Woody Allen: A Documentary

Dir: Robert B. Weide, 2011. Starring: Woody Allen. Documentaries.
Woody Allen: A Documentary

At over three hours Robert B. Weide's documentary (originally shown as part of PBS’s American Masters series) is almost “everything you always wanted to know about Woody Allen - but were afraid to ask." As a rabid fan I still have some unanswered questions, but I couldn’t ask for a more entertaining examination of the fascinating career of one of cinema’s true masters. Though autobiographical snippets have appeared in most of Allen’s films, he has remained massively private and almost mythically close-mouthed about his filmmaking (for instance never giving any DVD extras), though in recent years he has done more film promoting and made more public appearances (as have guys like Robert De Niro, as the economics of promoting films have gotten more intense and needy). In ’97 Allen was the subject of a fun, lightweight documentary, Wild Man Blues, which was more about his clarinet playing career and his bizarre relationship to his one time step-daughter and now wife, Soon-Yi Previn. For fans that was the closest glimpse into the man (along with Eric Lax’s 1991 book of conversations with Allen). But with Woody Allen: A Documentary, Weide (mostly known as a TV director with credits that include Curb Your Enthusiasm) has gotten the most in depth, on camera heart-to-heart with Allen. Filled with wall to wall clips, the film mercifully spends most its time on the rarer early career of Allen and less on the stink he has mostly been putting out for the last 20 years.

Woody’s life growing up in Brooklyn is now the stuff of legend. As a teenager he started giving jokes to newspaper columnists, which led to some writing gigs that eventually put him in a room with future celebrated writers Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart writing for Sid Caesar. He would continue writing for comedians until hooking up with high-end managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe who talked him into hitting the stage and telling the jokes himself. A neurotic and shy young man, Allen never dreamed of being a performer and it often showed. It was a slow rise but eventually, as cerebral comics like Mort Sahl were coming into fashion, Allen found his voice and an eager audience in the groovy coffee house scene of New York’s Greenwich Village at clubs like The Bitter End. Allen soon became a showbiz fixture on the TV comedy circuit; exposure was the goal and here Allen admits nothing was beneath him (the documentary even includes a bizarre clip of Allen boxing a kangaroo a show called Hippodrome).

In 1965 producer Charles K. Feldman (A Streetcar Named Desire) hired Allen to write What’s New, Pussycat? as a star vehicle for Warren Beatty, and he wrote a plum role for himself in it. After many arguments between producer and star about the direction of the script, Beatty dropped out. The film was a huge hit, but Allen was disappointed with how the film ended up and how his comedy was mangled; he vowed he would never give up control of his own work ever again and Woody Allen, the director, was born. This marks the 45 minute mark into the film and essentially the end of Act One, the most satisfying part of the film because it’s so full of footage, all those TV appearances, which most of us (who weren’t alive back then) have never seen before.

Right from the start with his first film as director, Take The Money and Run, Rollins and Joffe convinced the studios to hand over the money and leave Woody alone, a manner of complete control Allen has been able to keep for over 40 years (at this point they skip over his role and uncredited script doctoring on the sloppy James Bond spoof Casino Royale and his very funny experimental oddity, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?).

Allen proves to be a complete artist by also writing two hit plays, Don’t Drink The Water and Play It Again, Sam (which Allen starred in on stage and in the film). Meanwhile his run of landmark comedies followed with Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper and my personal favorite, Love and Death (where both his Ingmar Bergman and Bob Hope influences are discussed).

At this point, the 75 minute mark, they skip over his actor for hire gig in the terrific blacklisting flick, The Front, but now we get to Allen’s first true masterpiece, the groundbreaking Annie Hall. Here Allen moved away from the vignettes and slapstick to tell a love story and though it’s still incredibly funny (with an endless amount of quotable lines), it marked a definite maturing, if not evolution, in his work. It also helped that he hooked up with a great cinematographer, Gordon Willis (The Godfather, All The President’s Men) for the first of seven films they would go on to work with together. Annie Hall shocked the world, winning a bunch of Oscars (including Best Picture and two for Allen as director and cowriter and he was even nominated for Best Actor) and of course Allen, always a casual maverick, skipped the event. Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) points out Annie Hall’s influence and says it felt like a bomb going off that changed the way comedies were made and film critic F.X. Feeney calls it a game changer for the industry.

Martin Scorsese points out that with the success Allen now had an opportunity to do whatever he wanted. Working strictly as Writer/Director (for the first time not acting in his own film) he made the deeply serious (and rather dull) Bergman-esq flick Interiors. It got mixed reviews, but for his next movie he went back to Annie Hall material and made his second masterpiece, Manhattan. Here the Allen/Willis collaboration hit its apex. Shot in black & white (with a wonderful Gershwin score), Allen gives the best performance of his career. Again it’s an incredibly funny flick but with complicated human beings and very adult situations. After all it’s about a guy who has a romance with a teenage girl (the lovely Mariel Hemingway whose performance, Leonard Maltin points out, helps stops the film from getting too unseemly) and then with a woman his own age but who is his intellectual superior (Diane Keaton). In all actuality the film is a love letter to the city Allen is now most associated with. Here Allen admits he hated the film when he first saw it, while audiences loved it. The good will was short lived, however, as Allen closed out the 1970s with Stardust Memories (a homage to Fellini’s 8 1/2). The controversial film about a frustrated filmmaker was considered a disappointment by many and a hate letter to his fans by some.

And that’s the end of Part One (originally this was shown on TV in two nights). Had the film ended here it would be a perfect doc on the best half of Allen’s career (like the Scorsese directed Bob Dylan documentary, No Directions Home, that wisely ended in the late '60s and stuck to the most influential part of the singer’s life). The second half is totally enjoyable and still a must for any student of Allen, but just a little less spellbinding and exciting. The '80s were a fertile creative period for Allen, with another masterpiece (Hannah and Her Sisters) and a bunch of significant films (Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo) but his last great film was in 1992 (Husbands and Wives). During the last 20 years Allen has made over 20 films, a couple of which were good (Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown), a couple were popular (Match Point and Midnight in Paris), but most were terrible (Melinda and Melinda, Small Time Crooks, Hollywood Ending, Scoop, etc.). As his personal life becomes incredibly unappealing, so does his on screen persona and performances. The second part of the documentary does include some fascinating stuff, like his casting process (replacing Michael Keaton with Jeff Daniels after starting shooting on The Purple Rose of Cairo) and the secret delivery of his scripts to the actors and his writing for women. Yet, hearing about some of these totally lame movies being treated like significant works of art is disconcerting, especially after that run of flicks in the '70s.

For anyone who wants to understand the significance of Woody Allen or fans who just want to enjoy all those clips again and hear the most insight from Allen himself on his own work, Woody Allen: A Documentary is essential viewing. Allen is a flawed human being (that may even be an understatement) but his quest for truth on screen never ends. While other directors who came of age in the '70s have been mythicized, Allen continues to tease with crumbs of who he really is in his work, and he still proves to be endlessly fascinating. The guy has basically written and directed a movie every year since Annie Hall. It’s been hit or miss, but the ambition and amount of output is still astounding. Love or hate him, there still is no denying that in Allen’s lifetime there really has been no other artist on par with him. Any director with Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters on his resume is automatically elevated to the level of all time great.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 24, 2013 5:49pm
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