Woody Allen: A Biography

Woody Allen: A Biography

by John BAXTER

Paperback(1 CARROLL)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786708079
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication date: 11/12/2000
Edition description: 1 CARROLL
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.16(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.41(d)

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Chapter One


What did he Say?


Jane Campion, the head of the Venice jury, told me she liked Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, although for the overwhelmingly Italian audience phrases like 'world-class meshugannah cunt' probably lost something in translation.

Kurt Andersen, writing about the 1997 Venice Film Festival in the New Yorker


In 1991, a Parisian journalist was asked by a French magazine to write an article on Woody Allen and the reason for his popularity in France. Since 1986's Hannah and her Sisters, the editor pointed out, Allen's films had won more critical and financial success in Europe than in the US domestic market, to the extent that they now made as much money outside the country as within it. He wondered why.

    'But the reason is obvious,' she replied. 'The French love smart dialogue, and Allen's films are very witty. Also the situations are adult; not at all like most American films. Not much of a story there.'

    'All the same ...' said the editor, reluctant to let his idea go.

    Just to refresh her memory, she borrowed a videocassette of Annie Hall. The tape was one of a series issued by Allen's French distributor on which, in an attempt to satisfy both the English-speaking minority of film-goers and the francophones, the film appeared twice, first dubbed, then subtitled. She'd seen the film on its first release and, as a fluent English-speaker, had hardly noticed the subtitles; but now theybecame startlingly evident.

    In an early scene, where Allen's character Alvy Singer revisits his old school and quizzes fellow students on their adult lives, the response of one, 'I make tallises' (Jewish prayer shawls) is translated as 'Psychologue' (psychologist). 'I'm into leather' is translated as 'I make things from leather.' Allen's much-quoted line about Los Angeles, that he wouldn't want to live in a city where 'the only cultural advantage is you can make a right turn on a red light', is trimmed to 'a city with no cultural advantage'. At the Hollywood party where Woody and Annie are introduced to celebrities like Paul Simon, an overheard line by a young actor (Jeff Goldblum, in an early role) who says plaintively on the phone, evidently to a guru, 'I've forgotten my mantra,' is translated as 'J'ai oublié ma grande robe' — 'I've forgotten my overcoat,' the translator evidently having misheard 'mantra' as 'manteau'.

    Worse, the subtitles rendered meaningless the first awkward conversation between Woody and Annie on the terrace of his apartment. Allen had wittily paralleled their stilted exchanges with subtitles that record their actual thoughts, but in the French version these disappear; all that remain are the banalities, carefully translated.

    The dubbed version was even worse. Half the jokes weren't translatable, so the writer of the French version didn't even try. Nor was this incomprehension limited to the subtitlers. When the magazine L'Avant-Scène du Cinema published the full text of the screenplay in 1977, all the errors were repeated, with a few added.

    Despite the evident losses in translation, Annie Hall had been a major hit in Paris, and still played there. The journalist proposed, then discarded, the theory that it was an example of the so-called 'Jerry Lewis Effect'. Lewis's films, especially those in which he starred as well as writing and directing, had a cult following in France, to the astonishment of American audiences, who found his frantic mugging increasingly tiresome. But the comedy of Lewis, broad and physical, needing no translation, had nothing in common with the social and cultural intricacies of Allen's work.

    Aware that her editor, albeit unwittingly, had led her to a story, she began asking casual acquaintances what they thought about Allen. From delivery men to checkout girls, cab drivers to waitresses, the answer was the same. He was a beau mec — a great guy. They loved him.

    'Do you speak English?' she asked them all. Most didn't — not enough, at least, to grasp the tortuous and fast-talking Allen humour.

    'So why?' she demanded in confusion of a cab driver.

    The man glanced back at her in the rear-view mirror, as if it were obvious.

    'Well ... look at him, madame. He's short. He's bald. He's ugly. He can't get laid. He's just like me.'


It's not surprising that Allen should find his greatest appreciation among foreigners, since he has always presented himself since childhood as one. As his official biographer Eric Lax acknowledges, Allen's influences are 'an amalgam of old Europe and New York'. He has never hidden which of the two he preferred. Visiting his parents' Flatbush home with then-mistress Mia Farrow, he walked around marvelling out loud, 'Can you believe I came from this place?'

    His earliest screen heroes were that archetypal outsider Humphrey Bogart and the Marx Brothers, whose surreal dialogue had little in common with Hollywood comedy of the time. When he discovered art cinema it was through Ingmar Bergman, who made films in a language even more alien to Americans than French was.

    If, as Jean Renoir says, every artist has only one story to tell, Woody Allen's is that of the outsider unable or unwilling to understand what he's told or, if he understands, to act on it. Woody never gets the message — from lovers, who arbitrarily dump him; from fans, who demand a commitment he can't, or won't, give; from family, whose needs baffle him; from authority, with which he's hopelessly out of synchronisation. 'What do they want of me?' he wails repeatedly in his films. He looks to archetypes of omniscience — aliens, ghosts, God, Death, mediums — for enlightenment, but, like Og the alien who appears to Allen's alter ego, film director Sandy Bates, in Stardust Memories, they are no help.


SANDY: You guys got to tell me; why is there so much human suffering?

OG: This is unanswerable.

SANDY: Is there a God?

OG: These are the wrong questions.


What are the right questions about Woody Allen? Many of them are bound up in the conflict between the role of a writer/director and that of a star. Allen is almost alone in American cinema in playing all three roles.

    There have been a few others. Charlie Chaplin is the most obvious of them, and in many respects he and Allen resemble one another. Early in his career, Allen even fancied himself as a comic in the Chaplin style. In 'Cupid's Shaft', a sketch he wrote for a 1967 TV special, he evoked City Lights by playing an unconvincing silent comedy routine as a park-keeper who rescues an amnesiac girl (Candice Bergen) from a thug and sets up house with her, only to see her recover her memory and run away with a rich and handsome suitor. He tried again in his first feature, Take the Money and Run (1968), a succession of sight gags which includes a Chaplinesque comic encounter with a shirt-folding machine in San Quentin prison. A scene in Bananas where, as Fielding Mellish, a professional products tester, Allen tries to demonstrate a combination desk and exerciser that goes out of control, reprises one in Modern Times where Charlie is the hapless guinea pig for a machine designed to feed workers without their needing to leave the production line. Nor is it hard to see Sleeper, with Allen re-awoken in the future, made the victim of Orgasmatron sex machines and forcibly transformed into a robot, as a Chaplin film recast.

    He and Chaplin are brothers under the skin. Both came from a working-class background. Both began as stage performers. Both, as soon as they entered films, seized control of the medium from their directors and writers. Both made films of increasing cost and complexity, reshooting and recasting in search of an elusive perfection. Both were almost destroyed at the peak of their careers by sexual scandals involving younger women. And both, as their careers plateaued in America, looked for new frontiers in Europe.

    Also like Chaplin, Allen has retrospectively rewritten his life, recasting himself as he often recasts his films. Through his reiteration, we've come to accept the 'Woody' of the quasi-autobiographical Radio Days and Annie Hall, the precocious son of poor, bickering but essentially affectionate parents, who won fame by wit and talent alone, who never pursued celebrity or wealth, who remained, even in adulthood, a failure with women. In reality, however, the 'Woody' of Allen's films is as remote from the real man as was 'the Little Tramp' from the millionaire autocrat, social climber and priapic fancier of nymphets who was Chaplin.


The foundation of Allen's critical success in the United States has been an enthusiastic embrace by the largely New York-based critics of his witty dialogue, little changed whatever role he plays. Outside New York, however, the audiences, considerably smaller, enjoy his ironic characterisations of Manhattan types: the anguished writer, the nervous documentary film-maker, the failed but optimistic theatrical agent, the stand-up comic. To them he's an exotic, attractive because of his strangeness.

    He might as well, in fact, be foreign. And it is indeed startling how much sense Allen's success and failure in the United States makes if one thinks of him in that light. He has shunned the collaborative Hollywood method of film-making, after becoming convinced, like playwright David Mamet, that '"Film is a collaborative business" only constituted half of the actual phrase. The correct rendering should be, "Film is a collaborative business: bend over."' Instead he resurrected a system pioneered in the European theatre by producer Max Reinhardt in Vienna between the wars and perfected by French performers of the twenties and thirties like Sacha Guitry, who wrote their own work, produced it and played in it on both stage and screen. In common with another writer/director/performer, François Truffaut, Allen's films first appealed to a limited audience in a handful of American cities, built to a peak of popularity with a single widely-seen title — for Truffaut, the 1973 La Nuit Americaine, retitled Day for Night in the US; for Allen Hannah and her Sisters in 1986, which grossed $59 million, $40 million of it in the United States — then fell off once more into limited art-house appreciation.

    Talking to the New York Times in 1992, Allen refused to decline or accept the label of 'honorary European'. 'It's the question probably most asked of me [by European journalists]. They say 'We consider you a foreigner, a European film-maker. Why don't you live here? Make films here?' I'm almost so thankful for their response I don't want to probe too deeply into the reasons. The ideas and themes I'm most personally responsive to are European. Perhaps it subliminally gets into your system.'

    Whether he likes it or not, Allen has been increasingly drawn to ally himself with Europe, as, since Hannah, his popularity base has inexorably shifted. In 1990 Alice grossed $8 million in France but only $6.5 million in the US. Since 1992, when Shadows and Fog opened in Paris before New York — a chance event, Allen says, caused by the disorder at his regular releasing company, Orion — every Allen film has premiered in the French capital. After Orion collapsed in 1992, Allen found it easier and more congenial to seek finance in Europe than in Hollywood. His current company, Sweetland, is bankrolled by the Swiss-Lebanese fortune of the Safra family and a consortium of film distributors and TV chains from Britain, Germany, Italy and France. He has toured Europe with his jazz band, talked of buying a palazzo in Venice, the city in which he married Soon-Yi Previn in 1997, and set his most successful film since Hannah, the 1996 Everyone Says I Love You, largely in Paris, where the couple spent their honeymoon. At last the beau mec seems to have found a spiritual home.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
Acknowledgementsxiii
Preface: Cafe Carlylexv
1What did he Say?1
2Can You Believe I Came from this Place?7
3My Universities18
4Women and Magic31
5Writer42
6Render Unto Caesar...51
7Stand-Up63
8What's New Pussycat85
9Casino Royale and What's up, Tiger Lily?114
10Don't Drink the Water137
11Take the Money and Run147
12Play it Again, Sam163
13Bananas176
14Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (* But Were Afraid to Ask) and Sleeper200
15Love and Death and The Front218
16Annie Hall241
17Interiors256
18Manhattan and Stardust Memories270
19Zelig and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy291
20Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo314
21Hannah and her Sisters and Radio Days330
22September, Another Woman and Oedipus Wrecks350
23Crimes and Misdemeanors and Alice368
24Shadows and Fog, Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery387
25Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite410
26Everyone Says I Love You and Deconstructing Harry425
Notes443
Filmography451
Bibliography474
Index477

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