With so many films spanning nearly fifty years of cinema, you may think Woody Allen now has a film suited to everyone. But there are a few that don’t get widely talked about that deserve attention.
At the time of writing Woody Allen has written and/or directed almost fifty films. He’s also acted in a few more for other filmmakers and even allowed himself to be the subject a full-length documentary. So far this has resulted in three Oscar wins plus a remarkable 23 nominations. He’s also won two Césars, eleven BAFTAs, a Golden Bear, two Golden Globes (including one this year for his Midnight in Paris screenplay) and received lifetime achievement awards from the Directors Guild of America and the Venice Film Festival. In other words he’s made a lot of films which people rather like. More to the point, we generally no what these films are. Annie Hall and Manhattan are now fully acknowledged classics, the early comedies are much loved, and very few people will say bad things about the likes of Hannah and Her Sisters, say, or Crimes and Misdemeanors. If you’re looking for a starting point when it comes to Allen’s films, there are plenty of options. But where do you go once you’ve watched (and hopefully loved) Sleeper, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Sweet and Lowdown and the rest? Which of those near-fifty features are the ones deserving of a little more love and attention? Here’s ten possibilities…
10. What’s Up, Tiger Lily (Woody Allen, 1966)
This was Allen’s directorial debut, though it tends to get pushed to one side in favour of Take the Money and Run, made three years later. The reason? This isn’t a Woody Allen film proper; in fact, it isn’t really a proper film at all. In the mid-sixties exploitation producer Henry G. Saperstein picked up a spy movie produced by Toho Studios entitled Key of Keys. It didn’t play well with test audience and so he brought in Allen – at this point famous from his TV appearances and stand-up LPs – to aid with its dubbing. The end result chops up the Japanese original, throws in interruptions and interludes from Allen himself and the Lovin’ Spoonful, and is generally very, very silly. The plot of the original is reconfigured into one about a secret egg salad recipe, whilst the soundtrack continually sends up its source. Mileage with audiences will no doubt depend on how much silliness they can take, but it’s worth remembering that this was a key facet of the “early, funny” Allen. After all, Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask involved an episode with a giant lactating breast running wild across the country and cast its writer-director as a sperm.
9. Hollywood Ending (Woody Allen, 2002)
For all the intermittent talk of comebacks and returns to form over the years, this doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a Woody Allen picture will be picked up for British distribution. Twice in the past decade this we’ve had to do without: in 2002 there no sign of Hollywood Ending in cinemas or on DVD; and in 2006 the very same was true of Scoop – and this despite having some financial input from the BBC! (It has, at least, cropped up on the channel a handful of times.) Hollywood Ending is admittedly minor, yet it needs highlighting partly because it remains so little seen over here but also because it’s good to see Allen indulging in the slapstick once more, even at the age of 67. He plays one-time major director since reduced to working on commercials. The opportunity to make an feature arises but at a cost: the sheer pressure of the job prompts a bout of psychosomatic blindness. The comedy is mostly based around his attempts to conceal his lack of sight, although the best gag is saved for last: the resultant feature is a massive flop, except for in France…
8. Antz (Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson, 1998)
In 1998 two animated tales about life in the undergrowth went head to head. Pixar were following up Toy Story with A Bug’s Life, essentially a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, whilst DreamWorks decided to rework Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in the shape of Antz. An unlikely combination, perhaps, and it also had one highly unlikely lead actor: Woody Allen. Celebrity-voiced animations have become increasingly commonplace, in many cases being the very selling point – Will Smith is a fish! – not that this will necessarily ensure box office success. Yet utilising Allen in this manner still seems rather perverse. Does he have any kind of cachet with the kids? Do the youth ever pester their folks to take them to the annual Woody feature? Almost certainly not, and it’s strange to see this familiar figure adrift in what is essentially a film for children. He may now look like an ant, but that doesn’t stop him being the same old neurotic Allen.
7. Wild Man Blues (Barbara Kopple, 1997)
There’s always been the assumption that the onscreen Woody Allen is representative of his real-life counterpart. Commentators have been known to look to his films for ‘clues’ relating to his private life, especially when comparisons are hard to overlook. Husbands and Wives, for example, revolves around the messy divorce of the characters portrayed by Allen and Mia Farrow; at the time of its release the pair were also going through an off-screen break-up. Nevertheless, Allen has always disparaged the idea which made a feature-length documentary about the man an enticing prospect. Wild Man Blues is ostensibly a music documentary about his New Orleans Jazz Band’s European tour, but it’s the personal insights which are most fascinating. One particular scene stands out: Allen, his parents and future wife Soon-Yi are around the dinner table. In a comment that comes across as both a mumbled aside and an intentionally loud declaration for all, including Soon-Yi, to hear, his mother states how she would have preferred her son to have met “a nice Jewish girl”.
6. Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987)
Radio Days saw Allen earn himself yet another Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (to date he has amassed fifteen nods in the category, more than any other writer) but has found itself a little lost amongst the many delights of his eighties output. This was the decade of Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig and Crimes and Misdemeanors – all great films. Radio Days is slighter than anything of these, but more than makes for it in charm. Essentially, it builds on the flashbacks to Alvy Singer’s youth in Annie Hall. The setting is the mid-forties (the golden age of the radio) and the structure a loose compendium of scenes and sketches in a manner that recalls, as Roger Ebert stated at the time, Fellini’s Amarcord. There’s plenty of wit and plenty of warmth too, making this one of Allen’s most inviting works. It’s also the only film of his to feature both Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton, though not onscreen at the same time.
5. Oedipus Wrecks (Woody Allen, 1989)
Another forgotten gem from the eighties. Oedipus Wrecks has never been undervalued, just unfortunate. It was part of the anthology film New York Stories which also contained new shorts from Martin Scorsese (Life Lessons) and Francis Ford Coppola (Life without Zoe). The Scorsese piece was decent enough. It starred Nick Nolte as an artist obsessed with his assistant, played by Rosanna Arquette. It also utilised plenty of Procal Harum on the soundtrack. But it wasn’t prime Scorsese. The Coppola was just plain awful with much of the blame laid on his daughter Sofia, who co-wrote the screenplay years before she won her Oscar, and plenty of acclaim, for Lost in Translation. Allen’s contribution was excellent, however. It’s a play on the old nagging Jewish momma jokes, with the mother in this case played by Mae Questel, once upon a time the voice of Betty Boop. The plot is slight but perfectly understands how best to utilise the slim running time, whilst the supporting cast is excellent. Everyone from Larry David and Steve Buscemi to a young Adrien Brody and even younger Kirsten Dunst put in an appearance.
4. The Front (Martin Ritt, 1976)
During the 1970s Allen acted in only two films which he didn’t direct. The first, Play It Again, Sam, was adapted by Allen himself from his own stage play, but directed by Herbert Ross. It plays very much like a typical Allen picture and, indeed, is as funny as the best of them. The second, The Front, was written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt. It’s a film about the Hollywood blacklist, a result of the McCarthy hearings wherein various writers, directors, musicians and performers were effectively banned from working in the States owing to their Communist sympathies. The Front focuses on a fictional writer who finds himself on the blacklist, played here Zero Mostel. He convinces his friend Allen to become the public face of his writing so that he can continue to work, i.e. become the front of the title. What follows has its comic moments, but for the most part this represents Allen’s first straight role, paving the way for his own more serious features.
3. Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978)
That seriousness first hinted at in The Front would manifest itself over Allen’s next few features. Annie Hall balanced the comedy for which he had become famous with a more dramatic undertone, the result being a sizeable hit and a Best Picture Academy Award. Two years later Manhattan pulled off much the same trick, albeit without the Oscar win. And in-between times there was Interiors, the first Woody Allen feature not to star Woody Allen and also the first to do away with any comedy, subtle or slapstick. Instead the model was Allen’s great hero Ingmar Bergman, resulting in a small-scale family drama fuelled by some terrific female performances: Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt and, especially, Geraldine Page. A few days back Jose Solis selected Interiors for his own Woody Allen top ten, describing it as “a lost masterpiece”. He’s entirely correct.
2. Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980)
Jose and Alex Withrow both picked Stardust Memories, placing it at number three and five respectively amongst their personal favourites (and demonstrating tremendous taste in the process). This is another of those films which prompts comparisons between the real-life Woody Allen and his onscreen counterpart. Here he plays a director who, much like post-Interiors Allen, wants to make more serious films despite critics and audiences preferring the “earlier, funnier” works (the phrase was coined in this picture). The tale is told in black and white and very consciously plays homage to Fellini; if Radio Days is Allen’s Amarcord, then this is his 8½. He also throws in a nod to the dream sequence which opens Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Not that this is some mere compilation of references – the end results are distinctly Allen’s own, by this point as adept at the dramatic side of things as he was the comedy. Oh, and look out for Sharon Stone making her film debut… almost two decades later Allen would finally woo her in Antz.
1. Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen, 1997)
Deconstructing Harry was something of a shock upon its release. By now we’d gotten used to the serious side of Allen, but never before had we seen the darker side. The lead character, played by Allen, is novelist suffering from writer’s block. He’s also bitter, self-loathing, vulgar and childish. And a drunk, a womaniser and a complete misogynist. Never before had Allen written or portrayed such an asshole. Yet what makes this so interesting – fascinating, in fact – is how this onscreen Allen toys with our own perceptions of the man. Of course, Allen is entirely aware as to how his audiences play the game of discerning the fact and the fiction in his works and here he very obviously invites it. For some this creates a complete turn-off – Deconstructing Harry has been described as self-absorbed and narcissistic – but to others, such as myself, it creates a wonderful tension that is hard to resist. Is this the real Woody Allen before us or is the entire film one big joke at the expense of those who believe the man to be fool enough to lay himself bare onscreen over the past few decades?
Written and compiled by Anthony Nield.
Anthony has been writing about film for the best part of a decade. To read more see his regular contributions to The Digital Fix (née DVD Times).
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