Saturday 17 August 2019

Uncomfortable viewing: the flawed genius of Woody Allen

As the Oscar-winning director celebrates 50 years in film, Paul Whitington looks at how a career shrouded in controversy has tarnished his much-lauded works forever

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Fifty years ago, on August 18, 1969, Woody Allen released his feature film debut. He'd written screenplays before, but Take The Money And Run was the first that could properly be called a Woody Allen movie: he wrote, directed and starred in it, playing an accident-prone nerd who embarks on a spectacularly unsuccessful life of crime.

Though far from perfect, it was remarkably assured, peppered with the brilliant one-liners for which Allen would become famous. All his cherished comic influences were on display, from Groucho Marx and Bob Hope to Buster Keaton, whose balletic slapstick was lovingly pastiched. At this point, Woody was best known as a clever stand-up and slick TV personality who sometimes stood in for Johnny Carson, and his bid to become a filmmaker must have seemed like wishful thinking. But since then, he's produced more than 50 movies, become an Oscar-winning powerhouse and, for much of the 1970s and 80s, was considered the comic genius of American cinema.

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Woody Allen with his daughter Dylan in 1991. Photo: Getty Images
Woody Allen with his daughter Dylan in 1991. Photo: Getty Images

All that, of course, was before a cloud of scandal descended on Allen. In 1992, it emerged that he was in a relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow. He subsequently married Previn, who is 35 years younger than him, but the faint whiff of scandal has never gone away.

Similarly, every time he thinks the world has moved beyond the scandal involving Mia Farrow and another adopted daughter Dylan, it pops up again. In 2014, when Allen was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, an article appeared in The New York Times that included excerpts from a letter by Dylan Farrow describing her hurt and memories of alleged child abuse (Allen was cleared of all charges in 1993, but not to everyone's satisfaction).

Things reached a head in 2018 when a spat involving Allen and Farrow's children led Amazon to shelve his film Rainy Day In New York and cancel a four-film contract. Like many another male stars of the 70s and 80s, Allen was pursued by the #MeToo movement, and though he sued Amazon for $68m, it seemed for a time that his movie career might finally be over.

But Allen has always been cherished in continental Europe and earlier this summer, the Spanish media company Mediapro came to the rescue, agreeing to fund his next film, Rifkin's Festival, a comic drama starring Gina Gershon, Christoph Waltz and Allen regular Wallace Shawn. And at a press conference in San Sebastian to launch the project a few weeks back, Allen explained that "my philosophy… no matter what happens, is to focus on my work - I'll probably die in the midst of setting a film shot one day on the set".

As both his parents lived to be almost 100, the 83-year-old could easily have at least half a dozen more movies in him, but will they find an audience in these changed times? Ought they, and what are we to make of Allen's career overall? Whenever he goes, his legacy will be a vexed one, but the quality of his best work is indisputable. In fact, he provides a rare link between the classic era of Hollywood comedy and the counterculture period dominated by more confessional comics like himself and Lenny Bruce.

Allen famously began writing jokes for comedians while still at high school and ended up pumping out funny lines for TV comedians like Sid Caesar until he overcame his fear and began performing them himself. In his early stand-up shows, he adopted the character of the nerdy, hypochondriac Jewish intellectual that would become central to his later film success. And his writing was brilliant: "I was thrown out of NYU for cheating on my metaphysics exam," he once quipped, "I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me."

It was writing that drew him into movies when Charles Feldman hired him to do the screenplay for a mildly daring sex comedy, What's New Pussycat?. But his experiences on that set were not good: the movie's stars Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers made wholesale changes to the script and convinced Allen that, in future, he would have total control over his projects.

His own films can be divided into three categories. First came the "earlier, funnier" ones, as he later jokingly referred to them. Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973) and Love And Death (1975) combined skittish stories, sparkling repartee and slapstick to thoroughly winning effect, especially when Allen paired with Diane Keaton, a brilliant comic actress who intuitively understands the rhythms of his comedy.

Then, as his directorial confidence grew, came perhaps his most fruitful period, where he made ambitious comic dramas partly inspired by his own life, like Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Radio Days (1987), Hannah And Her Sisters (1986) and Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989). These, at times, astonishingly accomplished films played with chronology, explored existential issues in the manner of Russian novels, and made you laugh.

In Hannah And Her Sisters, Allen's character asks his elderly Jewish father: "If there's a God, why were there Nazis." "How should I know," the old man answers, "I don't know how the can opener works." This was Allen at his best, brilliantly juggling themes and characters and making highbrow films for a wide audience.

But after scandal engulfed him in the mid-90s, the quality of his movies perhaps understandably nosedived. Films like Sweet And Lowdown, Small Time Crooks, and Curse Of The Jade Scorpion were either forgettable or regrettable, particularly in the case of the noxiously misogynistic Deconstructing Harry.

Loyal audiences lost interest and Allen began to seem a relic of another time. But he had other ideas and, in the mid-2000s, launched an impressive comeback. American critics were wooed by his 2005 film Match Point, a Hitchcockian thriller starring Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and younger stars began lining up to work with him following the success of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), a complex comic drama about two American tourists who get mixed up with a dashing Spanish painter and his unstable ex-wife.

Allen the writer was once again on song, and Midnight In Paris, From Rome With Love and especially Blue Jasmine offered magical snatches comparable with his very best work. Blue Jasmine, which won Cate Blanchett an Oscar and a Golden Globe, was a brilliant piece of writing, and highlighted an apparent contradiction in the Woody Allen story. Throughout his career, he's written wonderful parts for women that display a deep understanding of the female perspective, but at the same time, he has a tendency to objectify them as items of male amusement.

These two strains cohabit his films uneasily at times, most troublingly in Manhattan, which was always one of my favourite Allen films, although he himself has always disliked it. When I first watched it, I somehow managed to overlook the fact that Allen's character, a 42-year-old comedian called Issac Davis, is dating a 17-year-old schoolgirl, but these days, the premise seems deeply creepy, especially when you realise that it's allegedly based on Allen's real-life romance with a teenage Christina Engelhardt.

His comic touch and near genius as a screenwriter can never be denied, but Woody Allen's troubling private life has made his films ever harder to watch.

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