New York, United States of America
So prolific and multi-skilled is Woody Allen that he not only epitomises the purest form of auteur, but he works so autonomously with his regular collaborators that he has virtually become a self-generating micro-industry. Financiers don’t dare to ask for script approval.
He has made 40 feature films in 40 years, and his efforts have resulted in 14 academy award nominations, 3 Oscars, and another six awarded to cast and crew.
But timing has generally been his strength.
At 15, entrepreneurial nerd Allen Konigsberg started writing jokes for New York newspapers and by the time he was 20 he’d allegedly sold 20,000. At 17, he had the business nous to change his name – to Woody Allen. A year later he was penning funny lines for TV’s top celebrities.
At 73, he continues to defy age, revealing no sign of slowing down. "I do the movies just for myself like an institutionalised person who basket weaves. Busy fingers are happy fingers," he’s declared. "So as his muses (22 year old Scarlett Johansson and sensuous thirtysomething Penélope Cruz) get younger, Allen simply shifts gear, moves continents, twigs the tone, re-invents – and returns to form."
He required that inventiveness to create his idiosyncratic world and screen persona of the early films: physically unattractive misfit, obsessive whiner, neurotic hypochondriac, irresistible to women.
Allen learnt the value of control on his feature writing and acting debut, Clive Donner’s What’s New, Pussycat? The experience was so frustrating that he determined never to do a film without total directorial creative control.
Early films thrived on witty, often exaggerated parody and diversity: Sleeper (1973) was futuristic, Love and Death (1975) a satire of Napoleonic wars, steeped in historical and cultural allusions.
Multiple Oscar winner, Annie Hall (1977), with directing and writing gongs to Allen, was the movie in which Allen’s persona meets his neurotic match in Keaton’s offbeat fashion-spawning protagonist. The combination of humour with more complex, sophisticated wit and eccentricity raised the bar.
The next phase introduced more mature cinematic and literary parodies: homage to admired filmmakers and writers – Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, Buster Keaton, Shakespeare, German Expressionism – enriched the films.
Despite familiar recurring concepts, Allen stimulated his audiences by breaking new ground and expanding their horizons. Hannah and her Sisters (1986) took focus away from the Allen persona, now part of a nine character Chekhovian ensemble.
But personal, semi-autobiographical issues continued to underpin the screenplays: Art imitated life with the exploration of a disintegrating marriage in Husbands and Wives (1992, at the time of the Soon-Yi Previn scandal that led to Allen’s break up with Mia Farrow); at a time when the media circus intruded on Allen’s life he launched a pungent expose on media and PR machinations in Celebrity (1998), or took on a new challenge in a musical, Everyone Says I Love You (1997).
The '90s brought chequered reviews. In a New York Times review of Hannah and her Sisters (1986), the late film critic Pauline Kael claimed that “New York reviewers love Woody Allen because they’re applauding their fantasy of themselves”. But his films got darker, and fantasies changed.
At the tumultuous reception in Cannes in 2002, honoured with a gala opening for Hollywood Ending and a career life achievement award, Allen quipped: "For some reason I’m much more appreciated in France than I am back home. The subtitles must be incredibly good."
The transatlantic move to abandon his beloved but possibly over-familiar New York, to shoot in London and Europe met with considerable criticism and suggestions that Allen was floundering, that he’d lost his way. But his subsequent Euporean efforts (Match Point and particularly, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) demonstrate that Europe and Allen have connected – on all sorts of levels. Now that he’s disappeared of screen, Allen is taking audiences on a very different journey.
In Deconstructing Harry one of the female characters is critical of the womanising writer (Allen) protagonist. "You have no values. Your whole life, it’s nihilism, it’s cynicism, it’s sarcasm, and orgasm," she says. His response is: "Y'know, in France I could run on that slogan and win." In current times Europe may offer the spark to keep the Allen’s engine going.
– Mary Colbert
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