30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.
8. WOODY ALLEN
I have loved the works of Woody Allen for many years. His personal life also makes me question how we treat our celebrities. But in the end, I see the world though Woody Allen’s movies.
Here’s something you should never do. Ask me to recite jokes from Woody Allen’s album Stand Up Comic. It’s a “best of” his vinyl only records of live stand up from his early nightclub years. It’s fantastic.
Most people know “the Moose”, but jokes like the Vodka Ad, Eggs Benedict and Bullet In My Breast Pocket are just as great. Woody Allen at his purest form – and early his career. Almost ten years before Annie Hall. But the persona was already there.
I have lots of good memories of listening to this album in my teenage bedroom in the dark. I had no idea about many of the references – Noel Coward, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lily Pons – but loved the jokes.
(I actually owned it twice, accidentally. It was called Stand Up Comic and on Rhino in the US, but called Nightclub Years in the UK, on EMI. Thinking they were different, I bought both. Oh Internet, where were you then?)
1964 – the start of Woody Allen’s career, under his own name. It’s brilliant stuff.
I also found and loved Complete Prose, a collection of Allen’s short books in the 60s. Surreal, pun filled anecdotes – something he still does occasionally in publications like the New Yorker.
This long ramble is basically a setup so I can say one thing: Woody Allen is more than a filmmaker.
He’s made some amazing films, of course. But he’s a funny man. A writer. And actor. A musician! He’s Heywood Allen.
What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?
It’s a common pub question amongst friends.
For me it’s Annie Hall (1977). It’s a common answer, followed by Manhattan (1979). Both are amazing films.
‘Annie Hall’ wins out for me. And it helped that when I saw it, I already had my heart broken once. It’s the greatest break up movie ever made. It’s still laugh out loud funny. Touching, sophisticated and made with absolute confidence… the story of Annie and Alvy touched millions, beating Star Wars for the Academy Award for movie of the year. Even thinking about them now as I write brings on a rush of bittersweet feelings – as if I’m reliving a past love of my own.
It’s had more influence on my life than any other movie. From the insightful comments of how we love – the “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me” stuff. To wishing you could pull the director of a film when you get into useless arguments. Or trying not to sneeze when cocaine is around. A million memories and feelings fill this remarkable film.
‘Manhattan’ is just as good. Again full of iconic moments, but a love letter to the island as well. The kiss at the Rose Center to the carriage ride in Central Park, all leading to the final scene of Isaac running down Fifth Avenue. Whenever I run, or see running on film, I think of this scene. It has all the intelligence and heartache of Allen’s best work – but it’s by far his prettiest film to look at. There’s also a tremendous score.
Those are the big two that everyone should see. They have dated remarkably well. They created a new genre of film – the sophisticated talkie. And it defined a generation too.
But those are 2 films in career of over 40 films. I have seen almost all of them.
The public perception of Allen’s films are that they are variations of Annie Hall and Manhattan. He does have a house style (he’s used the same fonts and credit style since the beginning. He never pays anyone more that $10K for a film. Every major character has equal billing. Etc) but he’s made a wide array of films, many of which are great.
Before Annie Hall, Allen made these formless, almost Monty Python-esque screwball comedies. Like his stand up, they are clever and witty. And funny of course. Of these, ‘Love And Death’ (1975, a parody on Russian tragedies) and ‘Sleeper’ (1973, a sci fi comedy) are my favourites. Allen is always the star, playing a Charlie Chaplin like character, trying to not fall over in the worlds he’s created.
These straight comedies made Allen’s name. And every film comedian wanting to go serious cites Allen’s move from this stuff to the late 70s Annie Hall era.
The late 70s leading into the 80s is considered his golden period. Beyond the Big Two, there’s similar dramas like ‘Hannah And Her Sisters’ (1986, the tale of a large family over two years) and ‘Crimes And Misdemeanours’ (1989, exploring morality and justice). There were more comedies in this time too – ‘Broadway Danny Rose’, ‘Zelig’ and others. But it’s ‘Hannah…’ and ‘Crimes…’ that really standout in his career.
(There’s also an amazing movie, called ‘New York Stories’ (1989), that is three stories directed by Scorsese, Coppola and Allen – which you should see.)
Allen’s popularity waned in the 90s – but it was when I was coming of age. Many of these films were new and exciting. The early 90s were particularly strong – ‘Husband And Wives’ (1992, a telling rumination on marriage) and ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’ (1993, where Allen pays tribute to Hitchcock) are considered some of his best work. Mira Sorvino won Best Supporting Actress in the overall fantastic ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ (1995), and the all star musical of ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ (1996) has bad singing but the film is sweet.
It was the late 90s when the controversy about Allen’s private life began to show. On film, he reacted with two of his nastiest films ever – ‘Deconstructing Harry’ (1997, a long damnation on trial by friends and media), and ‘Celebrity’ (1998, one of the biggest, bitterest fuck yous ever in cinema).
(Allen also appeared in the lead role of ‘Antz’ (1998), which gained him quite a bit of popularity).
The 00s were up and down, but Allen maintained his one-if-not-two movies a year schedule. It started off well, with a new deal with Dreamworks and a return to screwball comedy in ‘Small Time Crooks’ (2000, of a couple stumbling into a life of crime). Dreamworks pumped a lot of publicity power behind it, and it’s follow up ‘Curse Of the Jade Scorpion’ (2001, a fun detective caper).
Some truly daft comedies followed, but then came the magnificent ‘Match Point’ (2005, the start of his London films). It recalled his best 80s work, and the nihilism and unhappy endings, betrayal and lust. London was followed by Spain, the best is the recent ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ (2008). I’ve yet to catch up on the three films he’s made since.
That is quite a track record. Who else has made twenty films I’ve loved, even if 20 of the others are average? Over 5 decades of filmmaking. It’s an amazing career.
So here, for my money, are the ten best Woody Allen films
1. Annie Hall
3. Crimes And Misdemeanors
4. Love And Death
6. Manhattan Murder Mystery
7. Hannah And Her Sisters
8. Husbands And Wives
9. Match Point
10. Small Time Crooks
Woody Allen’s life is surrounded by controversy. And it makes me question our relationship with art and reality.
Is Woody Allen just Alvy Singer, Isaac Davis and any number of his main characters? That nervous, neurotic, New York Jew – obsessed with women, death and god? So much of what appears on screen reflects Allen’s private life. Broken marriages, large age differences, fame and morality – all hallmarks of Allen’s private life.
If you ask Allen, as Terry Gross did on NPR last year – Allen denies his life in onscreen. He is a renown sports fan and has never been a loner – unlike the neurotics he portrays. He’s a musician, and a talented one. He has no problems getting up in front of a world audience at the 2002 Academy Awards and salute New York. Not things he’s characters can do – let alone shepherd almost 50 films.
So who is Woody Allen?
And can we ever know?
A person has to be more than their public persona. We’ve had hundreds of songs by Bob Dylan – but can you really say you know him because of that? Can we know any creator through art?
My opinion has changed over the years but right now I think it’s a no. I think every persona is a lie. And as many movies, songs, books, TV shows etc that I like – I know nothing of the people behind them.
From that – the question of authenticity is out the window. I don’t care that Sylvia Plath and Ian Curtis were ‘tragic’ figures, or that John Fogerty was not from the South. It’s all about the work – for me anyway.
But is there NOTHING we can learn of Woody Allen, the man, from Woody Allen’s films? I think there are glimpses. I think people give themselves away. But people change every second, and you can never hold anyone to it. Annie Hall, I would assume, was written and made in a period of heartbreak and vulnerability. But is it Allen’s, or his co-writer Marshall Brickman’s feelings on show? And we can freeze our minds and think of Allen as Alvy – but that’s like how James Dean will never overcome his persona.
There is more to people, which is my point.
How do I feel about Allen’s private life? I don’t understand it. I would not lead such a life. But it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of his work. I feel that way about almost all artists.
Woody Allen has always been around, but I know the exact thing that made me investigate his movies – in particular Annie Hall. It was Blur’s ‘Look Inside America’ and the wonderful lyric
Annie Hall leaves New York in the end
But press rewind and Woody gets her back again.
I loved this line, and so I got Annie Hall out on video and loved it. And I made my way through any film of his I could find at the local video shop.
Allen, in most video stores, falls under ‘art house’. And at Civic Video Belfield, art house was at the back, behind the curtain, with the ‘adult’ stuff. I actually had to get a guardian to go with me to pick out a film. My older brother’s girlfriend would be kind enough to take me, and she would marvel at porn titles at the other side of the room as I dug around non English movies to see if they had ‘Radio Days’.
I bought the books, the albums, and saw what I could at the movies. I read all I could online, in magazines and biographies – although most biographies are mean spirited hack jobs, highlighting the more tabloid side of his life. It took me ages to find the story of Annie Hall – how that was a 3rd of the intended film and how it was originally named Anhedonia.
Nowadays, most of his films don’t get a cinema release outside the US, or at least not for years. It’s getting a little harder to be a fan.
I think about art and creativity a lot. I have hundreds of theories about things, and one of them involves Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick.
Woody Allen has made over 40 films, and 20 are great.
Stanley Kubrick made around 10 films, of which 10 are great.
Who is the better artist?
I think of artists like Neil Young who still pumps out an album a year. Not all are great, but there is a lot of great stuff throughout his career. Whereas Tom Waits takes his sweet time about it.
Bob Dylan wrote Like A Rolling Stone in 20 minutes. Leonard Cohen wrote Hallelujah over 12 years.
So there’s the Allen school, and the Kubrick school. And you can see it everywhere.
Allen is, of course, closely tied to New York. And when I am there, I always see the city from Allen’s eyes. It’s beautiful. I have sat at the 59th Street Bridge, on the bench on the poster for Manhattan – a poster I own a great print of.
I see Allen’s influence everywhere. Ricky Gervais apes his early career well, and Wes Anderson I guess knows his 80s stuff back to front. He captured the New York elite living – of Sondheim musicals, jazz, dinner parties and brownstone buildings.
But the biggest thing I carry around with me, that Woody Allen gave me, is to think about life. Is there a point to this? Do we enjoy what we can? Life is so fleeting, and people come and go. But the ground we are standing on is beautiful and don’t miss it. Women and love needs to be cherished and enjoyed while it lasts. And maybe it’s all a farce, and whatever works to get you through life is the best way to live it.
Love this, Danny. A fantastic assessment of Allen. Two of my favourites are left out of your top ten, though. Take The Money And Run (1969) and Melinda & Melinda (2004), which I always come back to due to its opening-scene rumination on comedy vs tragedy.
Not sure if I’ve seen Celebrity yet… might track it down soon if you rate it so highly.