Who is Woody Allen?

By Danielle Berrin

Early on, in a new documentary about Woody Allen, the cultural icon sits in the back seat of his chauffer-driven car, pondering his mortality. He tells a story of a formative near-death experience that occurred when he was a small child in his crib: His mother was at work when his nanny told him, and then demonstrated, that if she wanted to, she could smother him. For a few seconds, she wrapped a blanket around his face.

More than seven decades later (Allen turns 76 on Dec. 1), Allen still wonders aloud how close he came to the bitter end on that bizarre day. Had that nanny made good on her threat, a stony Allen deadpans: “The world would be poorer a number of great one-liners.”

In the three-hour-plus documentary of his life, which airs in two parts as part of PBS’ American Masters series beginning Nov. 20, those words are the closest Allen comes to acknowledging his own legend.

“So much of what’s filtered out about me over the years has been completely mythological,” he tells the camera.

His mystique has proven gripping for Allen’s legions of fans, who have faithfully followed his zigzagging mind through a prolific film career that has been variously comic, wacky, poignant, dark, charmingly romantic and almost ludicrously intelligent — all of which is on display in this biographical film. Nor does Allen’s neurotic self-effacement hold sway with the documentary’s producer, Robert Weide, best-known for his five-year stint as an executive producer and principal director of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“The big thing with Woody was getting over the hump of him agreeing to do this in the first place,” Weide said during a phone interview. “That hesitation was about him feeling that he wasn’t an interesting subject — that’s how out of touch he is.”

The film frequently acknowledges, through Allen’s friends and colleagues, that he is one strange genius. Recalling Allen’s early career doing stand-up in the West Village, his manager, Charles Joffe, observes, “He could hardly talk to people, let alone perform for them. And some nights, he was godawful. But other nights, he was absolutely brilliant.”

What Weide has woven together is the most intimate portrait of Allen ever shown. Viewers are invited into his mind and even his bedroom, where, for example, he shows Weide his “idea drawer,” splaying atop his bed pages upon pages of legal paper scrawled with story ideas. Allen also shows the ancient German typewriter he bought for $40 when he was 16, with which he has “written every script, every New Yorker piece, everything I’ve ever done.” For the first time in his 40-year film career, Allen also allowed a camera to follow him on set. The 2010 film “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” did not prove popular in the Allen canon, but its production offers a gift: Allen can be seen in his simple, directorial glory, casually instructing actors Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin as they rehearse a scene. In Allen’s presence, glamorous movie stars become deferential, timid and eager to please.

But just who is Woody Allen? Brilliant comedian? Prolific writer? Legendary auteur? He’s also developed a following as a jazz clarinetist — but those designations only describe his talents. Pinning down his personality, his identity, his character is far more complicated, yet that is the part of him we most want to know. What sort of person lurks underneath the artist? Allen’s public persona has run the gamut: neurotic, self-deprecating genius; asocial agnostic; hopeless romantic; selfish cad. If he were writing the script, he might portray himself as an ordinary family man — he has, after all, been married for almost 15 years to Soon-Yi Previn, with whom he has two children — but this now seemingly normal life was born of one of the most sensational romantic scandals of the 20th century.

Even after a reported seven sit-down interviews with Weide, conducted over two years, Woody Allen remains an enigma. His psyche is exposed, but not entirely understood; if he has wrestled with the pain he caused, those struggles remain private, concealed behind the veil of his public disgraces. This documentary, Weide said, was not intended as psychological portrait, but as a portrait of Allen’s career. Indeed, Weide shows himself to be a fan, his film “a public thank you” to an artist he has long admired and not a revelation about Allen’s cultural impact. “To me [his private life] is the least interesting thing about him, and this was going to be a film about his work. It would deal with his life to the extent that it informs his work,” Weide said.

Gaining unprecedented access to the notoriously private film legend, Emmy Award winner Robert Weide, right, delves into Woody Allen’s life and creative process, from his childhood and early career through his most recent film, “Midnight in Paris,” in this new, two-part PBS documentary.

But, to separate the man from the artist is to deny one of the deepest truths and richest pleasures about Woody Allen’s work. Throughout his oeuvre, he has cast himself as the consummate auteur — writer, director and often the star — infusing both comedy and drama with his worldview, his philosophical questions and his real-life romances. His persona is eclipsing — and endearing, enduring and troubling though he may be, he is what remains most essential about his work. The art and the man are one.

“I don’t think there is anybody like Woody — I’ve never met anybody like Woody,” actress Diane Keaton, one of his longtime muses, says in the doc’s opening moments.

Allen is, if anything, one of a kind. Weide has been a devotee since childhood. He was 10 when he saw “Take the Money and Run” and 17 when “Annie Hall” came out. The latter, he said, “completely spun my head around.” Weide, who grew up Jewish in Orange County, Calif., counts Allen among his top cultural “heroes,” along with the Marx Brothers, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, and the social critic and comedian Lenny Bruce. Weide has based much of his own work on their lives; he started his career with the 1982 documentary “The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell,” and his 1998 doc, “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,” received an Oscar nomination. A Vonnegut doc is in development.

Weide has a knack for getting close to his idols: Vonnegut became one of his best friends, and the notoriously media-shy Allen capitulated to his pursuit and gave him unprecedented access. Initially, Weide’s lifelong fascination with Allen barely registered with the director, who refused to cooperate. “He always politely turned me down, always on that basis of, ‘I’m not a big deal,’ ” Weide said. “Once he gave me a provisional ‘yes,’ he told me I would never get it financed. I said, ‘Watch me.’ ”

The financial champion of the project turned out to be director Brett Ratner, who secured funding for the film from Insurgent Media, a media company based in New York, co-founded by Fisher Stevens, the actor and Oscar-winning producer of “The Cove.” Ratner is credited as an executive producer on the doc, and Weide said he was helpful in negotiating rates with the studios for use of film clips and helped secure an interview with Scarlett Johansson.

But for all these Jewish men involved in the project, there is little in the film that deals with Allen’s Jewish identity. And given that it’s a recurrent theme in his work, both in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the disregard feels like a gap. What we get is Allen’s Brooklyn upbringing (he was famously born Allen Stewart Konigsberg), a brief reference to his grandparents’ immigrant story (from Austria and Russia), and a lively interview with his colorful mother, Nettie Konigsberg, which Allen shot in 1986.

“You were always running,” she tells him. “You never stayed put for five minutes. I didn’t know how to handle that type of a child.” She pauses a moment, before her big maternal revelation: “I wasn’t that good to you; I was very strict with you, which I regret. Because if I hadn’t been that strict, you might have been — not better, you’re a good person — but maybe softer, maybe warmer.”

The next clip shows a young Allen during a live television appearance. The host asks him if he took up boxing to escape poverty, and Allen says, “I took up boxing to deal with my mother.”

Weide often cuts back and forth between interviews and clips, showing parallels between Allen’s life and art. When Allen and his sister, Letty Aronson, who has also served as his producing partner since the mid-’90s, are rattling off a list of their father’s various odd jobs, Weide cuts away to a scene from “Radio Days” (1987) in which a young boy asks his father what he does for a living.

“It’s none of your business,” the father says. “Don’t you have any homework?”

“Pay more attention to your schoolwork and less to the radio,” his mother yells from the kitchen.

“You always listen to the radio!” he shouts back.

“It’s different. Our lives are ruined already. You still have a chance to grow up and be somebody!”

Later, when Allen tells how his managers Jack Rollins and Joffe (“the Rolls-Royce of management”) took him on as a client, despite never having represented writers, he recalls how Rollins tried to turn him into a more versatile show-biz “personality.” At the time, Rollins told Allen to focus on his work and trust him to book him for gigs (no matter how outlandish: For television, Allen boxed a kangaroo and serenaded a dog). Weide then cuts to a scene from “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984) in which Allen advises a man how to become “one of the great balloon-folding acts of all time. … You listen to me, you’re gonna fold these balloons at universities and colleges,” he says excitedly. “You’re gonna make your snail and your elephant on Broadway.”

The mirroring of Allen’s life and art is there throughout. His relationship to women, for example, carried over from his life to the screen. (Or was it the other way around?) In “Annie Hall,” he plays the smart, shlubby Jewish guy who woos with his wit and manages to charm a woman far more physically attractive. This distinctly Woody Allen sensibility ended up defining the Jewish-American male archetype. 

Diane Keaton was instantly smitten. She recalls how much he made her laugh: “My game plan was really to force Woody to like me. I was always plotting and scheming about how he could grow to see me as an attractive woman. I was always directing my attentions to, ‘How can I make him like me more?’ ”

They moved in together. “I worked it. I really worked trying to get him to fall in love with me,” Keaton says. “He didn’t quite fall in love with me — but I was around a lot, and we made a good team. We were a good team.”

Their on-screen affair lasted far longer than the real-life one, with Keaton becoming a quasi-confident muse for Allen’s anxious insecurity.

“I asked him about his actual physique,” Weide said, of material that ended up on the cutting room floor. “How much [his physiology] played into his comic character. And he really downplayed that. I pushed a little bit — ‘If you were a tall, blond, Aryan-looking guy, you could not have had the life experience that would have led to a Woody Allen persona.’ And he said, ‘Maybe I would have been a tall, blond, Aryan filmmaker.’ That’s how little thought he gives to any sort of theory. He goes on instinct.”

But even if Allen had been a tall, blond Aryan, the ubiquitous Jewishness that informs his work, and goes well beyond physicality alone, would be missing. “Culturally he’s a big-time Jew,” Weide admitted. “And sometimes it’s just a sight gag, like him appearing in peyos [in ‘Annie Hall’], but then in ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ Martin Landau flashes back to a seder from his childhood, where great moral issues are being discussed.”

Doubt about ritual observance and belief in God have led Allen to anomie. He explores religious themes in his work, but they usually arouse anxiety or prove inconclusive. “I think if you were to ask him, he wouldn’t rule out the concept of spirituality,” Weide said. “He just doesn’t accept it. These issues interest him, ideas of life and death and heaven and God and mortality infuse all of his work, but if he were a betting man, he would bet we die, and that’s it.”

A year ago, Weide and Allen exchanged e-mails over the High Holy Days, and Weide mentioned he would be going to shul. To which Allen replied, “I’m surprised to hear that you’re going to temple on Yom Kippur. It is my opinion that God should be the one atoning.”

Perhaps it’s Allen’s nihilistic worldview that made him impervious to charges of moral turpitude during the most public scandal he has ever faced. The revelation of Allen’s relationship with Previn, the adopted daughter of his partner Mia Farrow, with whom he shared two adopted children and a biological child, caused public outrage. The story became a media behemoth, splashed on the front page of all the leading newspapers and tabloids, as well as the evening news. A prolonged and brutal custody battle divulged yet more ugly accusations resulting in Allen’s severed ties not just with Farrow, his 12-year muse on and off screen, but with the three children they once shared.

If the ignominy disturbed his audience, it did not appear to hinder his career. Since 1970, Allen has delivered a film and a script each year, and even amid the turmoil, he worked, virtually uninterrupted, on “Bullets Over Broadway.” That film wound up being nominated for best director and best screenplay Oscars and earned a best supporting actress Oscar for Dianne Wiest. It is also worth noting that Allen married Previn in 1997, and they remain together to this day, now with two adopted daughters.

The documentary deals with all this through a montage of media coverage and a few comments from interviews. Allen is characteristically self-effacing but glosses over the issue: “I didn’t think I was that famous to warrant such coverage,” he says. “But apparently it was a good, juicy story, and it took a little edge off my natural blandness.”

Looking down from the camera, he adds, “Everybody had an opinion about my private life, which I felt they were free to have: They could sympathize with me, not sympathize with me. They could dislike me; they could like me. It could have no effect on whether they saw my films [or] they could never see my films — none of that mattered to me.”

For some Allen fans (or former fans), the incident remains a dark stain in his history, too big to forget. Reflecting back, the film critic Richard Schickel remembers thinking, “Is this really the ruination of Woody?” Even as recently as June 2011, while Allen was promoting his most recent (and subsequently most financially successful) film, “Midnight in Paris,” a reporter for Reuters asked whether he thought America was ready to forgive him for the “scandal.”

“What was the scandal?” he asked. “I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now. There was no scandal, but people refer to it all the time as a scandal, and I kind of like that in a way, because when I go, I would like to say I had one real juicy scandal in my life.”

It is also the one event in his life that never seems to reverberate on screen. Although it may have been presaged in 1982’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” when Allen’s character tells Mia Farrow’s character, “You’re so beautiful and charming. You could get any man that you wanted.”

“Not you,” she says, her face melancholy.

Allen’s dark side, his former wife Louise Lasser notes, “is a very important part of him.” The man best-known for his matchless comedy admits that he places a higher value on tragedy. “I always felt that tragic writing confronts reality head on — and doesn’t satirize it, tease it, kid it, deflect it, opt out with some kind of a gag at the last minute. It’s harder for me.”

And yet the universality of Allen’s work, its mass appeal, stems from its balance between the poles. He is light and dark, funny and sad, charming and broken. Film critics in the doc repeatedly marvel at Allen’s incredible range — and how the astounding success of one film can be followed by a flop so terrible that they are at the ready to pronounce the end of his career. And then he’ll come back again. His latest, “Midnight in Paris,” has become a landmark as Allen’s top-grossing film ever, with a worldwide box office estimate of more than $130 million. 

Actor Tony Roberts boils down Allen’s appeal to this: “The story he tells is the story of everybody who falls in love, and then falls out of love, and goes on.”

It is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of Allen’s life. He holds no illusions about the nature of human beings. He doesn’t romanticize people, but he is sympathetic to their flaws. The fact that Allen found himself socially compromised only illustrates that he is as real as his characters; he is not immune to the moral dilemmas and challenges he portrays on screen. He is, as the documentary attests, a master at creating them. 

Allen became an icon because he takes the quotidian and makes it cinematic.

The emotional climax of Weide’s documentary crescendos with one of those iconic moments: It’s that classic scene from “Manhattan” when Allen’s character, Isaac, is reflecting on past happiness and realizes what he’s missing: his former girlfriend Tracy’s face. He runs down the streets of New York toward her apartment, but when he gets there, Tracy (played, at just 18, by Mariel Hemingway) is about to leave for a trip. He wants to know if she still loves him. He wants her to stay. If she goes, he’ll be shattered; he won’t know what to believe in.

“I think you have to have a little faith in people,” she tells him.

The camera holds steady on Allen’s face, in close-up, as his expression moves from sadness to hope. Woody Allen slowly cracks a smile.

“That’s a huge statement for him,” Hemingway says in the documentary, referring to the scene’s hopeful bent. She knows it isn’t like Allen to “believe” in things. But she also sees that, through his art, he opens. After all, she says, “He wrote the line.”

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