Woody Allen’s directorial persona is so well defined that just his name provokes a rapid series of word associations – New York, religion, intellectual, psychoanalysis, relationships, angst – but perhaps what immediately comes to mind is comedy. In a prolific career that has produced nearly a film every year for 40 years he has skewered the pangs and anxieties of modern urban living with a wit and insight that is without peer in American cinema. Allen’s work is rooted in a deep understanding that life – and especially love – is unpredictable, uncontrollable and painful, which is what makes his comedy so important. It keeps the whole sorry mess perfectly in perspective.
As a filmmaker Allen has grown in confidence over the years. His early films are, gag for gag, among the funniest ever made, yet as his themes grew more sophisticated so did his directorial style. By staying outside the Hollywood system he has maintained a remarkable control over his work, resulting in a cinema that is highly personal but rarely autobiographical. Or so he claims.
Woody Allen – born Stewart Allen Konigsberg on December 1st, 1935 in New York – started his prolific comedy career early, selling gags to newspapers while still at high school. This talent flourished into a career as a gag writer for Broadway and television, a writer of short stories and literary parodies for magazines and as a hip stand-up comedian. It was as a stand-up that he developed the neurotic, sexually insecure persona, who employed memorable one-liners with cutting understatement. This assumed role would become the basis of his big-screen character.
After unhappy experiences as actor-writer on What’s New Pussycat
(1965) and James Bond spoof Casino Royale
(1967), Allen’s first directorial effort, What’s Up Tiger Lily
(1966), re-voiced Japanese spy thriller International Secret Police: Key of Keys
in English, with Allen and his cohorts spinning a new comic plot line about the hunt for the world’s greatest egg-salad recipe.
His first real directorial outing was Take the Money and Run
(1969), a fresh and inventive mock crime documentary starring the director as America’s most wanted criminal, Virgil Starkwell. The film also starred Allen’s wife at the time, actress Louise Lasser, establishing a pattern of Allen co-starring with the women in his private life.
THE EARLY FUNNY ONES
More important in Allen’s burgeoning film career than this was his success on Broadway. Don’t Drink the Water
and Play it Again, Sam
were big Broadway hits and drew Allen substantial offers from Hollywood. But, choosing to work independently, he produced a string of comedies that are marked out by great gags, astonishing verbal dexterity, pointed cultural parodies and a freewheeling, disjointed continuity.
(1971) uproots the archetypal Allen character from New York and makes him the unlikely hero of a South American revolution. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask
(1972) took the title of a pop psychology book and used it as a springboard for a series of sketches. Sleeper
(1973), a brilliant melding of science-fiction staples and slapstick comedy, stars Allen again as a New York health store owner who goes into hospital for an ulcer operation and wakes up in the year 2173. The film is notable because it marks the first time that Allen directed Diane Keaton
, who would become the best of Allen’s female co-stars, her ditzy naϊvety the perfect foil to his urban anguish. Love and Death
(1975), the fullest expression to that point of his love of heavy literature and Bergmanesque mood, located his trademark shtick into the Napoleonic era.
After Take the Money and Run
each successive film was technically more assured than the last and Love and Death
, with its location shooting and large-scale battle scenes, sees a filmmaker bursting with self-belief. It was a confidence that would come to the fore in his next picture.
THE LATER SERIOUS ONES
Allen’s next film was originally a modern-day murder mystery entitled, Anhedonia
, a term for the inability to feel pleasure. When he felt the mystery aspect wasn’t working he jettisoned it, shot additional footage and fashioned Annie Hall
(1977), the movie that marks his maturation as a filmmaker. This story of a failed romance between comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Keaton) became Allen’s most popular success, winning four Oscars, starting fashion trends, such as women wearing waistcoats, ties and billowing trousers and firmly establishing the autobiographical nature of his work, with audiences often mistaking his onscreen character and antics with his real life.
was a step forward for Allen in a number of ways. First, he avoided the broad, cartoonish elements of his work, making a film about recognizable human beings that captured scenes for more than just their comic effect, using long takes, sophisticated compositions and subtle lighting. It also sees Allen playing with conventional film realism, having characters talk directly to camera, turn into cartoon characters, revisit their younger selves and comment on one another in split screens.
Perhaps inevitably, Allen’s follow-up, the somber, serious drama Interiors
(1978), was a disappointment, but he regained top form with Manhattan
(1979). He followed this with Stardust Memories
(1980), in which Allen plays a successful comic filmmaker who doesn’t want to be funny any more. The film was misconstrued as a bitter attack on his critics and fans, but it has stood the test of time; it is a thoughtful and funny treatise on creativity, fame and relationships.
Starting a new relationship, both personal and professional, with actress Mia Farrow
, Allen’s next films were distinctly lighter in tone. These include: the fanciful Bergman parody A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
(1982); the brilliant faux documentary Zelig
(1983), in which Allen plays a human chameleon and which is notable for the brilliant way Allen is dropped into old newsreel footage; Broadway Danny Rose
(1984), a charming romp through the dying world of variety acts; and The Purple Rose of Cairo
(1985), which proffers a lovely meditation on the power of cinema as a fictional film character walks off the screen and into the life of a depressed housewife.
Returning to the lives and loves of New Yorkers Hannah and Her Sisters
(1986) became Allen’s most popular film for years, finding a rare, wistful optimism for his bruised romantics. Following Radio Days
(1987), a nostalgic love letter to the entertainments of his youth and September
(1987), a dour Chekhovian drama that he re-shot completely from scratch, Allen hit something approaching his best with Crimes and Misdemeanors
(!989). On the one hand it is a dark drama with Martin Landau
as an eye surgeon trying to cover up his infidelity and on the other a bittersweet comedy featuring Allen as a documentary filmmaker dealing with his art and unhappy marriage. Ambitious and sophisticated, it is a sublime contemplation on guilt and culpability that still manages to be uproariously funny.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
As Allen moved into the 1990s the events of his private life overtook his fiction and saw him reteat to simpler forms, producing likable comedies - Manhattan Murder Myster, mighty Aphrodite
and Everyone Says I Love You
(1993, 1995 and 1996 respectively) – and less successful dramas such as Alice
(1990) and Shadows and Fog
(1992). His best-received works of the decade are Bullets over Broadway
(1994) and the jazz-themed Sweet and Lowdown
In the new millennium Allen has failed to find his footing, his reputation dimming somewhat. Films such as Small Time Crooks
(2000) and Melinda and Melinda
(2005) have entertained, whereas The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
(2001), Hollywood Endings
(2002) and Anything Else
(2003) practically disappeared without trace. Uprooting to London, Allen fared better with the impressive Match Point
(2005), a Crimes and Misdemeanors
-style drama set among the English upper classes, but his next two films - Scoop
(2006) and Casandra’s Dream
(2007) – failed to capitalize on this success.
LIFE MIRRORS ART
In 1992 Allen’s romantic relationship with Soon Yi Previn – his then partner Mia Farrow’s 21-year-old adopted daughter – was discovered by Farrow and made public. Charges and counter-charges followed, all conducted in a cauldron of press scrutiny, resulting in Allen losing custody of his three children. Interestingly, the film prior to these tribulations, Husbands and Wives
, is a powerful portrait of two disintegrating marriages, including one where Allen is in a relationship with a woman (Juliette Lewis) young enough to be his daughter. With scenes of emotional ferocity enhanced by a ragged handheld camera the film remains one of Allen’s most textured, raw and moving works, whatever the context surrounding its release.
is Woody Allen’s masterpiece. Unraveling the tangled love lives of four New Yorkers Allen presents a serious, moving meditation on complex relationships and modern manners but with snappy dialogue – “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics” – and beautiful black-and-white photography that celebrates his hometown, all played out to gorgeous orchestral versions of George Gershwin tunes. What is even more surprising is that once he had completed it Allen hated it, wanted it shelved and offered to make a film for the studio for free. Thankfully, they didn’t agree.
Love and Death (1975)
Annie Hall (1977)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)