Sam Tanenhaus on Woody Allen’s Black Magic

Woody Allen Platon for Newsweek

It’s the first Monday in June, 10 days before Woody Allen’s new movie, To Rome With Love, will open the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Allen, dressed as usual in brown, is perched on a chair in the screening room in his functional office on the ground floor of an anonymous Park Avenue building.

It used to be he strictly limited publicity for his films, even banning glowing quotes from newspaper ads, which instead were as stark as his signature black-and-white title cards (“Written and Directed by Woody Allen”). But times have changed for Woody, and for moviegoers, and he now acknowledges the need to hustle his product. He flew to Rome for the world premiere in April and now patiently holds still under the umbrella strobe, genially bantering with the photographer, Platon, who confesses he is uncommonly nervous. “I’ve learned so much about life from you,” he says. Allen deadpans his reply: “I’ve learned not to believe anyone who says that.”

Everyone chuckles, though it is not at all clear he’s joking. Allen’s fabled career has had exhilarating ups, but also abysmal downs, and praise has often been followed by attack. At one low point, in 2002, when he was locked in a bitter lawsuit with his onetime producer, Jean Doumanian, The New York Times, which in better days had consistently proclaimed Allen’s genius, counted a “grand total of eight people” in the seats of the Times Square discount house that was the sole local venue of his latest flop (Hollywood Ending) and speculated that “his long moment as cultural icon may be over.”

Since then Woody has stormed back, perhaps not bigger or better, but more popular than ever, with a sequence of solid hits filmed abroad. Midnight in Paris, released last year, won Allen his third Oscar for best original screenplay, along with a nomination (his seventh) for best director. More remarkably, it is Allen’s top all-time box-office success, earning well over $110 million worldwide.

The shoot finished, we move next door to Allen’s editing room and sit on facing chairs amid unopened cartons and cluttered surfaces, the space resembling the garage of an unhandy suburbanite rather than the atelier of a celebrated filmmaker. “This has always been such a little rathole,” he says. “I’ve been here 30 years or so, and it suffices. We edit in here. We take it in there. We look at it. We hate it.”

At 76, he has aged with unholy grace: the mussed carrot-top, now the cloud tint of jiffy-bag innards, has scarcely thinned; the oblong face remains a mobile mask of amused perplexity; the wiry physique, thanks to daily exercise, still exudes the vigor of the athlete he once was—a skilled-enough boxer, in his teens, to have trained for the Golden Gloves competition. His one obvious debility, no joke for a master of spoken idioms, is defective hearing; his phone, keyed to ear-splitting volume, trilled six times before he asked, in puzzlement, “What’s that?” Unperturbed, he continues calmly, not bothering to raise his voice.

Allen in person is nothing like the nebbishy mess of phobias and insecurities he has been impersonating, on stage and screen, for half a century, dating back to his days doing stand-up in Greenwich Village clubs like The Bitter End. He has the reputation, in fact, for almost terrifying self-assurance and will brusquely dismiss established stars (casualties include Michael Keaton, Sam Shepard, and Christopher Walken) if they fail to meet his exacting standards on the set. But monomania has made him his era’s greatest comic presence, the one true heir of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Allen, however, measures himself against stiffer competition. “I think I’ve now made almost 45 films,” he says. “Some nice ones. No masterpieces. I don’t kid myself. It’s not false modesty. If you look at Rashomon, The Bicycle Thief, The Grand Illusion, as masterpieces, [then] no: I don’t have a film I could show in a festival with those films.”

It is unlikely To Rome With Love will be shown beside them either, though its deft intermixing of four separate story lines, each a gentle farce about innocents beguiled into wrong or risky choices, is superbly executed by its all-star ensemble, which includes Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin, and Penélope Cruz. All worked for minimum fees, lest they bust Allen’s roughly $17 million budget, tiny by current standards. Italian critics noted diverting moments—for instance, the scene in which a late-blooming opera singer (the great tenor Fabio Armiliato) is wheeled onto the stage in a portable shower, where he scrubs himself while singing an aria from Pagliacci. But many were disappointed. They had come to the screening expecting a major statement—about Rome, about cinema, about life—from the “most European of American directors.” And they didn’t find one.

That a Brooklyn-born comic whose résumé includes boxing a kangaroo and singing to a dog, should be solemnly lionized in the culture capitals of the continent (since 2001 he has filmed in London and Barcelona along with Paris and Rome), might seem ludicrous, the premise of an Allen “mockumentary” à la Take the Money and Run or Zelig. But for Woody it is a simple fact of life—or rather, of cinema, and its awkward mingling of art and commerce. “For the last 25 years, maybe 30 years, I’ve been doing better in Europe and around the world than in the United States,” he says. “It’s hard for me to raise money here whereas in the European countries and in fact all over the world—China, Russia, Israel—they call me and say, ‘Please come here and we’ll finance.’”

woody-allen-fe02-2nd ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) marked his evolution from funny man to major artist. Brian Hamill / United Artists-Photofest

It is also, to a great extent, a chosen exile, a matter not only of money but of control. Allen insists on total autonomy—over scripts, casting, editing. Even the stars he recruits see only the pages in the script that contain their own parts. This imperiousness dates back to the brief golden period in American film, lasting from the late-’60s to the mid-’80s, when audiences greeted each new movie as an installment of its director’s commanding vision.

Woody began with slapstick romps (Bananas, Sleeper) that won a cult following on college campuses. Then came Annie Hall, a vehicle for his former girlfriend, Diane Keaton. Released in the spring of 1977, it was a sensation, with its up-to-the-minute news of prosperous, cultured people who sorted through their lives against a backdrop of well-upholstered uptown apartments. Fine as the movie was, the timing was even better. New York in the mid-’70s was in crisis. There was a threatened bankruptcy in 1975, a citywide blackout in 1977 that resulted in arson, lootings, riots, and mass arrests. A serial killer, “Son of Sam,” was stalking quiet neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. The cinematic touchstone was Taxi Driver ( 1976 ), Martin Scorsese’s inferno of murder and vice, set in Times Square.

Annie Hall offered a countervision, hopeful and aspirational. So did Manhattan ( 1979 ), with its exquisite black-and-white panoramas of the island’s visual splendors, and Hannah and Her Sisters ( 1986 ), much of it shot in the sprawling, cozy Upper West Side apartment of Mia Farrow, Allen’s leading lady and off-screen companion. Together these films, each a “canto in [Allen’s] ongoing poem to love and New York City,” as the critic Pauline Kael wrote at the time, helped New Yorkers recover their high sense of self. Manhattan once again was Oz, and Woody its wizard, conjuring up its long-forgotten mystery and allure. For many, inside the city and beyond, he was New York. Almost overnight, the funnyman and gag writer was being mentioned in the same breath as Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola.

woody-allen-feo2-3rd The director with Penelope Cruz and Alessandro Tiberi on the set of ‘To Rome With Love’. Massimo Percossi / EPA-Landov

It helped that Woody was steeped in sophisticated homegrown influences: the biting subversive wit of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, the pacing of Broadway technicians like George S. Kaufman and Garson Kanin, the bookish smarts of Philip Roth. All of this placed Woody not so much ahead of the competition as apart from it, playing a different game, in defiance of cheap movie-land thrills. Hollywood might love Woody, but he refused to love it back. The same fans who lined up at Manhattan cinemas when the latest Allen gem opened (after reading the predictable rave from Vincent Canby in the Times) exulted when Woody, nominated year after year for Oscars, declined to attend the ceremony or even to watch it on TV, instead keeping his Sunday-night gig at Michael’s Pub, where he played the clarinet with a Dixieland combo.

Then came the abrupt descent. In 1992 he and Farrow bitterly split over Allen’s affair with Farrow’s 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn (who is now his wife). The ensuing custody battle was a tabloid festival (“Mia Has Nude Pix,” “Tell It to the Judge”). The king of the one-liner was reduced to a punchline and worse, a kind of civic embarrassment. Sparkling Allen jests—“Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.”—sounded tinny and smug. Many recalled Joan Didion’s scathing observation in 1979 that Allen and his audience dwelled together in a privileged “subworld,” adding, “the peculiar and hermetic self-regard in Annie Hall and Interiors and Manhattan would seem nothing with which large numbers of people would want to identify.”

Most shocked of all were Allen’s legions of female fans. Many had swooned for this most unlikely of leading men—undersized, sensitive, vulnerable, “in touch with his feelings.” Now they heard him insist, in a line that might have been lifted from one of his scripts, that “the heart wants what it wants”—in this instance a woman 35 years his junior. Seduced by Woody, his admirers had missed the deeper messages in his art, its tricky blurrings of fact and illusion. Growing up in Brooklyn, dreaming of a life in showbiz, he had learned magic, particularly sleight of hand, adept enough at age 14 to audition for television programs. This early history shaped his later art. Allen himself has labeled his technique “misdirection,” and once told the critic and film historian Richard Schickel, “I lead the audience to believe something, but the movie is really going to be about something else.”

He applies the formula most ingeniously in his subtle mixing of autobiography and invention, filtered through the roles played either by himself or various stand-ins. The schlumpy, childlike “Woody” character is in fact sexed-up and calculating, just like Chaplin’s randy “little fellow.” And like Chaplin, Allen favors young actresses. “People get the impression that these films are autobiographical in an acute way,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “In Manhattan they were completely convinced I wanted to marry a 17-year-old girl”—his costar, Mariel Hemingway. In that case he seems to have fooled himself.

woody-allen-fe02-4th An affair with Soon-Yi Previn (left), adopted daughter of Mia Farrow (center), shocked Allen’s fans. Ann Clifford / DMI-Time Life Pictures-Getty Images

In other cases the message is more ambiguous. Annie Hall and Manhattan, though disguised as soulful, romantic “breakup” pictures, are in reality dark, Pygmalion-like tales of sexual avarice and narcissistic control. There is similar “misdirection” in Crimes and Misdemeanors—perhaps the last of Allen’s great New York films. The character most like him isn’t the glum, moralizing documentary filmmaker played by Woody. It’s the vulgar, preening, power-mad TV mogul played by Alan Alda, who barks “ideas” into the portable tape recorder he pulls out of his pocket, much as the young Woody Allen, his motor always running, would interrupt a conversation to scribble one-liners.

So too in To Rome With Love. Beneath the sunny surface, and the pretty-postcard images of the Piazza di Spagna, lurk hints of Allen’s black magic. In the best told of the four tales, a flirtatious, self-dramatizing actress (Ellen Page) comes to visit a happy young American couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig) who are living in Rome. From the beginning it’s clear where the story is headed, but as the seduction unfolds, the lines gradually blur. Who is really at the center of this story, the earnest student abroad or the casual tourist, glibly quoting snippets from Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats? And who is the actual stand-in for Woody?

Allen himself obliquely supplies an answer, when he remarks on his public persona. “People always have the mistaken impression that I was an intellectual when in fact I’m not,” he says. “I first started to read because the women that I liked when I was a teenager were always culture vultures and bluestockings. And I tried my best, and they had no time for me. I read so I could hold my own in conversation with them and not get written off.” Those women, he adds, were of a particular type: “The look that Jules Feiffer used to draw, the black-leather bag, hair down, that Greenwich Village look. No makeup.” If the description sounds familiar, that’s because it’s nearly identical to the fantasy woman in “The Whore of Mensa,” Allen’s classic New Yorker parody from 1974, with its rapier insight that for the culturally avid middle class, the great books had become a kind of aphrodisiac.

It is not surprising that Allen is still plumbing his earliest obsessions. Major artists have always done this, particularly as they age and begin to weigh facts of life expectancy against the drive to keep creating, to find new ways to answer old, haunting questions. In Allen’s case, the numbers look uncommonly good: his father lived to 100, his mother to 95.

And Woody, for his part, is already thinking about his next film. The script is completed, and he’s assembling the cast. He’ll be “shooting four or five weeks in San Francisco, and two weeks in New York.” Two weeks isn’t much of a homecoming, but it’s a start. “I try to sneak in an American picture when I can,” he says. Good to hear. His exile has lasted long enough.

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