By John Powers
© Vogue, November 20th, 2011 permalink
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Woody Allen has been around for so long—he’s been famous for as far back as I can remember—that it’s easy to overlook his importance. It’s not merely that comedians have spent decades cribbing from his old stand-up act or that his comic DNA turns up in everything from When Harry Met Sally to Bored to Death. His work has become an international genre. From Italy to Taiwan, Argentina to Turkey, the world keeps turning out local versions of Woody Allen movies. Indeed, at 76, this professional New Yorker seems less like a conventional showbiz star than a cultural given, like the Chrysler Building or Coney Island. As such, he’s the subject of Robert Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary, a two-part, 3.5 hour entry in PBS’s "American Masters" series. Its timing could hardly be more serendipitous. Allen’s most recent film, Midnight in Paris, is his biggest-ever box-office hit and will almost certainly be up for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Part one carries Allen from his Brooklyn childhood (he was born Allan Stewart Konigsberg in 1935) through his arrival as a cultural icon. Nobody can say he didn’t earn it. In high school, he got hired by an agent as a joke writer—he had to make up 50 a day!—and by 16 he was earning more than his parents. Although he saw himself as a writer not a performer, his managers talked him into doing stand-up. Deeply shy, he hated being on-stage, but in a neat piece of jiu-jitsu, he turned his neurotic persona into a new kind of hipness. Naturally, Hollywood snapped him up, and he was soon making gag-happy comedies like Take the Money and Run and Bananas. But as a longtime admirer of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, Allen wanted to do work that was richer, deeper, and more expressive. He did just that with 1977’s Oscar-winning Annie Hall, probably the most beloved movie romance of the last 40 years, and two years later, Manhattan, still his most accomplished film.
Allen’s rise is an upbeat story—even his divorces seem lighthearted—and Weide tells it well. He rides along as Allen takes us back to the old neighborhood. He interviews the people who were part of the story, from Allen's sister, Letty Aronson, to his second wife, Louise Lasser, to his screenwriting partner, Marshall Brickman (perhaps the most lucid person in the whole show), to his friend, lover, and muse, Diane Keaton, who speaks of their relationship with obvious warmth. Along the way, Weide does just what you hope he’d do: He digs up nifty video footage of Allen’s stand-up act and selects absolutely the right clips from his movies—including the lobster scene from Annie Hall, where he and Keaton are having so much fun that their delight is infectious.
Of course, nothing tempts the gods more than success, and part two tells a much trickier story. Allen continued to work at an astonishing clip, averaging one film a year for the next 30 years. While some were wonderful—I’ve always loved Broadway Danny Rose and Manhattan Murder Mystery—others were breathtaking in their awfulness. Allen often seemed more compelled by the need to make a new movie than having a new movie he needed to make. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Even as his audience shrank, he got caught up in a massive 1992 scandal, when, after having children with Mia Farrow, he got involved with her 22-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (now his wife). Overnight, this man who tried to shun celebrity became a tabloid monster.
This isn’t an easy story to tell, especially in such a celebratory series as "American Masters," and frankly, Weide doesn’t dig too deeply into what this episode might say about Allen or his work. Not that he ducks the issue. Part two doesn’t shy away from the attacks on Allen’s character or how he dealt with them: There’s a witty montage of Allen’s friends (and Allen himself) all using the same word—“compartmentalize.” Which is to say, he continued to make movies, and Weide hears from scads of stars—everybody from Sean Penn and Scarlett Johansson to Owen Wilson and Penélope Cruz. Their presence reminds you that, even when Allen was at his most reviled, virtually every actor considered it a badge of artistic honor to be in his films.
Back in his troubled 1990s, it was easy to believe that these actors were kidding themselves. But Allen kept plugging away, and as he turned 70, his persistence was rewarded. Over the last six years, he’s had a resurgence led by three acclaimed movies: the sinister Match Point, the uproarious Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and now Midnight in Paris, a comedy that plays to the popular fantasy of getting to hang out in the City of Lights with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso. Allen famously remarked that 80 percent of life is just showing up. He was joking, of course, which isn’t to say he didn’t mean it. For in a career spanning nearly 60 years, showing up is one thing Woody Allen has never failed to do. And say what one will against him, he’s done pretty well by that other 20 percent.
Part one airs Sunday, November 20, from 9:00 p.m.–11:00 p.m. ET/PT on PBS; part two airs Monday, November 21, from 9:00 p.m.–10:30 p.m. ET/PT on PBS.