Woody Allen's Hall of Fame
We've talked before about Woody Allen's late renaissance as a quality filmmaker. He's now 77, but still knocks out a film a year and in recent times has come up with a couple of gems.
In the early 2000s, he was generally considered a bit of a spent force after a string of so-so comedies that hardly compared with earlier triumphs. But his 2011 film Midnight in Paris was his biggest box-office hit ever. A charming fantasy in which a modern-day tourist travels back in time to 1920s Paris, it was warmly reviewed and hailed by critics as one of Woody's best. Last year's From Rome with Love was a whimsical, broad ensemble piece that evoked his early comedies, but his latest film is something else entirely.
In Blue Jasmine, which opened here last week, Cate Blanchett plays a well-heeled woman who arrives in San Francisco in a desperate state. Jasmine is horrified when she arrives at her sister Ginger's (Sally Hawkins) ramshackle home, because it's clear from her Fifth Avenue clothes and Louis Vuitton bags that she's used to better things.
As she struggles to begin a new life in California, Jasmine remembers her glamorous former existence in a Hamptons mansion with her flashy and generous entrepreneur husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). They lived it big until Jasmine found out her husband was a high-rolling swindler in the style of Bernie Madoff, and their house of cards came tumbling down.
Blue Jasmine is a clever, moving and beautifully written film, and probably the best thing Allen has done since the early 1990s. Woody has been around for so long at this stage that it's easy to take him and his films for granted, but in ways he's a one-man mini-film studio.
After all, who else has written, directed and often starred in more than 50 quality feature films? Precisely no one, and 56 years after he released his first movie, Woody still has A-list stars queuing up to work with him. In the last decade alone, Will Ferrell, Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, Colin Farrell, Ewan McGregor, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Larry David, Anthony Hopkins, Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Jesse Eisenberg have all starred in his films, and contributed to Allen's recent revival, which began in 2008 with Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
But if Blue Jasmine is his finest film in several decades, which ones are his best?
Feel free to disagree with me, but the following are my favourite five. And the good news is that another as yet untitled Woody Allen movie starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone will be released next year.
Love and Death (1975)
Probably the best of his broad early comedies, Love and Death was a sparkling satire that affectionately mocked the great Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Allen starred as Boris Grushenko, a cowardly peasant who becomes an inadvertent hero after being enlisted into the Tsar's armies during the Napoleonic Wars.
Boris is in love with his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), a feckless seductress who only agrees to marry him because she believes he's about to be killed in a duel. But to her horror he survives and the couple end up attempting to assassinate Napoleon. Keaton and Allen are brilliant together, and Love and Death for me is his funniest film.
His screenplay blends high philosophy with low humour, and is full of brilliant one-liners. When a woman tells Boris he's the greatest lover she's ever had, he replies nonchalantly, "well, I practice a lot when I'm alone".
Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall marked a huge step forward for Woody Allen as a filmmaker. For the first time he felt confident enough to move away from slapstick comedy into a more grown-up and complex comic drama. It's also probably his most autobiographical movie.
Essentially a romantic comedy told in retrospect, Annie Hall begins with Alvy Singer (Allen) talking to camera and telling us that he and his girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton) have broken up. We then find out how they got together in the first place.
He's a New York Jewish stand-up comedian and actor; she's a kooky would-be singer from a wealthy, Wasp-ish background, but despite their differences they fall madly in love. Allen's film charts the rise and fall of a relationship, and perfectly caught the social zeitgeist of mid-1970s urban America. It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress (for Keaton) at the 1978 Academy Awards, and was quoted ad nauseam by a generation.
When Annie expresses surprise that Alvy has been seeing his analyst for 15 years, he says "yeah, I'm gonna give him one more year and then I'm going to Lourdes".
In spite of the fact that its plot has eerie echoes of the scandal that would engulf Woody Allen in the early 1990s, Manhattan is one of his very best films, a sophisticated drama that effortlessly mixes humour with more serious themes.
Allen stars as Issac Davis, a 42-year-old New York TV comedy writer who recently quit his high-paying job in order to try and 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.
As lovingly captured in black and white by Allen and his cinematographer Gordon Willis, New York City has never looked better, and the film contains some of Allen's finest comic writing. "There must be something wrong with me," he says at one point, "because I've never had a relationship with a woman longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun."
Hannah and her Sisters (1986)
Woody Allen was apparently inspired to make his best film of the 1980s by Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, and Barbara Hershey, Diane Wiest and Mia Farrow head up a brilliant ensemble cast playing three New York sisters whose contrasting lives create conflicts between them.
Farrow is Hannah, a retired theatre actress who's married to a diffident accountant called Elliot (Michael Caine). He has a crush on her beautiful sister Lee (Hershey), and Diane Wiest plays the flaky youngest sister Holly, who leans on Hannah financially and seems romantically and professionally lost. Then there's Hannah's neurotic ex-husband Mickey (Allen), a hopeless hypochondriac whose search for meaning leads him to inreasingly desperate measures.
Caine revived his ailing career and won an Oscar with his nicely judged central performance in a film that's clever, accomplished and beautifully put together. It's also very funny: after Holly and Mickey go out on a disastrous date, he tells her: "I had a great evening: it was like the Nuremberg Trials."
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Allen once again cribbed from a great Russian novelist in making his stylish 1989 morality drama Crimes and Misdemeanors. In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, a radical student kills a rich old woman and is subsequently tormented by guilt, but in Allen's film a wealthy Jewish dentist does away with his mistress and feels just fine about it in the end.
Martin Landau played Judah Rosenthal, a family man and respected member of his community who begins an affair with an air hostess called Dolores (Anjelica Huston). When he eventually comes to his senses and ends their relationship, she reacts badly and threatens to expose him to his wife. So Judah calls in his shady brother Jack, who offers to provide a permanent solution to his problem.
In a comic sub-plot, Woody plays Cliff Stern, a failed documentary filmmaker who yearns to escape his unhappy marriage and lusts after a film assistant called Halley (Mia Farrow).
But things don't work out too well for Cliff, who admits at one point that "the last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty".