The fantasist: The comic art of Woody Allen

Jan 24th, 2015


Everyone knows Woody Allen. At least, everyone thinks they know Woody Allen. His plumage is easily identifiable: horn-rimmed glasses, baggy suit, wispy hair, kvetching demeanor, ironic sense of humor, acute fear of death. As is his habitat: New York City, though recently he has flown as far afield as London, Barcelona, and Paris. His likes are well known: Bergman, Dostoevsky, New Orleans jazz. So too his dislikes: spiders, cars, nature, Wagner records, the entire city of Los Angeles. Whether or not these traits represent the true Allen, who’s to say? It is impossible to tell, with Allen, where cinema ends and life begins, an obfuscation he readily encourages. In the late nineteen-seventies, disillusioned with the comedic success he’d found making such films as Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975), and Annie Hall (1977), he turned for darker territory with Stardust Memories (1980), a film in which, none too surprisingly, he plays a comic filmmaker disillusioned with the direction his career has taken.“You can’t control life,” he tells us in that film.“It doesn’t wind up perfectly.Only art you can control.Art and masturbation.”

This is the note that Allen prefers to strike, and the one that cinemagoers have come to expect from him: a neat synthesis of the profound and the prosaic, delivered with a sardonic quip at the end. Though soon to be eighty years old, he still averages a movie a year, a breakneck speed for a director of any age. His profits are slim, by Hollywood standards at least, but so too are his costs. He writes, casts, directs, and edits his films with little studio interference. For decades, he was allowed a veto over the marketing of his pictures, as well, despite the fact that his preference for promotional understatement invariably cut into his backers’ profits. That he is given such freedom is testament to his efficiency – he rarely runs over budget – and the high regard in which he is held within the industry. He has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay sixteen times, more than any other person in history, winning three times. Additionally, he has been nominated for Best Actor (once) and Best Director (six times), winning for Annie Hall, completing a hat-trick of accomplishment matched by few other filmmakers, even Orson Welles, whose own oeuvre, in a cruel inversion of nature, looks comparatively stringy and thin.

This is not simply a matter of quantity. Adam Gopnik once wrote that we judge artists, in their lifetimes, by batting average; “afterwards, only by home runs.”[1] Surely then, Allen can count his place in the movie Hall of Fame secure, for he is the veritable Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth of his chosen profession. His bulging record of hits includes such grand slams as Annie Hall, Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). His dialogue alone would make him worth remembering, even if he had never sat in a director’s chair. His gift for zingers makes the other great screen wags – Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht, Herman Mankiewicz – look like relative stiffs:

“I can’t listen to that much Wagner.I start to get the urge to conquer Poland.”

“I’m not the heroic type. I was beaten up by Quakers.”

“My grammy never gave gifts. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”

“We’re just human beings, you know? You think you’re God.” “I gotta model myself after someone.”

“’Cause it was your idea, he’s going to cut up my face and put a bullet between your eyes.”“Really?Did he specify the caliber?”

“What is the guy so upset about? You’d think nobody was ever compared to Mussolini before.”

Praising his wit, though, only scratches at the surface of his genius. Has there been a comedian more adept at image making? Think of the famous Queensboro Bridge scene in Manhattan, with Allen and Diane Keaton etched in silhouette against the pre-dawn skyline, or the languorous zoom-out across the sodden streets of Rockaway in Radio Days, as striking as any of Winslow Homer’s storm-beaten seasides. We remember these images not simply for their aesthetic beauty – their composition, their lighting, etc. – but for the emotions they evoke in us: the romance of New York City, in the case of the former, and the nostalgic nature of memory itself, in the case of the latter. A large part of Allen’s appeal lies in his ability to make us fall in love, generally with the same things he’s in love with: New York City, New Orleans’ jazz, Diane Keaton, old movie theaters, romance itself. On one level, of course, this is sentimental, though not in the way that, say, Hallmark cards are sentimental, playing our heartstrings simply to pick our pockets. With Allen, the nostalgia is a self-conscious part of the act, like the tough-guy pose that Raymond Chandler affects in his novels. Sentimentality is not a byproduct of Allen’s work. It is an essential (and quite delicious) ingredient. “Forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past,” he tells us in the iridescent opening of Radio Days.“It wasn’t always as stormy and rain-swept as this, but I remember it that way because that was it at its most beautiful.”

As an actor, Allen’s dramatic range is not great. He essentially plays the same person from film to film, the same way Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton once did, with minor variations. In his early films, his characters are more given to crassness. They are often pathetic, if likeable, scamps, unemployed or working lowly jobs. In his later career, they tend to be intellectuals – book editors, television executives, college professors – beset by problems in their personal lives. Still, they are all cut from the same cloth: witty but pusillanimous nebbishes, prone to pessimism and exaggerating their sexual prowess. Though he’s played scores of different characters over his career, he’s always Woody Allen.

And who is that? Like John Wayne, the character of “Woody” is, in many ways, simply that, a character, consciously constructed and refined over time. (As with Wayne, Allen’s nom de cinema was not bestowed at birth. He was born Allan Stewart Konigsberg.) In person, Allen does not stammer or prevaricate, nor ceaselessly churn out bon mots in casual conversation. He is neither physically awkward nor physically cowardly. He was a star athlete as a youth, a medal winner in track, a lead-off hitter in baseball, and a skillful boxer, training for the Golden Gloves until his parents ordered him to stop. At the beginning of his career, he was renowned (at least among New York’s Upper East Siders) for his sartorial panache, only affecting the disheveled attire of his alter ego after fans began to complain that he didn’t look like his screen self. And, contrary to everything he says in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), he is an excellent card player. During his standup days, he supplemented his income by taking other comedians at high-stakes poker. “I didn’t want to play Bogart,” Allen says. “I wanted to be the schnook. They guy with the glasses who doesn’t get the girl, who can’t get the girl but who’s amusing.”[2] Who, you ask, doesn’t want to be Bogart? What type of person prefers to convince the world that he’s a coward and a klutz? The type of person who puts a premium on fantasy, to the point of preferring an unflattering fantasy to ordinary reality. “I like being in Ingmar Bergman’s world. Or in Louis Armstrong’s world. Or in the world of the New York Knicks,” Allen explains. “Because it’s not this world. You spend you whole life searching for a way out. You just get an overdose of reality, you know, and it’s a terrible thing.”[3]

Allen’s flight from reality began in his earliest youth. He grew up poor, in a Brooklyn household crammed with relatives forced, by the Depression, to live under one roof. His father, a perennial business failure, worked all manner of jobs, including bookmaking, running a poolroom, and driving a cab. In Radio Days, Allen lightens these details with a nostalgic glow. The actuality, however, was probably a lot closer to the world of The Floating Light Bulb, his 1981 play about a family living in lower middleclass Canarsie, with its reek of “hopelessness and neglect.”[4] Ralph Rosenblum, who edited six of Allen’s films, grew up in the same neighborhood, and paints it in equally dark tones:

There was nothing comic or sensual or seductive about the Brooklyn Jewish community where I spent the first twenty years of my life. Bensomhurst was tidier, stabler, and more genteel than the commotion-prone Lower East Side where the newcomers thronged, but its lessons and ways were those of impoverished immigrants hanging on desperately to the niche they had made for themselves…Ten years later, when Woody Allen was growing up in the same milieu, its values and oppressive conformity would still prevail.[5]

For Allen, escape came at the movies. Like Clifford, the character he plays in Crimes and Misdemeanors, he had a penchant for playing hooky and sneaking off to the cinema in the middle of the day. A reverence was thusly inculcated in the boy, both for films as well as the temples that house them. His films are replete with scenes in movie palaces, from Celia (Mia Farrow) dreaming her afternoons away in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985); to Mickey in Hannah and Her Sisters, renouncing suicide for Duck Soup (1933); to the glorious Sinatra-backed stroll through Radio City Music Hall in Radio Days. “It was a pleasure to be in there and a monstrosity to be outside,” Allen explains. “You were transported to Arabia, and to Paris in the 1700s, but best of all to Manhattan, which was full of gangsters and showgirls. Afterwards, as you walked out up the plush red carpet, the music would be playing to end the picture or to start the next one. Then the doors opened and you were back in the blazing light.”[6]

Unhappy childhoods are the best training ground for writers, according to Ernest Hemingway.[7] If this is true, then Allen’s unhappy beginnings were a double blessing. Not only did they instill in him a love of movies (which has obviously served him well) but they also gave him a setting to honor and adore, a shining emerald city across the water. Had Allen grown up five miles to the north, we would likely never have been given those iconic first shots of Manhattan, the black and white skyline rendered as lovingly as Atget’s Paris, or the glittering opening vistas of Manhattan Murder Mystery, berobed in the silky stylings of Cole Porter. Manhattan would have merely been home to him, plain, ordinary, and dull. As it was, the metropolis took on heroic dimensions in the young boy’s mind:

I was in love with it from the second I came up from the subway into Times Square…To me, people who lived in Manhattan would go from the Copa to the Latin Quarter; they’d hear jazz downtown, they’d go up to Harlem, they’d sit at Lindy’s until four in the morning. Then they’d come back home and go up in their elevators to their apartments, and their apartments were not like my apartment in Brooklyn where six million people lived together and it was small. They’d go to these apartments that were often duplexes. It was just astonishing. It was also so seductive that I’ve never really recovered from it.[8]

Consequently, Manhattan has taken on what some consider an overly brilliant luster in Allen’s films.One of the most frequent complaints leveled against him is that the New York of his conjuring bears only a passing resemblance to the city that lies between the Hudson River and Long Island.As journalist Joe Kline once noted, the geography of Allen’s New York City is curiously circumscribed, extending from the edge of Harlem in the north to SoHo in the south (but not as far as Wall Street), and allowing for only one outer borough (Brooklyn).“There are only two crucial neighborhoods in his New York,” Kline writes, “Times Square and the quiet, elegant Upper East Side, where he and the characters he plays usually live.” [9]

Allen, as a youth, was not a good student.He somehow got into NYU, despite graduating from high school with a C-minus grade-point-average, but dropped out after only a year.(Among other poor marks, he received an F in English and a C-minus in Motion Picture Production.)The problem wasn’t a lack of intelligence so much as a lack of attention.Allen felt he had better things to do than schoolwork.During high school, when he wasn’t sneaking off to the movies or practicing his magic tricks (another obsession), he was writing jokes, which he began selling to the New York Post and the Daily Mirror. This led to a job composing one-liners for a publicity company, which sold them to celebrity clients like bandleader Guy Lombardo so they could sound clever on the air. An example: “It’s the fallen women who are usually picked up.”[10] Allen would turn out fifty such jokes a day and was soon making more money than both his parents combined. His career only got better following his expulsion from college. On the basis of his flair for one-liners, he was hired by NBC to write for their Comedy Hour. He got poached by the Sid Caesar Show – at the time, one of the top-rated TV programs in the country – and then transferred to CBS, where he became a lead writer on The Garry Moore Show, another ratings giant. By now, he was earning the magnificent sum of $1700 a week, a small fortune at the time. He was not yet twenty-five.

Allen, though, wanted more. He wanted to be performing the material he wrote. So, just as his writing career was taking off, he made a bold move, quitting TV to become a standup comedian. Trading a stable, highly lucrative job for an uncertain future would be a foolhardy move for the most charismatic of performers. Allen was not the most charismatic of performers. In addition to having zero experience in front of a crowd, he suffered from near-paralytic stage fright. Simply getting on stage was a trial, often preceded by prolonged bouts of vomiting. Staying there was even more difficult. On some occasions, he stood stiff as a post. On others, he covered his face with his hands, as if to hide from the audience. Worst of all, during moments of panic, he had a strange habit of wrapping the microphone cable around his throat, a practice that elicited more gasps than laughter from observers. Needless to say, his delivery was atrocious. “He would get up there and wrap that cord around his neck,” one audience member recalled. “You thought he was going to choke himself. Oh, and filled with nervous tics. Nervous, nervous. It was a sight.”[11]

Allen might not have succeeded at all, might have given up at the first chorus of boos, were it not for two men who entered his life at precisely the right time: Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe. In tribute to the duo, Allen later wrote Broadway Danny Rose (1984), the story of a personal manager – the Danny Rose of the title – who is so dedicated to his clients that he risks death at the hands of the mob soley to get a lounge singer’s mistress to the Waldorf Astoria so she can hear him sing, a service Rollins and Joffe would have certainly provided for Allen had he requested it. The duo took to Allen instantly, deciding to represent him as well as coach him in the art of standup comedy. They encouraged him, drove him to performances, pushed him onstage when he was too scared to go, and gave him extensive notes after each set. “In talking to him, we felt for sure he displayed the talents of a [movie] director,” Rollins explains. “We just thought he had the potential to be a triple threat, like Orson Welles – writer, director, actor.”[12] That sounds suspiciously like the wisdom of hindsight, and yet there’s no other way to explain why Rollins and Joffe were so quixotically committed to their young protégé, first during his early days as a comic and then during his early days as a comic filmmaker. Joffe was so conscientious about giving Allen notes after each set that he took his bride to Allen’s act on their wedding night.

Initially, their confidence looked misplaced. “He had no – zero – experience as a performer,” Rollins remembered. “He would recite his stuff like a child doing show-and-tell. It was mechanical, lifeless, bloodless, monotonous. But,” Rollins adds, “the material was brilliant.”[13] As Allen’s stage fright subsided, his delivery improved, and a comic persona began to take shape, a persona not unlike the one he would affect in his films, a classic little guy, heir to the mantle of Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope, cowardly but clever, equally self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing, anxiety-prone and obsessed with sex and death. Today, Allen cringes at his standup self: “All those stupid girl-chasing jokes and sex jokes and, you know, self-deprecating stuff. It’s repugnant to me now.”[14] Even so, he admits how lucky he was developing the persona that he did. “You do it by ear,” he says of his comedy, “the same way that a poet needs a certain amount of syllables to make things happen right: the stammering, the repetitions are all instinctive attempts to get the right rhythm.”[15]

Arriving on the scene in the beginning of the nineteen-sixties, before the counterculture kicked in, his standup was, in many ways, a product of the Eisenhower era, channeling the worries of that most buttoned-up of decades. “Keaton and Chaplin reflected an era where the anxieties and underlying vocabulary of people’s longings were physical. It was a physical era,” Allen explains. “I came along after Freud, when the playing field had shifted to the psyche. It was interior. What was interesting to people suddenly was the psyche. They wanted to know what was going on in the mind.”[16] Whereas Chaplin and Keaton are constantly at the mercy of the world around them – of cars and trains and ships and snowstorms and giant bullies trying to beat them up – Allen is forever at the mercy of his own conscience. “I was captain of the latent paranoid softball team,” one of his routines begins. “We used to play all the neurotics on Sunday morning. Nail-biters against the bed-wetters, and if you’ve never seen neurotics play softball, it’s really funny. I used to steal second base, and feel guilty and go back.”[17]It was exactly the type of material audiences were craving at that moment.They convulsed at the sight of their own neuroses played out so publicly before them onstage.Within two years of quitting television to go into standup, Allen was commanding $5000 an appearance.

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling. It came in the form of producer Charles K. Feldman, a megalomaniac with a penchant for finding properties that tiptoed along the edge of propriety, wherever that edge happened to be at the moment. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962) were all Feldman productions, and now he wanted to cash in on the vogue for campy sex humor made popular by The Pink Panther (1963). He only needed a screenwriter to draft the script, someone with a knack for one-liners who could mix screwball comedy with sex farce. After catching Allen’s act one night at the Blue Angel, Feldman felt certain he’d found his man. His offer, $30,000 for untold months of work, was paltry in comparison to the $10,000 a week Allen was earning on the standup circuit. But Allen desperately wanted to get into movies, indeed had secretly yearned to get into movies since his days sneaking off to the Kent Theater in Brooklyn. So when Feldman increased the deal to $35,000 and threw in a small part in the picture, Allen snapped it up without bothering to negotiate a better offer.

What’s New Pussycat (1965), as the movie was eventually titled, is, by all measures, a terrible film. The plot, in so far as it can be said to exist at all, follows the romantic entanglements of Michael James (Peter O’Toole), a Don Juan who wants (or so he says) to be faithful to his fiancé (Romy Schneider) but finds it difficult with so many beautiful women throwing themselves at him all the time, sometimes quite literally. One, a parachutist (Ursula Andress), makes an impromptu landing in his Le Mans convertible while he’s motoring through the French countryside. In typical farcical fashion, all the principals eventually end up in a secluded hotel where, naturally, confusion about rooms, clothes, and hearts ensues. In truth, the skimpy storyline was really just a tether on which Allen hung a jumble of sketches, pastiches, and one-liners. It took him quite some time, really until Annie Hall, to learn how to write stories rather than sketches. To be sure, some of his sketches are very droll. They are, in a sense, filmic cousins of his humor pieces that began appearing in the New Yorker around the same time, little, self-contained jeux d’esprit, entertaining in and of themselves, though tending to lead to nothing more than a jokey punch line, like this non sequitur in Love and Death:

Sonja: Judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as “being” or “to be” or “to occur” in the thing itself or of the thing itself.

Boris: Yeah, I’ve said that many times.

Allen is, by nature, an emulator.You can’t sit through Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) without noticing the shadow of Antonioni looming over the endeavor. Sleeper unabashedly flaunts its debt to the films of Chaplin and Keaton. And Love and Death reeks of Eisenstein, with hints of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky mixed in, as well. This is hardly unusual behavior for a budding artist. There was a time in the nineteen-seventies when Brian De Palma was making better Hitchcock movies than Hitchcock. As his own style developed, De Palma gradually sloughed off his mentor’s appurtenances, to the point that the similarity is barely noticeable now. What’s unusual about Allen is how much (and how overtly) he continues to borrow from other artists, oftentimes the very same ones he copied in his salad days. He made no attempt to hide the influence of Dostoevsky upon Crimes and Misdemeanors – a film about a man who thinks he doesn’t believe in God or objective morality until, after committing the perfect murder, he finds himself wracked with guilt – as well as Match Point (2005), sixteen years later. Indeed, name the title of pretty much any Woody Allen movie, up to and including his latest picture, and without too much trouble you should be able to think of its artistic doppelganger, a film, a novel or a play with too many parallels to Allen’s film to be explained away by mere coincidence. Below are a few examples:

Stardust Memories: 8 ½ (1963)

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1983): Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Radio Days: Amarcord (1973)

September (1987): Uncle Vanya

Husbands and Wives (1992): Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Deconstructing Harry (1997): Wild Strawberries (1957)

To Rome with Love (2012): The White Sheik (1952)

Blue Jasmine (2013): A Streetcar Named Desire

The list could easily go on, though the few titles above already tells you a lot about Allen. All but two are drawn from films directed by either Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini, and even September, though mostly lifted from Chekov, borrows liberally from Bergman’s 1972 film Cries and Whispers, as well. The love affair with Bergman began while Allen was still a teenager in Brooklyn. “Seeing Bergman the first time was pleasure, just pleasure,” he recalls. “It was never homework, never a noble endeavor or artsy or anything. We couldn’t wait for them to open in our neighborhood. They were not boring, they were not abstruse or turgid. They were fun.”[18] At first glance, the attraction seems an odd one. Bergman’s style is austere, aloof, and cerebral – a far cry from the zany antics and crude jokes upon which Allen first made his name. Consequently, many audience members were put off when, coming off the nostalgic high of Annie Hall, Allen presented them with the icy desolation of Interiors, his 1978 tale of an upper crust family crumbling from within. The outcry was loud enough that he turned it into a metatextual joke in Stardust Memories. “I don’t want to make funny movies anymore,” the film director Sandy Bates (Allen) tells the super-intelligent alien spacemen whom he encounters. “I look around the world, and all I see is human suffering.” The extraterrestrials are dubious. “You want to do mankind a real service,” they gripe, “tell funnier jokes.” The aliens, it appears, for all their otherworldly wisdom, are just another group of disappointed fans.

Astute viewers, however, shouldn’t have been surprised by the Bergmanesque turn. Allen’s early films are rife with techniques lifted from the Swedish master – the black and white cinematography; the wide shot to cover an entire scene; the penchant for filming in hallways, with the characters walking in and out of frame – each one acquired in turn, as his mastery of the medium developed. The fact that Allen returns again and again to the Bergman well, with scant reward (critical or financial) for his efforts, shows you how deeply his affection for the Swede runs. After the box office failure of Interiors (1978), he returned to comedies for awhile, but when the financial success of Hannah and Her Sisters gave him some breathing room he again took a dark turn with September, Another Woman (1988), and Husbands and Wives, halting only when these projects, too, failed to be sufficiently marketable. “My conflict is between what I really am and what I really would like myself to be,” Allen says. “I’m forever struggling to deepen myself and to take a more profound path, but what comes easiest to me is light entertainment.”[19]

What he seems unable to appreciate is that light entertainment can be every bit the equal of tragedy.Though Manhattan Murder Mystery is as insubstantial as cotton candy, I’ll take it over the self-important solemnity of Persona (1966) or Shame (1968) or Cries and Whispers any day. The problem with Bergman is that he is one of those filmmakers who is more easily loved with the head than the heart, which is why his films have grown stiffer over the years. They are gorgeously photographed and superbly acted but humorless and weighed down by their own solemnity. The petty dilemmas of the eponymous siblings in Hannah and Her Sisters – their tribulations in love, their troubles in work, their unstated rivalry – are, in their touching ordinariness, infinitely more profound than Bergman’s ruminations on God’s silence. The techniques Allen borrowed from Bergman served him well during his inaugural days as a director. In the years since, though, his unswerving devotion to his idol has tended to lead him astray, blinding him to a rather obvious fact: that he surpassed Bergman long ago.

Fellini has been a much more felicitous model for him.Largely, it’s a matter of temperament.Allen, like Fellini, is a fantasist, prone to blending fantasy with reality, to the point that you can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins.The Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite (1995) appears, at first, to be nothing more than a plot device, a many-headed narrator to push the story along – that is, until the chorus members (clad in face paint, masks, and robes) begin wandering in and out of the Manhattanite world of the story proper. “What are you doing?” their leader (F. Murray Abraham) chastises Lenny (Allen) when the latter arranges to meet a hooker at the Plaza Hotel. “At least pick an out-of-the-way spot.” And there, in a nutshell, you have Allen’s world. It is the place where the extraordinary and the quotidian meet without the faintest hint of surprise. The dilemmas his characters face – love, money, infidelity, parenting – are strictly of the workaday variety, and yet they tend to occur in a world suffused with wonder, a world in which housewives fly (Alice [1990]) and middle-aged men spontaneously belt out duets (Radio Days); where annoying Jewish mothers vanish into thin air (Oedipus Wrecks [1989]) and where a modern American tourist hitches a ride to hang out with the Lost Generation in Paris (Midnight in Paris [2011]). This is another reason Ingmar Bergman seems such an odd role model for him. While Bergman accepts God’s silence with a shrug, Allen screams at Him to say something, anything. In the world he (Allen) creates, the numinous is all around us, often in the most ordinary of places. “The only hope any of us have is magic,” says the director. “If there turns out to be no magic – and this is simply it, it’s simply physics – it’s very sad.”[20]

One can, thus, divide Allen’s oeuvre into two roughly equal parts – weighty dramas such as Cassandra’s Dream (2007) and light comedies such as Zelig (1983) – what Graham Greene, were he alive and reviewing films, might label Allen’s “movies” and his “entertainments.” Allen’s films are forever torn between the desire for illusion and the acceptance of reality. It’s a tension that suffuses even his airiest comedies. The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice are each sewn in the gossamer of make-believe. In the former, a dashing movie adventurer literally steps off the screen and into the life of a poor, Depression-era waitress. In the latter, a bored housewife goes on a journey of self-discovery, with the help of a Chinese apothecary, whose magic potions can summon the ghosts of boyfriends past, turn her invisible, and make her fly. Each film, though, ends with its protagonist unrewarded in romance. In the case of Alice, our heroine actually has the opportunity, thanks to some super-charged aphrodisiacal herbs, to have either man she wants, her husband or her lover, but in the end, despite her affection for both, chooses neither, willfully abandoning the fantasy world to which she has been given access. Celia (Mia Farrow), the protagonist of The Purple Rose of Cairo, actually makes her choice between two men, only to be stood-up by the man, a Hollywood cad, who leaves her homeless, husbandless, and out of a job. The movie, having begun in a Fellini-like fantasia, ends in Bergmanesque solitude, suggesting that Allen, for all his love of make-believe, can’t ever entirely escape the dark side. “People are faced in life with choosing between reality and fantasy,” he says, “and it’s very pleasant to choose fantasy but that way lies madness, and you’re forced finally to choose reality and reality always disappoints.”[21]

In 1980, Allen began what would turn out to be a twelve-year relationship with actress Mia Farrow. In many ways, it was a pairing of opposites. Blonde and blue-eyed, Farrow, the daughter of actress Maureen O’Sullivan and director John Farrow, was born into a world of glamour and privilege the likes of which young Allan Konigsberg could only dream about. Her family had houses in Beverly Hills and Malibu; vacationed in England and Spain; and socialized with the most famous movie stars in the world: John Wayne, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, and Joseph Cotton. She learned to sail long before she learned to drive, and had married and divorced Frank Sinatra before she was twenty-three. Her willowy frame and pale, pixyish face made her the perfect choice for the frightened heroine of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – her frail physique at every moment threatened by the beast in her belly – as well as the flighty Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1974), but made it hard for her to compete with the seventies’ new, tougher breed of starlets – actresses like Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Christie, and Diane Keaton. By the end of the decade, her film appearances consisted of mostly forgettable, not-quite-A-list titles such as The Haunting of Julia (1978) and Avalanche (1968). Then one evening in December 1979, she went to dinner with Michael Caine and his wife at Elaine’s Restaurant in Manhattan. On the way to their table, Caine spotted Allen, and stopped by to introduce them. Unbeknownst to Caine, Farrow had already developed a secret crush on Allen, after seeing his picture on the cover of New York Times Magazine. A few weeks later, when Allen invited her to his New Year’s Eve party, she jumped at the opportunity. Says Allen’s sister, Letty Aronson: “I think Mia always had a grand plan to meet Woody, have a relationship with him, be in his films, and eventually have his child.”[22] If so, her wish was granted.

From start to finish, theirs was an unconventional relationship.They never married, and they never lived together, even after the birth of their son, Satchel, in 1987, though their apartments were close enough – hers on Central Park West, his on Fifth Avenue – that they could flash signals across Central Park.According to Farrow, Allen never once spent the night at her apartment, so particular was he about sleeping in his own bed.Neither was he much interested in helping her raise her children (she had seven at the time they started seeing each other, three of them adopted), telling her, “I have zero interest in kids.”[23] One must, needless to say, treat Farrow’s statements about with Allen with at least a smidgen of incredulity, considering the acrimony of their later separation, which plainly continues to boil her blood. Nonetheless, many of Farrow’s assertions about Allen have a ring of truth to them, describing a man whom intimates of the director would no doubt recognize: neurotic, self-involved, and emotionally aloof.

For the first years of our relationship, I never stopped hoping he would find my kids irresistible. Everyone who ever met them said how wonderful they were. They were special. But although he saw them just about every day, and although they tried, some more obviously than others, to win his heart, he barely acknowledged them, and one by one, they gave up…He was king in our midst: the one who knew everything, whose concerns were greater than most, a superior person. His opinions were the final word. And he could cut you quicker than you could open your mouth. We admired him and we were afraid of him, each in our own way.[24]

The years that Allen and Farrow spent together were the most fecund of their careers.Farrow, whose film roles had been growing increasing desiccated, suddenly found herself supplied with a veritable cornucopia of characters to play, from sultry Ariel in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy to frumpy Lane in September, from cerebral Eudora Fletcher in Zelig to ditzy Sally White in Radio Days, from Hannah, the stable rock who holds her family together in Hannah and Her Sisters, to Judy, the passive-aggressive wife whose restlessness tears apart her marriage in Husbands and Wives. She proved her mastery of both comedy and tragedy, quickly and effortlessly switching from one to the other. If you weren’t already familiar with Farrow, you might not realize that the actress who played the street-smart mafia moll in Broadway Danny Rose also played the shrill cigarette-girl-cum-singer in Radio Days. In the first, she speaks in a confident, husky whisper; in the second, her nasal Brooklynese could shatter crystal. She followed up each of these comic roles with a swing in the other direction, turning from a buxom, gangland dame into a shy, dreamy waitress in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and from a giddy jabber-mouth into a suicidal spinster in September, hopeless hung-up on a man who doesn’t love her.

More surprising is how much Allen benefitted artistically from the relationship. Many Allen admirers feel that he never surpassed the heights he scaled in the nineteen-seventies, frequently hailing Annie Hall and Manhattan as the Everest and K2 of his career. Good as those films are, I prefer his work of the subsequent decade. In the seventies, he was still groping to find his voice as a director. Annie Hall was the most intelligent comedy to come along since Dr. Strangelove (1964). Nevertheless, it continues to bear some of the vestigial fatuity of its less-evolved predecessors in Allen’s oeuvre: Alvy pulling Marshall McLuhan out from behind a poster to refute a pompous theatergoer; subtitled thoughts used to contradict spoken dialogue; a split-screen exchange between the cantankerous Jews in Alvy’s family and the polite WASPs in Annie’s. A joke about the querulousness of his parents – specifically, their willingness to fight about everything – reappears in much-improved form in Radio Days.The problem in the earlier film was that the parents’ argument, about whether colored servants steal, was too plausible.Though ridiculous, it’s an argument you can actually imagine many white households having in the nineteen-forties. Allen evidently realized his error, for when he reprised the joke a decade later he made sure to ramp up the hyperbole.Now the quarrel is about oceans.“Wait a minute,” the husband shouts at his wife.“Are you telling me you think the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific?”

Manhattan, meanwhile, for all its wit, hasn’t quite shaken off the pretention of Interiors, Allen’s Bergmanesque attempt at profundity following Annie Hall. It has a magnificent opening, with “Rhapsody in Blue” laid atop those imperishable shots of the New York skyline. In consequence, though, the ending falls rather flat. With Mary (Diane Keaton) removed from the story, Isaac (Allen) has nowhere left to go except backwards, to his teenage girlfriend, regressing rather than progressing. There’s nothing wrong with this – if, that is, you’re satisfied with a subdued conclusion. James Gray pulled off such an ending with Two Lovers (2008), in which Joaquin Phoenix, though in love with Gwyneth Paltrow, settles (reluctantly) for Vinessa Shaw, his less thrilling but genuinely devoted girlfriend. You might call this the you-don’t-always-get-what-you-want-but-you-get-what-you-need-ending. Allen, though, having begun big, tries to end big, sending Isaac off like a knight-errant to meet his love before she catches a plane. Whether you think she rebuffs him or offers him hope depends on how much of an optimist you are. Allen, though, refuses to end the film on such an ambiguous note, so, Gershwin once again blaring, he cuts back to the New York skyline, Isaac’s only constant love. This we call the mountain-out-of-a-molehill-ending.

Allen’s films of the eighties are much less self-conscious, neither elbowing you as hard with their jokes, nor trying to impress you as overtly with their influences. He still made light, silly comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, Oedipus Wrecks) and still tried his hand, now and then, at highbrow solemnity (September, Another Woman), but he also showed himself capable of making films that transcend genre, films too amusing to be called dramas and too affecting to be pawned off as mere comedies. I’m thinking specifically here of Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. With these films Allen reached an artistic pinnacle that he had yet to achieve before and has failed to achieve since. For screenwriters, in particular, they set an intimidating example, balancing vast numbers of characters and overlapping storylines, while remaining surprisingly intimate. Hannah and Her Sisters, for example, interweaves storylines for five major characters – three sisters and two husbands – and just as many minor ones, their relationships crisscrossing over the course of two years, until they all tie neatly together in the end. If that sounds complex, consider Radio Days, which somehow manages to juggle the many members of a sprawling Jewish family (the impish son, the perennially unsuccessful father, the lovelorn aunt, the uncle who always stinks of fish from Sheepshead Bay), as well as a wide variety of radio personalities, programs, songs, anecdotes, and advertisements from the nineteen-forties. Radio Days isn’t merely a comedy or a bildungsroman or a story of a minority group trying to rise in society – though it is all those things, too – but a portrait, in miniature, of a whole bygone era of American life.

On January 13, 1992, Farrow stopped by Allen’s apartment with their son for an appointment with the boy’s therapist. (Why Satchel, at four years old, needed psychotherapy is not entirely clear, though the idea was, apparently, Farrow’s, not Allen’s, despite the latter’s well-known enthusiasm for Freudian analysis. Farrow insisted that all her children undergo psychotherapy from a young age.) While waiting for the doctor to arrive, Farrow happened to notice a stack of Polaroids on Allen’s mantel. Upon closer inspection, Farrow saw that they were nudes of her twenty-one-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, with whom, she soon found out, Allen had been secretly carrying on an affair. The tumult that followed spilled into the tabloids, and included a custody battle for the Farrow-Allen children and accusations, on Farrow’s part, that Allen had molested their seven-year-old daughter, Dylan. The whiff of that scandal continues to cling to Allen to the present day, and will unquestionably continue to affect how people view his films for as long as they are viewed. No one today who watches Allen canoodling with Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan can do so with the same innocence they did when the movie was released – that is, if the sight of a forty-three-year-old man kissing a sixteen-year-old girl ever seemed innocent. It’s lucky for him that he didn’t direct Chinatown (1976).

Allen had, for quite some time, displayed an interest in underage girls that, no matter how you frame it, was rather creepy. Tracy, the character played by Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, was modeled on Stacey Nelkin, a seventeen-year-old with whom Allen had an affair in the late nineteen-seventies. He also carried on correspondences with several teenage girls, and even invited the lasses of his teenage fan club to meet in his apartment. “When I told him how old I was,” one member reported, “he used to kid me about it, telling me, ‘You must be careful with me! Didn’t you know my first wife was only seventeen when I married her?”[25]Does this mean that Allen molested his own daughter?Of course not, and it would be foolish to make that leap.A man who lusts after teenagers we call a hebephile; one who lusts after seven-year-olds, a pedophile.They are rarely synonymous.

On the day upon which Allen is accused of molesting his daughter, he was surrounded by half-a-dozen people, none of whom remember him being alone with Dylan for more than a few minutes. A doctor’s examination of the girl revealed no signs of sexual abuse. Dylan’s description of the crime, videotaped by her mother, was edited, suggesting at least the possibility that she was coached what to say between the cuts. And, perhaps most exculpatory of all, Allen took and passed a lie detector test given by the police, while Farrow refused to submit to the same test. “You took my daughter,” Allen reports Farrow telling him over the phone, “and I’m going to take yours.”[26] The truth or falsity of Farrow’s accusations will never be definitively established. If, however, they are fabricated, then Farrow is the perpetrator of a deed, while not in the realm of pedophilia, of considerable odiousness. There are few, if any, charges more damning in the public mind than child molestation, and rightly so, permanently tainting the reputations of people so accused. However, the damage, if the allegations are false, extends not only to the maligned adult but the child, as well. Clearly, Malone (nee Dylan) genuinely believes she was molested by Allen. If this idea was implanted in her head by her mother, then it is Farrow who is guilty of molestation, not physically of course, but mentally and emotionally, poisoning a young girl’s mind with false memories that no child should have.

If nothing else, the very public battle with Farrow offered further evidence for a truth, already well known to devotees of biographical nonfiction, that the intimate lives of others always look strange upon close inspection. In the aftermath of the fray, Farrow changed the children’s names. Dylan became Eliza, and then Malone. Satchel became Harmon, then Seamus, and finally Ronan. Allen’s response was to plow ahead with work, which, in its own way, is as odd as it is remarkable. He edited Husbands and Wives, wrote and directed Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Manhattan Murder Mystery, and starred in a television version of his Broadway play, Don’t Drink the Water. He is, and has been for decades, committed to toil to the point of obsession. He practices clarinet every morning and plays with his band at Michael’s Pub every Monday. He doesn’t read reviews. He avoids talk shows. And he has not shown up to collect any of his (thus far) four Oscar statues. Yet he writes every day, even when he’s on vacation. “When I go for a walk, I get a topic to think about,” he admits. “If I get into an elevator and I’m gonna go up more than three flights, or something, I’ll buy a newspaper. I can’t stand the unstimulatedness, because the anxiety sets in very quickly.”[27] While such terror of inaction is sad in a way, it undoubtedly helped Allen get through the tabloid firestorm that engulfed him in the early-nineties. “You have to just work,” he says. “You can’t read your reviews. Just keep quiet. Don’t get into arguments with anybody. Be polite, and do what you want to do, but keep working.”[28]

Allen may be indifferent to the Oscars himself, but he has an uncanny talent for bestowing them on the performers in his films. He has, to date, directed seventeen actors to nominations, with seven wins, two for Dianne Wiest alone, who won for her roles in Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway. A-list actors happily surrender substantial portions of their salaries – as well as creature comforts like private trailers and personal hairdressers – to appear in Allen’s films. His cast lists read like a Who’s Who of the most in-demand performers at any given moment. In the last few years, they have included: Greta Gerwig, Jesse Eisenberg, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Alison Pill, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Stone, and Josh Brolin.

Allen is particularly good with women, which makes him a rarity in American cinema. On the whole, in fact, his films contain a significantly greater number of complex females than males. The men in his movies generally come in one of two types: the quippy, nebbishy, anxiety-prone protagonist (for years, played by Allen himself), and the confident, WASPish charmer. The women, by comparison, come in all varieties, from intellectuals like Mary (Diane Keaton) in Manhattan to dimwits like Linda (Mira Sorvino) in Mighty Aphrodite, from sexy temptresses like Nola (Scarlett Johansson) in Match Point to dowdy depressives like Hope (Mia Farrow) in Another Woman. And while his oeuvre is unquestionably well-stocked with neurotics, each is, at least, sui generis. You would never confuse Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) with the Melinda (Radha Mitchell) of Melina and Melinda (2004) or the Jasmine (Kate Blanchett) of Blue Jasmine. “I was interested in women at a young age. When I was in kindergarten, I was trying to date them. I mean date them,” recalls Allen, though he admits that the ability to write for them did not come to him naturally.[29] “When I started writing professionally, I could never, ever write from the woman’s point of view,” he says. “It was when I met [Diane] Keaton that I started. She has such a strong personality and so many original convictions.”[30] (The pair dated for about three years in the seventies, and have remained best friends ever since.) My own favorite performance in an Allen film comes from Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives. She plays Sally opposite Sydney Pollack in the role of her philandering husband Jack, from whom she separates in the beginning of the film. In one grimly hilarious scene, she tries to go out on a date with a colleague but, as if by compulsion, keeps excusing herself so that she can harangue Jack over the phone, while her suitor listens in mounting terror in the other room. “I’m looking forward to tonight,” she remarks upon returning to the room, feigning composure with all her might. What opera, she asks, are they seeing that night? Mozart’s Don Giovanni, her date replies, a Don Juan story. “Fucking Don Juans,” she snaps, her composure cracking in an instant. “They should have cut his fucking dick off.” Take one look at the sheepish expression on her suitor’s face and you’ll know which is the weaker sex in Allen’s world.

For all his success eliciting strong performances from his actors, Allen is known neither as genial nor a solicitous coach. He does not rehearse his actors, and he does not like them to improvise. He speaks very little on set and provides only the faintest hints of approval or disapproval. “With Woody, most often people [say] to each other, ‘Do you think he liked it?” says Alec Baldwin. “Woody is so quiet and he’s so recessed. He doesn’t really talk a lot.”[31] Baldwin, an Allen-movie regular, doesn’t seem to let it bother him much. Barbara Hershey, who played the part of Lee in Hannah and Her Sisters, was more disconcerted by it. “[My] favorite thing is to put my head together with the director and create the character,” she explains.[32] Allen, however, offered her no such guidance. “That would be tedious to me,” Allen says. “To have actors come over, sit down, and to go over all that nonsense with them. You accept the part. When you read the script, I assume you have enough brains and common sense to know what you’re getting into.”[33]

One is tempted to say that Allen picks the performer for the part rather than shaping the performer to the part, except that that isn’t strictly true either. In the beginning of his career, he didn’t attend casting sessions at all, leaving that up to his longtime casting director, Juliet Taylor. Since then, he has begun taking a more active role in the process, though he obviously still finds it distasteful. “The whole thing is awkward,” he explains. “They have nothing to say. I have nothing to say. They’re being looked at. They feel fat. It’s terrible.”[34]His auditioning sessions are notoriously brief, sometimes as short as thirty seconds, even for well-established actors, who, generally speaking, want a little friendly chitchat.They are, after all, trying to size him up, too.

Nonetheless, Allen knows what he wants in an actor, and if he’s not seeing it, either in the casting room or on the set, the actor is replaced immediately. On September, Allen’s Chekovian, country-house drama, he replaced practically the entire cast over the course of filming. The original playbill would have included Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow, Diane Wiest, Charles Durning, and Maureen O’Sullivan. By the time the film came out, however, only Farrow and Wiest remained, with the Walken part changing hands twice, going from Walken to Sam Shepard, and then, when Shepard too proved a disappointment, to Sam Waterston. “If you’re not cutting the mark,” Diane Keaton explains, “you’re gone. It’s not about friendship. It’s not about anything. It’s about the work.”[35]

Allen, it should be noted, is equally ruthless with his own work. Unlike most film directors, who are obliged to complete shooting a movie within a discreet period of time, Allen has, since the beginning of his career, insisted on (and been granted) a much more open-ended method of production. After principal photography has wrapped, the cast is contractually required to keep their schedules open and their hair uncut for several months, in case they are called upon for reshoots. Allen will sometimes reshoot as much as fifty-percent of a film after principal photography has wrapped. In the case of September, he reshot the entire film from scratch, and was planning on doing so again until the studio finally pulled the plug. “My first eight or ten weeks’ shooting are a ‘first draft,’” he says, by way of explaining his unusual method. To him, the typical twelve-weeks-and-you’re-done process is anathema. “It would be like asking someone to write a novel in one draft and say: ‘This is it. I’m not going to rewrite it.’”[36]

The movies that emerge from these artistic mulligans are, at times, only pale reflections of the movies they started out to be. The original shooting script of Crimes and Misdemeanors intertwined two storylines. The first followed the romantic misadventures of an out-of-work documentarian (Allen): his attempt to woo a social worker (Farrow) by making a film about a home for ex-vaudevillians, and, when that relationship fizzled, his affair with an actress (Sean Young) that ends when the pair are caught in flagrante delicto at a Jewish wedding.The second, more minor storyline, revolved around four brothers – two from one family, two from another – who include a near-blind rabbi, an arrogant TV producer, a low-level gangster, and an ophthalmologist who murders his mistress.Fans of the film should find plenty to recognize in the précis above.The pieces of the finished story are all there, just not molded into shape yet, like the continents in their Pangaean form.

Though Allen doesn’t engage in long discussions with his actors or attempt, as some directors do, to immerse them in the world of his films, it would be a mistake to assume that he does nothing to guide them. At the beginning of production on Bullets Over Broadway, Dianne Wiest was struggling to find her character, a self-important, Norma Desmond-like fading star. She couldn’t seem to summon the hammy hauteur that the part called for. Knowing how ruthless Allen could be with actors who failed to deliver, Wiest suggested that he replace her. “No,” Allen said, “I think it’s something to do with your voice. We’ll reshoot it.”[37] Wiest dropped her normally high-pitched voice a couple octaves, and the character instantly came into focus. She ended up winning an Academy Award for her performance. “That was it,” Wiest recalls. “That was the character. I’d be in the middle of a take and he’d go, ‘Voice! Voice!’”[38]

The real secret to Allen’s success with actors resides neither in the casting room nor on the film set but within the quiet confines of Allen’s Manhattan apartment, where he writes his scripts. (He composes them first in longhand, and then types them up on the same Olympia typewriter he’s been using since he was sixteen.) His films, because they are so dialogue heavy, rise or fall based on the quality of their scripts. One can, accordingly, chart the course of Allen’s career – its high and lows, as well as its interests and influence – simply by observing his waxing and waning ability to turn a phrase. From the get-go, he’s had a gift for zingers. The challenge for Allen at the start of his career was to learn how to harness his wit to something more substantial than one-liners; to write plots, not just sketches. By the mid-nineteen-eighties, he seemed to have mastered this trick – and done so, incidentally, without losing any of his cleverness. He could still dish out the one-liners when he wanted (“The last time I was in a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.”). Now, however, they were coming out of the mouths of vibrant, full-bodied characters in stories of startling complexity. I never cease to marvel at the high-wire act he pulled off in Crimes and Misdemeanors, juggling two antithetical stories at the same time: one, a lighthearted, humorous romance, and the other, a grim, angst-filled tale of adultery and murder, full of ruminations on morality, the existence of God, and divine punishment. Perhaps the most cunning thing about it is how the two protagonists trade places over the course of the film. Clift (Allen), the documentarian whose romantic prospects seem so promising in the beginning, ends up alone and despondent, his beloved stolen by his bête noir, while Judah (Martin Landau), the philandering killer, not only escapes prosecution but also the torments of his own conscience, ending the film happily wrapped in the arms of his loving wife.

By the late-nineties, though, as the contretemps in Allen’s love life receded from view, it became clear that his screenwriting muscles were going a bit slack. His films from the Clinton era, while not exactly shoddy, simply don’t have the depth or breadth of their brothers from the previous decade. He still got the best actors to work for him (Sean Penn, Judy Davis, Kenneth Branagh, Jody Foster, Leonardo DiCaprio), and he still worked with the most masterful technicians in the business (Carlo Di Palma and Sven Nykvist doing the photography, and Susan Morse doing the cutting), but he wasn’t packing the same artistic punch. He didn’t seem to have the words anymore. You knew things were truly dire in the first years of the new millennium when even his bon mots seemed to abandon him. “I got two Oscars,” Val Waxman (Allen), the temperamental film director in Hollywood Ending (2002) cries in the middle of an arctic blizzard. “Up here, you don’t need Oscars. You need antlers.” The young comic who convulsed audiences on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show would have retched before letting that sodden quip touch his lips.

Allen has since rallied, of course, but not nearly to his once mighty artistic strength. Curiously, though his dramatic powers have for the most part recovered, his sense of humor remains noticeably impaired. While Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and Blue Jasmine probably won’t be remembered as Allen’s best films, they are all solid pieces of work, each demonstrating his desire to stretch his legs, temperamentally as well as geographically. I knew I was seeing a different type of Allen protagonist when Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the hero of Match Point, suggested to his would-be paramour that she take up yoga to relax. Yoga? From a Woody Allen hero? New ground was clearly being broken. And it’s been nice, too, to see his protagonists climb a few pegs down the economic ladder. For decades, his characters, no matter how lowly their occupations, somehow all afforded to live in either Greenwich Village or the Upper East Side. The heroine of Blue Jasmine lives on the Upper East Side, but at least she exposes it for what it is, a playground for the mega-rich, and her living arrangements after her fall from grace are genuinely mean, though someone might have told Allen that San Francisco these days is almost as pricey as Manhattan. Better to have located her sister (Sally Hawkins) across the Bay, where a grocery store cashier may actually afford the rent.

It’s when Allen has tried for laughs lately that he’s gone awry. Though Midnight in Paris is the most financially lucrative film he has ever made, it’s a thin, unimaginative attempt at whimsy. The notion that Hemingway, in conversation, spoke in the same laconic staccato in which he wrote is a conceit that seems funny for a single scene but quickly grows wearisome. If Ezra Pound wandered in would he speak in verse? As for the Bunuel gag – that our time-traveling hero hands the surrealist director the donnee for The Exterminating Angel (1962) – didn’t we already get this joke in Back to the Future Part ll (1989)? The key to the joke, as Robert Zemeckis understood, was to underplay it. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), the time-traveling teenager, is completely oblivious to the fact that Chuck Barry’s cousin is listening backstage as he covers “Johnny B. Goode.” Gil (Owen Wilson), in Midnight in Paris, practically slaps Bunuel (Adrien de Van) across the face with the finished script of the film, thereby shattering any delight we had in catching the reference. A joke’s not funny if the joker is elbowing you in the ribs while he tells it.

And yet, as Allen enters his ninth decade, it’s hard to imagine him stopping anytime soon, and not simply because his parents’ combined lifespan was a hundred and ninety-five years. Allen’s curse – and our blessing – has always been his own chronic dissatisfaction with everything, including his own work. If life has denied him anything other than contentment it’s not readily apparent. As a boy, he dreamed of making movies and living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As a young comic, he dreamed of dining, as equals, with Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. As a young writer, he dreamed of publishing the New Yorker and having his plays produced on Broadway. All these wishes have been granted, and more. He has played softball with Willie Mays, played clarinet in Preservation Hall in New Orleans, and won the O. Henry Award for short fiction. And that’s to say nothing of his television career, his standup career, his acting career, or the almost fifty movies he’s written and directed. Most people given such success would be inclined to brag a little. Allen barely seems to have registered the fact. Not only does he appear unfulfilled by his accomplishments, he actually behaves as though they vaguely disappointed him. Among his favorite films, he lists Grand Illusion (1937), Citizen Kane (1941), The Bicycle Thief (1948), and Rashomon (1950), but disclaims any favorable comparisons between these pictures and his own. “I think I’ve made some decent movies and a large number of okay movies, but I’ve never made a great movie,” he says. “[My] biggest thrill would be to make a film that when I finish it I can say, ‘This picture ranks with Bunuel’s best and Bergman’s and Kurosawa’s.’ That would give me a nice inner feeling of warmth. So far, I haven’t even come close.”[39]


Allen, Woody. The Floating Light Bulb. New York: Random House, 1982.

Barnes. Cynthia. “Ernest Hemingway: One True Sentence.” Humanities. July/August 2005.

Baxter, John. Woody Allen: A Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1998.

Farrow, Mia. What Falls Away: A Memoir. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

“Fresh Air Weekend: Alec Baldwin, College Tuition.” Fresh Air. NPR. WHYY-FM, Philadelphia. June 30, 2012. Radio.

Gopnik, Adam. “The Man in the White Suit: Why the Mark Twain Industry Keeps Growing.” The New Yorker. November 29, 2010.

Kapsis, Robert E. and Kathie Coblentz. Woody Allen: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

Lahr, John. “The Imperfectionist: Why Is Woody Allen Singing in His New Movie, and How Did He Survive the Scandal?” The New Yorker. December 9, 1996.

Lax, Eric. Woody Allen: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Woody Allen: A Documentary. Dir. Robert B. Weide. Wyaduck Productions, 2012. DVD.

“Woody Allen – Standup Comic.”

[1] Gopnik

[2] Lahr

[3] Lahr

[4] Allen, p.2

[5] Baxter, p.12

[6] Lax, p.29

[7] Barnes

[8] Lax, pp.20-21

[9] Baxter, p.21

[10] Lax, p.69

[11] Baxter, p.73

[12] Baxter, p.69

[13] Lahr

[14] Lax, p.190

[15] Lahr

[16] Lahr

[17] “Woody Allen – Standup Comic”

[18] Lax, p.65

[19] Lax, p.285

[20] Lahr

[21] Woody Allen: A Documentary

[22] Baxter, p.296

[23] Farrow, p.195

[24] Farrow, pp.210-11

[25] Baxter, p.223

[26] Lahr

[27] Lahr

[28] Lahr

[29] Lahr

[30] Lahr

[31] “Fresh Air Weekend: Alec Baldwin, College Tuition.”

[32] Lahr

[33] Lahr

[34] Woody Allen: A Documentary

[35] Lahr

[36] Kapsis and Coblentz, p.94

[37] Lahr

[38] Lahr

[39] Lax, p.371

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John Williams
John Williams

This is a very beautiful and interesting article The most glamorous one i have read today! GED Online


Always loved this little movie. Nobody's leaving without singing a blues... Never fails to make me smile

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