Woody Allen (1935) is a multitalented filmmaker known for creating strong female leads, developing rich screenplays, infusing a script with finely tuned characters, and reinventing the romantic comedy. His quirky writing and sense of comic timing is a direct result of his experiences growing up with a demanding mother and nomadic father, who were second-generation Jewish immigrants.
Born in Brooklyn, NY just prior to World War II offered a unique outlook on life for Allen growing up with the knowledge, and pain of Hitler’s Jewish Holocaust. He understood the plight of his kinsmen overseas, yet refused to allow the darkness of that time to break his spirit. He knew that had his family lived in Germany during this period, that he probably wouldn’t have survived to experience the beautiful chaos that is life. His father would bounce from job to job, never quite finding a place to settle, and he was everything from a salesman, to a taxi driver, to a bartender, to a jewelry engraver, to a pool hustler and bookmaker. His mother never had the patience for Woody and his comedic antics, and on many occasions family shouting matches and a few flying fists made this small overcrowded middle class apartment look like the location of a ultimate fight championship. It was much of this life experience and cultural legacy that Woody used as inspiration for a path in stand up comedy, writing, television, and film. It was also that sense of claustrophobic mayhem that would lead Woody to search for a calm solitude later in his life.
While in high school, Woody was not really interested in academics or a social life, instead he chose to spend his time creating magic tricks, and writing comedy. It was at the age of 17 when he began having his jokes published by a local newspaper, and that got him noticed. He was then hired to write material for other stand up comic talents.
Always a lover of film, Allen decided to study filmmaking at New York University, but due to some unexpected challenges, he decided to fall back on a career in comic writing. That decision paid off for Allen, and before he’d reached his 20th birthday, he already had over twenty thousand of his jokes purchased. Within three years he was writing comedy for one of television’s biggest comedy stars of the time, Sid Caesar. This work with Caesar earned Allen an Emmy Award nomination. Allen also wrote material for the legendary Bob Hope during this period.
While Allen understood comedy and how it could connect with audiences, he wanted to understand it at a deeper level. So, in 1960, he left Caesar and began performing stand up comedy six nights a week at a small New York club. Allen wanted to explore every avenue of why audiences laughed, and literally living in a comedy club was his answer to addressing those pondering questions. His stand up routine began getting national exposure, and television networks invited him to appear on numerous talk shows and variety shows. His comedic success led to a Grammy nomination for best comedy album in 1964, and his comic approach was different from many other comedians of the time. Allen’s style was self-deprecating, and an inward focus on his flaws, failed relationships, and the fact that he wasn’t the world’s most handsome man. Compared to other stand up comics who spent most of their time focusing on politics, Allen appealed to the “everyman”, and to everyone’s insecurities. His humor made the audiences feel worthy, and understood.
During this time, Allen became a household name, and he got the opportunity to write and star in his first film What’s New, Pussycat? in 1965. He was incredibly unsatisfied with the experience, and actually stated that he would never work on another film unless he had complete artistic control. The film had tremendous success, and Allen got his wish, and for the next 50 years, if a film bore his name, it also had his stamp of approval. Allen is so intent on what project is next on his plate, that once a film leaves the editing room, Allen leaves it behind as well, stating he’s never watched any of his films once he’s signed off on the final cut. Allen has also claimed that he’s never been completely satisfied with any of his projects.
Allen would go onto to write, direct, produce, and star in several of his early films as an unlikely leading man. Many of those projects would focus on romantic relationships, human failures, and the search for the meaning of life. Stylistically, he would bounce between parody, slapstick, and drama. Interestingly enough, he would also find success in each genre (although not for every film). Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was known for his adult-driven parodies, and mockumentaries.
In 1977, Allen’s breakthrough film, Annie Hall, earned four Academy Awards (picture, director, screenplay, actress) and also earned the filmmaker a reputation for his off screen relationships with his onscreen stars. Diane Keaton was his romantic connection in the brilliant Annie Hall. Allen would redefine the romantic comedy in a way that showed audiences, that even in Hollywood pictures, relationships sometimes fail in the end. His approach to romance was one of fun, but realism as well. Another important relationship formed as a result of Annie Hall, this one with award-winning cinematographer, Gordon Willis. Willis worked with Allen on nine films and was also known for his work on other legendary projects (The Godfather Trilogy, All The President’s Men, Klute, Malice).
Because of Allen’s love of New York, many of his films were shot and set there, including his homage to New York City in 1979’s Manhattan. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Allen’s work could be mistaken for extensive therapy sessions exploring faults, hopes, obsessions, fears, failures and neurosis-driven subject matter. But almost always, audiences would leave theatres feeling a little bit better about themselves, their lives, and their relationships.
In 1986 Allen received another Academy Award for writing Hannah and Her Sisters, starring longtime love, Mia Farrow. He and Farrow had a rocky relationship over the years, which included a vicious custody battle, and a scandalous love triangle with an adopted daughter.
Allen would also explore experimental filmmaking borrowing independent and long lost European and Italian styles of shooting, editing, and character studies. He is also one of the world’s most prolific feature filmmakers, releasing a new project nearly every year. Over the decades, award winning talent, and some of the biggest names in Hollywood have all yearned for an opportunity to work with Allen. While his scripts are usually well developed, and offer unique and interesting characters and dialogue, he is known for giving his talent an opportunity to improvise lines and explore the characters at a deeper level. This approach to directing is a rarity in Hollywood, but it has continued to work for Allen and his talent throughout the decades.
He’s written and directed musicals, period films, genre studies, and pure works of art. Although not every film has appealed to audiences, or critics for that matter, Allen has continued to explore topics, characters, and settings that inspire and intrigue him. He’s written and directed films focusing on his love of music, filmmaking, Broadway, Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, and more.
Since 2005, Allen has chosen to explore his adoration of travel, and foreign destinations making films in London, Spain, Paris, and Rome. In films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), To Rome with Love (2012), and Magic in the Moonlight (2014), Allen showed audiences that love stories could be as much about locations and settings, as it could about people.
Throughout the years Allen has also composed and performed music for his films, written and directed Broadway plays, and contributed regular humor pieces for the New Yorker Magazine.
In 2016, Allen took returned to television with the Amazon Original series Crisis in Six Scenes. Allen directed and starred in this 1960s-based comedy co-starring Miley Cyrus. Allen told the Hollywood Reporter that working on a television was far more difficult than he’d anticipated.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I do a movie all the time, and I’ve gotten so that I can do them,’ and I thought ‘Television, just six half hours, I can knock that off as if it’s nothing.’ But it wasn’t nothing. I struggled … and it was much harder work than a movie and even more because you have to it in, to say the least,” noted Allen (Lewis 2016).
With four Academy Award wins (24 nominations), two Golden Globe wins (13 nominations), and ten BAFTA Award wins (23 nominations) for his career work, Allen has continued to find ways to bring his stories and characters to life over the half century of filmmaking. His 16 Oscar nominations for screenwriting places him at number one on the all time list, and his seven nominations for directing lands him in the top three in the directing category. His last Oscar win was for Midnight in Paris (2011), and he was nominated again in 2013 for Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in her Oscar winning performance. He’s also been honored by the Broadcast Films Critics Association, the Director’s Guild, the Screenwriter’s Guild, and has been honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards for filmmaking, among others.
Although his career, and his relationships have been very public, Allen considers himself a loner, an outsider and a very private individual. As a film critic, and a fan of Allen’s body of work (47 films to his credit), one wonders how many more chances we’ll get to see new work from this 81-year old legend. If genetics plays a role, Allen may go on creating for many more years. His dad lived to be 100 years old, and his mother was 95 when she passed away.
By Noel T. Manning II
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