Entertainment

Saturday 14 December 2019

Sex, lies, belly laughs: Woody Allen's greatest hits

Film

Woody Allen has produced and directed 45 films to date
Woody Allen has produced and directed 45 films to date
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Woody Allen's new film - his 45th by my reckoning - opens here next Friday. Magic in the Moonlight stars Colin Firth as a suave 1920s magician who poses as a Chinese illusionist but is a secret cynic.

He's holidaying on the French Riviera when he encounters a young medium (Emma Stone) who has a rich and gullible family in thrall, and becomes determined to expose her as a fake.

Magic in the Moonlight is one of Allen's more whimsical efforts, and isn't quite up to the high standards he's reached in recent years. Films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine have won Oscars, high praise and have been lauded by critics as a return to top form. But what is that top form?

Younger cinema-goers may wonder what all the fuss is about, and where Mr. Allen's massive reputation has come from. That reputation has survived changing times and all sorts of personal scandals, and the late Roger Ebert memorably described Allen as "a treasure of the cinema". His work ethic is certainly remarkable, because whatever's been going in he's somehow managed to pump out a film a year ever since the late 1960s.

Woody has often derided his own movies by comparing them to those of his idols, Fellini and Bergman, and doesn't think his work will be remembered at all. I think it will, and these are the films that will be celebrated in 20, 50 and 100 years' time.

Woody Allen made the tentative move from stand-up comedy to cinema in the mid-1960s, when he began writing scripts for Hollywood. His earliest films were broad farces inspired in part by the comedic styles of Groucho Marx and Bob Hope.

In Take the Money and Run (1969) he played a tragically incompetent bank robber; in Bananas (1971) an unlikely central American revolutionary. But his first really polished comedy was Sleeper, which was released in 1973.

Allen starred as Miles Monroe, the hypochondriac owner of a Greenwich Village health food store who goes into hospital for a minor operation in 1973 and ends up being cryogenically frozen. When he's revived 200 years later, he finds himself in the middle of a blandly repressive police state, and ends up getting involved in a chaotic attempt to overthrow the leader.

Regular collaborator Diane Keaton was excellent in a supporting role as a beautiful but dim poetess called Luna. At one point she says to Miles that "it's hard to believe you haven't had sex for 200 years". "204 if you count my marriage," he replies.

It was a very accomplished comedy, but his next film was even better.

In Love and Death (1975), Woody combined his love of Russian literature and the films of Ingmar Bergman with a ludicrous plot straight out of the Marx brothers. Boris Grushenko (Allen) is a young Russian coward who becomes an inadvertent hero when he's accidentally shot out of a cannon and lands on the enemy during a battle with Napoleon's armies.

Afterwards, he and his beautiful cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) hatch a plot to kill Napoleon. Love and Death is brilliantly written, and full of hilarious philosophical debates between Keaton and Allen. "You think I was made in God's image?" Boris says at one point. "You think he wears glasses?" "Not with those frames," Sonja tells him.

Apart from being his funniest film of all for me, Love and Death saw Allen grow considerably as a director, and his mimicking of Bergman's style showed how much he was now thinking about the look of his movies.

And all of this experimentation came to fruition in Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979).

Annie Hall is Woody Allen's most overtly biographical film. The character he played, Alvy Singer, was a Brooklyn-born Jewish stand-up comic and writer who's tired of not being taken seriously, and his romance with Annie is supposedly based on Allen's relationship with Diane Keaton.

The movie was poignant as well as funny, and stylistically ambitious in that most of Alvy and Annie's story was told in wistful flashbacks.

The couple meet when paired during a tennis doubles game, but their cultural and intellectual differences doom their budding relationship from the start. When writing Annie Hall, Allen set out to consciously "sacrifice some of the laughs for a story about human beings", and his script included some deadly serious musings about why men and women keep trying to fall in love.

But it was also very funny. When Annie boasts about her grandmother's generosity, Alvy tells her "my grammy never gave gifts - she was too busy getting raped by Cossacks".

Annie Hall won four Oscars at the 1978 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Keaton. It was also a big success at the box office, and catapulted Allen into the Hollywood mainstream. Characteristically, however, he kept his distance, refusing to attend the Oscars and following Annie Hall with an almost wilfully un-commercial film.

Interiors was a straight drama starring Keaton as one of three warring sisters who gather at their family's beach house to air their disagreements. It was nice to look at but woefully po-faced. It got a bit of a critical pasting, but Allen has always seemed genuinely immune to both good and bad press, and rebounded immediately by making what for me remains his finest film.

Manhattan was shot in black and white to the strains of George Gershwin, and was the first of many visual love letters to his beloved New York. It's a brilliant and incisive comic drama (see panel), though its story of a love affair between a 42-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl would become retrospectively controversial.

In his 1980 film Stardust Memories, Woody played a famous film director and actor who is constantly being buttonholed by fans who prefer his "earlier, funnier movies", and in the 1980s he certainly tested the patience of his audience by exploring more sombre themes at times. But three films stand out in that decade as undoubted Allen classics.

Hannah and her Sisters (1986) was inspired by Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and starred Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey as three New York sisters whose romantic lives become fatally entwined. The film was full of fine ensemble acting, and Michael Caine won an Oscar for playing a bumbling, lovesick accountant who falls for his wife's sister.

Some great lines, too: when Allen's character Mickey has an existential breakdown and runs to his parents looking for explanations about all the evil in the world, his elderly father is bemused. "How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?" he says. "I don't know how the can opener works!"

In Radio Days (1987), Allen reminisced hilariously about the golden age of American radio, and created a series of whimsical adventures involving radio actors, the characters they play and an ordinary Jewish family.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) blended drama and comedy in telling two parallel stories that eventually meet. Allen played his usual whining loser, a documentary film-maker who despairs while shooting a film about his egotistical showbiz brother-in-law (Alan Alda). And Martin Landau was an urbane Jewish dentist who has his mistress killed when she threatens to tell his wife about them, then wonders if he can live with it.

His best film of the 1990s without a shadow of a doubt was Husbands and Wives (1992), but its timing was rather unfortunate. A bitingly sharp satire about the collapsing relationships of two couples, it starred Allen and Mia Farrow as Jack and Sally, a couple who seem to have it all but are about to get a rude awakening.

Before the film came out Woody Allen and Farrow themselves had separated, and Farrow subsequently discovered that Allen had been having a relationship with her stepdaughter Soon Yi Previn, who was some 37 years his junior. Even more painful accusations would follow.

The 1990s in general were a low point for Allen, but he rebounded with aplomb in the early 2000s with films like Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, independently produced movies shot on the run in Europe.

Woody was 77-years-old when he made Blue Jasmine, an acidic comic drama starring Cate Blanchett in an Oscar-winning turn as a deluded woman who struggles to adapt to a modest lifestyle after her marriage to a super-wealthy wheeler and dealer collapses. It's a sublimely written film, and stands with the very best of his work.

Woody Allen once said that "the two biggest myths about me are that I'm an intellectual, because I wear these glasses, and that I'm an artist because my films lose money". But he is an artist, a theme-driven auteur in the tradition of Truffaut, Fellini and Bergman. And these are the Allen films worth tracking down if you haven't seen them. Then you'll know what all the fuss is about.

The glory of Woody Allen's Manhattan masterpiece

In spite of the fact that its plot has eerie echoes of the scandal that would engulf Woody Allen in later years, Manhattan is for me his finest film, a compelling drama that effortlessly mixes wry 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, 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, a sparkling supporting cast includes Meryl Streep, Michael Murphy and Mariel Hemingway, and New York has never looked better, especially in a memorable opening sequence that explores the city to the strains of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

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