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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Woody Allen

Heywood Allen
Allen plays a robot on the lam.
I'm not sure what year it was, but the first Woody Allen movie I ever saw was Sleeper (right) which came out in 1973 so it was probably not long after that. I liked it. What's not to like about a movie with an "orgasmatron." (Yes, it's exactly what it sound like.) On the whole, though I'm not that great a Woody Allen movie fan though I have a great respect for him as a moviemaker. Of his nearly fifty films, I don't think I've seen more than three or four. I think I've seen Casino Royale, Bananas, and maybe one or two more (Manhattan, perhaps). I think one reason most of his films have never appealed to me is that, while they are everywhere from hilarious to merely amusing, I think they appeal more to women than men, and in any case are a little too neurotic for my tastes. My respect for his talent, however has few bounds. The man has proven again and again that he can do (and do well) just about every creative aspect of the motion pictures as an art form. He can write (perhaps his strongest suit), act, direct, provide the music, produce, and no doubt even edit all that when the need arises. He's a "one-man band" on a level with Kubrick, Wells, Spielberg, Cameron and a very few others.

A Banana Republic gone "Bananas."
Woody as "Jimmy" Bond
The problem with writing about Allen is that, with the exception of Annie Hall, virtually any of the man's movies are films most directors would be proud to claim as their best work. That is to say all of them are good, but few stand apart from the rest or deserve the designation as "great" movies. Allen wrote the script for his first film, What's New Pussycat, in which he also played a roll, back in 1965, almost fifty years ago. He didn't much like the results, which caused him to vow to direct himself everything he wrote from then on. The following year he directed his first film, What's Up Tiger Lily, a Japanese spy comedy, then played none other than James (Jimmy) Bond himself in Casino Royale, a spoof of the entire international spy genre based very, VERY loosely on the Ian Fleming novel. He didn't write or direct it, but he had a lot of fun with it in any case (who wouldn't playing opposite David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Ursula Andress).

The 1969 movie based upon
Allen's 1966 play.
Allen was born Allan Stewart Konigsberg in 1935. His mother was a bookkeeper, his father a jewelry engraver and waiter. Allen grew up in Brooklyn in a fairly dysfunctional family speaking Yiddish, Hebrew, and German. He changed his name to Heywood Allen and left home at the age of seventeen. He had a tendency to flunk out of colleges and was thus mostly self-taught. His natural talent and weird, dry sense of humor got him a job at $25 a week writing for comedian Herb Shriner. Soon he was also doing scripts for Ed Sullivan, the Tonight Show, and Sid Caesar, earning $1,500 per week, more than both his parents combined. Around 1961, using his own material, Allen tried his hand at stand-up comedy himself, working out of clubs in Greenwich Village. Several comedy albums followed, as well as guest shots on Candid Camera. He wrote short stories, cartoon captions for New Yorker magazine, a book, From A to Z, and plays. The book became a Broadway musical starring Hermione Gingold. His second Broadway effort, Don't Drink the Water, he wrote himself. It ran for 598 performances. By the end of the 1960s, when he first came to my attention, he was writing for both stage and screen, while also finding his niche as a comic actor.

Allen is haunted by the ghost of Bogart.
Mia Farrow, as Alice, one of
twelve films made with Allen.
Allen's career in the movie industry can, with some limitations, be charted by his leading ladies, starting with his marriage at the age of nineteen to sixteen-year-old Harlene Rosen, which lasted five years. She later sued him for a million dollars for using her as the butt of his stand up comedy jokes. His second marriage in 1966, to actress, Louise Lasser, (who appeared in three of his films) lasted just three years. Although they were never married, Allen and his Annie Hall star, Diane Keaton, were often linked romantically. Starting with Play it Again, Sam in 1970, they made seven films together, the last being Manhattan in 1993. Then, around 1980, came Mia Farrow. They too were never married but she appeared in twelve of Allen's thirteen films over the next nine years (1983-92). Today, despite something of an overblown scandal, Allen is married to Mia's adopted daughter (with Andre Previn), Soon-Yi Previn. That marriage has lasted seventeen years. Soon-Yi has appeared in none of Allen's films, which might account for their longevity together.

Diane Keaton (in her Annie Hall fashion statement) along with Allen, 1977.
Annie Hall, despite the title, was a
portrait of Allen.
In a few more days, Woody Allen will be seventy-nine years old. That means he's been writing, directing, producing, and acting in motion pictures for around fifty years. Annie Hall brought him two Oscars, Best Screenplay and Best Director, ratified by identical awards by the British (BAFTA). The film also brought home gold statuettes for Best Picture of 1977 and one for Diane Keaton as Best Actress. Altogether, Allen has crafted roles leading to fourteen Oscar nominations for his other female stars while being nominated seventeen times himself. He's been nominated for thirteen Gold Globe awards, winning twice for his screenplays, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris. On top of that, he's a damned good jazz clarinet player. In fact he took his name from the famed clarinetist, Woody Herman.

There is an autobiographical element to many of Allen's films.


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