“We go to the movies because a picture is playing there. Griffith knew that and said it repeatedly, but always to his cat rather than the studio heads. Truffaut, of course, always refers to his films as movies and his movies as films. He also refers to himself as Godard, because Truffaut, he feels, has a pseudo-arty, non-proletarian quality, while Godard is much easier to spell—From “Woody, the Would-Be Critic,” by Woody Allen, New York Times, May 2, 1971.
Critics are generally discouraged from equating an artist’s life with his/her work, but in some cases it’s hard to avoid. Take, for example, Philip Roth, a middle-aged Jewish writer whose novels regularly concern the romantic and artistic travails of middle-aged Jewish writers. Roth, the consummate literary gamesman, seems to enjoy creating confusion between his real and fictitious personas—in his last book, Operation Shylock, he casts himself as the protagonist in the deliberately implausible and absurd goings-on.
Among major American moviemakers, Woody Allen is widely regarded as the most blatantly autobiographical, though in public statements he has always done his best to discourage that line of thought. But let’s face it, Allen is the Philip Roth of moviemakers; no matter what he says, it’s hard not to see his heroes—at least the ones he plays—as reflections of himself. After all, they look like him, they date the same women and they tend to share his wry wit and philosophical concerns.
Then there are the direct chronological correlations between Allen’s work and life. In Annie Hall, he plays a comedian looking back on an affair with the title character, a woman who is suspiciously similar to Allen’s ex-girlfriend, Diane Keaton. Keaton not only plays the title role, she was born Diane Hall. While the movie is fictional, certain aspects of the fictions are so transparent that we feel we’re seeing a cinematic roman a clef. In this case, blurring the line between fact and fiction probably helped the film succeed; he hit all the right notes, from hilarity to melancholy, and the similarities between Allen and his alter-ego, Alvy Singer, gave the film an extra feeling of verisimilitude. Besides, Woody was a lovable public figure, and we all want to know more about our heroes, right?
Not necessarily. Stardust Memories also had a strong feeling of verisimilutude, but, at least financially, it wasn’t a success. In this case, the identification between Allen and his protagonist ultimately hurt the film’s commercial prospects. Conceived shortly after Allen made the jump from slapstick to serious films, it tells the story of Sandy Bates, a moviemaker (played by Allen, of course) plagued by fans who prefer his “early, funny” work. Consciously modeled after Fellini’s 8 1/2, the film was Allen’s darkest comedy to date, a biting satire that probed the creative psyche and uncovered a number of unappealing secrets. Stardust Memories offended many of Allen’s fans, and for obvious reasons: The fans in the film are portrayed as Fellini-esque grotesques, and many of Allen’s real fans took the portrayals personally.
“We are faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices.”—Professor Levy, Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Allen’s penchant for autobiographical moviemaking reached its zenith—in unforeseen and unfortunate ways—with Husband and Wives. Filmed during the breakup of his long-term relationship with Mia Farrow and at the beginning of his affair with her daughter, Soon Yi-Previn, it stars Allen as a writing teacher tempted to leave his wife (played by Farrow) for one of his students. The parallels couldn’t have been more obvious (unless, of course, Allen had cast Soon-Yi as the student; thankfully he had the good sense to cast Juliette Lewis in the role). Whatever Allen’s faults of discretion, Husband and Wives is a masterpiece. It’s hard to think of another film that so acutely captures the feeling of longing that accompanies the end of a relationship, or a film that so accurately pinpoints the compromises we make to keep the longing at bay.
It should have been a triumph, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars…There’s an old saying in Hollywood that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and that’s what TriStar was banking on when they moved up the release of Husbands and Wives to cash in on the Allen-Farrow scandal. The strategy backfired.
The film was so painfully personal it would have been difficult to watch under any circumstances. But with Allen, Farrow and her brood of children on the nightly news as constant reminders of his indiscretion, audiences steered clear of Husband and Wives. Those who did come were forced to deal with their own conflicting emotions. It was impossible to react to Husbands and Wives strictly as a work of art.
“Laughter, remaining subconscious in its manifest realm (or as Freud put it, when it comes out of the mouth), often works best after something funny has happened. That is why the death of a friend almost never gets a chuckle but a funny hat does—”Woody, the Would-Be Critic.”
After the box office failure of Husband and Wives, there were those who thought Allen’s career would be over. At least since Annie Hall, Allen has been one of the few moviemakers in this country who maintains absolute control over his films—Steven Spielberg is the only other who comes readily to mind—and he has resolutely declared that if he cannot make films on his own terms, he’ll retire and write novels. But unlike Spielberg, who earned his level of control by making more money than any moviemaker in history, Allen’s carte blanche was the direct result of the high moral standing he had as America’s resident auteur—a position his idealized relationship with Farrow quietly reinforced.
He was too good for Hollywood, and Hollywood knew it. He didn’t even need to show up at the Oscars; he won three of them without missing his regular Monday night clarinet gig at Michael’s Pub.
But now that Allen was unable to serve as an aesthetic and moral spokesperson for the film industry, many speculated that his financing would dry up. That, the thinking went, was why he re-teamed with Diane Keaton for Manhattan Murder Mystery, a lightweight farce that had none of the bite of his best work. Was he trying to appease his fans with a return to the style of his “early, funny films?” Perhaps. But it wasn’t a hit either, and when TriStar announced that Allen would be leaving the studio to make independently financed films, there were those who thought Allen’s career might be over.
Not to worry: His friend Jean Doumanian, a former executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” came through with European financing that would ensure Allen the non-negotiable absolute control over his work that he’s enjoyed since Annie Hall elevated him from mere comic genius to auteur nearly two decade ago. Will Bullets Over Broadway be a hit? Probably not. The good news is it probably doesn’t matter; the European financing seems set for years to come, and anyway, Allen’s films make back their money in Europe. And yes, Bullets Over Broadway is a lot of fun. For those of you who especially loved his “early, funny” movies, it may even be a welcome return to form.
“You’re not Superman, you’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a service? Tell funnier jokes.”—Alien to Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories.
At least on the surface, one would be hard-pressed to call Bullets Over Broadway autobiographical. Set in New York in the 1920s, it tells the story of David Shayne, a young playwright who is forced to cast a gangster’s moll in his new play in order to gain financing. Yet with his hesitant manner and worried New York accent, John Cusack, who plays Shayne, sounds like a young Woody Allen. Indeed, even within the construct of this deliberately lightweight film, there are parallels with Allen’s recent travails.
When Shayne, who’s been cheating on his girlfriend with the star of his play, visits his mentor, Sheldon Flender, in search of moral advice, Flender tells him: “An artist creates his own moral universe. You gotta do what you gotta do.” It’s a line that recalls Allen’s character’s self-justification in Husbands and Wives: “My heart does not know from logic.” Or, as the man himself told Time magazine when his affair with Soon-Yi became public knowledge: “The heart wants what it wants.”
Allen, as it happens, doesn’t play Flender—Rob Reiner does—but he could have. The irony would have been pretty thick, especially when it turns out that Flender himself is having an affair with the girlfriend Shayne’s been betraying. In a way, these ironies double our enjoyment of the film; we feel like we’re in on something. The same was not true about the more contextually blatant ironies of Husbands and Wives. There was an almost overwhelming feeling of discomfort in the theater when Husbands and Wives played, and audiences laughed nervously at all the inappropriate moments.
That was two years ago now, and in the interim Allen has made two new films. Granted, neither one was a great film, but that’s par for the course. Between Stardust Memories and Hannah and Her Sisters, there were A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Likewise, between Hannah and Crimes and Misdemeanors, and between Crimes and Husbands and Wives, there were somewhat lesser films.
Allen has already started another film titled, like all his works in progress, Woody Allen’s Fall Project, after the season in which he starts filming. Will it be a great film? It’s impossible to say, but that the question even arises is testament to his genius. And even if it’s not a great film, it’ll be a welcome relief from whatever else is out there; year in and year out, that’s something his fans have come to count on. For Woody Allen is not only one of our best moviemakers, he’s also our most prolific one—a rare combination. Whatever his private faults, we’re lucky to have him.