Tonight is part 1 of a PBS American Masters documentary on Woody Allen that spans his life and work since infancy. Short of offering analysis or judgment, the documentary presents the significant chronological details of his life, outlining the progression of his career and his evolution as an artist. It’s flawed of course, like everything, but a fascinating glimpse into his history, personality and talent. Love him or hate him, Woody Allen has made an indelible imprint on the culture. And his legacy bespeaks a well known conflict: that of the incongruity between man and artist.
Early on, in a new documentary about Woody Allen, the cultural icon sits in the back seat of his chauffer-driven car, pondering his mortality. He tells a story of a formative near-death experience that occurred when he was a small child in his crib: His mother was at work when his nanny told him, and then demonstrated, that if she wanted to, she could smother him. For a few seconds, she wrapped a blanket around his face.
More than seven decades later (Allen turns 76 on Dec. 1), Allen still wonders aloud how close he came to the bitter end on that bizarre day. Had that nanny made good on her threat, a stony Allen deadpans: “The world would be poorer a number of great one-liners.”
In the three-hour-plus documentary of his life, which airs in two parts as part of PBS’ American Masters series beginning Nov. 20, those words are the closest Allen comes to acknowledging his own legend.
“So much of what’s filtered out about me over the years has been completely mythological,” he tells the camera.
His mystique has proven gripping for Allen’s legions of fans, who have faithfully followed his zigzagging mind through a prolific film career that has been variously comic, wacky, poignant, dark, charmingly romantic and almost ludicrously intelligent — all of which is on display in this biographical film. Nor does Allen’s neurotic self-effacement hold sway with the documentary’s producer, Robert Weide, best-known for his five-year stint as an executive producer and principal director of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“The big thing with Woody was getting over the hump of him agreeing to do this in the first place,” Weide said during a phone interview. “That hesitation was about him feeling that he wasn’t an interesting subject — that’s how out of touch he is.”
The film frequently acknowledges, through Allen’s friends and colleagues, that he is one strange genius.