In Celebration of Woody Allen
On December 1st (today at the time of writing), Woody Allen is 77 years young. One of the most prolific directors around, Woody has had his hits and his misses; his Oscar darlings and pieces that have critics clambering over one another to denounce him as “over the hill”. One thing that should not be denied is that there is still some magic in the man, as suggested by the romantic whimsy of Midnight in Paris just last year.
People often like to make the distinction between Woody’s “early, funny ones” (Bananas, Sleeper etc); his “golden era” from the late 70s to the late 80s (I know people who still consider Crimes and Misdemeanours to be his last good film); and the work he has done since, which is typically described as inconsistent. Personally, I’ve always found something to love about every Woody Allen film I’ve ever seen. Obviously I am head over heels for his “classics”, but I even have a soft spot for heavily-criticised works like Anything Else and Scoop. I would say that if you’re going to love Allen, you have to accept that he’s not always in the mood to write Annie Hall 2: Annie Hall-er. He’s written them all: light comedies, award-winners, fantastical fables, human dramas, and rom-coms; all with varying degrees of success. With that in mind, and to celebrate the man’s 77th, here is a little beginner’s guide to some of the films of the world’s favourite bespectacled joke-machine…
Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall marks Allen’s leap from simple funnyman to genuine Hollywood contender. Credited by some as the first “rom-com” (the way we know them now, as there were actually many others of a different kind before it), Annie Hall details the unusual romance between a pair of neurotics. It contains some cracking jokes and bagged 4 Oscars, including a Best Actress win for regular Woody cohort Diane Keaton. This film also happens to be one of Woody’s most accessible, making for an ideal starting point for Woody newcomers.
Best Joke: “Annie, there’s a big lobster behind the refrigerator. I can’t get it out. This thing’s heavy. Maybe if I put a little dish of butter sauce here with a nutcracker, it will run out the other side.” – Alvy Singer (Woody Allen)
Famously, Woody Allen does not like Manhattan one bit. However, up until the release of Midnight in Paris a full 32 years later, it was his most commercially successful. The film was nominated for a pair of Oscars (including a Best Supporting Actress nom for the very sweet Mariel Hemmingway), but unfortunately did not win. Some would say it was robbed by Breaking Away in the Best Original Screenplay category. I am one of those people, but that’s neither here nor there. Manhattan sees Woody take on one of the most iconic roles of his career as Isaac Davis: a self-centered man dating a high-schooler (this is less creepy in the film than it seems when I type it out). However, his eye is caught by his best friend’s extra-marital lover, which marks the beginning of a journey of awkward self-discovery for Isaac. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, this is one of Allen’s most visually striking films, and his love for the city seeps through in every frame.
Best Joke: “She’s 17…I’m 42 and she’s 17. I’m older than her father, can you believe that? I’m dating a girl, wherein, I can beat up her father.” – Isaac Davis (Woody Allen)
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Every few years or so, Woody Allen will bring out a movie that the critical world will say marks his “return to form”; heralding each well-received release as some kind of second coming. This was one of those movies. Inevitably, there was much disappointment in To Rome With Love, but there is still a lot of good will left over from Midnight. Owen Wilson serves up a decent Woody impression as Gil Pendergast, a writer with a doe-eyed view of Paris. His fiancee and her family don’t understand him, the world seems alien to him…he’d rather have lived in the roaring 20s, surrounded by those he considers to be the great artists of all-time. One night, he gets his wish. Paris is all of a sudden flooded with famous figures, from Cole Porter to Ernest Hemmingway (an ace performance by Corey Stoll). Come daytime, the world exists as normal; but by night Gil rides around in cars with T.S. Eliot and other characters, all of whom seem to be perfectly in tune with his frame of mind. Cue a fantastical meditation on “greener grass” thinking, which beguiles, provokes and entertains in equal measure. Another couple of Oscar noms (including a win for Best Original Screenplay) and a lot of love from the movie-going public ensure that Midnight in Paris will be cherished as one of Woody’s best.
Best Joke: “That was Djuna Barnes? No wonder she wanted to lead.” – Gil Pendergast (Owen Wilson) upon being told of Barnes’ presence
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
The Purple Rose of Cairo is a wonderful ode to the escapism of cinema. An interesting companion piece to Midnight in Paris, Purple Rose faces real-life off against the world of pure fiction. To escape from her abusive marriage, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) heads to her local cinema over and over to see a film named “The Purple Rose of Cairo”. One day, a character acknowledges her from the screen. He steps right out of the film and into real life, knowing nothing of the world as it is, having fallen for Cecilia. Hollywood’s answer to this excessive use of 3D? Send the actor who plays him to sort it all out. When I saw this film, I knew it was special. It’s one of Woody’s typically strong “fantasy” films, and if you’re a true move lover, you won’t be able to stop yourself falling in love with it. Woody counts it as one of the best he’s ever made.
Best Joke: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.” – Cecilia (Mia Farrow)
The “Early, Funny Ones”
As with all of his early comedies, Bananas is driven by an outlandish set-up. Woody plays a man who has recently been cast aside by his political activist girlfriend. He joins demonstrations and protests to impress her, but when that isn’t enough he heads to the fictional, war-torn (and fictional) nation of San Marcos; where he eventually becomes part of a rebellion and winds up leading the country. This is pure screwball comedy, and an expression of the wide range of humour Woody has at his disposal. It’s far from a perfect film, but as comedies go, this is a winner. It absolutely cracked me up throughout, and the scene in which Woody’s Fielding Mellish plays both defendant and the lawyer questioning him in court is priceless.
Best Joke: “Doing a sociological study on perversion. I’m up to Advanced Child Molesting.” – Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen)
For pure comedy, this has to be Woody’s best – particularly for what he does physically. Allen plays a man brought out of cryostasis years in the future by rebels hoping to overthrow the government. Cue massive genetically-altered food, Ph.D’s in oral sex and the Orgasmatron. Diane Keaton shows her comedic chops here, with a straight-faced lesson in comic timing, whilst the gags are some of Woody’s most inspired and ridiculous. This is oddly high-concept for the kind of film that it is, and was actually originally intended to be a two-parter, with the first half showing how miserable the protagonist was in his modern life. Sleeper was more-or-less intended to be the second half. It’s at this point in his career that Woody started to show the desire to do more with his writing, proven by the arrival of Annie Hall just a few years later.
Best Joke: “Is he housebroken or is he going to leave batteries all over the floor?” – Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) concerning a robotic dog
The English Connection
Match Point (2005)
Match Point marked a consecutive three-movie love affair with England for Woody, and he would return again in 2010 for You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. Unfortunately by this time, he was starting to act a lot less, and it was left to younger stars to fill in for him (although I don’t think Allen’s inherent awkwardness would have suited the murderous lead role as well as the serpentine charm of Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Match Point was quite the departure in terms of what came before for Allen: a sexy thriller with comic stylings giving way to greed, lust and intrigue. Rhys Meyers is unnerving as former tennis pro-turned-instructor Chris Wilton, who meets a wealthy young man named Tom. Tom’s sister falls for Chris, but he is much more interested in Tom’s fiancee Nola (a smouldering Scarlett Johansson). What follows is a tale of secrets, lies and sultry glances, which earned a lot of positive press and a generally favourable public reaction. Not bad for a man working well outside his comfort zone, and he knows it, as this is his favourite film of his own.
Best Joke: “I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t seem like a fair trade” – Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) upon being told that Chris’s father found God after losing both his legs.
Scoop received very mixed reviews upon release, and did not even get a UK theatrical run. However, I found it to be a charming, light comedy and it was ultimately very enjoyable. As always, Allen attracted some very strong talent (Hugh Jackman, Scar-Jo once again), and this is as close to a family film as he has ever made. Woody returns to acting (for his last role since this year’s To Rome With Love), and he stars as stage magician Sidney Waterman. Johansson is Sondra, an American journalism student who is visited by the spirit of Brit journalist Joe Strombel during one of Sidney’s shows. It seems that Joe has one last scoop to break, even from beyond the grave: Peter Lyman, a wealthy aristocrat, is guilty of murder! Sondra sets out with Sidney to find out of Joe’s “scoop” is true, taking in much comedy and mystery along the way. Woody proves he can cut it with the youngsters here, and although it’s not his strongest work, it’s a great Sunday afternoon film: enjoyable, inoffensive and easy to watch.
Best Joke: “Stop telling people I sprang from your loins!” – Sondra Pransky to Sid after a party where they posed as father and daughter.
The Often Overlooked
Play it Again, Sam (1972)
OK, so Woody didn’t direct this one, but he did write and star in it; it’s unmistakably his film, not to discredit director Herbert Ross. Adapted from Allen’s Broadway show of the same name, it manages to keep the key cast members intact in its move to the big screen. The film’s strong suit comes in the form is the classic Allen threesome of himself, Dian Keaton and Tony Roberts. Typically, Roberts plays the beleaguered friend of a neurotic Woody character, which he does with his usual aplomb here. However, he also gets to stretch his comedic muscles to very enjoyable effect. Allan (Woody Allen) has recently been left by his wife. Devastated, he clumsily enters the dating world with the help of his married pals (Keaton and Roberts), with very results. Did I mention he also starts to hallucinate Humphrey Bogart? Who then gives him romantic advice? Yeah, that happens. It’s an interesting comedic detour early on in Woody’s film career, and hints at the kind of potential he had. Despite its silliness, there is some actual drama at work here, and its that awkward dramatic streak that makes this one of my favourite Woody films.
Best Joke: “I wonder if she actually had an orgasm in the two years we were married, or did she fake it that night?” – Allan (Woody Allen)
Whatever Works (2009)
I can get on board with pretty much anything that Woody Allen does, and casting Larry David as the lead in Whatever Works is perfect. Larry is a big Woody fan, and makes a great neurotic in the classic Allen mould. Larry plays the aptly named Boris Yellnikoff, who allows a young southern runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) to stay with him. Boris starts to turn Melodie to his “particular” ways of thinking, but once Melodie’s parents locate her, Boris’s views on life and love are challenged. Wood gives a performance similar to that of Mariel Hemmingway in Manhattan, with added ditziness. She and Larry David have very solid chemistry, and evoke some of the dynamics of past Allen works. Sure, the framing device is a little irritating (Boris is technically yelling his story at the audience), but the film itself has some pearls of Woody wisdom that can be counted amongst his most pertinent. As with his best work, Whatever Works is one of those films that has managed to teach me a little more about life.
Best Joke: “You may be beauty queen material in the deep south but this is the big time. Here you’re a three…a five maybe after you bathe.” – Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David)
My Personal Favourites
Stardust Memories (1980)
To me, Stardust Memories is the best thing Woody Allen has ever done. I’ve seen this film more times than I’d care to count, and it takes me by surprise with every subsequent viewing. It was a very divisive film amongst fans and critics alike at the time of its release (Roger Ebert called it “a disappointment”), and was levelled with accusations of plagiarism due to it’s homages to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, which is a classic all of its own. Woody stars as Sandy Bates, a film director attending a festival at Hotel Stardust, where they will be honouring him by playing his films. During the festival, Sandy looks back over his great loves and losses, and the moments in his life that fuelled his films. Stardust seems to be Woody’s reply to the criticism he received after making Interiors (1978), as several characters make reference to preferring his “earlier, funnier films”. It’s also such a beautifully-shot film, with amazing black-and-white photography. I always thought the film was about paying tribute to the things that make you who you are, those moments in time that converge into an identity that you adopt as your own. Ultimately however, there is still the nagging question of whether you are loved/admired/hated/ignored for who you feel you are, or for who people perceive you are.
Best Joke: (An attendee at one of Sandy’s screenings brings up his narcissism. Sandy says if he were to identify with a character from Greek mythology, it would not be Narcissus. The attendee asks who it would be. His reply:) “Zeus!” – Sandy Bates (Woody Allen)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
I cheated a little here. I love this film, but I prefer some of the others I’ve mentioned…it’s just that this one doesn’t necessarily fit better than the others into the other categories, so it gets a mention here. Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall play friends Cristina and Vicky respectively. Cristina is engaged to a fairly safe man, and is very cautious by nature; Vicky is up for an adventure, and falls into the arms of lusty lothario Juan Antonio (played with raw sexuality by Javier Bardem). An unfortunate illness means that Cristina initially does not get her night of passion with Juan Antonio, and consequently he spends time with Vicky, whom he falls for. Vicky chooses to stay away and stay safe, whereas Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio and begins a torrid affair with him. Once his fiery ex Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) comes back into his life, things take a turn for the wild. This is a very well-performed film, with solid support from Kevin Dunn and Patricia Clarkson. As has become common for Allen’s work, his actors were praised for their performances, and Penelope Cruz even took home a small, bald, golden gentleman for her scorching portrayal of a jilted ex-lover. The sexual tension throughout is the film’s real strength, and it manages to push Match Point in terms of its pure sensuality.
Best Joke: (during a particularly wordy hotel room flirtation with Juan Antonio) “If you don’t start undressing me soon this is going to turn into a panel discussion.” – Cristina (Scarlett Johansson.
So I didn’t get to say everything about every Woody Allen film I love, but I think this is a good starting point. I’d suggest checking out as many of his films as you can, as there’s something for everyone in his back catalogue. Happy watching, and happy birthday Woody!
What do you think? Leave a comment.