November 17, 2011
Who is Woody Allen?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
But, to separate the man from the artist is to deny one of the deepest truths and richest pleasures about Woody Allen’s work. Throughout his oeuvre, he has cast himself as the consummate auteur — writer, director and often the star — infusing both comedy and drama with his worldview, his philosophical questions and his real-life romances. His persona is eclipsing — and endearing, enduring and troubling though he may be, he is what remains most essential about his work. The art and the man are one.
“I don’t think there is anybody like Woody — I’ve never met anybody like Woody,” actress Diane Keaton, one of his longtime muses, says in the doc’s opening moments.
Allen is, if anything, one of a kind. Weide has been a devotee since childhood. He was 10 when he saw “Take the Money and Run” and 17 when “Annie Hall” came out. The latter, he said, “completely spun my head around.” Weide, who grew up Jewish in Orange County, Calif., counts Allen among his top cultural “heroes,” along with the Marx Brothers, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, and the social critic and comedian Lenny Bruce. Weide has based much of his own work on their lives; he started his career with the 1982 documentary “The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell,” and his 1998 doc, “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,” received an Oscar nomination. A Vonnegut doc is in development.
Weide has a knack for getting close to his idols: Vonnegut became one of his best friends, and the notoriously media-shy Allen capitulated to his pursuit and gave him unprecedented access. Initially, Weide’s lifelong fascination with Allen barely registered with the director, who refused to cooperate. “He always politely turned me down, always on that basis of, ‘I’m not a big deal,’ ” Weide said. “Once he gave me a provisional ‘yes,’ he told me I would never get it financed. I said, ‘Watch me.’ ”
The financial champion of the project turned out to be director Brett Ratner, who secured funding for the film from Insurgent Media, a media company based in New York, co-founded by Fisher Stevens, the actor and Oscar-winning producer of “The Cove.” Ratner is credited as an executive producer on the doc, and Weide said he was helpful in negotiating rates with the studios for use of film clips and helped secure an interview with Scarlett Johansson.
But for all these Jewish men involved in the project, there is little in the film that deals with Allen’s Jewish identity. And given that it’s a recurrent theme in his work, both in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the disregard feels like a gap. What we get is Allen’s Brooklyn upbringing (he was famously born Allen Stewart Konigsberg), a brief reference to his grandparents’ immigrant story (from Austria and Russia), and a lively interview with his colorful mother, Nettie Konigsberg, which Allen shot in 1986.
“You were always running,” she tells him. “You never stayed put for five minutes. I didn’t know how to handle that type of a child.” She pauses a moment, before her big maternal revelation: “I wasn’t that good to you; I was very strict with you, which I regret. Because if I hadn’t been that strict, you might have been — not better, you’re a good person — but maybe softer, maybe warmer.”
The next clip shows a young Allen during a live television appearance. The host asks him if he took up boxing to escape poverty, and Allen says, “I took up boxing to deal with my mother.”
Weide often cuts back and forth between interviews and clips, showing parallels between Allen’s life and art. When Allen and his sister, Letty Aronson, who has also served as his producing partner since the mid-’90s, are rattling off a list of their father’s various odd jobs, Weide cuts away to a scene from “Radio Days” (1987) in which a young boy asks his father what he does for a living.
“It’s none of your business,” the father says. “Don’t you have any homework?”
“Pay more attention to your schoolwork and less to the radio,” his mother yells from the kitchen.
“You always listen to the radio!” he shouts back.
“It’s different. Our lives are ruined already. You still have a chance to grow up and be somebody!”
Later, when Allen tells how his managers Jack Rollins and Joffe (“the Rolls-Royce of management”) took him on as a client, despite never having represented writers, he recalls how Rollins tried to turn him into a more versatile show-biz “personality.” At the time, Rollins told Allen to focus on his work and trust him to book him for gigs (no matter how outlandish: For television, Allen boxed a kangaroo and serenaded a dog). Weide then cuts to a scene from “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984) in which Allen advises a man how to become “one of the great balloon-folding acts of all time. … You listen to me, you’re gonna fold these balloons at universities and colleges,” he says excitedly. “You’re gonna make your snail and your elephant on Broadway.”