Tuesday 23 January 2018

Film - Woody Allen: the comedy machine

Screenwriting genius: Woody Allen filming To Rome With Love in 2011
Screenwriting genius: Woody Allen filming To Rome With Love in 2011

Paul Whitington

Woody Allen turned 80 last Tuesday, but retirement doesn't seem to be on his agenda. He's just finished shooting an as-yet untitled comic drama starring Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, and is reportedly also developing a TV series for Amazon Prime. For over 40 years he's stuck to the gruelling schedule of knocking out a film a year, and remember this is a man who writes, directs and has very often starred in his projects.

While others would have taken their foot off the accelerator, Allen has maintained his formidable regime into old age: in the last decade he's won critical acclaim for films like Blue Jasmine, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, his biggest box office hit ever. And we may be in for more of the same: his mother died at 96, his father at over 100.

His achievements as a writer, director and performer are extraordinary, but will always be overshadowed to some extent in the popular consciousness by the scandal that engulfed him in the early 1990s. Allen and Mia Farrow had become one of New York's big celebrity couples, but in 1992 a bitter public row erupted after Farrow discovered he had begun a sexual affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, who was 21 at the time.

A 35-year age gap was grounds enough for unease, but things got good and nasty during a custody battle over their adopted children, Dylan and Moses, when Allen was accused of having molested the then seven-year-old Dylan. Those charges were quickly dropped, and have always been denied by Dylan's older brother Moses.

Whether real or not, they cast a shadow over Allen's brilliant career from which he's found it difficult to emerge. But he has, quietly and patiently, and it should be noted that he and Soon-Yi have now been together for 23 years, have two adopted children and seem very contented.

And meanwhile, Woody has worked, doggedly, persistently, roving the world with a lean film crew realising his cinematic ideas. Hollywood stars like Scarlett Johansson, Cate Blanchett, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Wilson and Emma Stone still queue up to work with him, and little wonder, because at their best, Woody's films combine emotional drama, art-house sensibilities and moments of rare comedy.

It was comedy that got him noticed. Born in 1935 and raised in deepest Brooklyn, Allan Stewart Konigsberg was the son of second-generation central European Jews. He clashed with his stern mother, and his films would often include depictions of argumentative Jewish parents. At school he liked baseball, and impressed his peers with magic tricks.

At 15 he began writing jokes and selling them to a local paper. Within a couple of years he was earning more than both his parents combined, and after being introduced by an agent to top comics like Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar, began writing for TV.

Word got around that Allen (who'd officially changed his name by this stage) was a bit of genius, a one-man comedy machine who could be relied upon to come up with reams of new and original jokes overnight. And he really hit his stride writing for Sid Caesar, a Jewish comic who became a huge TV star during the 1950s.

He earned good money doing that, but grew tired of supplying other people's punch-lines, and in 1960 his manager Jack Rollins encouraged him to have a go at stand-up comedy himself. In his early shows he was terrified of the audience, and would put his hands over his ears when they applauded. But this nervousness may have been partly affected, and he soon developed the stumbling, soft-spoken, sex-obsessed and nerdish 'Woody' persona that would develop through his early films.

His material was brilliant, irreverent, acerbic. "My wife was cooking again," he told an early audience, "with her Nazi recipes - chicken Himmler". Critics compared him to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, and his TV performances on The Tonight Show made him a national celebrity. He'd always loved films, and broke into them after being asked to write a script for a forthcoming Warren Beatty vehicle called What's New Pussycat?.

The finished script would include a small part for Allen, but Beatty became unhappy when his own role started shrinking, and also insisted that French actress Capucine be replaced by his then-girlfriend Leslie Caron. So Beatty walked, and was replaced by Peter O'Toole. But when Peter Sellers joined the cast he began demanding all the best jokes, then made things worse by wildly improvising. An unhappy Allen learned his lesson, and revolved to gain total creative control over his scripts in the future - by directing them.

His earliest films as director, like Bananas and Take the Money and Run, were broad comedies inspired by the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope. But in his mid-1970s films Sleeper and Love and Death, a more sophisticated and nuanced comedy began to emerge. By that stage he'd formed a professional and (for a time) personal relationship with Diane Keaton, and she proved a brilliant interpreter of his comedy.

The writing in those films was electrifyingly good at times: in Love and Death, when a Russian beauty tells Woody he's the greatest lover she's ever had, he says "well, I practice a lot when I'm alone". Allen's partnership with Diane Keaton reached its zenith in the comic drama Annie Hall (1977), which became a huge global hit and won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress (for Keaton) at the 1978 Oscars, a ceremony Allen has always refused to attend.

He's always denied that Annie Hall was autobiographical, but Woody's character, Alvy Singer, was a New York Jewish stand-up comedian, and Diane Keaton's real name is Hall. But none of that really matters, because Annie Hall is a sparkling and startlingly original film, which Guardian movie critic Peter Bradshaw has called the greatest comedy of all time. It's certainly up there: at one point Alvy Singer admits he's been in therapy for 15 years. "Yeah, I'm gonna give him one more year and then I'm going to Lourdes."

Manhattan (1979) is for me even better (see panel), but Allen had already begun experimenting with more serious art-house films influenced by his cinematic heroes Fellini and Bergman. Movies like Interiors (1978) and Stardust Memories (1980) tested the patience of mainstream audiences, but in the mid-1980s Woody hit a rich vein of form.

His muse at this point with Mia Farrow who, though she may no longer be in the mood to admit it, was given some terrific roles by her partner between 1984 and 1992. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987) are magical comic dramas, while the ensemble comedy Hannah and his Sisters (1986) is as good as anything he's has ever done, and also contains my favourite Allen line.

At one point Woody's character asks his elderly father "ok, if there's a god, why were there Nazis?" "How the hell do I know?," his father replies, "I don't know how the can opener works!".

That film was inspired by Anna Karenina, and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) took on the grand themes of sin and guilt explored by Dostoyevsky. Martin Landau played a wealthy doctor who has his mistress killed and handles the consequences with chilling ease.

Though it made for uncomfortable viewing when it was released in 1993, Husbands and Wives is a wonderfully funny and dark comedy, and is often overlooked. Allen, Mia Farrow, Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis played two couples whose marriages are coming apart at the seams.

That film apart, the 1990s was not a fruitful decade for Allen, and a rather unpleasant misogynistic streak was evident in films like Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Deconstructing Harry (1997). The customary buzz that greeted a new Woody Allen film declined, as did his box office clout. But Woody kept on writing, and in the mid-2000s made an extraordinary recovery.

The scripts for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), To Rome with Love (2012) and Blue Jasmine (2013) are of a very high quality, and prove that writing has always been Allen's greatest strength.

In fact I would argue that he's the greatest comic screenwriter there's ever been, and he should be proud of the fact that while Groucho Marx and Bob Hope were backed by teams of writers, Woody's jokes have always been his own.

His greatest film?

One could make the case for Annie Hall, and Hannah and Her Sisters is hard to find fault with, but for me, the most satisfying Woody Allen film is Manhattan. The 1979 movie effortlessly mixes humour with more serious themes, and stars Allen as Issac Davis, a 42-year-old New York TV comedy writer who recently quit his high-paying job to write a novel.

He's dating a 17-year-old high school girl called Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a situation about which he at least has the decency to have misgivings, though in fact she seems more mature than him. But all of this changes when he meets Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), an uptight and sharp-tongued writer with whom he is instantly taken. The trouble is, his married friend Yale is in love with her as well, and a tricky situation soon turns messy. The film contains some of Allen's finest comic writing, and New York City has never looked better.

Woody himself, however, was deeply unhappy with Manhattan after finishing it, and later said: "I just thought to myself, at this point in my life, if this is the best I can do, they shouldn't give me money to make movies". He even asked United Artists not to release it, but thankfully they ignored him.

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