Opinion: Second-Guessing Woody Allen

May 19, 2020
I hesitate to write something about Woody Allen – he’s become so polarising in recent years that the mere mention of his name causes backs to arc and comments sections to clog up. But he has been on my mind lately – what with his new memoir coming out and his latest film topping the global box office – so I felt the urge to put some thoughts down.

Not about Dylan Farrow’s allegations, not directly anyway – my main comment(s) about that (for what they’re worth, which isn’t much) is that I (a) think both people who were in the room at Bridgewater on that day believe wholeheartedly that they’re telling the truth, (b) wish that people who comment on what happened would footnote their “statements of fact”, and, (c) am already regretting mentioning this as much as I have, such are the passions this arouses.

But I did want to discuss the impact the allegations, and their ensuing fall-out, have had on Woody Allen in a creative sense.

I’ll be up front – this article will involve a bit, actually make that a lot, of guesswork – but it’s educated guesswork and comes from a lifetime of reading, watching and listening to the works of Woody Allen, and pieces about him.

Anyway, here goes… God, I’m regretting this already…

I’d divide the career of Allen into four phases. First is his “emerging artist period” from the mid-fifties to the late-sixties, where he honed his joke-creation and stand-up craft until it was a fine art, and developed his writing via screenplays (Whats New Pussycat?), short stories and plays (Dont Drink the Water). Allen has been – or rather, was – completely upfront about his influences during this time, particularly Elaine May, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx and Bob Hope, but also “well-made” Broadway plays like You Cant Take It With You and Teahouse of the August Moon (Dont Drink the Water combined both), and the New Yorker writing of S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley and so on. Allen always gave it his own spin, of course, brilliantly so – and his hard work and talent resulted in one of the most vivid and compelling comic voices of the twentieth century.

Phase two is what I call Allen’s “Bob Hope period” from 1968-75, where he took his by-now-well-developed comic persona and plugged it into a series of increasingly-well-constructed film vehicles which all had one thing in common: they totally could have worked with Bob Hope in them. Whats Up Tiger Lily?, Take the Money and Run, Play It Again, Sam, Bananas, Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper, and Love and Death are all, at their heart, high-concept comedy star vehicles – [INSERT NAME] as a spy/bank robber/revolutionary/sex expert/time traveller/Russian revolutionary. They’ve been adapted for Allen’s persona… but all could have been re-tweaked for Bob Hope… or, to be honest, other comedians that Allen admired from his childhood, like, say, Groucho or Fields. That’s not a criticism (I think these films are great), just an observation – and what’s more, Woody Allen admitted as much in Eric Lax’s 1975 book on him, On Laughing – still the most informative insight into Allen’s process because his stories hadn’t atrophied into stock anecdotes. Allen did other work in this time – such as his prose collections Getting Even and Without Feathers – but the Bob Hope vehicles were dominant.

Then came Allen’s “internal period” from 1977 to 1997. That’s a broad term I’ve given for the phase starting with Annie Hall and ending with the release of Deconstructing Harry, two movies which book-end a time in Woody Allen’s life when he was capable of remarkable and ferocious self-analysis and criticism, regardless (because?) of its level of narcissism. During this time he made several films clearly based on well-known aspects of his private life, such as dating Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), trying to move from comedy into drama (Stardust Memories), dating barely-legal teenagers like Stacey Nelkin and Babi Christina Engelhardt (Manhattan), living with Mia Farrow but wanting to shtup her sister (Hannah and Her Sisters) or other young women (Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry), and growing up in Brooklyn (Annie Hall, Radio Days, the play The Floating Light Bulb).

Allen made other movies during this period, absolutely – there were gimmicky fantasy films (Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, “Oedipus Wrecks” in New York Stories, Mighty Aphrodite, Everybody Says I Love You, Alice), Bergman chamber pieces (Interiors, A Midsummer Nights Sex Comedy, September, Another Woman, Crimes and Misdemeanors), and Bob Hope throwbacks (Broadway Danny Rose, Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Shadows and Fog, the TV version of Dont Drink the Water that everyone forgets he directed).

But he would alternate these films with his more overtly autobiographical ones. Yes, I know, “all art is personal”, etc, etc – I’m talking the really, really autobiographical movies. And the most striking thing about those pictures is the way Allen isn’t afraid to depict flaws in the characters clearly based on him – Alvy Singer in Annie Hall is a controlling, insecure, depressive, sex pest who ultimately needs to be dumped by Annie for her own sake; Isaac Davis in Manhattan stalks his wife, “accidentally” tries to kill her lover, and dates a seventeen-year-old despite knowing it is unfair on her (and illegal in the first part of the movie); Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories is a self-centred narcissist torn between two women while dreaming of a third; Elliot (Michael Caine) in Hannah and Her Sisters is fully aware of the potentially destructive effect of his infidelity on both Hannah and her sister but does it anyway; Gabe Roth in Husbands and Wives lusts after one of his young-enough-to-be-his-daughter students but is unable to accept any of her perfectly valid criticism of his new novel.

In addition to these are the large number of ice-cold, high-achieving, horny, controlling, ruthless middle-aged male characters who seem clearly inspired by the sort of roles Max Von Sydow often played in Ingmar Bergman movies, but one also feels (at least I do) that they contain a lot of Woody Allen self-criticism in them: Arthur (E.G. Marshall) in Interiors drives his wife to death; the brilliant Frederick (Von Sydow) in Hannah and Her Sisters is controlling, morose and rude, whose girlfriend blossoms when she leaves him; Ken Post (Ian Holm) in Another Woman destroys his wife emotionally by leaving her; Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) in Crimes and Misdemeanors orders the murder of his unstable mistress. (Woody Allen does not always play the Woody Allen character in his movies…)

Most of all is the self-loathing, sex-obsessed, bridge-burning Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry, who sleeps with his wife’s sister and drives her to attempt suicide, pushes away his girlfriend, mocks his sister in print, kidnaps his son, sleeps with a prostitute and basically sacrifices everyone he loves for his art and lusts.

Then after 1997… it stopped, and what I call Allen’s “fourth period” began. Celebrity. Sweet and Lowdown. Small Time Crooks. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Hollywood Ending. Anything Else. Melinda and Melinda. Match Point. Scoop. Cassandras Dream. Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Whatever Works. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Midnight in Paris. To Rome with Love. Blue Jasmine. Magic in the Moonlight. Irrational Man. Cafe Society. Crisis in Six Scenes. Wonder Wheel. A Rainy Day in New York. Mere Anarchy. Honeymoon Hotel. (I should add this discussion entirely excludes movies Allen made solely as an actor, such as The Front, Antz and Fading Gigolo.)

It’s an interesting collection of work, don’t get me wrong – I think some of the films from this fourth phase are terrific, especially ones not set in New York City and without him in the cast. But for me they all have one thing in common. Two, rather. First of all – let’s get this out of the way – Allen’s tendency when depicting a romantic relationship to cast a male actor opposite a woman young enough to be said male actor’s daughter. Sometimes this is the point of the story (eg You Will Meet a Talk Dark Stranger), but more often than not it feels like a casting prejudice so embedded in Allen’s brain that it can never be unwired (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Magic in the Moonlight, Whatever Works, etc, etc.).

Second, less discussed, but I feel, more crucial, is this – it’s hard to find a serious, self-critical Woody Allen self-portrait in any of them.

Roles that could be played by him, sure. Woody types, absolutely… but anything approaching negative self-reflection…?

Nope.

Where are the controlling, cold, selfish, witty, self-loathing, high-achieving artists we saw so often during that third period? Where did they go?

There are glimpses of it. I guess you could include Lee Simon (Ken Branagh) in Celebrity… though something about this character doesn’t feel like a self-portrait (maybe because Simon is a celebrity journalist, a profession Allen clearly loathes). Juan Antonio’s (Javier Barderm’s) kinky romantic life in Vicky Cristina Barcelona seems similar to the arrangements Babi Christina Engelhardt alleges Allen had going in the seventies – and, like many other Allen artists, has a wife he’s driven crazy (Penelope Cruz). Maybe that’s a self portrait. Possibly you could include Sean Penn’s guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown… though that feels more like a copy of the Anthony Quinn character in La Strada (1954) than a self-portrait. Arguably, there’s the murderous Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) in Irrational Man, though he feels like a re-tread of Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) in Match Point who felt like a re-tread of Judah in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

And that’s about it.

There’s certainly no-one like Alvy Singer in any Woody Allen film since 1997 – or Isaac, or Elliot, or Gabe, or Harry.

Ever since 1998, it feels like Woody Allen has gone easy on himself on screen.

Instead, we have actors doing Woody Allen impersonations (Ken Branagh in Celebrity, Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, Jason Biggs in Anything Else, Larry David in Whatever Works), re-workings of Crimes and Misdemeanors (Match Point, Cassandras Dream, Irrational Man), A Streetcar Named Desire (Blue Jasmine) and Eugene O’Neill (Wonder Wheel), love stories to old movies (Magic in the Moonlight, Curse of the Jade Scorpion), and comedies so light they barely imprint  (A Crisis in Six Scenes, Small Time Crooks, Hollywood Ending, Rainy Day in New York).

Is this evolution? A desire to explore new themes?

I doubt it – not in a period where Allen is blowing the dust off scripts he wrote in the sixties (Sweet and Lowdown) and seventies (Whatever Works), and constantly borrows the structure of old plays and movies, not to mention re-using the same old tropes (crazy young women great in bed, kissing in the rain, cheating on your partner, etc) and themes (anyone can murder, dreams are better than reality, etc).

Maybe being with Soon-Yi simply made him happier, I hear you ask?

Maybe. Mind you, he was happy with Mia Farrow for a time. It didn’t stop him going for his own jugular.

Then what is it?

I think it’s this – and again, this is a guess but an educated one… after committing to Soon-Yi, for whatever reason Woody Allen stopped reflecting on his own behaviour for the purposes of his art.

He stopped using self-analysis and criticism as creative inspiration.

He switched off that part of his creative arsenal – no more Annie Hall/Deconstructing Harry self-flagellation. (No more collaborating screenwriters, either.)

To be sure, Allen continues to make plenty of serious dramas, but they tend to be re-imaginings of old plays and movies rather than something new, and/or focus on murder among young people rather than a story that would be closer to the bone… like, say, what it’s like to sleep with your partner’s daughter, or being accused of a crime you (say you) didn’t do.

Since the late nineties, Woody Allen has stopped seriously investigating what it means to be Woody Allen.

And this has had grave ramifications for the quality of his output.

Sometimes it did not matter – Midnight in Paris and Match Point, for instance, work just fine on their level. But other films cry out for braver, more piercing self-analysis on Allen’s part: the story of the emerging comic played by Jason Biggs in Anything Else, for example (why wasn’t that film more autobiographical?), or the murderous professor in Irrational Man, or the Blaine brothers (Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor) in Cassandras Dream, or the ambitious Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) in Cafe Society, or the misanthropic Boris (Larry David) in Whatever Works… these feel like characters that should be a vehicle for Allen really examining his own behaviour and place in the world.

But he doesn’t go there.

He doesn’t come close.

And I wish he’d try it. Oh, God how I wish that.

Because there is surely rich material in what Allen has been though over the past three decades. What is it like to have your own adoptive daughter accuse you of sexual abuse? To have an ex-partner so consumed with loathing towards you, and you towards her, that you claim she has brainwashed her children? To have your own biological son become a world-famous celebrity in his own right, in part by exposing cases of sexual harassment, partly motivated on his part by your alleged behaviour? To have world-famous actors publicly regret that they ever worked with you and to swear they will never do it again, for a crime you say you did not do?

On a less controversial level, surely there’s a film or three in exploring what it’s like to be married to (not to sleep with, Woody, marriage) a woman more than thirty years younger for over twenty years? They’ve raised two children together, all in the same house… there must be a screenplay in fatherhood, at least? (Allen isn’t known as a child-friendly director but did marvellous kid stuff in Annie Hall and Radio Days.)

I feel a film from any of this material would surely be more stimulating, challenging and compelling than the bulk of Allen’s work since 1997. He’s kind-of touched on some of his personal experiences indirectly (notably constantly showing men romance women young enough to be their daughter) but he’s never gone for it. Not the way he did in, say, Hannah and Her Sisters where he pretty much came out and admitted he wanted to have sex with Tisa Farrow.

Possibly he’s made a deal with Soon-Yi to not exploit their life for public consumption – such things happen to creatives (for instance, Neil Simon derived material for several plays out of his first two marriages but his third wife insisted their relationship was a no-go area).

But personally, I feel that the most likely explanation – and again, this is a guess but an educated one – is simply that Woody Allen has switched off the art of self-examination.

It’s too traumatic, too hard, too unsettling for someone who is now an old man.

It would give too much ammunition to his enemies.

It would be too hard.

Easier just to film a first draft script of that random idea he had.

Allen constantly bemoans he will never produce a masterpiece like Fellini or Bergman. I feel that during his third period of filmmaking that he did, and did regularly. But since his relationship with Soon-Yi, he’s never come close. Because he’s censored himself creatively.

I’m glad he’s happy, truly. But as an admirer and fan of Woody Allen’s work, I’m frustrated. Bergman and Fellini never stopped going for the jugular, even when it was their own. But Allen has. And it’s hurt his art.

Comments

  1. dom siclari

    I agree and disagree with you. Disagree with your phase count. i think you’ve cut it off for phase 4 to fit your theory. just my opinion. I feel a phase for him was pre mia post mia. post mia was a good decade.

    I also include Manhattan Murder Mystery as a stellar film for him and Keaton. Not Annie Hall but such a great comedy. As well as Deconstructing Harry.

    He did have a lull after he signed his deal with Dreamworks. I think that had more to do with financial security than anything else. Those 4 films were mostly bloated. Though Small Time Crook was the best of the bunch. he stopped starring in his movies here because as he’s said he’s too old.

    When that deal ended he went indie again and bounced back quickly with Match Point (no age gap at all). And as for the age thing in your phase 4… I see your point but disagree… you lump Whatever Works in with a lesser group but the age thing is very specific and intentional… the script was from the 70s (phase 1?) and was supposed to star zero mostel with a young girl and it was not and did not work out and was meant to be absurd… the age difference was the point… and like you said tall dark stranger. Interesting they were back to back.

    In the case of Magic In The Moonlight it’s been pointed out that using colin firth was a matter of actors available for that specific summer and willing to work for scale… i agree i wish he had been a Firth 10-15 years younger but even in that case it was set up as an established man who was exposing hoaxes and frauds… though he could have cast older for her.

    As for his 4 biggies/100 million dollar grosses and oscar nominees in phase 4 Blue Jasmine/Midnight Paris/Match Point and Vicky Cistina all had appropriate ages with no issues. Vicky had the threesome with the older man Javier Bardem yes but his was was Penelope Cruz which is where they met so i think that all works. Scoop yes had a 20 year gap for Hugh Jackman and Scarlet Johanssen but come on… it’s Hugh Jackman.

    The films he starred in got increasingly age different because 1) he started so old and 2) he aged.

    Blue Jasmine was amazing and his latest peak. It wasn’t that long ago. He’s had something you miss which is a phase of “looking back”… maybe starting with Paris but more so with (going backwards) Wonder Wheel, Cafe Society, Six Scenes and Magic in Moonlight he keeps going back in time, period pieces. Why? Like I said this maybe started with Paris but it really started After Blue Jasmine. And what happened with Blue Jasmine? It woke up Mia/Dylan and Ronan… they began their assault on him. And why did it upset them so much? because one theory in his scandal and her other children coming forward is that she’s not entirely sane. And Blue Jasmine was about a wasp in Connecticut (where she lives) who slowly goes crazy. It’s opposite what you are saying. It’s VERY personal. The re-accusation mostly fizzled but then they used metoo to try again and this time it semi worked. But since the re-accusations started from 25 years ago his work started looking back.

    And yes I agree with your overall point he’s been less personal and it had affected his work like he’s hit the pause button for some time now. Your phases don’t work but since mid 2000’s there’s 4 amazing gems… a bunch of decent films… some bland and nothing new. His latest A Rainy Day In NY which is certainly nice enough and cute and well shot offers very little new.

    Maybe he finds his current life so normal and mundane like the rest of us he doesn’t see it as exciting. Or he’s tired of it all and looking back is more interesting?

    Anyway that’s my 2 cents… I agree and disagree… and I think you have some good points but missed some others.

  2. Brian Blackwell

    Thank goodness for Dom Scilari who’s been able to decipher and then rip to pieces the original piece. Stephen Vagg seems to be afraid of upsetting the metoo crowd by giving Woody too much praise. The betrayers who worked with Woody – and were happy to be given the chance – don’t deserve mention. They have to live with their decisions.

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