Woody Allen was the most famous film director in America

Woody Allen

(Allen Stewart Konigsberg)

b. New York, 1935

“Woody” was the most famous film director in America from the late 1970s onwards, and then a reluctant household name as his famed soul-searching took a banana-skin skid into public scandal. Can he maintain his way of working? Is there funding for films whose budgets have steadily risen, and whose audience has never been large? Can he be merely amusing when he has drawn so melodramatic a trail through the courts and the public prints? More important, can he develop as an artist? Has he ever shown that unmistakable promise?

I am skeptical. In his films he seems so averse to acting yet so skittish about real confession that he risks dealing in self-glorification by neurosis. As an actor he stills momentum and betrays his films’ reach for reality. Moreover, some of his films are so inconsequential, so much a matter of habit, that they make his productivity seem artificial.

But his sense of movie theatre and narrative intricacy soared in the eighties (along with the budgets and the photographic quality), and there are two films that even this sour spectator adoresThe Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days. In neither does Allen figure as an actor (he is the narrator of Radio Days). The first is a wonderfully clever, blithely light comedy about movies and dogged real life, while the latter is a new kind of film, a sort of imagined documentary montage, or a notebook of memories and scenes, utterly consistent in tone, a true portrait of a time. Yet Radio Days has not been a seed. Instead, it looks like a random brainwave in the night.

Can he break out of the claustrophobic self-regard that has always threatened to make yet more “Woody Allen” films? Can he hold his small but influential following, when they are the group most quickly (or automatically?) offended by reports of “incorrectness” in an idol? Part of Allen’s problem was only sharpened by the very messy battle with Mia Farrow and his own undeniable humiliation. For he always insisted on making movies about his own angst as a cunning diversion from true self-examination. For years, there had been an air of dissociation in his work that now seems fulfilled by some of his remarks during the year of public scandal. Has this authority on sensitivity ever trusted his own feelings or been their authentic victim?

Despite the fun of Sleeper and Bananas, Allen has never made a film free from his own panic. He has been a Chaplin hero for the chattering classes, yet he is trapped by something like Chaplin’s neurotic vanity. No director works so hard to appear at a loss. The thought of his making a Bergman movie (and the thought runs from Interiors to Shadows and Fog) is grotesque. He is so near to Bergman already, yet so timid about the Swede’s strength of commitment.

Allen is beset by certain death, elusive sex, the farfetched theory of romance, the immorality of pleasure, and the fracturing of cultural and personal ties that are replaced with chains. It sounds like respectable angst, but perhaps the ideals and the dismay were always precious and adolescent. The note of complaint in Allen’s work is shrill and even frivolous because it prefers the quick flash of one-liners and mocked stereotypes. Woody is so jumpy he has no patience with developed humor. Though his films have gained in polish and visual depth, the humor remains in the words and the meetings. There is very little sense of purpose, principle, or character in Allen’s way of looking at the worlds he creates. Thus we cannot escape the feeling of being trapped in an elevator with people who talk too much. (The idea of a blind director—treated in Hollywood Ending—was there years earlier.)

Human failure is Allen’s faith, and we all seem to know about his awkward childhood (though Radio Days glows with humdrum happiness). He was a dropout from New York University and City College. Since then, most ventures have prospered except marriage and family—his second wife, Louise Lasser, acted in some of his early films and went on to be Mary Hartman after their split. (It is as a parent, and as an influence on the young, that the real Allen has most alarmed his loyalist supporters—and surely that could be a pressing future subject for him.)

Allen wrote jokes to order and was hired by Sid Caesar for his TV show. A great admirer of Mort Sahl, Allen moved into live routines in nightclubs, and by the late sixties he was a dramatist and a screenwriter: What’s New Pussycat? (65, Clive Donner); Casino Royale (67, Ken Hughes et al.); and Play It Again, Sam (72, Herbert Ross), taken from an Allen play. His club routines were brilliant: his verbal dexterity had a higher energy level than we know from his films. He could assume, if briefly, the aggressiveness of a Groucho. But as he began a movie career, so his persona receded, and he acquired the security systems of being a victim. It took a long time—in life and on the screen—for the possibility to emerge that the “victim” might be tough, tyrannical company.

On Oscars night 1978, Allen was studiously playing Dixieland clarinet in a New York pub. Three thousand miles away Hollywood conceded the year to him: he won three Oscars (for script, direction, best picture) and Diane Keaton—his Isolde and his Nancy Drew then, as well as his girl—picked up the best actress prize. He avoided the awards night for reasons that could make an Allen movie—he might lose? he might win? it might look as if he expected to win? he preferred privacy to the cultivation of personality? or he preferred to nurture his persona in private? He claimed shyness, and nobody remarked on how oddly that sat with a film that revolves around its maker’s insecurities and uses its actress’s real name in the titleAnnie Hall.

The film that followed, Interiors, seemed sculpted in Bergman’s cold elegant bone. Yet it was only porcelain or plastic, a model from medical school, not a piece of a body. Manhattan was a love song to New York—and by now we can see that Allen’s richest interest may be his city, for it is too vast and diverse to permit his glibness. Manhattan had a fine performance from Mariel Hemingway that was maybe the first piece of pure acting in Allen’s work, as well as the debut of a tenderness toward dangerously young women. But the cuteness in Manhattan—in lines, compositions, and in its escapes from scenes that needed more—showed the embarrassment Allen felt about his own assigned challenge: “serious” pictures.

Allen’s development in the eighties, his rate of work, and the sophistication of narrative were all seemingly devoted to ideas and attitudes against the grain of that decade. Yet Allen’s audience relied on urban yuppies, and his films only fostered that group’s self-satisfaction. He has tried darker views—in Stardust Memories and Crimes and Misdemeanors—and he has become very skilled with extensive, seething social contexts in which one piece of behavior is made more complex by the doings of others. He has fascinating ideas and ambitions as a screenwriter. Yet which Allen film challenges or threatens us, or burns into our memories? The films may run together—are we certain where that joke or this meeting occurred? Sometimes the context is so large as to be blurred; escape and slipperiness become more facile. There is something in Allen that always makes fun of ego, privacy, and obsession, and so with all his proclaimed inwardness he seems fearful of letting characters possess large inner lives. He makes many cameos of loneliness, but these are too often cute snapshots rather than tributes to an intractable condition.

But who else in American film provokes such arguments? And if Allen faces a crisis because of his own behavior, we should recollect how smart and resourceful he is. Perhaps his indefatigable unconscious mind knew he needed trouble and disruption. That does not seek to excuse any damage he has done. But suppose real damage could become his subject—as opposed to wisecracks about it? If Allen could be persuaded to quit his own films as actor and to work more sparingly, with unmistakable lead actors (as opposed to a stock company of guest shots), then there is still a chance that he could create something close to gravity. For he is the most inquiring dramatist at work in American film. He could yet be the kind of writer desperately needed by Coppola, Scorsese, and so many others.

By the end of the twentieth century, it was clear that Allen’s fecundity was chronic—though economics and his break with producer Jean Doumanian were further threats to the automatic one-film-a-year routine. Or was it that the routine, the momentum, kept Allen from proper examination of his work? Had habit overwhelmed the chance of art? It seemed to me that there was a wave of restored excellence—Everyone, Harry, and Celebrity—which came close to a really novel and brave scrutiny of modern reputation. But then Woody darted away into his own cuteness.

In the new century, he took off for England and seemed to relish the classy nastiness. Match Point could be Hitchcock and seemed a very promising departure, but by the time of Vicky … it was clear that Allen was wasting his own lively players.

So there’s too much—or too little reflection. Still, there are Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Deconstructing Harry. That’s four brilliant films that no one else could have dreamed of. And that’s what it’s about. Midnight in Paris was his biggest hit (but not so good), but then, all of a sudden, Blue Jasmine was the best film he had ever made and a suggestion that he actually might understand real people.


1969: Take the Money and Run. 1971: Bananas. 1972: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. 1973: Sleeper. 1975: Love and Death. 1977: Annie Hall. 1978: Interiors. 1979: Manhattan. 1980: Stardust Memories. 1982: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. 1983: Zelig. 1984: Broadway Danny Rose. 1985: The Purple Rose of Cairo. 1986: Hannah and Her Sisters. 1987: Radio Days; September. 1988: Another Woman. 1989: Crimes and Misdemeanors; “Oedipus Wrecks,” an episode from New York Stories. 1990: Alice. 1991: Shadows and Fog. 1992: Husbands and Wives. 1993: Manhattan Murder Mystery. 1994: Bullets over Broadway; Don’t Drink the Water (TV). 1995: Mighty Aphrodite. 1996: Everyone Says I Love You. 1997: Deconstructing Harry. 1998: Celebrity. 1999: Sweet and Lowdown. 2000: Small Time Crooks. 2001: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. 2002: Hollywood Ending. 2003: Anything Else. 2004: Melinda and Melinda. 2005: Match Point. 2006: Scoop. 2008: Cassandra’s Dream; Vicky Cristina Barcelona. 2009: Whatever Works. 2010: You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger. 2011: Midnight in Paris. 2012: To Rome with Love. 2013: Blue Jasmine.