In 1982, still reeling from the failure of “Stardust Memories“, Allen went to work on two new movies, both of which were a return to the comedy genre – “A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy” and “Zelig”. These features marked the introduction of actress Mia Farrow to Allen’s work. Like Diane Keaton, Farrow served as a muse to Allen. They began a romance outside of the work place and she inspired Allen to make a great run of successful pictures.
“Sex Comedy” is a wonderful comedy of errors which featured a bunch of friends spend a weekend in the country side whilst having a series of illicit secret affairs with each others partners. The film was a return a form for Allen and won him his audience back. It was quickly followed by the release of “Zelig” another mockumentary, this time about a chameleon like man who takes on the traits of anyone he comes in contact with. Set in the 20’s and once again starring Allen and Farrow, the film is a technical triumph marrying special effects with a very inventive and charming story. It is one of the most original American comedies ever made. Allen and Farrow scored a hat trick with 1984‘s “Broadway Danny Rose”, a black and white comedy where hapless talent agent Danny Rose is accidentally drawn into a dangerous love triangle with his lounge singer client and a gangster’s ex girlfriend. The film continued their success and made them a formidable on-screen duo.
There was no stopping Woody Allen, who was now re-energised all thanks to Farrow. She played the lead in one of his movies for the fourth time with “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, a wonderful love letter to cinema. Set during the depression, we follow Farrow’s character Cecilia who is trapped in an abusive loveless marriage and seeks solace by escaping to the cinema every night. She becomes infatuated with a movie named ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ and sees it so many times that eventually one of the characters in the movie, adventurer Tom Baxtor (played by Jeff Daniels) falls for her and walks out from the cinema screen into the real world to declare his love for her. The fun then begins when the actor who plays Tom, Gil Sheppard (also played by Daniels) arrives in town to sort everything out, making for a very original love triangle. It is a very charming film that serves as a love letter to the escapism of cinema.
“Hannah And Her Sisters” continued Woody Allen’s winning streak and sits among “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” as essential viewing. Starring Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey as three sisters, the story revolves around their complex love lives and features amazing support from Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow and Woody himself as a perfect comic foil to the piece. This film is perhaps the greatest example of Woody Allen’s skill at balancing sentiment and humour. It follows so many characters and their personal struggles, yet nobody feels short changed in it, he aptly juggles all the plot threads and ties them together at the end.
Although it is essentially a drama, the comedic “Woody Allen” touch is what makes it so magical and it is exactly what was missing from “Interiors”. The humour flows naturally from the characters and the dark situations they get themselves into, it brings the film to life and compliments the heavy story elements such as religion, infidelity and suicide. The movie earned both Caine and Wiest Academy Awards and has a major hit.
He dropped the ball in 1987 with “September”, an experimental drama that was shot to look like a theatrical play recreated on film. Set entirely within a country home the film centres around Mia Farrow who plays Lane, a girl who is recovering from a recent suicide attempt. The story would work well as a stage play but on film it doesn’t sit quiet right. It is also void of any charm. It plays itself far too straight and is emotionally difficult to connect to. His subsequent feature “Radio Days” sees the director dust himself off and make one of his most criminally underrated films. “Radio Days” chronicles Allen’s childhood and the fond memories he has growing up listening to the radio. Starring Seth Green as a young Woody Allen and set in the 1930’s, the film features some terrific comedic sequences and a delightful soundtrack. It is a nostalgic look back at the glamour of celebrity, the dysfunctional adoration within families and the endless search for love. This film is definitely worth tracking down.
1988 saw Allen try his luck with yet another Bergman inspired piece “Another Woman”. The film is a cold bleak character study that stars Gena Rowlands as a woman who is forced to re-evaluate her life after she discovers that her family and close friends secretly can’t stand her. Like “Interiors” and “September” before it, this film is a heavy character piece with none of the magic of his other movies. “Another Woman” does however feature some inventive dream sequences and although it will leave you feeling cold, it is a strangely compelling film. Unfortunately though it is once again a case of Allen trying to ape another director when he would have far better off making it in his own style.
By this stage he was already a hugely prolific and well loved director, there was no need for him to pass off his work as a Bergman piece.
Thankfully Woody Allen is a director who learns from his mistakes and is talented and accomplished enough to always rebound from any misfires. His next film is without a doubt one of his all time greats “Crimes and Misdemeanours”. A black comedy, it tells two separate stories. The first follows Martin Landau in a great performance as a high class ophthalmologist who is responsible for the murder of an air hostess with whom he was having an affair with. The second story, which is inter-cut throughout the film, is a light hearted tale where Woody Allen plays a documentary filmmaker who has to shoot a documentary on his annoying brother in law played by Alan Alda.
Both stories tie into each other towards the end with one wonderful scene. With this movie Allen once again deals with large themes of guilt, morality and religion but does so in a hugely entertaining way. He is one of the few directors working in American cinema who asks the question ‘Is there a God?’. It’s an age old question and one he deals with head on in this film, however, he does so in a very engaging, gripping and charming way. This movie is certainly to his credit as one of the most important figures to cinema of our time.
As he entered the 90’s he made three more movies with Farrow as a muse. “Alice” in 1990 is an quaint little film where Farrow stars as the title character who through ancient Chinese herbs, goes on a magical ride where she explores her feelings for another man even though she herself is married with kids. It is escapist fun and a minor movie in Allen’s repertoire. 92’s “Shadows and Fog” is a black comedy loosely based on German expressionist movies of the early 20’s and sees Allen and Farrow go up against a serial killer. Although the movie once again asks questions about God and mortality it is a relatively unremarkable film. That being said it was remarkable to see that Allen – on his 22nd picture- was still experimenting with new styles of filmmaking and still asking big questions.
“Husbands and Wives” would unfortunately prove to be Allen’s last picture with Mia Farrow due to an acrimonious ending to their relationship off camera. The film however is down. In the movie Allen and Farrow play a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks – the story eerily and loosely mirrored their real life break up. Shot in a rough and ready way in which the camera man was always playing catch up to the action edited together with talking heads footage of the characters, the film had a pseudo documentary style to it. The film is a haunting character study made all the more important by what was happening behind the scenes. It really stays with you after watching it. With Farrow having left him many were ready to write Woody Allen off, thinking he would be lost without his muse. He did indeed hit a creative slump, but that wasn’t until the turn of the millennium, and thankfully for us that slump was sandwiched between some amazingly inventive films.
Join me tomorrow for the final part of my Woody Allen Retrospective as I take you from Manhattan Murder Mystery’ right up to ‘Midnight in Paris’
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.
You can catch up with Part One of my Woody Allen retrospective HERE.