November 17, 2011
Who is Woody Allen?
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“What was the scandal?” he asked. “I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now. There was no scandal, but people refer to it all the time as a scandal, and I kind of like that in a way, because when I go, I would like to say I had one real juicy scandal in my life.”
It is also the one event in his life that never seems to reverberate on screen. Although it may have been presaged in 1982’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” when Allen’s character tells Mia Farrow’s character, “You’re so beautiful and charming. You could get any man that you wanted.”
“Not you,” she says, her face melancholy.
Allen’s dark side, his former wife Louise Lasser notes, “is a very important part of him.” The man best-known for his matchless comedy admits that he places a higher value on tragedy. “I always felt that tragic writing confronts reality head on — and doesn’t satirize it, tease it, kid it, deflect it, opt out with some kind of a gag at the last minute. It’s harder for me.”
And yet the universality of Allen’s work, its mass appeal, stems from its balance between the poles. He is light and dark, funny and sad, charming and broken. Film critics in the doc repeatedly marvel at Allen’s incredible range — and how the astounding success of one film can be followed by a flop so terrible that they are at the ready to pronounce the end of his career. And then he’ll come back again. His latest, “Midnight in Paris,” has become a landmark as Allen’s top-grossing film ever, with a worldwide box office estimate of more than $130 million.
Actor Tony Roberts boils down Allen’s appeal to this: “The story he tells is the story of everybody who falls in love, and then falls out of love, and goes on.”
It is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of Allen’s life. He holds no illusions about the nature of human beings. He doesn’t romanticize people, but he is sympathetic to their flaws. The fact that Allen found himself socially compromised only illustrates that he is as real as his characters; he is not immune to the moral dilemmas and challenges he portrays on screen. He is, as the documentary attests, a master at creating them.
Allen became an icon because he takes the quotidian and makes it cinematic.
The emotional climax of Weide’s documentary crescendos with one of those iconic moments: It’s that classic scene from “Manhattan” when Allen’s character, Isaac, is reflecting on past happiness and realizes what he’s missing: his former girlfriend Tracy’s face. He runs down the streets of New York toward her apartment, but when he gets there, Tracy (played, at just 18, by Mariel Hemingway) is about to leave for a trip. He wants to know if she still loves him. He wants her to stay. If she goes, he’ll be shattered; he won’t know what to believe in.
“I think you have to have a little faith in people,” she tells him.
The camera holds steady on Allen’s face, in close-up, as his expression moves from sadness to hope. Woody Allen slowly cracks a smile.
“That’s a huge statement for him,” Hemingway says in the documentary, referring to the scene’s hopeful bent. She knows it isn’t like Allen to “believe” in things. But she also sees that, through his art, he opens. After all, she says, “He wrote the line.”