Woody Allen: Hoping to Make that Classic Film
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“I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Woody Allen has been perhaps America’s favorite comic for decades. He started writing gags at the age of 16 and hasn’t slackened his prodigious output, particularly that of making movies - his movies, the way he wants to make them. In the middle 1960s he started making funny movies and then segued into more serious projects in the late 1970s. The results have not always been stellar, but he keeps trying to create that movie that even he thinks is a classic.
Among Woody’s talents is an ability to emulate or mimic the work of great artists. He learned the delivery of Bob Hope, the style of S. J. Perelman, the insight of Mort Sahl, the nuances of Ingmar Bergman, the zaniness of Groucho Marx, the pathos of Buster Keaton, the existential angst of Jean-Paul Sartre, the pomp and eccentricity of Federico Fellini, along with many other influences, and from these he's crafted a unique style that could stand the test of time.
Above all else, Woody Allen has pressed the boundaries of romantic comedy. Woody made a neurotic, cowardly, multi-phobic, bespectacled runt into a leading man, who hopes to get laid, learn the meaning of life and avoid getting killed. He has perfected the use of long master shots in which the entire shot is established without cutting from one take to another. He has made the devices of voice-over narration and speaking to the audience seem natural. He also has had a great influence on his audience, who identify with his point of view. How many people have quoted lines from his movies? That’s why his relationships with Mia Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn caused such a fuss. (More about that later.)
And so, let’s learn even more about the comic genius of Woody Allen:
Allan Stewart Konigsberg was born on Dec. 1, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York. His nom de plume became Woody Allen in 1952. (He liked the name “Woody” because of jazz great Woody Herman. Woody later developed a penchant for naming his children after jazz musicians.)
The Konigsberg family had a succession of nannies for Woody. When Woody was three, the nanny wrapped him in a bundle so he couldn’t breathe and told him, “See? I could smother you right now and throw you out in the garbage and no one would ever know the difference.” Then she let him go.
Most of the quotes in this article come from Eric Lax’s book Woody Allen, a Biography.
Woody’s parents, Martin and Nettie, fought a lot. Woody said, “They did everything except exchange gunfire.” Nearly anything could generate an argument. If Martin bought the wrong shirt – boom!
When Woody was six, he saw Manhattan for the first time and the view nearly took the top of his head off. To Woody, Manhattan was the apotheosis of cosmopolitan living, as shown in perhaps his greatest film, Manhattan, released in 1979.
As a kid, Woody loved movie stars, particularly Bob Hope, about whom he eventually made a tribute film entitled My Favorite Comedian. As a comic, Woody emulated Hope’s flippant, rapid-fire style and mock bravado.
When Woody attended P.S. 99 elementary school, he often got into trouble, and he hated it there, even after he was placed in an accelerated class because of his high IQ. Woody also attended Hebrew school.
Woody got along very well with his little sister Letty. Perhaps because of this, Woody developed an affinity for actresses in his films, like director George Cukor.
Raised in a Jewish family, Woody nevertheless cares nothing about being Jewish. Essentially, he’s agnostic. He hopes there’s a god but doubts there is. About that, he once quipped, “I don't believe in an afterlife, although I'm bringing along a change of underwear.”
Often playing a cowardly wimp in his films, Woody was a good athlete, particularly at baseball, basketball and even boxing, once training for participation in the Golden Gloves, until his parents talked him out of it.
At 13, Woody developed an interest in doing magic, particularly sleight of hand tricks, often done with playing cards.
Woody started playing the clarinet at the age of 15. He played George Lewis’ style of New Orleans traditional jazz, often listening to the radio program Symphony Sid.
Gene Sedric, who played with Fats Waller and the Conrad-Janis band, gave Woody clarinet lessons. Woody also learned to play the soprano sax and a little piano.
Not liking school much, Woody often played hooky. Woody once said, “There are few things in life as delightful as hooky.” Woody often played hooky with his pal Michael “Mickey” Rose, who co-wrote with Woody the movies Take the Money and Run, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Bananas.
Woody, a life-long Ingmar Bergman fan, first saw Bergman’s directorial work in the film Summer with Monika. Woody went to see the movie because he had heard there was nudity.
A big boxing fan, Woody saw the Joe Lewis – Joe Walcott fight on TV in December 1947. He saw numerous fights at Madison Square Garden before he became famous.
About this time, Woody would watch Vaudeville at the Flatbush Theatre every Saturday afternoon, knowing all the routines by heart. (The advent of movies and television ended Vaudeville by the early 1950s.)
In 1952, at the age 16, Woody began sending gags to local newspapers (now using the penname Woody Allen.). Soon his jokes were in demand. He started writing gags at $20 per week, about 50 jokes per day, for publicist David Alber. One example of his jokes was: “Woody Allen boasts that he just made a fortune – he was downtown auctioning off his parking space.” Soon, he also started working as a stand-up comic, but only as an amateur.
In 1953, Woody began attending New York University. He did terrible, because he was so bored. Moreover, the teachers hated his writing. After just one semester, he flunked out. One of his teachers thought he needed psychiatric help (something he later got).
Now Woody wanted to be a playwright, enjoying the plays of dramatists such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov, Maxwell Anderson and Robert Sherwood. He took a drama class from Hungarian Lajos Egri, who wrote the very influential book, The Art of Dramatic Writing.
Woody was selected by NBC’s New Writers’ Development Program in 1955. He earned $169 per week at a time when half that much wasn’t bad money. Most of the teachers in the program thought he looked too young to be any good.
In Jan. 1956, Woody became engaged to Harlene Rosen, and then he flew to Hollywood to write for the Colgate Variety Hour. On the show, Woody worked with comedy writer Danny Simon, playwright Neil Simon’s brother, who taught Woody how to write sketch comedy, particularly the importance of creating a rough draft and then rewriting it until it was perfect.
On March 15, 1956, Woody, 20, and Harlene Rose, 17, got married in a Jewish ceremony.
When Colgate was cancelled in May 1956, Woody and Harlene moved back to New York, where Woody did freelance work - $100 per minute for comic monologue material. Woody also wrote sketch comedy at Tamiment in upstate New York, where comedic luminaries such as Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye and Carl Reiner had worked. Woody worked for three summers at Tamiment, then quit. Like all comedy writers of the era, he wanted to write for Sid Caesar, the best comic around in the 1950s.
In November 1958, Woody finally worked for Sid Caesar on The Chevy Show, co-writing sketches with another prodigy Larry Gelbart. The duo wrote a parody of Playhouse 90 entitled “Hothouse 9D,” starring Caesar and Shirley MacLaine. Another sketch was a spoof of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof entitled “The Hot Tin Cat.”
By 1960, Woody was making $1,700 per week writing for The Garry Moore Show, but he couldn’t wait to leave TV because of its limitations regarding censorship and Federal Communications Commission dictates such as the Equal Time Provision for political candidates. So Woody began working on other projects.
Woody soon left that show and, in the manner of comedians such as Mort Sahl, he began working as a professional stand-up comic. First he performed in small nightclubs in Manhattan, namely the Duplex, the Bitter End, Bon Soir and the Blue Angel.
Woody was never more discouraged than during the first two years he worked as a stand-up comic. Naturally shy, he often literally had to be pushed on stage. And not getting laughter embarrassed him and getting laughter did the same thing. Oscar Wilde wrote, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Moreover, at times the audience didn’t like Woody and, the terror growing, Woody would simply flee the stage at the end of the act. In Woody'd movie Manhattan, Ike Davis (played by Woody) says, “Talent is luck. The most important thing in the world is courage.”
Wood certainly believed what his character said in the movie. “Talent is absolutely luck,” he said, while talking about his early fear of performing. “And no question that the most important thing in the world is courage. People worship talent and it’s so ridiculous. Talent is something you’re born with, like Karem Abdul-Jabbar is born tall. That’s why so many talented people are shitheels. But courage is everything because life is harsh and cruel. I believe it completely.”
Well, it appears Woody conquered his fear of performing because in the early to middle 1960s he performed at the Circus Maximus in Las Vegas. He was the first comic to perform in Vegas wearing street clothes – lots of tweed, corduroy and brown-and-white saddle shoes. He was also the first to shorten his routine from one hour to 45 minutes.
Some of the lines from his routine were: Talking about his traumatic childhood, he said, “I was breast-fed from falsies.” And about his sexual prowess, he said, “On my wedding night my wife stopped in the middle of everything and gave me a standing ovation.”
Many people thought that Woody was an intellectual stand-up comic, in the ilk of Mort Sahl, Woody’s idol in those days. But he wasn’t really. He simply read a lot, particularly the philosophy of Socrates, Aristotle, Berdyaer, Kant and Kierkegaard. He also read the novels of Dostoevsky, Camus and Joyce and the plays of Chekov and George S. Kaufman, as well as a pile of other material. Topical, cerebral and introspective were probably better words to describe the material in his nightclub act.
At the time, legendary funny man Jack Benny thought Woody was a comedic genius, as good as Ed Wynn was in his prime. Benny said, “I don’t know anyone who is as clever and funny and has the knowledge of what to do in his writing and acting as Woody. No one compares to him.”
Woody’s work in show business took its toll on his marriage. He and Harlene were divorced in 1962 after seven years of marriage. Regarding such, one of Woody’s jokes was: “I had a tendency to place my wife under a pedestal.” While Woody worked as a host on The Tonight Show in 1967, Harlene sued Woody because he made jokes about her. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
Woody’s second wife was actress Louise Lasser; they were married from 1966 to 1969. Lasser appeared in two of Woody’s movies – Bananas and What You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Woody called her lovable but crazy, wonderful one day and a wreck the next two, similar to Charlotte Rampling’s character in Stardust Memories.
In the early 1960s, Woody often appeared on the TV show Candid Camera. In one episode, he plays a book store clerk who tells the denouement to mystery stories as they’re being purchased by customers, who are not amused.
Also, hoping to gain notoriety, Woody did advertisements for Foster Grant sunglasses, Smirnoff Vodka and Arrow shirts.
In 1964, producer Charles K. Feldman hired Woody to write the script for the movie What’s New Pussycat. The movie was very successful but Feldman didn’t follow Woody’s screenplay, and so Woody wasn’t satisfied with his effort. Woody wanted artistic success while Feldman wanted commercial success.
Pussycat was made in Paris, France and full of great stars such as Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Paula Prentiss, Capucine and Romy Schneider. While doing the movie, Woody got his first taste of the wealth and sophistication of Europe. He often went on excursions – or dates - with some of the aforementioned beautiful women. At any rate, the experience was a source of material for his stand-up act. In an interview at the time, he said, “I fail with a better class of women now, but my problems are the same. I’m just as ashamed to do everything. I’m just as afraid of getting robbed, beaten or attacked.”
In early 1966, Feldman hired Woody to act in Casino Royale, a James Bond-inspired comedy in which Woody plays the bad guy. While the movie was filmed, Woody met Queen Elizabeth. Unsure of what to say, he asked, “How do you do? Are you enjoying your power?”
Woody also wrote short stories for The New Yorker. Woody’s comic writing style was heavily influenced by the work of writers such as S. J. Perelman and Robert Benchley, particularly Woody’s use of funny Yiddish sounding names such as Strude, God of Rain and Schmalz, God of Light Drizzle.
Woody’s first play was Don’t Drink the Water. It’s about a family that takes a trip to a communist country, where the father takes some photos, and then the family has to take refuge at the U.S. Embassy. David Merrick produced the play and Bob Sinclair directed it. But, after Sinclair was fired, Woody directed it and also rewrote much of the dialogue while going along. The play flopped at the box office, at least initially. The play didn’t start to work until Stanley Prager took over as director. Thirteen changes in cast helped as well. But it did well on Broadway when it opened in November 1966.
Then Woody did another play, Play It Again, Sam, which he wrote and performed in. In the play, the ghost of Humphrey Bogart coaches a young man, Allan Felix, played by Woody himself, on how to get girls. This was Woody’s first work with Diane Keaton, marking the beginning of a love affair and a life-long friendship. The play opened in February 1969. By 1972, when the play was made into a movie, Woody and Keaton had broken up as lovers.
Woody liked making movies with friends such as Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts and Marshall Brickman, because he could ask for their advice and trust the response. Charlie Chaplin also liked to make movies with his friends.
During the summer of 1968, Woody wrote, acted in and directed the movie Take the Money and Run, about a bungling crook named Virgil Starkwell. Seemingly doing everything in the movie, Woody had trouble with the editing and score, until Ralph Roseblum helped with the editing and Marvin Hamlisch produced the score. Woody’s preference in music was popular music or jazz from the early 1900s to 1950, which became a trademark in his films.
After Woody’s success with Take the Money and Run, he and his producers, agents and creative consultants, Charlie Joffe and Jack Rollins, signed a three-film contract with United Artists, a company formed by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford. United Artists had the reputation as a film company that allowed for the autonomy and creative freedom of cinematic artists. Woody’s first picture with UA was Bananas.
After filming Love and Death and Sleeper on location for the next two years, Woody decided to say in New York, where he acted in the movie The Front, about the blacklisting of artists during the so-called red scare in the 1950s.
In 1976, “Inside Woody Allen,” a comic strip drawn by Stuart Hample and based on Woody’s collection of jokes written on scraps of paper, premiered in 180 newspapers around the world and ran for eight years. The strip was very popular in countries such as Brazil and also did well in the U.S.
By the time Woody made the Academy Award winning movie Annie Hall, released in 1977, he no longer needed the creative advice of Joffe and Rollins, though he always wanted to know it was there when he needed it. Joffe and Rollins had guided the shy would-be performer until he became a major player in the film industry.
When Annie Hall won four Academy Awards in 1978, including Best Picture, Woody was not impressed. Back then, he said, “I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don't think they know what they're doing. When you see who wins those things - or who doesn't win them - you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is.”
Woody has been nominated for more Academy Awards than any other person.
What could possibly be Woody’s greatest movie was released in 1979. Manhattan is a comedy-drama written by Woody and his friend Marshall Brickman and directed by Woody. Woody also acts in it, of course, playing a middle-aged man who has an affair with a 17-year-old woman played by Mariel Hemingway. This romantic relationship could be based on Woody’s actual affair with a 17-year-old woman named Stacey Nelkin, a student at New York’s Stuyvesant High School (and also presages Woody’s relationship with the much younger woman, Soon-Yi Previn, many years later). The movie, filmed in black and white, pokes fun at intellectuals and plays homage to New York City, all of this to the tune of George Gershwin’s music. The acting, writing, cinematography and direction are first-rate. The movie is like a marvelous, poignant dream.
Joffe and Rollins were taken aback when Woody produced Stardust Memories, a curious tale about a movie star hounded by his adoring fans, and who is often asked to compromise his sense of artistic values. There are also a succession of folks – some apparently from another planet, who say they appreciate his work - particularly his earlier funny ones, a kind of running gag throughout the movie. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t well received. Perhaps Woody should have foreseen the negative feedback the movie caused but, for some reason, he didn’t.
In all of Woody’s movies, his directorial style is muted and minimalistic. He rarely rehearses his actors, hoping for spontaneity; however, he’ll shoot a scene dozens of times until he gets what he wants. He’ll even allow them to rewrite their lines, especially if they’re having trouble with any of them. But he doesn’t work well with so-called method actors such as Robert De Niro, because they take too long to get into their characters. Because of this perhaps, Woody’s not known as an actor’s director.
Woody has had romantic relationships with virtually all of his leading ladies, namely Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Charlie Chaplin and Ingmar Bergman did the same thing with their leading ladies. Woody once joked that he might end up like director Erick von Stroheim in the classic movie Sunset Boulevard, in which von Stroheim plays an aging director who, now a butler and handyman, hangs around an eccentric, washed-up movie star from the silent era.
Woody found some stability in his life when he started seeing actress Mia Farrow. At this time he stopped traveling to make movies and instead stayed in New York City. Once a year he’d travel with Mia and her numerous children to Europe. In a fashion, he was now a family man, even though he and Farrow never married.
Farrow’s first movie with Woody was A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, made in the summer of 1981. Woody called it “a little summer pastiche,” and that’s pretty much what the critics thought of it. It definitely wasn’t one of Woody’s better pictures. Then Farrow worked in Woody’s experimental, pseudo-documentary, Zelig.
From 1986 to 1990 Woody wrote and directed five films, two of which he appeared in: September, Another Woman, Oedipus Wrecks, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Alice. This was perhaps Woody’s most creative period in filmmaking. The period and the movies summarized the scope of his ideas and cinematic style, and they pointed the way to what he’d try to do in the future.
One directorial quirk of Woody’s is that he will not hesitate to have actors speak their lines off-camera, which is hardly ever done in Hollywood. He uses this technique a lot in the films Annie Hall and Stardust Memories.
Interiors, released in 1978, was the first dramatic movie Woody wrote and directed, though he didn’t act in it. Stylistically, it’s reminiscent of the work of Ingmar Bergman, one of Woody’s directorial idols. The film received Academy Award nominations for writing and directing. Woody feared that it would look like a soap opera. The movie received mixed reviews and wasn’t popular at the box office. Often his serious movies have been criticized as being too solemn.
Woody had high hopes for Another Woman, another dramatic film he did in 1988. After making Hannah and Her Sisters and September, more dramatic fare, he figured he was ready to score with this one. But he had a great deal of trouble with it and., at one point, thought it would have made a better Chaplinesque comedy. Toward the end of making it, Woody said, “The omens are that everything seems to be falling into place, I’m happier with early dailies than I almost ever am – and it may be one of those things that turns out to be one of the worst films I’ve ever made.” Reviews for Another Woman were good and bad; people either loved it or hated it. Famous critic Vincent Canby called it a “windy failure.”
As of 1990, Woody thought his best pictures to date were The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig, Stardust Memories, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days. But he didn’t consider any of these to be “A films” compared to classics such as Wild Strawberries, Grand Illusion or The Seventh Seal. However, one day Woody hoped to create literature on film.
During the 1990s, Woody was involved in a variety of projects: he rewrote Don’t Drink the Water as a television movie; starred in a made-for-TV version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys; provided the voice for Z4195, a worker in existential crisis in the DreamWorks animated film Antz; played lead roles in two other movies, Scenes from a Mall and Picking up the Pieces; and Woody and his jazz band, for which he plays clarinet, were the subject of the documentary Wild Man Blues. Woody did all of this and more, as well as write, direct and act in his own movies, of course.
In the summer of 1991, Woody wrote the script for Husbands and Wives, a story about marriages under strain, and it ended up being one of Woody’s favorite films. The movie was filmed in a documentary style and has much coarse language and hostility, departures from Woody’s usual style. This movie prefigured the turmoil that soon tore asunder Woody’s personal life.
In January 1992, Mia Farrow discovered sexually explicit Polaroid photos of Soon-Yi Previn, one of her adopted daughters, in Woody’s room. (At the time, Soon-Yi was over 18.) Thus began a scandal that ended the 12-year relationship between Woody and Mia Farrow.
Seemingly primed for retribution, Farrow accused Woody of molesting their daughter Dylan (then seven years of age), whom both Farrow and Woody had adopted. But no signs of molestation were discovered, and Woody passed a lie-detector test. Dylan’s testimony to the authorities, supplied by a videotape that Farrow had made, was not considered credible by authorities.
Nevertheless, in the press Farrow called Woody “evil” and “the devil.” And, according to Mia Farrow's biography, What Falls Away, Frank Sinatra offered to have Woody’s legs broken when he discovered that Woody was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn.
Even though Woody was eventually found innocent of the charge of sexual molestation, the state of Connecticut denied Woody custody and visitation for Dylan. Visitation with the boy, Sachel, the biological child of Woody and Mia, was given but only with supervision. Incidentally, all of this trouble cost Woody about $7 million in legal fees.
As for Woody’s affair with Soon-Yi Previn, she was two years older than Mia Farrow was at 19 when she married Frank Sinatra. Also, Woody was no blood relation to Soon-Yi, nor was he her stepfather because Woody and Mia had never gotten married.
On December 22, 1997, Woody married Soon-Yi Previn. (Woody was 34 years older than Soon-Yi.) This was Woody’s third wife. The couple later adopted two daughters, Bechet and Manzie, named after jazz musicians Sydney Bechet and Manzie Johnson.
But Woody didn’t let the problems in his personal life affect his career; he continued making movies, one after the other. “My work is a separate thing,” he said. “Productivity is an accomplishment of sorts, but it’s the depth of the individual work that counts; James Joyce had a tiny output, but look at the depth. Writing is just something that I can do. I only wish I could write better.”
In Mighty Aphrodite, released in 1995, Woody tells the tale of a man who finds the mother of his adopted son. She turns out to be a hooker (played by Mira Sorvino), with whom he has an affair and also sires a daughter. People thought this story echoed Woody’s life with Mia Farrow, but Woody said it didn’t.
In 1996, Woody made a musical titled Everyone Says I Love You, in which all the actors, except Drew Barrymore (who is tone deaf), sing songs using their own voices. The movie evokes images of the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, though the plot is comedic.
A year later, Woody made Deconstructing Harry, originally called The Worst Man in the World. In this one, Woody plays a New York Jewish writer – surprise! – who is nasty, shallow and sexually obsessed, but who also writes wonderful stories that many people love. Woody tried to get somebody else to play the lead, but he couldn’t find anybody suitable. This movie is another one of Woody’s great comedy-dramas, along with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.
Working with his beloved jazz, Woody made a movie about a self-destructive jazz guitarist titled Sweet and Lowdown, starring Sean Penn, whose acting Woody has always liked. The movie was released in 1999 and was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Sean Penn for best actor.
In the early 2000s, Woody made Small Town Crooks, about a gang of crooks who dig a tunnel into the wrong business and then try to cover everything up. Comic greats Tracy Ullman and Elaine May star in it. The movie did very well at the box office. However, Woody’s next four movies, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda, were box office failures, and at this point many critics thought Woody had shot his filmic wad.
Then Match Point was released in 2005. The movie did well at the box office and generally received positive reviews. Straying from Manhattan for a change, this social satire centers on the upper class of London, and luck is a major theme. In an interview with Premiere magazine, Woody said it was the best film he had ever made. At this time, Woody filmed two more films in London, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream.
Then Woody went to Spain, where he filmed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, using international and Spanish actors and actresses. Woody was particularly happy to be making another movie in Europe, because his movies have always done well there and because making money is not such a great concern to European filmmakers. In an interview in 2004, Woody said that filmmakers in America only want to make movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars.
Woody finally returned to the stage with Writer's Block in 2003, an evening of two one-act plays - Old Saybrook and Riverside Drive, which played off-Broadway. Woody also directed the play. The production sold out its entire run.
In a 2005 poll The Comedian's Comedian, Woody was voted the third greatest comedy act ever by his comedic peers.
In April 2008, Woody began filming a dark comedy tentatively entitled Whatever Works, Starring Larry David and Patricia Clarkson, due for release in 2009.
There’s Woody Allen – ever modest and always trying to do even better. Only time will tell if he produces that one picture that virtually everyone, including Woody himself, calls a classic or “literature.” At any rate, he’ll keep trying until that fateful day, and that’s all any of us can ask of him or anybody else.
Author's note: Perhaps Woody has created some classics. Some possibilities include: Sleeper, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry.
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