This month the BFI Southbank in London is playing host to ‘Wise Cracks: The Comedies of Woody Allen‘, a season of the directors top comedic efforts. To coincide with this season I decided to author my own retrospective guide to my all time favourite director in the history of cinema with a three part article discussing all his movies. And not just the comedies.
Actively helming movies since 1969, Woody Allen has been responsible for writing and directing more than 40 films throughout his illustrious career. His influence on cinema is astounding. Many of his movies are masterpieces while the few that are underwhelming still at the very least are among the best films released in that particular year.
The Brooklyn born Allen began his career in show business as a gag writer for stand up comedians and TV sitcoms. Before long he took to the stage himself with his own material and quickly became a star. It wasn’t long until Hollywood came calling. Allen made his movie debut with a supporting role in 1965’s “What’s New Pussycat?”, from a script he wrote. The movie, also starring Peter O’ Toole and Peter Sellers, was a hellish experience for Allen who claimed that the producers messed around with his script too much during production and that the final piece bared little resemblance to the script he had written. He became more disillusioned with the system after acting in the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale. The shooting of that movie was a chaotic mess with over six credited directors. He was so upset by how his material was treated that he vowed never to work on film again unless he had full creative control.
In 1969 he directed his first feature film “Take the Money and Run” from a script that he co-wrote with his childhood friend Mickey Rose. ‘Take the Money’ is a hilarious mockumentary (among one of the first of the genre) that follows Virgil Stockwell (played by Allen) and his various unsuccessful attempts at living a life of crime. Filled with slapstick humour, visual gags and witty one liners the film turned out to be a modest success, it had a fairly small budget which allowed it to earn a profit. Thus, the gamble paid off and Allen was rewarded by having the luxury of commanding full creative control with his future projects – a luxury he has maintained to this very day.
His following movies all continued that same style of slapstick humour albeit encased in outrageously original storylines. “Bananas” (1971) saw Woody Allen get kidnapped by rebels shortly after getting dumped by his girlfriend only to end up becoming a dictator for the Republic of San Marcos. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex: But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972) is made up of several vignettes featuring an all star cast and wildly imaginative stories. Among the highlights are a sex crazed mad scientist who unleashes a giant killer breast on an unsuspecting little town, a TV quiz show called ‘What’s my Perversion?’ and Gene Wilder playing a doctor who falls hopelessly in love with a sheep.
1973’s “Sleeper” has Woody dabble in sci-fi for a farcical comedy set 200 years in the future where both he and Diane Keaton team up to defeat an evil dictator who is in the form of a disembodied nose. The zany concept allowed for some tremendous gags many of which were lovingly inspired by the golden days of silent comedy. The movie is also famous for the teaming of Allen and Keaton, who in my opinion are one of cinemas greatest double acts. Although they had both starred together both on Broadway and on screen in “Play it Again Sam” (1972), this was the first time Keaton had starred in a movie directed by Allen and the results are fantastic, they have a great chemistry and are both equals on screen bouncing off each other in a classic Hollywood screwball fashion. The success of this pairing led to “Love and Death” (1974), a movie which while having all the humour and madcap antics of previous Allen movies also had an intellectual weight to it by spoofing Russian literature. The film also featured nods to European cinema, in particular elements of Ingmar Bergman can be seen throughout – a director whose influence on Allen’s movies would only become stronger and more apparent as they went on.
Tired of writing gag filled scripts, Allen decided to branch out and try something new. In 1977 he made what is not only considered to be one of his best films, but also a timeless cinematic classic – “Annie Hall”. “Hall” was Allen’s first attempt at mixing drama with comedy by means of neurotic characters.
The story follows the relationship between Allen’s character Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton’s eponymous Annie Hall. The film is told in a non linear structure, narrated by Allen and incorporating many different visual techniques and tricks such as split screen, animation, characters regularly breaking fourth wall and a very imaginative sequence involving subtitles being played over a conversation between Allen and Keaton which shows the audience the true thoughts and insecurities that their characters are having. It is a movie that is both heart warming and heartbreaking. Beginning with Allen’s character looking directly into the camera and addressing the audience by telling us that both he and Annie have broken up the movie flashes back throughout the romance. It captures the idiosyncrasies of relationships perfectly and unlike any other romantic comedies, it analyzes in great detail the highs and lows of modern love. The movie won both Allen and Keaton Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress respectively. If you see only one Woody Allen movie, make sure that it’s Annie Hall. It is a timeless movie that absolutely everybody can relate to.
In ‘78 Allen took the biggest risk of his career by following “Annie Hall” with a bleak, slow burning, Bergman inspired drama “Interiors”. The story deals with three sisters in Adulthood who are forced to deal with the sudden break up of their parents. Allen has always stated that his fondness for cinema grew from watching Bergman movies, and never has that been so apparent than in “Interiors”. Gone are the gags, the witty humour and the heart that was present in Allen’s previous efforts.
“Interiors” was poorly received and flopped at the box office. Many felt betrayed by Allen for making such a bleak piece after the success of “Annie Hall”. In hindsight it is interesting to watch. Allen is trying too hard to channel Bergman throughout the movie that he fails to bring his own touch to the characters, who all feel like vacant stereotypes throughout the duration of the picture. That being said, it does have a very compelling story, one well scripted by Allen, but it is in his direction that it falls down, simply because Allen was trying to emulate somebody else while shooting- a mistake he quickly learned from.
He gloriously rebounded from “Interiors” with another instant classic, the amazing “Manhattan” (1979). Drawing upon “Annie Hall” Allen crafted a terrific piece of cinema which really romanticised New York City and made it a character within the film itself. A light-hearted drama, “Manhattan” saw Woody Allen play Isaac, an intellectual 42 year old, whose steady relationship with Tracy, a 17 year old girl, is turned upside down by the arrival of Diane Keaton’s character Mary, who is in turn having an extra marital affair with Isaac’s best friend Yale.
Set to the sprawling 1920’s sounds of George Gershwin and immaculately shot in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, “Manhattan” is a five star film that is perhaps most fondly remembered for it’s scene in which Allen and Keaton’s characters are sitting on a bench looking up at the New York skyline beginning to fall in love with one another. Set to Gershwin’s famous tune ’Someone to Watch Over Me’ and shot in silhouette it is arguably the most iconic scene in Allen’s career. The film was a smash hit and proved that Allen was not a one hit wonder with “Annie Hall” but in fact one of America’s most original and exciting directors.
However what comes up must come down. His next feature “Stardust Memories” (1980) was ripped apart by the critics and the movie going public, which is a shame because it is one of his most fascinating films. In it, Woody plays a famous director who falls out of grace with his adoring fans for choosing to focus on making drama’s instead of continuing his string of comedic hits. In reality the premise was very similar to the reception Allen was getting during “Interiors”.
The public hated “Stardust Memories” at the time of it’s release. It was seen as a not so subtle way of Allen turning his nose up at the legion of fans who had had followed him up until this point. In the years that followed “Memories” Allen has stated that the film was not autobiographical, I find this statement hard to believe. I think that if you watch this movie with the mindset of it being an honest biographical piece it adds much more weight to the piece and makes for a much more fascinating film. It is a very interesting movie in which you can see the artist’s personal and creative problems manifest themselves in the actual work itself. It’s easy to look back at “Stardust Memories” now and see it’s appeal, but at the time it was a major blow for Allen and one that he surely would have an uphill battle to recover from. Luckily his redemption was right around the corner.
Join me tomorrow for Part 2 of this Woody Allen Retrospective as we chart the movies that gave Allen some of his biggest most inventive hits and we are introduced to the muse that gave him a second wind – Mia Farrow.
Wise Cracks: The Comedies of Woody Allen is currently screening at the BFI Southbank and will run until February 8th. You can find more details here.