November 17, 2011
Who is Woody Allen?
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The mirroring of Allen’s life and art is there throughout. His relationship to women, for example, carried over from his life to the screen. (Or was it the other way around?) In “Annie Hall,” he plays the smart, shlubby Jewish guy who woos with his wit and manages to charm a woman far more physically attractive. This distinctly Woody Allen sensibility ended up defining the Jewish-American male archetype.
Diane Keaton was instantly smitten. She recalls how much he made her laugh: “My game plan was really to force Woody to like me. I was always plotting and scheming about how he could grow to see me as an attractive woman. I was always directing my attentions to, ‘How can I make him like me more?’ ”
They moved in together. “I worked it. I really worked trying to get him to fall in love with me,” Keaton says. “He didn’t quite fall in love with me — but I was around a lot, and we made a good team. We were a good team.”
Their on-screen affair lasted far longer than the real-life one, with Keaton becoming a quasi-confident muse for Allen’s anxious insecurity.
“I asked him about his actual physique,” Weide said, of material that ended up on the cutting room floor. “How much [his physiology] played into his comic character. And he really downplayed that. I pushed a little bit — ‘If you were a tall, blond, Aryan-looking guy, you could not have had the life experience that would have led to a Woody Allen persona.’ And he said, ‘Maybe I would have been a tall, blond, Aryan filmmaker.’ That’s how little thought he gives to any sort of theory. He goes on instinct.”
But even if Allen had been a tall, blond Aryan, the ubiquitous Jewishness that informs his work, and goes well beyond physicality alone, would be missing. “Culturally he’s a big-time Jew,” Weide admitted. “And sometimes it’s just a sight gag, like him appearing in peyos [in ‘Annie Hall’], but then in ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ Martin Landau flashes back to a seder from his childhood, where great moral issues are being discussed.”
Doubt about ritual observance and belief in God have led Allen to anomie. He explores religious themes in his work, but they usually arouse anxiety or prove inconclusive. “I think if you were to ask him, he wouldn’t rule out the concept of spirituality,” Weide said. “He just doesn’t accept it. These issues interest him, ideas of life and death and heaven and God and mortality infuse all of his work, but if he were a betting man, he would bet we die, and that’s it.”
A year ago, Weide and Allen exchanged e-mails over the High Holy Days, and Weide mentioned he would be going to shul. To which Allen replied, “I’m surprised to hear that you’re going to temple on Yom Kippur. It is my opinion that God should be the one atoning.”
Perhaps it’s Allen’s nihilistic worldview that made him impervious to charges of moral turpitude during the most public scandal he has ever faced. The revelation of Allen’s relationship with Previn, the adopted daughter of his partner Mia Farrow, with whom he shared two adopted children and a biological child, caused public outrage. The story became a media behemoth, splashed on the front page of all the leading newspapers and tabloids, as well as the evening news. A prolonged and brutal custody battle divulged yet more ugly accusations resulting in Allen’s severed ties not just with Farrow, his 12-year muse on and off screen, but with the three children they once shared.
If the ignominy disturbed his audience, it did not appear to hinder his career. Since 1970, Allen has delivered a film and a script each year, and even amid the turmoil, he worked, virtually uninterrupted, on “Bullets Over Broadway.” That film wound up being nominated for best director and best screenplay Oscars and earned a best supporting actress Oscar for Dianne Wiest. It is also worth noting that Allen married Previn in 1997, and they remain together to this day, now with two adopted daughters.
The documentary deals with all this through a montage of media coverage and a few comments from interviews. Allen is characteristically self-effacing but glosses over the issue: “I didn’t think I was that famous to warrant such coverage,” he says. “But apparently it was a good, juicy story, and it took a little edge off my natural blandness.”
Looking down from the camera, he adds, “Everybody had an opinion about my private life, which I felt they were free to have: They could sympathize with me, not sympathize with me. They could dislike me; they could like me. It could have no effect on whether they saw my films [or] they could never see my films — none of that mattered to me.”
For some Allen fans (or former fans), the incident remains a dark stain in his history, too big to forget. Reflecting back, the film critic Richard Schickel remembers thinking, “Is this really the ruination of Woody?” Even as recently as June 2011, while Allen was promoting his most recent (and subsequently most financially successful) film, “Midnight in Paris,” a reporter for Reuters asked whether he thought America was ready to forgive him for the “scandal.”