttoned-up. So I can't wait to see his approach to that buttoned-up British way of life."
Uncharitable types, however, might suggest that BBC Films has snapped up a director who's past his prime - like buying up an ageing Premiership footballer and then shipping them overseas.
"Yes, they might say that," Thompson concedes. "To be fair, a lot of people were quite critical of Robert Altman when he came to the UK to make Gosford Park. But in the end it seemed that the fresh territory inspired him."
And in any case, insists Nick James: "Woody Allen was never a Premiership footballer. He was always an indie, art-house person. No one ever made a Woody Allen picture to make lots of money. They do it to say, 'I made a Woody Allen picture.' There's still a residual prestige that comes with the name."
For the time being, at least, Allen can take comfort from the fact that there is no shortage of actors still clamouring to work with him, often for a cut-price fee. The current Ealing production casts star-du-jour Scarlett Johansson among its British players. Other recent outings have found room for the likes of Charlize Theron, Will Ferrell and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The rising British star Chiwetel Ejiofor recently completed work on the latest Allen film, Melinda and Melinda (currently in post-production). A long-term fan of the director's work, he did not hesitate when offered the role.
"He's such a forceful character that you just want to be around him," Ejiofor says. "And collaborating with him leads to a much freer process, because everyone understands what a Woody Allen film is, so to a certain degree you just play on that. It creates an environment that's so much more fun than other film sets."
In Ejiofor's view, "Woody Allen is quite different from his public image. Having grown up with his films, I was expecting this nervous, neurotic guy who's constantly twitching. But instead he's a very shrewd and intelligent man who has a twin persona that he puts in his films. Woody Allen knows exactly what he wants. It's always been his particular strength to push the independent ideal as far as it will go, and he gets away with it because his writing is so extraordinary. He's the living proof that talent will out."
Woody Allen will be 69 next birthday. If he were to bow out tomorrow, his reputation would be assured and his detractors silenced, and we could all sit back and revere him from a distance.
Yet Allen seems ready to confound us. At an age when most film-makers have already been shunted into enforced retirement, his workrate (two pictures a year) remains as fierce as ever. He never revisits his films once he's finished editing, and is forever moving on - the jungle cat in the black-rimmed glasses racing hard against the ticking clock.
Posterity has no attraction for Woody Allen. "I don't like the idea of living on in the silver screen," he once told an interviewer. "I'd rather live on in my apartment."
Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg, December 1 1935, Brooklyn, New York
Education Midwood High School, Brooklyn; New York University (one semester)
Family Married Harlene Rosen, 1956 (divorced 1962); Louise Lasser, 1964 (divorced 1969); Soon Yi-Previn, 1997. One adopted son, three adopted daughters, one son by Mia Farrow
Career Scriptwriter and gag-writer and standup comedian,1953-64; had his debut as a writer and actor in What's New Pussycat?, 1965
Plays and films include Don't Drink the Water, 1966; Annie Hall, 1977; Manhattan, 1979; Hannah and her Sisters, 1986; New York Stories, 1989; Husbands and Wives, 1992; Manhattan Murder Mystery, Deconstructing Harry, 1997; Small Time Crooks, 2000
On comedy "Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes; comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue."