December 20, 2006

Woody Allen, Thespian?

Reeler critics Matt Singer and Vadim Rizov on the filmmaker's time in front of the camera -- for better or worse

As Allen sees it, his range is limited to two distinct types: neurotic intellectuals and fast-talking shysters (Broadway Danny Rose, above)

An Actor's Life in Film
By Matt Singer

I n 1978, Woody Allen personally received three of his film Annie Hall's five Academy Award nominations. The film swept all five categories save one: Best Actor, where Allen lost to Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl. In the 28 intervening years, Allen would be nominated 18 times as a writer and a director -- but never again as an actor. In most ways this is Allen's own fault, but not necessarily because he has given bad performances.

In 2002's Woody Allen: A Life in Film, Allen the director assesses Allen the actor. As he sees it, his range is limited to two distinct types: neurotic intellectuals (Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery) and fast-talking shysters (Take the Money and Run, Broadway Danny Rose, Small Time Crooks). Allen estimates much of his success in both roles lies less in his powers as a thespian than in his physical appearance; in his estimation, he simply looks the part.

In all likelihood, Allen believes his onscreen appearance is crucial to his success as an actor and so, whether playing Gabe Roth or C.W. Briggs, Isaac Davis or Victor Shakapopulis, his costume is consistent: button-down shirts and corduroy jackets, the haircut that's been thinning in the same exact spots since 1975 and, of course, a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses. Other comedians cast in role after similar role will go to remarkable lengths to create unique appearances for each one -- consider how different Will Ferrell looks, for example, playing essentially the same character in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Woody Allen, in contrast, always looks like "Woody Allen," so it's no wonder that people eventually began to assume that he wasn't acting.

An especially apt example of Allen as “Allen” is 1980's Stardust Memories, in which Allen plays Sandy Bates, a successful New York filmmaker struggling to complete his latest project while obsessing over his messy love life. He travels to a retrospective of his films, where he is assaulted by an endless stream of fans, photographers and groupies who claim to be his "biggest" fans, even while bemoaning the fact that he no longer makes pictures like his "early, funny ones." Allen swore Stardust Memories was in no way autobiographical, though it seemed to describe his life in 1980 (right down to the frustration with his "serious" recent films like Interiors) to a T. In A Life in Film, Allen insists that entire film is an elaborate dream sequence, but it's difficult to see Stardust Memories as anything but a self-meditation -- especially when viewed in conjunction with documentarian Barbara Kopple's Wild Man Blues (1995), which follows Allen’s jazz tour through Europe. Kopple finds a similarly steady stream of sycophants and paparazzi badgering Allen, demanding he sign an autograph, pose for a picture or receive their bogus award.

For full effect, watch the two films in reverse chronological order. Suddenly Stardust Memories looks like a shadow remake of Wild Man Blues: Kopple captures the frenzy of a mob clamoring for a glimpse of Woody and Soon-Yi; Allen shows you the perspective of the mobbed. Kopple shows Allen smiling blankly while holding court with foreign dignitaries; Allen did the exact same thing 15 years earlier. But even in something as autographical as Stardust Memories, Allen is acting: Bates is a far more jovial, accommodating guest than the real Allen, who behaves more like my elderly grandmother than a powerful filmmaker. And it's worth noting that playing Woody Allen may not be as easy as Woody Allen makes it look; as he's aged, Allen has cast other actors in the "Woody Allen" role -- Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda -- with frequently disastrous results. Critics dismissed the attempts, yet they rarely acknowledged that Allen could pull off performances that these "superior" actors could not.

In Stardust Memories, the film Sandy can't finish and the festival that won't end merge, and the conclusion of the latter in effect concludes the former. As the film we're watching and the film Bates is making end, the casts of both pictures make their way out of a movie theater. Once the room is empty, Allen walks into frame and pauses briefly before swapping those famous spectacles for a pair of sunglasses. Perhaps that's the real Allen making an unusually direct gesture to the audience about the mask he wears and the character he plays: Unlike Chaplin's Little Tramp, Allen's character is simply, well, Woody Allen. Or perhaps the meta-conclusion is indeed one enormous fantasy; after all, in Stardust Memories, Sandy Bates gets another Academy Award nomination for acting.

But why should the Academy recognize Allen? If his acting were ever nominated again, he almost certainly would not show up to receive the award; he never has in the past and if Stardust Memories and Wild Man Blues are to be believed, he hates the whole concept of awards and statues (upon his return from Europe in Wild Man Blues, he visits his elderly parents and gives them all the trophies he's received; a brief shot shows his Oscars sitting on their mantle). Perhaps years of hearing he's a bad actor have gotten to Allen; an appearance at the Kodak Theater, graciously smiling in acceptance of an award, any award, would be his greatest performance of all.

At first Woody played his neurosis for laughs that got the girl anyway, but when he came to Annie Hall, it was apparent even to him that something was wrong.

On the Other Hand...: The Tragedy of Woody Allen
By Vadim Rizov

I f you’re a hard-core adherent of auteurist theory, there's no better man than Woody Allen to make your case. Though he got his start as a gagman for Sid Caesar and other early TV comedy luminaries, once Allen began working as a director it was all over. Incapable of directing anyone else's screenplay and, for a while, seemingly incapable of making a film without inserting himself in it, his roles in other filmmakers' work became increasingly scarce; Allen, it seems, was not the only one who couldn't separate his persona from his range (or lack thereof) as an actor.

Which is a very long way of saying that Allen is simultaneously one of the most distinctive and overrated talents in American film. It's remarkable that the man has been as productive as he's been for so long and yet showed so little urge to change. Like Philip Roth, his closest literary equivalent, Allen has constantly had to state that he is a very different person than the one he plays onscreen (not even Allen's had the urge to claim that he plays different people from film to film); like Roth's, these protests fall on deaf ears.

It's annoying, really, how static he's actually been: Like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, he keeps getting older but the girls stay the same age. So, too, do the desperate invocations of high cultural texts, the homages to the safely antiquated films Woody loves, the jazz soundtracks and even the opening credits font. But what's really annoying is his sexual and relationship stasis, made particularly easy to track by his choice of muses. Diane Keaton got him through the '70s, and Mia Farrow through the '80s up through 1992. By the time Soon-Yi stepped in, you could almost feel Woody's sexual liberation at getting to cast a new leading lady every time.

At first Woody played his neurosis for laughs that got the girl anyway (Sleeper, Love And Death), but when he came to Annie Hall, it was apparent even to him that something was wrong. Maddeningly on-point, Annie Hall is the story of a man who understands all too well his inability to successfully maintain a relationship and who, through analysis, can pin it down exactingly, and yet finds himself incapable of change -- the very component that sustains rather than begins relationships. Perhaps it makes sense that Woody keeps changing leading ladies; wit is all good for a few films, but it won't build a relationship.

There's no denying that a lot of Woody's early work is funny and his later work less so; the '80s were really the only time he got a handle on merging his "serious" concerns with his comic persona. At his best, Woody understands not to fixate on himself and become part of the ensemble. In what may be his best film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody cast himself in the "comic" half of the story and left Martin Landau to do the heavy thespian lifting. Critics carped about the bifurcated structure, but that's missing the point: The tragedy of Woody Allen is that, ultimately, to take himself seriously would involve change rather than remaining in such a profitable mold.


--Film Forum's Allen Retrospective Gets City Talking
Weinstein, Kopple, LaBute, Dargis and other New York culture all-stars reflect on best of Woody's work

--Prose By Any Other Name
Finding comic salvation by accident in Woody's collected writings - By Michelle Orange

--Le Woody, C'est Moi
An Upper East Sider recalls growing up under the director's influence - By Andrew Grant

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Comments (2)

"...an appearance at the Kodak Theater, graciously smiling in acceptance of an award, any award, would be his greatest performance of all"

He did that performance.
After 9/11 he showed up at the oscars to present a tribute to NY.
(Kinda ruining the story. Glad Brandon never came back)

(between you and me, since Husbands and Wives, his performces have gotten more schticky, he'd doing Woody Allen with too many quicks and stutters)

He showed at the Oscars to pay tribute to New York City, not himself. It had nothing to do with any film he made -- and for any other reason he'd almost certainly not show up. I suspect we'll never see him at the Oscars again.

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