Woody Allen: What Do We Know (And What Do We Need To Know)?

Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s tarnished personal reputation is again a topic in the news, reactivated when he won the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe award for “Lifetime Achievement.”  I guess it’s the kind of over-arching honor that makes the public consider moral character along with the quality of work.

I won’t even try to summarize the Woody Allen story – it’s too complex, and has been covered in detail already.  (Two links below are both worth reading, if you want to catch up.)  Besides, what do I know?  About Allen, Mia Farrow and the rest – nothing more than I read, and I don’t feel comfortable drawing factual conclusions from reportage.

But I do know what I see in his movies, and for me, that’s enough.

Even in his early films, most of which I saw in my mid-teens, I sensed the implausibility of his sexual appeal.  Who could believe that Diane Keaton, so young and hip, would fawn over him? The fact that Allen himself made jokes within the movie didn’t negate the problem.

In Manhattan, it really tipped over into creepiness.  We’re asked to believe that Tracy (the gorgeous Mariel Hemingway, more than 25 years younger than Allen) is so enthralled with Isaac (Allen’s “character,” if that’s the word for such thinly-veiled autobiography) that she’d rather stay with him than go to London, a move that could make her career.  Yes, he recognizes that she should leave him, and tells her so – but that doesn’t obviate Allen’s need to have audience think of him as the object of adoration.  (Much later, I learned that the Isaac-Tracy relationship is based on an actual affair that Allen had with a high school student, which certainly didn’t lessen the ick factor.)

So I avoided Allen’s movies for a while – till his collaboration with Mia Farrow, which seemed more promising. She, too, was an odd love interest for Woody, but hey – Farrow herself had a long history with older men (Frank Sinatra, Andre Previn).  More to the point, she seemed to bring out a new sweetness in Allen’s work.  My favorites of his movies – Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days– date from this period, along with what many consider his best work, Crimes and Misdemeanors.  I even fell for one of the weaker efforts, Alice – it’s a bit of a mess as a movie, but I thought the way he portrayed Farrow’s evolving character was so loving.

Then came Husbands and Wives.  By the time I saw it, Allen and Farrow had split up – but even without the “True Hollywood Story” as background, it was appalling.  Farrow, playing Judy Roth, is made out to be needy, whining, destructive – the embodiment of the kind of wife who drives away her long-suffering husband (guess who?).  The entire movie is a series of self-indulgent musings on the toxicity of relationships, but the real low point involves Benno Schmidt, then just finishing his tenure as President of Yale.  Schmidt, playing Farrow’s ex-husband, gives on-camera commentary about how awful she is.  (I kept imaging Allen, whispering in my ear, “You see what a crazy bitch my wife is?  Even the President of Yale thinks so!”)  It was even worse imagining what Farrow must have been thinking during the process of making this movie.  Did she have any sense how she would appear in the finished product?  The whole thing made me queasy.

And so mostly I stayed away again.  Much of the time, the decline of Allen’s work made it easy.  (Was I really missing anything by passing up Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Melinda and Melinda?)  Occasionally, something came along that was much praised, and I’d give him another chance.  Most of the time, I was disappointed – these newer movies were pale imitations of earlier, better ones.  (For me, Match Point is to Crimes and Misdemeanors as Godfather III is to II; and Midnight in Paris won’t do for anyone who has seen Purple Rose of Cairo.)  But at least he seems, thank God, to have given up the notion that he himself is an appropriate leading man to decades-younger women.  (Well, not quite given it up – he basically assigns a younger, more appealing actor as his doppelganger, e.g. Owen Wilson in Paris.)

My interest in Tennessee Williams led me to see Blue Jasmine, his latest movie to date (another, Magic in the Moonlight is due soon).  I’ve written about it already on this blog, so here I’ll just say that in draining Cate Blanchett’s character (Jasmine herself) of all the traits that make her Streetcar Named Desire counterpart Blanche so complex and even noble, Allen continues his tradition of portraying female characters in a harshly unsympathetic way.

By all means, draw your own conclusions.  I’m not judging Allen guilty of personal transgressions.  But I’ll let his movies speak for themselves – and they speak volumes.


How a Vanity Fair Profile Revived 22-Year-Old Allegations against Woody Allen (Washington Post)

The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast (Daily Beat)

Categories: Movies

3 replies »

  1. I, too, find Allen’s too-meta self-obsession and related fantasies off-putting in his films, though “Manhattan” has enough separate appeal to remain a favorite. The more recent “Midnight in Paris” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” are light and charming, largely bereft of the ick factor. “Blue Jasmine” is bad because the hamhanded treatment of San Francisco – he beautifully shoots at a most of the major sites, but the street scenes are jarringly unreal, the Andrew Dice Clay character seems teleported from a Brooklyn mechanic’s shop. Was like Allen chose six locations from a book of post cards, shot there, but lazily spent no time learning what makes San Francisco special or different from any other place.

  2. Interesting point about San Francisco. Allen’s affinity for New York was, to me, pitch perfect — and it followed through in his sense of the people (genuine Manhattanites). That was certainly one of the joys in MANHATTAN. In Allen’s more recent movies, he seems equally confident about his sense of San Francisco, London and Paris, but to me it’s clear he doesn’t seem like he has more than a tourist’s guidebook knowledge.

    • Pitch perfect for rich Manhattan sophisticates– including their name dropping of people like Dostoevsky without any real understanding of their work, which sums up Allen’s entire pseudo-intellectual career, lauded to the skies through thick and thin by the NEW YORK TIMES–but totally tone deaf for anyone less fortunate. And of course black or Hispanic New Yorkers are remarkable for their absence.

      His San Francisco is gay-free and reality-free; bond traders would be living in the “poor person’s” apartment.

      To me, after ANNIE HALL the darkness sets in, though there has been the occasional delight like PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO or time-passing tourist office travelogue like the Barcelona thing. Now it’s hard to choke back the contempt.

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