PBS gets a Woody Allen retrospective

By Gary Levin

Woody Allen has been a standup comic, a filmmaker and a celebrity, and his long career is the subject of a two-part American Masters documentary airing Nov. 20 and 21, tentatively titled Seriously Funny: The Comic Art of Woody Allen.

"You don''t hear the phrase 'independent filmmaker' attached to Woody that often, but in some ways he's the quintessential independent filmmaker," says producer Robert Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm). His arrangement, since Take the Money and Run, the first film he directed in 1969: "Deliver on time and on budget and nobody will mess with you. This is the situation he's had going, the scam he's pulled off, for 40 years."

His latest film, Midnight in Paris, has been his most successful film at the box office, earning nearly $45 million in the U.S. alone and still in theaters, though most fans view 1977's Annie Hall as his most enduring. (Allen told Weide his favorites were The Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway and 2005's Match Point, which he felt achieved what he set out to accomplish.)

The two-part documentary, which includes footage from six sit-down interviews and visits to film sets, includes other footage: A 1986 interview Allen shot with his mother, in which she confides he'd have been "softer" if only she'd been less strict; a visit to his childhood home in Brooklyn; and clips from his early TV exposure as a stand-up comedian.

The famously shy Allen, 75, was a no-show at Sunday's press session to discuss the project; he's shooting his next film in Rome, though Weide says he'd never have come anyway. But his former co-stars reflected on their breakout roles.

Mariel Hemingway says she came in cold when she auditioned for 1979's Manhattan at 17. "I grew up in Idaho, I had no idea who he was." He gives most of his actors wide berth to interpret their roles, with little feedback, and didn't insist on slavish devotion to his scripts. He only talked to his actresses "depending on how young they were," she joked, and the film, about his relationship with a much younger woman, became autobiographical, as his later relationship with companion Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn (now 40) attested. "He's an artist; it doesn't mean he's not an odd person who makes choices we don't all agree with or understand," Hemingway says.

Sorvino didn't read the script for 1995's Mighty Aphrodite until after she'd accepted the role. "They were very secretive. They didn't even tell me in the first audition she was a prostitute. I had to guess it from the lines." But at 29, she went on to win an Oscar as best supporting actress for her role. His granting freedom to actors "was a gift and it made you step up to the plate. It was very freeing and very terrifying."

woody collage