July 3, 2007 § Leave a comment
Near the end of “Stardust Memories”, a Woody Allen movie now almost 30 years old, the space alien tells Woody’s character, a comedy filmmaker, that if he really wants to help the world, he should “make funnier movies.” It’s a great line in a movie I find both funny and pretentious and slightly mixed up. But it’s amazing to think that people were asking Woody Allen to get back to his roots when he was still fairly young in his movie-making career.
If you look up Woody Allen on the search engine at the Internet Movie Database, you won’t be surprised that he is identified as “writer, “Annie Hall.” This is the iconic Woody Allen film, even though he has made almost 30 films since, some of them classics or nearly so. He has also made some noble near-misses and outright bombs, but his track record for great films, almost to this day, is nearly unsurpassed.
It has been an almost constant lament since “Annie Hall” (1977): Each new Allen movie is anticipated with a combined sense of dread and hope. Will it be funny? Will this be another movie American audiences avoid? Has he lost his touch? The answers to these questions almost always seems to be “yes.” But that’s just wrong.
When I scrolled down the list of films Allen has made since the early 1970s, it was surprising that I had seen almost every one he has released — I saw them either at the theater or on DVD — and his output, aside from the astonishing volume, is unique, literate, extraordinarily funny, and almost always interesting. He has one of the most impressive filmographies in history, and as he moves into his 70s, it seems to me American audiences should stop looking at him as an anachronism or a long-suffering failure, but rather as an enduring comedic voice who is worthy of attention.
After “Annie Hall”, which is justifiably a classic, Allen made two more films of equal value: “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) and “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994). I don’t pretend to be unearthing a truth here; I think many people can see that. But to this list “Sleeper”, “Manhattan”, “Deconstructing Harry”, “Husbands and Wives” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” should also be added. That’s eight classics right there, not counting the comic beauty of “Play It Again, Sam”, which, what the hell, we should. That’s nine enduring films. Call up another director that has more classics, whether it be Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Jean Renoir, Eric Rohmer, Akira Kurosawa (well, he has more), Steven Spielberg (seems suddenly out of place here), John Ford, Guy Maddin, or David Lynch. You can’t.
OK, maybe, any one of these people may have the same number of classics, according to your sensibility, but even if they do, then Allen is in their league.
I would also say that “Manhattan Murder Mystery” is just a weird, joyful romp that would sit comfortably alongside any other comedic murder mystery if it didn’t carry the burden of Allen’s legacy. If that film had been made by an up-and-comer, with two sly lead performances by two people other than Allen and Diane Keaton, critics everywhere would have hailed the emergence of a delightful new voice in American comedy. But no, “Manhattan Murder Mystery” was no “Manhattan”, so it couldn’t have been very good. But it is. Then you have “Zelig” the original “Forrest Gump.” “Gump”, let’s be honest, was just an awful film but “Zelig” (a pioneering exercise in special effects) is delightful. The lovely nostalgia of “Broadway Danny Rose”, which has a performance by Mia Farrow that should have been nominated for an Oscar, would also be a film not overlooked if it had been made by anyone else other than by someone with as formidable a resume as Woody Allen.
“Manhattan” (1979) is a marvel; a sumptuous, beautifully observed, warm comedy. Just the small scene alone in which the Diane Keaton character, who constantly reminds everyone she’s from Philadelphia, declares that her doctor has told her she’s always had the “wrong kind of orgasm” is a classic. Allen’s reply to this remark, which I paraphrase, is this: “The wrong kind? That’s funny. Because every one I’ve ever had has been right on the money.” That should be in the joke hall of fame. Told in Allen’s brilliant comic cadence, you have the kind of line that movie-goers always remember.
Even in the misfires there are moments of brilliance. Just watch Sean Penn descend on the wooden cardboard crescent moon in “Sweet and Lowdown” and you’ll laugh your ass off. In “Melinda and Melinda”, which I did not consider a comedy so much as a movie mediation on the possibilities of comedy, please note the attention to detail Allen gives to the characters, such as where they place their house keys in both the dramatic and comedic sequences.
There has also been a lot of criticism about how Allen is (was) always depicting a Manhattan that no longer exists (as though the apartments the slackers shared in “Friends” was any more realistic). Woody Allen knows something you and I don’t usually think about: movies that try desperately to be hip and up to the minute don’t age well. In fact, they usually are dated by the time of their release.
Allen’s depiction of the kind of Manhattan he remembers, and envisions in his head as the place he (and us) always want it to be, and that he beautifully depicts on screen, guarantees that his movies will not age badly. This is integral to their enduring charm. To a film, they have aged with grace and style, and there are very few movies you can say that about today. Allen’s movies, even the bad ones (see “September” or “Another Woman”). You look at some hip movies made in New York in the 80s — look at almost anything Dudley Moore made, poor guy — and you’ll see what I mean.
Even though his movies have never had extravagant budgets, the look and feel of “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” and, especially, “Bullets Over Broadway” (a period piece, but nonetheless brilliant), has detail and opulence that few movies, let alone comedies, ever achieve. “Hannah” is especially warm and lovely. Even “Stardust Memories” has flair, and the settings in “Broadway Danny Rose” have an anthropological, necessary feel to them. Allen loves New York, and taken together his films provide a panorama of the city very few directors outside of Sidney Lumet have ever given to audiences. He films the city as we either remember it or, more importantly, as we want it to be. It is pure genius for Allen to adhere to that aesthetic.
One later film, “Deconstructing Harry”, is indicative of the kind of burden Allen carries. The script is tight and brilliant; Kirstie Alley, if you have not seen this film, is genuinely inspired; a bravura comedic performance. The normally tedious Bob Balaban is just charming, as is an actress, Hazelle Goodman, whom I have not seen since. She played a commonplace Allen character, a hooker, named Cookie. She was absolutely great.
Billy Crystal is also in this movie. He always seemed like a half-baked Woody Allen character to me, especially in the execrable “When Harry Met Sally…”. So I was slightly amused when Allen cast him in “Deconstructing Harry” as the Devil, while also giving Crystal the telling line, which he says to the Allen character, “I’m not half the writer you are!” On hearing that remark, you tell me whether Allen is a funny guy, or simply cruel. I think that line works on a lot of levels.
So does the movie. It brings alive the multi-charactered picture Allen does so well, and does with ease, and that we take for granted. He also keeps alive, in film after film, as Leonard Maltin has said, a tradition of Jewish humor we no longer see. (Even in the anemic “Scoop.”)
I did not like “Anything Else” — hearing Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci spout that Allen dialogue was disconcerting — nor did I think “Match Point” was any good. There was a role in that movie, played by the great Brian Cox, which consisted of him appearing every so often to ask if his son (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) needed any money. Boring. Scarlett Johansson, as beautiful as she is, fails to impress as an actor. “Scoop”, by any indication, was tired. Including its productions values.
Even so. One thing that was largely overlooked in the press when “Match Point” came out was that it represented Woody Allen’s 13th Academy Award nomination for scriptwriting. He passed a record set by the estimable Billy Wilder, who had 12 nominations. Allen has been nominated for an Oscar for writing a screenplay for: Annie Hall (1977, won; Oscar for Diane Keaton); Interiors (1978); Manhattan (1979, with Marshall Brickman); Broadway Danny Rose (1985); The Purple Rose of Cairo (1986); Hannah and Her Sisters (1987, won, also an Oscar for Dianne Wiest); Radio Days, (1988); Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989); Alice (1991); Husbands and Wives (1993); Bullets Over Broadway (1995, with Douglas McGrath; second Oscar for Dianne Wiest); Mighty Aphrodite (1996, an Oscar winner for Mira Sorvino); Deconstructing Harry (1998); and Match Point (2006).
None of these nominations or wins has been undeserved. A quick check, by the way, of Wilder, shows that Wilder was never — never — nominated alone, and he more often than not was nominated in the adapted screenplay category. Let me say this unequivocally: Wilder was a brilliant writer and director, absolutely brilliant. But he very often, even when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not make such a distinction, wrote material based on other sources. Allen has surpassed him even though he almost always worked without a collaborator, and Allen has always been nominated in the category of screenplays written, as the AMPAS says, directly for the screen.
As Mel Brooks once said, there is nothing so frightening for a writer as the blank page.
I’m tired of the debate as to whether the new Woody will hold up to the old Woody. There is no distinction. Few writers have held up so well. Few writers have given us so many memorable characters, so many unforgettable lines, so many indelible images. Even Allen’s misfires contain one thing you will remember, just like a George Jones or Ray Charles record. There are some artists who will give you that one thing to take home, no matter how dismal the surroundings.
I know we live in a cluttered cultural landscape, one in which the failures and the has-beens, and the wanna-bes, and the never-weres occupy almost the same space as those who are doing worthwhile work. But we need to cut through the detritus, and recognize that Woody Allen is our Mark Twain, our Chaplin, our Will Rogers, our Preston Sturges our Bob Hope and Sid Caesar and yes, our Bergman. He is also a descendant of Norman Corwin (see the gorgeous “Radio Days”, 1987), who is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
As Woody Allen now tends to other countries for financing and recognition, think of Orson Welles heading to Europe after he could no longer get financing for his films.
Is this analogy too much? I don’t think so. Woody Allen, like so many misunderstood American artists, has been busy joyfully celebrating us, while we have been all too busy discarding him.