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Woody Allen Week
Written by Rob Salem
- Mon, 04/23/12 - 13:17
“I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
May 7th through the 13th is Woody Week here in the Suite, which means Woody Allen every night, all week long.
It’s an impressive list – 18 films in all, about half his prodigious, essentially annual output – from his “early, funny ones” (to quote Stardust Memories) and on into his more serious and introspective work.
To again quote Allen: “If my films make one more person miserable, I'll feel I have done my job.”
Not all of them are equal, relatively speaking, but there’s something special and completely unique about each one. The performances are always brilliant – he’s won his actors a total seven Oscars. The stories are never less than fascinating – five Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, and one Best Film (Annie Hall, natch).
Allen has a contract stipulation that his films cannot be edited for airplanes and TV. Not that we would ever even consider anything that barbaric.
A chronological, and very subjective, critical appraisal of several of my favourites:
Allen’s third film as a writer/director, if you count the dubbed What’s Up, Tiger Lily? He also stars as Fielding Mellish, a smart-ass New York product tester who falls for a comely fund-raiser (ex-wife Louise Lasser) and ends up in the middle of a Latin American revolution. Look for an uncredited Sylvester Stallone as a subway thug.
Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972):
Seven linked sketches loosely extrapolated from chapters of the best-selling self-help book by David Reuben – said to be Allen’s revenge for Reuben stealing a line from Take the Money and Run. The Gene Wilder bestiality bit is cringe-inducing brilliance, and I have a particular fondness for the style if not substance of the Italian film spoof. Best performance hands down is cross-dressing Canadian character actor Lou Jacobi. The sheep’s pretty good too.
An often slapstick sci-fi spoof about the nebbish owner of a health-food store who goes in for minor surgery and wakes up two centuries later, a non-conformist fugitive from a totalitarian government. Co-star Diane Keaton’s second film with significant other Allen, having co-starred in both the stage and film versions of his Play It Again, Sam, and immediately following her career-making role in The Godfather. Their sparring banter together is fast and funny, and a hint of things to come.
Love and Death (1975):
A Russian period piece set to the music of Prokofiev, referencing, among other Allen influences, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Eisenstein and Bergman. He teams with Keaton again to similarly seamless, if somewhat tonally dryer effect. The wintery Hungarian locations are gorgeously evocative – Allen of course immediately went running back to New York, and did not leave again till 1996.
Annie Hall (1977):
An unabashedly romantic comedy widely and rightly considered Allen’s masterpiece, winning him the Oscar trifecta – Film, Director and Screenplay – a nomination for Best Actor and a win for Keaton as the year’s Best Actress. She had an equal if not greater impact on late-1970’s thrift-shop fashion. The Marshall McLuhan cameo is an undisputed highlight, though the film is crammed with wonderful moments and memorable performances. Look for Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum in career-starting bit roles. I “lurrve” this one. Who doesn’t?
Stardust Memories (1980):
One of Allen’s most personal films, much as he has always denied its obviously autobiographical elements. Here he plays a disillusioned director reluctantly attending a retrospective of his work. There is clearly some residual bitterness over the critical drubbing of 1978’s Interiors. Allen more happily acknowledges the black-and-white film as an homage to Fellini’s 8 ½, and it quite coincidentally turns out to be his eighth-and-a-half film (counting the audio-only Tiger Lily as a half). Charlotte Rampling will break your heart as a disturbed ex-lover.
An unfairly (I think) dismissed aberration in the Allen oeuvre, a pseudo-documentary about a “human chameleon” combining verité-style interviews and doctored historical footage – technically years ahead of its time, long before the same effect could be achieved by a typical teen on his cell phone. Indeed, the effects took so long to achieve, Allen made both A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Broadway Danny Rose in the interim. The “Chameleon Days” novelty record is sung by veteran voice Mae Questel, the original Betty Boop, who would later appear on-screen as Allen’s mother in his segment of the anthology New York Stories.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984):
This is arguably the least Woody Allen-ish of all Woody Allen roles, summoning his inner schlemiel as a bargain-basement theatrical agent with the worst talent roster in show-business history, with the possible sole exception of Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), a past-it crooner on the verge of an unlikely comeback – though without Allen’s hapless Danny Rose. To make matters worse, Danny is targeted by gangsters while babysitting Canova’s mistress – a delightfully ditzy comic turn by Mia Farrow in her first of 13 Allen films. I can’t get enough of the wrap-around deli sequence.
Purple Rose of Cairo (1985):
Another departure, an out-and-out fantasy in which the hero of a 1930s melodrama magically steps off the screen and into the real world to woo a miserably married Farrow. Reality is even further suspended when, in every theatre in the country, the other actors onscreen are unable to continue, and the dopey actor who plays the renegade film hero arrives and also falls in love with Farrow. Jeff Daniels plays the dual role, replacing an originally cast Michael Keaton. A young Viggo Mortenson was cut out completely.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986):
The more serious and reflective Allen finally finds the right mix of content and commerce – attracting the best box-office of any Allen film, until 2005 and Match Point. The film won him an Oscar for his screenplay, and supporting actor awards for Michael Caine and Diane Wiest. The all-star cast also includes Farrow and her actress mom, Maureen O’Hara, along with Barbara Hershey, Carrie Fisher, Max Von Sydow, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Julie Kavner and John Turturro. Four of Farrow’s kids also appear – including adopted Soon-Yi Previn, who controversially married Allen in 1997.
Radio Days (1987):
This is my own favorite Woody Allen film – whenever I stumble across it on TV, I am physically unable not to watch. And I love it all over again every single time. Allen-less on screen, he is instead its nostalgic voice, and is essentially represented as a child by a young Seth Green. It’s a loving pastiche of subtly inter-connected anecdotes, set in the early 1940s, crossing back and forth between the narrator’s extended Jewish family and the glamorous world of radio’s golden age. The only film in which consecutive Allen girlfriends Keaton and Farrow both appear.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989):
And this would be my favorite serious Woody Allen film. Incredibly, it was shut out at the Oscars, despite nominations for direction and screenplay, and a particularly well-deserved nod to Martin Landau as a tormented ophthalmologist forced to consider the murder of his mistress, played by the luminous Anjelica Huston. Co-star Alan Alda was six years away from his storied run on M*A*S*H. Hard to believe, given the final result, but at one point Allen scrapped an entire third of finished film, which he then completely re-wrote and re-shot.