'Woody Allen': A revealing documentary of reclusive comedian

By Blair Howell

Gaining unprecedented access to the notoriously private film legend, filmmaker Robert Weide delves into Woody Allen’s life and creative process, from his childhood and early career to his most recent film in “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” airing on KUED in two parts on Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m.

In 1978, “Star Wars” didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar. It went to “Annie Hall,” along with Academy Award honors for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress.

Yet its writer-director calls the film, listed as No. 2 on the American Film Institute’s top romantic comedies, just “OK,” according to filmmaker Robert Weide.

That is just one indicator of the odd genius that is Woody Allen.

For PBS’ “Woody Allen: a Documentary,” airing on KUED Ch. 7 in two parts on Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m., Weide was given unprecedented access to the notoriously private — and “cripplingly shy” — Allen. It’s a fascinating view into his life and works, from his childhood and early career through to his most recent film, “Midnight in Paris.”

"Woody Allen was always the big 'get' for me," said documentarian Robert Weide. "The prolific nature of Woody's output has provided me with an embarrassment of riches. In fact, Woody will have made three features just in the time it's taken me to make this one documentary." “Woody Allen: A Documentary” airs KUED in two parts on Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m.

Weide, best known as a producer-director of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” trailed Allen for two years, after a convincing period that spread out over 25 years. The two met when Allen was in Weide’s first film, “Marx Brothers in a Nutshell” in 1982, and the documentarian has been involved with award winners on Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and W.C. Fields.

The documentary is being hailed as the ultimate film biography, but it’s really something more. Weide intercuts the film with clips of films, TV appearances and standup comedy as comment on how Allen’s life influenced his work.

“I was a sweet, happy kid,” Allen tells Weide, adding that he “turned grumpier” at age 5 with the onset of a lifelong obsession with mortality. The interview is followed by a humorous clip from “Annie Hall,” in which a youngster talks to a psychiatrist his mother has brought him to after refusing to do his homework. “What’s the point?” he asks. “The universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything.”

Weide conducts interviews on location shoots, in editing rooms and at Allen’s Manhattan home, where viewers are shown the Olympia manual typewriter “that still works like a tank” that he bought at age 16 and has used since for all of this writings. Instead of the cut-and-paste function of computer-aided word processing, Allen uses a cut-and-staple method, pulling out scissors, a miniature stapler and pages of a script-in-progress that he has pieced together.

With the expected exception of Mia Farrow, every major player in Allen’s life is consulted. We hear from Diane Keaton, former wife Louise Lasser, Martin Scorsese, Chris Rock, Scarlett Johansson and Allen’s sister Letty Aronson.

Most revealing is a 1986 interview Allen shot with his mother in which she confides he’d have been “softer” if only she’d been less strict. Allen’s sister explains that in childhood their parents were often arguing with each other and, while they remained a couple until their deaths, went for long periods of time in which they didn’t speak to each other.

We even get a guided tour of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Allen grew up and view a performance at the famed CafÉ Carlyle, where the accomplished clarinetist has had a standing Monday gig with his New Orleans Jazz Band for many years.

Allen sat for six face-to-face interviews and allowed Weide to visit the set, accompany him to Cannes for the “Midnight in Paris” premiere and even shoot Allen in the process of filming, a rarity in most bio-docs.

Though “Annie Hall” may be Allen’s most enduring film, “Midnight in Paris” has been his most successful at the box office, earning nearly $45 million in the U.S. alone and is still in theaters. Allen tells Weide his favorites were “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Match Point.”

Actress Mira Sorvino didn't read the script for 1995's “Mighty Aphrodite” until after she'd accepted the role: "They were very secretive,” she says.

She went on to win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her role. Allen's granting freedom to actors "was a gift and it made you step up to the plate," she said. "It was very freeing and very terrifying."

For anyone interested in writing, filmmaking, comedy or early television, “Woody Allen,” rated TV-14, is a must-see documentary on Allen’s life, creative process and prolific career.

“Woody Allen: A Documentary” Clip

Woody Allen describes how he cut his teeth writing comedy sketches at the Tamiment, a Poconos, N.Y., resort, in PBS Woody Allen: A Documentary, airing on KUED in two parts on Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m.

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