Just a couple of years ago, it was possible to write -- as Mim Udovitch did in the New York Times -- that Woody Allen's life "contains one action that was at the very least so spectacularly injudicious that it has all but eclipsed every single other professional achievement and personal quirk in his moderately well-documented history."
Woody watchers, or at least those that enjoy his movies and maybe even hold a few of them dear, once worried, with some justification, that the Soon-Yi affair, now nearly a decade behind him, would forever cloud Woody Allen's reputation as a filmmaker. Sure, in the past, the press had turned against the movie makers it'd turned into stars only to turn right back around again. Over time, Charlie Chaplin's political views, say, or Robert Mitchum's pot smoking were not only forgiven but eventually perceived as part of their legend, their mystique. But stashing photos of your nude adopted daughter on the mantelpiece to be discovered by your wife is unlikely to score Woody many points even years from now.
But then -- well, odd as it sounds, then came September 11, 2001. Just days later, Woody Allen was in Europe to promote The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. I heard him on the BBC and -- you have to remember how emotionally raw we all were at the time -- it was comforting somehow. There are many New Yorks, from Warhol's to Weegee's and more, but Woody's New York is one the majors. To hear that voice, that accent so marinated in his immediate neighborhood that Woody sounds less like Woody these days and more like an impersonator doing Woody, that voice relaying such a matter-of-fact reaction ("What did they think would happen?") and an unshakable confidence that New York would be up on its feet again in no time was, I don't mind saying it, a balm to this sore heart.
Months later, he walked out onto the stage of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles and the Academy -- despite Woody's having famously shunned it all those years -- gave him a standing ovation. Suddenly, Soon-Yi was so pre-9/11.
Not too surprisingly, though, that era of goodwill didn't last very long. In June, the New York Times ran a front-page Woody-basher. The gist: Not only was Hollywood Ending a box office and critical bomb, "Mr. Allen's real-life courtroom drama" (he'd sued his former producer for $12 million) wasn't drawing a crowd, either. In short, "his long moment as cultural icon may be over." It's got to have hurt. As Michael Wolff wrote in New York, "One way to read the story was that Woody was not successful enough or Woody enough to be on the front page of the Times anymore -- it was a farewell story."
Is it really time to say goodbye? Granted, the man turned 67 on Sunday, but he's still alive and kicking, for heaven's sake, still churning out a film a year. Next year sees the release of Anything Else with Christina Ricci, his 34th to direct himself, not counting his segment for New York Stories, his TV work (not just the writing he did for Sid Caesar back in the day but also 1994's Don't Drink the Water and a marvelous post-9/11 short, Sounds From a Town I Love), acting in other people's movies and the occasional essays and plays. And of course, playing the clarinet in his band. But "still working" is, of course, different from "still doing good work," and it's here that we enter the realm of taste.
Let's set the timeline aside for the moment. When you pull back from the trees, what you end up looking at is an extraordinarily unique forest. There is definitely such a thing as a "Woody Allen movie" and while others, such as Stanley Tucci, have tried to make them, no one but Woody Allen can pull it off; usually for the better, sometimes, admittedly, for the worse. And when considering his unmatched position in the business, one any number of filmmakers would kill for -- you quietly type out your screenplay, call your producer, call a couple of major Hollywood stars, lace the cast with either up-n-coming off-Broadway actors, or more recently, raid the indie set, shoot in all but airtight secrecy, edit, rinse and repeat -- it's not surprising that the routine of it all has resulted in an ouevre with such a thoroughly personal stamp all over it. Or that when you pull too far away from the trees, they all tend to blend together. If you've ever recalled a funny line but can't remember whether you heard it in Deconstructing Harry, Husbands and Wives or Hannah and her Sisters, you know what I mean.
That said, zooming back to the trees themselves, it's amazing to rediscover the range of play, if not outright experimentation. They can be grouped and regrouped in various ways, but consider just the black and white ones, for example. You've got the widescreen, slightly grainy majesty of Manhattan on the one hand, one of the most gorgeous love letters to the city ever sent. But that was followed by the stark contrasts of Stardust Memories, the movie in which Woody tried on Fellini for size -- just as he had done a bit subversively with Bergman in Love and Death and just plain reverently in Interiors, where his symbolic use of color gets almost embarrassingly blatant. He'd never completely get Bergman out of his system; witness September and Another Woman, even the far lighter A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.
In the 90s, Woody returned to black and white to visually try out the Kafkaesque experience he was always joking about in Shadows and Fog. Celebrity, appropriately enough, borrowed the look of those TV and fashion magazine perfume ads other comedians had so much fun parodying.
Back to color, there are the softly lit period pieces such as those set in the milieus he knew well from his youth, Radio Days, Bullets Over Broadway ("Don't speak!") and Sweet and Lowdown. But he reached farthest back in the century to play formalistically with the medium he knows best, film. The characters of the black and white film within the color film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, waiting around up on the screen for their lead to return so that they can get on with the scene are great fun, but not quite the thrill of Zelig, which preceded it by two years. A decade before Forrest Gump, Woody sent his chameleon-like character strolling naively through the cinematic archive and our collective memory.
Then there's the whole class thing. It's interesting that such a rich man who lives a relatively secluded life and has been at least well-to-do for most of his adult life would return again and again not just to writing characters who struggle to make ends meet, as his parents did, but also to stories very much about how entrenched the class system is in America. Small Time Crooks may not be brilliant and it certainly isn't subtle but there are far, far less pleasant ways to spend an evening contemplating the disproportionate distribution of wealth out there. More pleasant, for example, than Alice, in which an exceedingly wealthy woman played by Mia Farrow (speaking of admirable range, just think of the characters she took on in Woody's films alone) enjoys a few supernatural outings and then up and flies off to India to care for the poor. It's not that it couldn't happen; it's just that the way the story is told is somehow dramatically unsatisfying.
One of the most loving portraits of a loser and his milieu has got to be Broadway Danny Rose, which opens with a group of seasoned Borscht Belt comics sitting around reminiscing in a smoky restaurant. The banter rivals that of the opening chatter about tipping among the would-be gangsters of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs but the difference is that it looks and feels absolutely real. On a personal note, I also think Danny Rose offers one of Woody's most touching and human performances.
Sprinkled throughout the collection are the light toss-offs and little capers that, light and little as they may be, are usually more fun than many other director's brief outings into the same territory. Manhattan Murder Mystery stands out among these if for nothing other than the "reunion" of Woody and Diane Keaton. Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending would fall into this category as well.
Besides Crooks, Jade and Murder, it's interesting to see how often Woody addresses crime, its nature, its allure and its corruptive power, without many guns actually going off or much violence of any sort, really. This batch would include the "early, funny ones," Take the Money and Run and, to an extent, Bananas and the later, far weightier Crimes and Misdemeanors.
But all of Woody's work can actually be boiled down, in one way or another, covert or overt, to two great themes: Love and Death. How can we find love, how can we hold onto it, and ultimately, why bother with it -- or anything else. These are the questions that haunt even those "early, funny ones" such as Sleeper and Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Sex and separated them from the run-of-the-mill sketch humor of the early 70s. But the questions would get a more thorough working over in big ensemble pieces like his meanest film (not a bad thing), Deconstructing Harry, the frantic, handheld whirl of Husbands and Wives and the much airier Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You.
But it's in Hannah and Her Sisters that love and death are most inextricably intertwined. Almost universally acclaimed as one of Woody's best films, Hannah is not as easy to read as it looks, and that's a fine, fine thing. Does Woody's character, Mickey, not at all the most vital of a complex bunch, choose life after flirting disastrously with suicide because of a Marx Brothers movie (a recurrence of the idea that it's the little things that make life worth living that shows up in films like Manhattan) or because a happy coincidence has granted him insight into his ability to create, contribute to, and therefore, be a part of Life with a capital L? Well, that one's up to you.
In Barbara Kopple's Wild Man Blues, a sweet, and in many ways, intriguing doc that follows Woody's New Orleans jazz band on its European tour, we learn that Soon-Yi, at the time of filming, hadn't seen any of Woody's films. She's since caught up a bit, evidently, but the one everyone around her, including Woody, keeps prompting her to start off with is Annie Hall.
It's highly unfair to all the films Woody made since this 1977 landmark, but in a sense, all of them have been measured, thematically and otherwise, against this one. In part because it won raves and swept the Oscars that year, yes. But also because it was the first fully blown "Woody Allen movie." It set the tone, key and melody on which so many of the following films would riff. You've got your New York-centric worldview here, your formal experimentation with the split screens and animation blips and subtitled subtexts and so on. You've got your cameos by actors who'd go on to make bigger names for themselves, each of them little jewels in Woody's crown (Jeff Goldblum's single line about his mantra, Christopher Walken contemplating on-coming headlights).
And of course, you've got your search for if not the perfect love, at least a satisfying one and the threat of a nihilist ending until the very last few frames when, in a typically self-deprecating voice over, we hear Woody tell an old, corny joke. And it works because, well, we all need the eggs.
To hear Woody tell it, he's got more than enough eggs these days. His relationship with Soon-Yi, he tells Nina Rehfeld, is great. He's stopped seeing a psychiatrist and recently made public amends with all those years he spent on the couch. In fact, he's appearing in public more often in general, and whether he's popping up at Cannes or at the Academy Awards, the crowds have ranged from warm to euphoric. It'd be way too presumptuous to say Woody Allen is happy, but it'd be relatively safe to say he's not the psychological and emotional wreck he used to be. But was it the wreckage that drove so many of his films over the years and could that frustrated energy be what critics and audiences have found missing his last four or five or more?
If so, we can either thank the New York Times for prodding another bout of anger and encourage the rest of the press to pile on or we can look forward to another batch of pleasant evenings with films like Jade and Crooks and settle for not begrudging Woody his eggs.