Note to the caption: Premiere: Woody Allen at the New York premiere of Dreamworks' Hollywood Ending - 4/23/2002 Photo: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage.com
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Through scandal, legal battles, and critical censure, Woody Allen keeps adding to an extraordinary film legacy. In his first exhaustive interview in years, Allen talks about his love life, chasing the money to London while protecting his independence, and Match Point, the movie that has brought both box-office redemption and an Oscar nomination (from V.F., December 2005)
It's been a long time since Alvy Singer wooed Annie Hall: on December 1, Woody Allen will be 70. But while that may make his boomer audience feel old, he himself isn't giving much ground to the Grim Reaper. You can still set your watch by his production schedule: almost every year for nearly four decades he has written and directed a new picture—the Joyce Carol Oates of the movies—and this year has been no different. He is set to release his latest in December, the excellent Match Point, a moral thriller, featuring Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, which he shot in London during the summer of 2004.
And on a dull August morning in 2005, he is in London again, on Craven Terrace in Bayswater, reshooting a scene from Scoop, his 36th feature as a writer-director, which will be released sometime next year. It's a newspaper comedy, also starring Johansson, along with Hugh Jackman, Ian McShane, of Deadwood fame, and Allen himself. (He won't divulge the plot, but says it's not based on the Evelyn Waugh novel of the same name.) The scene in question, first attempted some days earlier, was marred by a sentence of dialogue Allen doesn't like, and so the crew has returned to the street for another try. It's an extended walking-talking shot in which Allen is caught in animated conversation with Johansson, who is wearing an open white shirt over a gray tank top. The scene ends up inside a launderette. Switching back to director mode, Allen says "Cut!" and then, "Good take, but the mike popped out of her cleavage, so we didn't get sound. We have to do it again."
Dressed down and wearing spectacles, Johansson looks like an altogether different person from the bombshell she plays in Match Point. At the end of their second collaboration, she and Allen have achieved an easy camaraderie. Full of energy, she bounces up and down in front of him. He steps backward in mock alarm, muttering, "Watch it—I'm fragile." She even has an array of affectionate nicknames for him, variations on "Woody," like "Woodrow," and "Woodness." Despite his attempts to make her look like a normal human being, she radiates beauty and youth. Under a slate sky, her blond hair fairly shimmers and throbs; she looks like a visitor from another, better world, plopped down into this drab London neighborhood populated mostly by Middle Eastern immigrants. Allen blends into the street scene rather more easily, but that doesn't stop a considerable number of locals from recognizing him. They flock around him, requesting autographs and photo ops, which he grants with considerable grace. It is clear his appeal extends well beyond the borders of Manhattan, famously his natural habitat.
There are financial reasons this quintessential New York filmmaker has been shooting in London, but the move also feels karmically apt, a kind of symbolic exile. His American audience has dwindled over the last decade, the Hollywood studios that once treated him like a prince have turned cold, and even New York film critics, heretofore his staunchest allies—the hometown fans—seem to greet each new picture with a collective yawn. It's as if this filmmaker, who in the 1970s and 80s and well into the 90s seemed to connect effortlessly with an influential if rarefied slice of urban America, has slid into irrelevancy.
All of this was dramatized in an extraordinary and venomous front-page piece printed three years ago by The New York Times. The paper's culture pages had once functioned as a virtual Allen house organ, but on June 5, 2002, under the headline "Curse of the Jaded Audience: Woody Allen, in Art and Life," two Times reporters with no particular expertise in film drew readers' attention to the fact that "a grand total of eight people showed up yesterday for the matinee of Woody Allen's latest movie, 'Hollywood Ending,' one month out of the box and now playing in exactly one theater in Manhattan, a $4.95-a-ticket discount house in Times Square." The ostensible occasion for the piece was a lawsuit Allen had filed against his former longtime friend and producer, Jean Doumanian, for an alleged $12 million owed him. But the article's prominence and snarky, gloves-off tone seemed to suggest a larger agenda: to take Allen down. The reporters quoted the opinions of various courthouse hangers-on—"His sense of humor is sort of frozen in the 70's. He appeals to an older crowd"—and even made fun of his physical infirmities. They concluded that "for Mr. Allen … after more than 30 years as the on-screen embodiment of angst-ridden, urbane New York, his long moment as cultural icon may be over." Within Manhattan's hothouse film and media circles—the world which Allen both lives in and often skewers in his films—this was the equivalent of a stoning in the public square.
Allen has become an artist without honor in his own country—not, unfortunately, an anomalous situation. Many of his heroes have shared this fate. Akira Kurosawa found it nearly impossible to obtain Japanese financing in the twilight of his career; feeling himself shabbily treated by the Swedish government for a few years in the 1970s, Ingmar Bergman refused to make pictures in his homeland; and in two of the most egregious American examples, Charlie Chaplin found it expedient to leave the country altogether in the early 1950s, one step ahead of Red-hunting squads baying at his heels, while Orson Welles in his later years was reduced to shilling for Gallo wine. Still, one would hope that in most countries a national treasure like Allen, especially one who toils in a profession wherein selling or burning out is an all too common occupational hazard, would be showered with distinctions, lionized, and fêted.
After all, Allen's body of work is without precedent in quality and quantity, not measured against just other American filmmakers but worldwide. At the risk of hyperbole, or of sounding like a lunatic, it could be said that there is no such thing as a bad Woody Allen film—weaker ones, certainly, pictures that do not work consistently from beginning to end, comedies that aren't quite funny enough, dramas that are solemn and lugubrious, but never a stupid picture, one that is begging to be walked out on. Even his aesthetically unsuccessful films are better than most of the pictures that come out of Hollywood. If you play the parlor game How Few Outstanding Films Are Necessary to Create the Reputation for Being a Great Director, you arrive at a surprisingly low number. Look at some of Allen's contemporaries: Bob Rafelson, one (Five Easy Pieces); Peter Bogdanovich, two (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon); William Friedkin, two (The French Connection, The Exorcist); Robert Altman, four (M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player); and so on. Even Allen's beloved François Truffaut directed only three masterpieces, all early in his career: The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Shoot the Piano Player. By this standard, Allen is an auteur among auteurs. Among his 35 films, there are a good 10 that can hold their own against any of those just mentioned: Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Bullets over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, and now Match Point, not to mention a slew of very good second-tier films and one-offs, such as "Oedipus Wrecks," the only true gem in the anthology film New York Stories.
But perhaps it's all for the best that Allen hasn't been embalmed by the Kennedy Center or dubbed an American Master on PBS. He insists that although he doesn't read his reviews, good, bad, or indifferent, he's aware the ardor that once burned hot in the breasts of the Times and the national critics has at best cooled, and at worst been extinguished, but that he doesn't care: "All you can say about that is, when you're in the public eye, that's what happens. And you know, there's nothing you can do." Except, in his case, make another movie.
If Woody Allen is philosophical about the vagaries of his reputation, he's not so happy about getting old. His 70th birthday weighs heavily upon him, although it's impossible to guess his age from looking at him. His once red hair is graying, and he has a bald spot on the crown of his head, growing, I imagine, like the hole in the ozone layer, but his face is unlined, and he looks a good 10 years younger than he is, maybe more. In the early evening, after a day on the set of Scoop, he is sitting on a sofa in the living room of his rented home in tony Belgravia, just south of Hyde Park. It's an odd-looking place on the outside, perhaps originally a carriage house for an estate that no longer exists, a wide, low, white stuccoed building with a flat roof topped by a balustrade that looks as if it was supplied by one of those American roadside garden emporiums with plaster-of-Paris fountains and pink flamingos out front. It wouldn't be out of place on a back lot—some hack studio designer's idea of a Spanish or Italianate villa. Inside, though, it's light and spacious, with a swimming pool in the basement, an obvious draw for Allen and his wife Soon-Yi's two daughters, Bechet, 6, and Manzie, 5.
"Aging is a terrible thing," he says, dourly. "The diminution of options and opportunities. It's all just bad news. You deteriorate physically and die! I was an extremely good athlete as a child. I can't maintain that. I mean, my eyesight's not anywhere near as good. I've lost some of my hearing. All the crap that they tell you about—you know, dandling your grandchildren on your knee, and getting joy, and having a kind of wisdom in your golden years—it's all tripe. I've gained no wisdom, no insight, no mellowing. I would make all the same mistakes again, today."
Allen's own judgment of his films is probably tougher than his detractors would imagine. "I've made, oh, perfectly decent films," he says. "But not 8 ½, not The Seventh Seal, The 400 Blows, or L'Avventura—ones that to me really proclaim cinema as art, on the highest level. If I was the teacher, I'd give myself a B." As late as 1992, Allen expressed the hope that he might still make a film that could hold its own with those of the great auteur directors. "One of the things that happens as I get older is that I realize that I'm not going to do it," he says. "That real, real genius is in very few people in any art form, in any business, in any area. Whether you're a surgeon, or a painter, or whatever. When you're younger, you've got decades to make films, and so you strive for greatness, because you haven't proven, yet, that it's not going to happen; the final results are not in. I'm going to be 70, and maybe I'll get lucky, maybe something will come up that's really extraordinary. But I feel that level of greatness is just not in me. Because I see no evidence of it, after a very, very fair try. It may just be not in the genes, or I just don't have the humanity to do it—the depth of humanity to do that. But I'm resigned to the fact that it's not going to happen. And I can live with it because, you know, what can I do?"
"That's a depressing thought," I say.
"No, it's not a depressing thought. What happens is that—let's say I'm in a room with Bergman or Kurosawa, and they have achieved this [greatness], but ultimately they're going to the same place I'm going to. You understand that art doesn't save you. It doesn't save me. So then I think to myself, What's the value? After Kurosawa sits back and says, 'Yes, Rashomon—I did a very fine job there,' what happens? He still has to come home, you know, and eat his bowl of rice, and down the line, they bury him. It's not that I'm losing my passport to paradise. I'm not. There are a lot of things in life I'm not going to have. I'm not going to play like Michael Jordan. I also will not make films like Kurosawa or Bergman."
There was a time, which lasted a good two decades, when it seemed as if there were no limit to his talent. His success was aided and abetted by friends in high places: the group of studio executives—including the legendary Arthur Krim—who gave him complete creative freedom, first at United Artists, then at Orion Pictures; his agent Sam Cohn, once one of the most powerful in the business; and the influential New York film critics who used to dominate the national media and who framed the reception of Allen's early work. They squabbled about everything—except Woody Allen. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, as well as the Time and Newsweek reviewers—all agreed that he was a comic genius, and they helped bring his brand of urban humor out of the New York art-house ghetto to places such as Toledo and Oklahoma City.
Chief among Allen's admirers was Vincent Canby, the influential lead critic of The New York Times. Unstinting in his praise, he never met a Woody Allen picture he didn't like. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that Canby played a key role at the beginning of Allen's film career by making the first picture Allen directed by himself, the mock caper movie Take the Money and Run, into a modest hit with a glowing review. From that point on, Canby gave the filmmaker unblinking support. When The Purple Rose of Cairo came out, in 1985, Canby wrote that it "again demonstrates that Woody Allen is our premier film maker … I'd even go so far as to rank it with two acknowledged classics, Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Buster Keaton's Sherlock Junior." Two years later, on the release of Radio Days, he added, "I can't think of any film maker of Mr. Allen's generation with whom he can be compared," and when Husbands and Wives opened, in 1992, after bracketing him with Bergman, Truffaut, and Fellini, Canby wrote, "The entire Allen canon … represents a kind of personal cinema for which there is no precedent in modern American movies."
Canby's enthusiasm was buoyed by Allen's romance with New York, expressed most lyrically in his valentine to the city, Manhattan, with its iconic shot of Allen and Diane Keaton sitting on a bench by the East River just south of the 59th Street Bridge, but present to one degree or another in almost all his movies. New Yorkers loved him back. Not only had he captured the nervous rhythms of late-20th-century urban life, he had portrayed the city as New Yorkers wished it were, invested with the glow of nostalgia for a time that passed so quickly it was over before it really happened, leaving an ache of sadness in its stead.
Few cities—Fellini's Rome?—have ever belonged to a filmmaker as fully as New York has to Allen. To find a comparable relationship between place and artist, we have to look to the great 19th-century novelists: the London of Dickens, the Paris of Balzac, the St. Petersburg of Dostoyevsky. Allen was the closest thing New York City ever had to a poet laureate.
But in 1992 he abruptly fell to earth. His longtime companion and lead actress, Mia Farrow, found his nude Polaroids of 21-year-old Soon-Yi Farrow Previn, one of her adopted children (with former husband André Previn), on the mantelpiece in his living room, and the subsequent scandal burst into the headlines like a nuclear fireball. Farrow accused Allen of sexually abusing their adopted daughter, Dylan, then seven. Allen indignantly denied her charges. "I never did anything. I would never molest a child," he said during a hearing. He was cleared by a panel of doctors from Yale New Haven Hospital, but Farrow eventually won full custody of Dylan as well as the couple's biological son, Satchel, then 4, and their adopted son, Moses, 14. The judge in the case accused Allen of being "self-absorbed" and decried what he saw as Allen's inability to comprehend the negative impact on his children of his and Soon-Yi's relationship. Allen was ultimately denied visitation rights with Dylan and allowed to see Satchel only under supervision; Moses, being older, was given a choice and declined to see his father.
Amid the scandalous headlines and the flurry of suits and countersuits, Allen, whose worst sin up to that point had been shunning the Oscar ceremony, was reviled and pilloried on all sides, although most of his close friends stood beside him. ("I love him. He's a very important person in my life," says his old friend and occasional collaborator Marshall Brickman.) He gave an interview to Time magazine in which he didn't help his cause, declaring, with seeming cold-bloodedness, that "the heart wants what the heart wants." Pundits predicted that his career was over. After all, for most of his films to work, audiences had to love him, and now they didn't.
Recalling his assertion that he would make the same mistakes all over again, I ask if this is true regarding Farrow. "I'm sure there are things that I might have done differently," he replies, soberly. "Probably in retrospect I should have bowed out of that relationship much earlier than I did."
"You must have discussed your problems with the relationship in your therapy."
"I did. I was a chronic whiner in therapy about everything in my life. I did certainly whine about that. I did."
"What do you think would have happened had you not left those pictures of Soon-Yi on the mantel?"
"I don't know. But it was just one of the fortuitous events, one of the great pieces of luck in my life."
"Didn't Freud say there's no such thing as luck? It was either intentional or one of the most flagrant Freudian slips in the history of the world."
"Right. Although Freud also said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
"Or sometimes nude pictures are just nude pictures?"
"I feel this is a case of a cigar being a cigar. It was a turning point in my life for the better."
He answers every question readily, without blinking or dodging, his eyes unwavering behind his trademark glasses with their emphatic black frames. I ask if he ever sees his and Farrow's children.
"How do you feel about that?"
"Well, I feel terrible about it. I spent millions of dollars and fought in court for years to do it, but could not swing it."
Despite the Sturm und Drang in the tabloid press, the lurid accusations against him and so forth, in the scandal's immediate wake Allen carried on, professionally speaking, as if nothing had happened, which is to say that over the next year, he made two films, wrote a play, and never skipped his Monday-night gig playing his clarinet at Michael's Pub. "Having a stable family life is very nice," he says, "but I can work under unstable conditions, too, because—this is not a skill, this is probably a shortcoming—I'm a compartmentalizer. [While writing a screenplay] I'm thinking, Oh, this is a great joke, and God, if I bring [a character] in here, I screwed up the first act—I've gotta go back and fix that. The phone might ring, and it could be my lawyer saying, 'Do you know that they said that you smacked the kid on the top of the head with a ball-peen hammer? You didn't, did you?' And I say, 'No, of course not.' But I don't sit there and think, That bitch, she said I hit him on the head with a ball-peen. I ignore it.
"The height of compartmentalization was when I was making Mighty Aphrodite, right after [in 1994]. We couldn't think of an actress to play my wife. I needed someone who was slightly older, like in her 30s, and sophisticated. [Casting director] Juliet Taylor was saying, 'We'll have to use an English actress, because there's just no American actress available that's right for that.' And I said to her, 'Let's get Mia.'"
According to Allen, the rest of the conversation went like this:
Taylor: "What are you, nuts?"
Allen: "Why not? She's perfect for this."
Taylor: "You must be kidding."
Allen: "No. You know, it won't bother me at all. I mean, this is work. One thing has nothing to do with the other.… She's a very good actress. She'll be very professional. She'll know her lines and give a good performance, because she'll want to. I don't have to socialize with her. I don't talk to the cast, usually, anyhow."
Taylor: "I would never let you do that. I mean, that's the craziest thing—I wouldn't hear of that."
Needless to say, Farrow wasn't offered the part (Helena Bonham Carter got it), but Allen still insists the notion had merits. "Now, to me, I want to get the best casting. The fact that Mia and I had been terribly contentious and had a terrible experience—yes, that's true. But, you know, that doesn't mean that she shouldn't play the part. I'm just not the kind of person that thinks, Well, you did a terrible thing to me in my life, and so I'm not working with you. I'm not going to cut off my nose and spite my face. I mean, there's a line that you draw. I wouldn't put, you know, Hermann Göring in a part, but short of Nuremberg crimes … "
It's hard to assess the impact that the Farrow scandal had on his subsequent fortunes. During the next few years he made some of his best films, including Bullets over Broadway (1994), written with Douglas McGrath, which earned him Oscar nominations for directing and screenwriting and won Dianne Wiest an Oscar for best supporting actress (her second under Allen's direction, after Hannah and Her Sisters). But it's safe to say the scandal didn't help Allen's career. His longtime co-producer Charles Joffe admits, "It hurt him." As Allen himself puts it, "There are people that just were never crazy about me. Then, when I hit the newspapers with all of that, they said, 'See? I was right.' So now, whatever I do is bad. I could make, you know, Grand Illusion or The Bicycle Thief and they'll find fault with the movie."
In the wake of the scandal, when Husbands and Wives and its follow-up, Manhattan Murder Mystery, didn't perform as well as hoped for by Tri-Star—the last link in the studio daisy chain that had financed his movies for more than two decades (Tri-Star head Mike Medavoy had been a co-founder at Orion)—Allen just shrugged and seamlessly moved on to Sweetland, an independent production company run by his old friend Jean Doumanian, best known for her disastrous one-year tenure at Saturday Night Live in the early 80s.
At the same time, Allen's cozy relationship with the critics took a hit. Back in 1993, just when the director needed him most, Canby moved to the theater beat of the Times. He was succeeded by Janet Maslin, who liked Allen's films and treated the filmmaker with respect. But when she left the film page in 1999, she was succeeded by a troika that included two younger men, A. O. Scott and Elvis Mitchell. While they didn't have any particular agendas, it seemed like a generation gap had opened between them and Allen; they were not about to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The relationship with Doumanian came apart in 2000 when she reportedly told Allen, only a month before the start date for The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, that she was pulling the plug, giving him 48 hours to find alternative financing. Allen sued Doumanian later for unpaid profits, and they eventually settled, reportedly for a substantial sum. (Doumanian's office referred my calls to her lawyer, who declined to comment because the settlement remains sealed.) Nevertheless, Allen's suit triggered yet another avalanche of bad press, including the page-one "Jaded Audience" smackdown in the Times. (That piece was so vitriolic that even some people at the paper blanched. "I thought at the time, This is outrageous," says Maslin. "It was an unusually spiteful and vindictive piece. All I could think about was that if Vincent Canby had been alive, he would have gone berserk.… There are people who'll never forgive Allen for the Farrow scandal, who won't even see his movies anymore.")
Allen's probably right in his oft stated conviction that drama has a gravitas that comedy, which comes more easily to him, doesn't. But the problem with his work, if there is one, may have more to do with the rate of his output than with the shallowness of his soul. Anyone who writes at the furious pace he does is bound to repeat himself, bound to get tired or stale. Which brings us to the sticky subject of his most recent group of films, the ones that have taken a drubbing from the critics, more or less starting with Small Time Crooks, in 2000, and followed by The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, and Melinda and Melinda. He has had slumps before—every filmmaker has. The real problem with the recent pictures is not that they're bad—they're not—it's that they're slight. His truly great films are dense dramas or social comedies, alive with anger and irony. Most of all, they are how-we-live-now films that give you a shock of recognition; in his characters you see your friends or people like your friends or, if you're unlucky, yourself. They jump off the screen—the anxious lovers in Annie Hall, the conflicted family members in Hannah and Her Sisters, the broken middle-aged spouses in Husbands and Wives—and you find yourself saying, "Yes, that's how it is, that's how we are!" By way of contrast, many of the more recent films feel like cerebral exercises, extended stand-up routines that play out ingenious premises—"what if" pictures such as Melinda and Melinda (the same story told twice, as comedy and tragedy) or, more successfully, the underrated Hollywood Ending (a film director struck by hysterical blindness and hiding it from his producer). By Allen's own admission, he has been avoiding the richly hued tapestries that made his reputation: "I have not been attempting to do that kind of film. It has not interested me that much." Why this is, he will not or cannot say. Marshall Brickman offers one guess: "It could be that he got exhausted emotionally from all the things that happened with Mia, the new marriage, and so on. I can't believe that that emotional roller coaster doesn't take its toll. You can't write a movie like Crimes and Misdemeanors or Hannah without really pulling stuff out of your gut. At a certain point you need a rest."
It could be true, too, that he's tired of people reading his serious films autobiographically, usually to his disadvantage. For example, he often portrays artists of one stripe or another wreaking havoc on the lives of those close to them, as in Deconstructing Harry (in which he played the title character, a narcissistic writer) and Sweet and Lowdown (starring Sean Penn and loosely inspired by the life of the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt). Allen invariably denies that these characters have anything to do with himself. But, says Brickman, "it's inevitable that people are going to identify his characters in his movies, especially if he's playing them, as à clef in some way, because that's the way he made his mark initially, talking about himself as a stand-up comic. He can deny it, but it's certainly true."
One reason critics and audiences mine his movies for scraps of biographical detritus is that Allen is so private. He doesn't—or hardly ever—make the talk-show circuit, doesn't open his home to Architectural Digest or InStyle. Even those who have worked with him closely don't pretend to understand him. Says Richard Brick, who co-produced Sweet and Lowdown, Deconstructing Harry, and Celebrity, "He's the proverbial enigma wrapped in a mystique."
There's also the question, raised by some reviewers, of whether Allen has lost touch with contemporary life and culture. His own private life has always been circumscribed. Unlike most of his peers, for instance, he never did drugs, even in the days when joints were more common than cigarettes. "I was in the thick of it, in the 60s, because I was a nightclub comic who worked with jazz musicians," he says. "I worked with acts that couldn't walk onstage, they were so high. I remember being with Jack Benny, who was much older than me, and a very staid, Beverly Hills, Jewish comic. And he was saying to me, 'I've got to try marijuana—I'm just dying to try it.' I've never had a puff of marijuana. I've never had cocaine. I've never had speed. I've never had heroin. I've never in my life had a sleeping pill. I don't have drug curiosity. I don't have travel curiosity. I don't have any curiosity. That's part of my symptoms. It's kind of a low-level depression. It's not the kind of depression that sends you into the hospital, or makes you want to kill yourself, or something. It's kind of like part of or half a depression. Maybe it would be better for me if I did feel extremes a little more, and I was irate, or a letter writer, or broken up when I was treated unfairly, or experienced great joy and fun when—but this has just not been my personality. My shrink said to me, a long time ago, 'When you came here, I thought it was going to be extremely interesting and kind of fascinating, but it's like, you know, listening to an accountant or something.' My life has been very dull."
It's so dull that around the time he started seeing Soon-Yi he finally ended the on-again, off-again psychotherapy that had run like a thread through most of his adult life and served as fodder for countless jokes, although he never did get rid of his celebrated phobias. He is still claustrophobic and agoraphobic. He won't go through tunnels. He doesn't like the country after dark, or showers with drains in the center of the floor. ("Who knows what's down there? I've seen water bugs come out of drains.") The way he describes it, in a manner somewhere between serious and ironic, there's a ritualistic quality to his behavior: "I don't like to change the pants that I wear when I'm working on something. I do it with great trepidation, only if I spill something really nauseating on them. I have the same breakfast, every day: skim milk with Cheerios, raisins, banana. I always cut the banana into seven slices. And I count them and re-count them to make sure that there's seven. Because my life has gone well with seven slices, and I don't want to tempt fate and have six or eight."
There's an abstemious quality to Allen's life as well. As one close friend says, "He lives to deny himself." If this is really true, it makes his string of great films all the more remarkable—they should give dullness a new cachet. But paring down his life is key to his preternatural focus on work. When he's not in production, each day is the same: he's on the treadmill first thing, takes his kids to school, writes much of the day in longhand sitting on his bed until he doesn't feel like it anymore, practices the clarinet, eats dinner at home or sometimes out at Elaine's, watches a ball game, and goes to bed early. This is at once his greatest strength and his greatest weakness; the price he pays for his intense focus—his ability to "compartmentalize"—is perhaps its flip side: tunnel vision. "You exclude things that might be helpful to you artistically if you don't open that door to new experiences," says Brickman. "There's no free lunch. What happened with Woody is that he needed to re-adjust his on-screen persona to stories and material that were age-appropriate, move on to the problems of middle and older age in the films he appears in as a character."
Despite the self-graded B, Allen defends his recent work, but he also acknowledges that there are themes he returns to again and again—like the paranoia about anti-Semitism his characters give vent to in Annie Hall and Anything Else, or the epiphanies about the consolations of art or love in the face of existential despair that have climaxed so many of his films—and that this can pose a problem for some viewers.
"I've been around a long time, and some people may just get tired of me, which I can understand," he says. "I've tried to keep my films different over the years, but it's like they complain, 'We've eaten Chinese food every day this week.' I want to say, 'Well, yes, but you had a shrimp meal and you had a pork meal and you had a chicken meal.' They say, 'Yes, yes, but it's all Chinese food.' That's the way I feel about myself. I have a certain amount of obsessive themes and a certain amount of things that I'm interested in and no matter how different the film is, whether it's Small Time Crooks here or Zelig there, you find in the end that it's Chinese food. If you're not in the mood for my obsessions, then you may not be in the mood for my film. Now, hopefully, if I make enough films, some of them will come out fresh, but there's no guarantee. It's a crapshoot every time I make one. It could come out interesting or you might get the feeling that, God, I've heard this kvetch before—I don't know."
Back in the U.S.A., a few weeks later, we are sitting in Allen's screening room in an apartment building on the Upper East Side. He is dressed much the same as he was when I last saw him, in a pale-blue long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants. The room, done in muted greens and browns, with heavy velvet drapes, and a half-dozen or so easy chairs, settees, and couches scattered about, is a tad frayed around the edges, lending it a comfortable but funky look, like the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel before it was refurbished. Next door is a small editing room, where editing has begun on Scoop.
Allen, pleased to be back in Manhattan, is apprehensive about the movie's first cut, which he will look at in a day or so. "That's the time the cold shower sets in," he says. "That's when your heart says to you, My God, this thing is too long and too slow and this joke doesn't work, and that performance doesn't hang together. Then you have to do the real work, the real sweating."
We begin talking about finances, Hollywood's and his own. While Allen continues to enjoy a privileged, nearly unique place in American film—he doesn't have to brook creative interference from the suits—he now has to do what everyone else in the film business has done from year zero: chase the money. In the old days, his films may not have made a huge dent at the American box office (his biggest grosser was 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters, which took in $40 million), but his audience was passionate and loyal and he could rely on foreign grosses, often as much as or more than his American box office, to make up any shortfall and even ice the cake. Plus, for his longtime studio backers there was the bonus of being associated with a filmmaker of quality. But since Deconstructing Harry, which earned $10.6 million, Allen's grosses have dipped to about $5 million a picture, against budgets that have averaged about $20 million. Fox Searchlight, which had financed his previous movie, Melinda and Melinda, did not even bother to bid on distributing Match Point because of Melinda and Melinda's numbers: $3.8 million domestic gross and $16 million foreign. Says another distributor who passed on the new film, "Match Point is wonderful, but they were asking $7 million for it and, as I recall, a lot of the foreign rights had been sold off." (Eventually, the film was picked up by DreamWorks.)
And so Allen has discovered that money, at least American money, now comes with a great many strings attached. "In recent years, the studios' attitude has changed," he explains. "It's 'Look, we're not just the bank. You can't just come to us and say, "Give us the money," and then we don't see it till it's finished. We'd like to have input.' I don't feel that they're qualified to give the input. They wouldn't know a good script from a problem script or how to cast a picture, not the first thing about it. That's not the way I want to make films. It would've been tough for me to go in and pitch Match Point to someone. They wouldn't make it, just as they wouldn't make three-quarters of my pictures." In England, on the other hand, the money, in this case furnished by a consortium of investors including the BBC, comes with no strings, or, more accurately, strings he can live with: a largely British cast and crew, and British locations. Allen likes working in the U.K. "The stars don't deem it any kind of a comedown to do a three-line part. I'm able to work on a low budget there and it doesn't look like a low budget. If I made Match Point in New York, it would have cost me more money."
Like Match Point, the cost of Scoop is about $15 million, a bit cheaper than most of his recent films. According to Allen, he's always been frugal where budgets are concerned. "I've worked cheaply so I could have my freedom. If I needed two weeks of reshooting, if I wanted to get this actress, if I wanted to have that expensive Cole Porter song—I had to pay half of the costs from my salary.… There were times where I ate my entire salary up. I've never gotten rich making movies."
I bring up the duplex penthouse he used to own on Fifth Avenue.
"When I bought my penthouse on Fifth Avenue, in the 1970s, I was a nightclub comic and just starting to make films. I paid a song for it. It was like $600,000." Twenty years later, when he sold it because it was small for a family with two young kids, he got $13 million. Then in 1999 he and Soon-Yi bought a town house for $17.9 million in the Upper East Side's Carnegie Hill neighborhood—a big town house, 20,000 square feet, because of his claustrophobia. They put in 29 telephones, he says. But it turned out to be way more space than they needed, so he turned around and sold that in 2004 for $24 million. The family is currently renting on the Upper East Side, pending the purchase of a new home.
"I made more money in real estate than I've ever made from movies," Allen continues. "Compared to my contemporaries, it's relatively nothing. Barbra Streisand could be in a movie, or someone could direct a movie, and make on one picture what I make in five. I wish I had more money. Take a look at my offices, for example, and take a look at Marty Scorsese's place up the block. I've got these two rooms, with rented editing equipment, and he's got—I'm not saying he doesn't deserve it, he does—he's got archives and screening rooms and conference rooms. It looks like an opulent law firm. It's beautiful.
"Now, I'm not crying poverty. By the standards of my sister, who worked for years as a teacher, or her husband, who worked as a principal, or my mother, who worked in a flower shop—forget it. Show-business salaries are so inflated that next to a normal salary it's like a pasha or something. It's unbelievable. But I'm not Hollywood wealthy. I've never taken advantage of the sellout opportunities I've had. I've never agreed to do Annie Hall II. I've never really cared that much about money." (He has in fact been approached "all the time" about doing an Annie Hall sequel.)
In recent years, Allen has become quite the family man, and he is uncharacteristically upbeat about it.
I ask him what it's like, at nearly 70, to be married to a woman as young as Soon-Yi?
"If somebody told me when I was younger, 'You're going to wind up married to a girl 35 years younger than you and a Korean, not in show business, not having any real interest in show business,' I would have said, 'You're completely crazy.' Because all the women that I went out with were basically my age. Two years younger. Ten years was the maximum. Now, here, it just works like magic. The very inequality of me being older and much more accomplished, much more experienced, takes away any real meaningful conflict. So when there's disagreement, it's never an adversarial thing. I don't ever feel that I'm with a hostile or threatening person. It's got a more paternal feeling to it. I love to do things to make her happy. She loves to do things to make me happy. It just works out great. It was just completely fortuitous. One of the truly lucky things that happened to me in my life."
"There must be a Pygmalion-esque dimension to it? The way Alvy forced books on Annie Hall and dragged her to The Sorrow and the Pity?"
"No. I do not mold Soon-Yi into anything. She's very self-possessed and she runs the house and the kids and our life. She runs it better than I could ever run it because she's interested in it. She will check the accountant's statements, and she will deal with health issues, and she will structure the kids' lessons after school and their playdates. And I am free to work and have a great time with her and have a great time with the kids. As I say, it was like two people that you would have thought, Are you kidding? Forget it—it's the craziest thing in the world. And just by sheer accident, it worked out just delightfully."
The conversation returns to Match Point, which is a departure from Allen's recent films in that it is a thriller with a whiff of Fatal Attraction as well as a good dose of the usual existential angst. The main character is an impecunious tennis pro at a posh club in London who insinuates himself into the heart of a wealthy family and is then forced to make desperate moral choices when his new position is threatened. Generating good buzz, the film has already been hailed by The New York Times. A. O. Scott, who has been tough on Allen in the past, reviewed the new film last May after its premiere at Cannes and called it "first-rate" and "both a departure and a return to form." Allen says it is just the kind of movie his fans have missed: "It's a serious picture and I haven't done a serious picture in a long time. To me, it is strictly about luck. Life is such a terrifying experience—it's very important to feel, 'I don't believe in luck. Well, I make my luck.' Well, the truth of the matter is, you don't make your luck. So I wanted to show that here was a guy—and I symbolically made him a tennis player—who's a pretty bad guy, and yet my feeling is, in life, if you get the breaks—if the luck bounces your way, you know—you can not only get by, you can flourish in the same way that I felt Marty Landau could in Crimes and Misdemeanors, where he killed that airline stewardess he was having the affair with, Anjelica Huston. If you can kill somebody—if you have no moral sense—there's no God out there that's suddenly going to hit you with lightning. Because I don't believe in God. So this is what was on my mind: the enormous unfairness of the world, the enormous injustice of the world, the sense that every day people get away with the worst kinds of crimes. So it's a pessimistic film, in that sense. But I've always been accused of being either cynical or pessimistic—misanthropic, that's another one—and I never felt I was misanthropic or cynical. But I am definitely pessimistic."
"Pessimism, cynicism, and misanthropy. The trifecta of Jewish misery, neurosis, or whatever."
"Yeah. The realists' trifecta. I feel a cynic is what they call a realist—you know what I mean? Mark Twain was pessimistic. Freud was pessimistic. So what? That's just a point of view of life."
Match Point is indeed a pessimistic movie, shocking even, for the violence that shatters the veneer of its upper-class world, but it doesn't feel like it, because of the pleasure that a well-made movie conveys. And for all its Englishness, it seems pleasantly familiar, like a homecoming; the irony, of course, is that Allen had to go away so that he could return. My guess is that the audiences will embrace this picture; they're ready for him to return. As Brickman puts it, "Americans are unforgiving, but it's also true for Americans there is nothing that is as delicious as the cycle of redemption."
And Allen? Despite himself, he can't help but pierce the darkness of advancing age with a frail ray of light. He admits, "I'm kind of, secretly, in the back of my mind, counting on living a long time. My father lived to a hundred. My mother lived to 95, almost 96. If there is anything to heredity, I should be able to make films for another 17 years." Maybe he'll join Kurosawa yet. But then he adds, "You never know. A piano could drop on my head."
Peter Biskind is a Vanity Fair contributing editor and the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. His most recent book is Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (Simon & Schuster).
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