Tonight will see the debut of “Woody Allen: A Documentary” on PBS, a film that its director Robert Weide (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) claims took him over 20 years of convincing to obtain Allen’s permission to make. In honor of the occasion and because interviews with the writer/director are hard to come by, I wanted to republish this piece from my college days when Allen visited Austin, Texas to show his latest film at the time, “Hollywood Ending.”
It might just be false modesty, but when Woody Allen insists he's never made a truly great film, he seems to sincerely believe it. Allen, the director of nearly 35 films, including "Annie Hall", 1977's Academy Award winner for best picture, is one of the few American filmmakers who deserves to be called an auteur. As an actor, a writer, a comic genius, Allen's body of work (spanning five decades) and his neurotic persona have made his name a household word. His widespread influence on generations of filmmakers is apparent to anyone who has gone to the movies in the past 30 years. So what is this man talking about when he looks a reporter straight in the eye and says, without a hint of irony: "You know I've often said, and it sounds facetious, but the only thing that stands between me and greatness is me – because I have had every opportunity, there's no excuse for me not to make a great film."
When pressed about what films he does consider great, Allen easily rattles off a list of classics, including "8 1/2," the 1960s film by the Italian virtuoso Federico Fellini; "Grand Illusion," the 1934 film by French realist Jean Renoir and absolutely anything by French neo-realist Francois Truffaut ("The 400 Blows"). Asked about current films, Allen mentions Alexander Payne's "Election," David O. Russell's "Flirting With Disaster" and Alejandro Inarritu's "Amores Perros" as being among his favorites. However, when asked to discuss the merits of his own work, he clenches his hand into a fist and begins rubbing it into the palm of the other hand. Slowly, almost grudgingly, he concedes that "Husbands and Wives" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo" were films that expressed what he wanted to say. But that is as far as he will go.
Regardless of critical praise or popular opinion, ultimately greatness, like success, is in the eye of the beholder. Allen remains the most demanding critic of his own work. As he talks about his work ethic, it's not clear whether his self-effacing nature comes from not achieving the high standards he has set for himself, or if the neurotic character we see on the screen is so intertwined with the real Woody that he will always see himself as the obstacle to his own greatness.
This past Monday, Allen came to Austin – for the very first time – to screen his latest film "Hollywood Ending". He brought with him a legacy that includes films such as Manhattan, which has become the quintessential cinematic image of New York, "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Broadway Danny Rose," "Bullets Over Broadway" and, more recently, "Sweet and Lowdown." The audience at the Metropolitan, made up primarily of students from UT and St. Edwards University, sat spellbound for the Q &A afterwards. The mere presence of this icon, who is considered by most film critics to be one of America's best living filmmakers and certainly the best comic director the country has ever produced, was enough. His words were an added bonus.
It's no secret that his life has been filled with both public and private tribulations, but that hasn't stopped Woody Allen. He has a love for a variety of arts (he plays the clarinet every Monday night at the Carlisle Hotel in New York) and a gift for comedy.
Reflecting on his life and career, he says, "I consider myself…you know, lucky. Unlike Val Waxman in my new movie, my career has been completely charmed, full of luck. I've been lucky from the day I started. I got final cut on my first group of pictures when I had never earned it. It was given to me and I've never had to argue with film studios. I'm always amazed that I've been able to make films, amazed that I've lasted, amazed that people come because, as I said, my films do not do that well and I've lasted longer and continue to make films long after a number of directors that I know have had a real hard time and it's just been very good luck for me."
It was definitely a stroke of luck on the part of Dreamworks, the studio currently bankrolling Allen's films, to land the prolific director three years ago. After bouncing from one studio to another, Allen also benefited from the deal, which has given him the complete creative freedom upon which he insists. In addition, the studio has provided consistency for his past three efforts: "Small Time Crooks" (2000), "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" (2001) and "Hollywood Ending," which opens today.
On his end, Allen has agreed for the first time in his career to help publicize his films. In fact, Woody Allen seems to be doing a lot of things for the first time. At the recent Academy Awards, there was an audible gasp from the audience as he made his way to the microphone for the first time (onhand to honor New York in the wake of 9/11, even after he declined to show up when "Annie Hall" won best picture).
In May, he will be making his first appearance at the Cannes Film Festival, with "Ending" getting the prestigious opening night slot. Allen will also open up for the first time on TV about his career in a new documentary entitled "Woody Allen: A Life in Film" which will air on the Turner Classic Movies network on Saturday, May 4, followed by the airing of 18 of his films during the rest of the month. But for the time being, he was excited enough about his inaugural trip to Texas. When asked how he liked it here, Allen deadpanned, "It's warm." However, all reports of his midday visit to the Austin barbecue haunt, Ironworks, were positive.
Remarkably, Allen didn't come to Austin for the ribs. Convinced by Dreamworks public relations guru Terry Press to make an effort to market his films, Allen believed the most meaningful way to reach his audience would be to set up question and answer sessions where he could talk to audiences one-on-one. Naturally, Press felt that college students would be a great place to start.
"I don't feel a responsibility to [talk to college students], “ Allen said, "but I'm happy to if anyone's interested. I mean, I'm happy to help anyone I can, but I don't go searching for it. If someone wants to know something, I'd be glad to help them."
As a result, Allen and Press set up a four-city publicity tour for each of his last three films, which has put Allen squarely into the public eye. This is in stark contrast to his long-held previous MO in which he's avoided attention at all costs. Over past three years, Allen has hit most of the major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and, of course, New York. This year, before arriving in Austin, he visited Toronto and Washington, D.C. Allen would clearly prefer to stay out of the spotlight, but once he starts talking about film, he appears to be energized by a higher calling than the marketing of his latest film. Though it isn't Allen's mission to spread his knowledge to college students, he almost can't help cracking a smile when he thinks about the films of his own youth. Then, he despairs when he thinks of the film industry now.
"There is the sense, which I don't believe it's true, but there is the sense that there is a dumbing down of America," Allen said. "Now, this of course can't possibly be true – the country could not have gotten dumber. That doesn't work. You get the illusion of that because if you look at the movies that one saw 25 years ago, 20 years ago, and the movies now, when I was college age, all my college aged friends, we all couldn't wait for the next Fellini film to come out or the next Truffaut film and it would be a big deal, and we'd be talking about it. The Jaques Tati films … these were big things for us.
"Now, the college audiences, I get the impression, will respond to films that I think are often infantile, that are often at a sub-college level, at an adolescent level, not even adolescent, but a sub-adolescent level, I mean, really silly. And you would think well, they must've gotten dumber, but that can't be because it just defies logic. So there's just been some kind of shift in general taste that doesn't signify any kind of intelligence loss, but it's just a different perspective that people come at. I mean I wonder if I showed a cluster of films to all your pals at college, if they would respond to them or not. I think they would, but I don't know."
One thing Allen is certain of, however, is why he is involved in so many aspects of the filmmaking process. A consummate writer, Allen said, "I'm only directing because I wrote the script, and I don't want to give it to somebody who'll screw it up, and then I'll be sitting, watching, thinking 'oh, that's not what I meant. You're saying that line wrong.'"
And Allen is well aware of how a single line can make or break a production. He first established himself writing comedy bits (some of which he did while he was still in high school) for TV legends like Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett and Jack Paar, which not only forced him to come up with the best jokes, but also to write under deadline.
"I am able to sit in a room if I have to, “ Allen said, "and just force it and think them up because many years ago I wrote for television and in those days the shows were live and you'd come in Monday morning and you had to have a show written by Thursday afternoon whether we could think of one or not. We just had to write it. So I would sit in a room with other writers, and we'd come up with a show just by sheer brute force."
Allen himself quickly became a burgeoning force on the national scene, turning into a popular stand-up comic in his own right. At the same time, he was an up-and-coming playwright whose early works included Broadway hits such as "Don't Drink the Water" and "Play it Again, Sam."
"Now, I always cast great women, “ Allen said, "and the truth of the matter is that I always write the parts for myself, the good part for myself. But the women who I work with are such strong actresses that when you see the movie, you don't see me, you see them and they're such great performers that they wipe me out. And so you say 'this movie is about Diane Keaton or 'this movie is Dianne Wiest or Judy Davis or Mia Farrow or Helen Hunt or Goldie Hawn or Tea Leoni, Debra Messing,' but I'm really writing for myself all the time. It's that I cast them, and by the time the picture is over, they're all so alive on the screen and so electric that it looks like I'd written it for them."
While Allen's authorship has afforded him the opportunity to get some of the best actresses and actors in the business to appear in his films, he is equally open to hiring talented unknowns, so long as they are right for the part.
Films aside, Allen is still interested in the craft of writing. His complete collection of published prose Without Feathers, Getting Even and Side Effects now needs to be updated with some recently published pieces for The New Yorker.
Allen has a drawer full of unfinished thoughts earmarked for scripts and articles waiting to be written. In spite of his legendary status, Allen plans to make a film a year until he gets tired of it. In what he refers to as his "10-month vacation from reality" in the new TCM documentary, Allen has been able to maintain his vision as a writer while simultaneously becoming a master of the film medium. Yet somehow, audience response is still a mystery to him.
"You never know in my films, “ Allen said. "I never know who is our audience – New Yorkers, then they turn out not to be New Yorkers. I think they're college students, and they're not college students. I think they're going to be middle-class people, and they're not middle-class people. I'm always confounded by who my audience is."
Then Allen paused, a small grin came over his face and said, "I just know it's small."
"There's no correlation between what I like as the maker of the film, “ Allen continued. "I'm going after a completely different thing. I write something at home, and I love what I wrote, and then I put it on film, and if I realize it on film, I'm happy, and if no one comes to see it, I'm still happy, but I think I've done a great job."
But Allen can't let the idea go without saying, "If I don't realize it, and I think 'oh, I had such a good idea, and I screwed it up,' it doesn't matter to me if people come or they don't come, if they love it or critics love it, because to me, it's always a failure – because I had a better idea on paper and I failed to execute it."
Even after all these years, he's still searching for his Hollywood ending.