By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
February 5, 2015
I have to admit it: I was wrong about Woody Allen.
For a long time I believed the conventional wisdom about Woody, which was that he made funny movies in the 60’s, had his artistic peak with Annie Hall and Manhattan in the late 70’s, alienated his popular audience with self-indulgent films like Stardust Memories (1980), and then spent the past 3-1/2 decades making small art films that were of interest only to New York intellectuals. That would have been my summary of Allen’s career until a couple years ago, but now I realize how totally wrong I was.
I started realizing the error of my ways when I caught up with Small Time Crooks (from 2000) about 10 years after it was released. It was, quite unexpectedly to me at the time, one of the funniest movies I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe that Woody Allen was still that funny, as a screenwriter and as an actor, so many years since his comic masterpieces of the 1960’s and 70’s.
So by now, I have done a thorough re-evaluation of Woody Allen. My conclusion: that he is a national treasure, one of our greatest living film-makers. And unlike what I used to think, he never lost his way. He has been on-point all along. It just took me about 30 years to catch up with him.
I remember Siskel & Ebert trashing Stardust Memories in 1980, and back then, I didn’t like it either, and I couldn’t sit through it. But I re-screened it again this year and loved every minute of it. Woody was really having a joke at our expense back then. It just took us a few decades to get the joke. The film, about a has-been comic film-maker who is forced to go to a film festival honoring his work, spending an entire weekend fending off the mindless adulation of his old fans while he relives the memories of several past romances, may have seemed overly self-indulgent in 1980. But today, after a lifetime of great film-making, the movie seems pivotal. It is not only a better evocation of Fellini than Fellini ever made himself, it is Woody Allen signaling a change in the direction of his films. It seemed at the time that he was saying he was not going to make comedies anymore. But what he was really saying is that he was done making the kind of silly sketch comedies like his episodic Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex and his send-up of thick Russian novels Love and Death.
Repeated viewings today of Woody’s 1960’s classics show that, while they are wonderfully memorable comedies from that era, they are mostly just strung-together comic sketches about on a par with a very good episode of “Saturday Night Live.” I used to think that Allen’s films like Sleeper were masterpieces, but when I re-screen them today, I find them to have much less of an emotional punch than many of his later, more mature films. In fact the only light comic film he made prior to his great artistic peak with Annie Hall that I would still call a masterpiece is Take the Money and Run (1969), because it is hands-down one of the funniest movies ever made, the product of a young comic genius pulling out all the stops to make his first big cinematic splash as writer-director. So, while Allen’s 1960’s comedies are delightful, they are not necessarily the great films that we have come to expect from Allen in later years.
While I used to think that the early Allen films were the great ones and that the films from the early 1980’s were rather slight by comparison, my opinion is quite the reverse these days. Re-screening Allen’s first six films from the 1980’s has been a joyous expedition of re-discovery. I have loved every moment of re-visiting this stellar half dozen: Stardust Memories (1980), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). They are each comic masterworks, much more cohesive as films go, more thought-provoking, more balanced (like Chaplin’s films) between moments of hilarity and moments of pathos, than the “sketch comedies” that Allen was making prior to Annie Hall and Manhattan.
In recent years, Allen has become known as a woman’s director for the way he can extract career-defining performances from his leading women. I dare to say that facet of Woody Allen’s legend started with these 1980’s films, as he extracted timeless, memorable performances from Mia Farrow. Allen’s break with Mia Farrow was epic, legendary, and irreversible with the revelation in 1992 that he was having an affair with her adopted daughter, a girl Woody helped raise. For many, Allen’s sexual transgression has made it difficult to enjoy his films. The uncomfortable parallels between his personal life, his screen-writing, and his on-screen persona, make for interesting analysis. I personally prefer not to stand in judgment. Even if Allen violated an unwritten code of ethics by marrying Soon-Yi, it is arguable that he has largely vindicated himself by staying married to her for over two decades and raising a family with her. Or perhaps he’s been forced to live in his own personal hell, because he knows it would have been the end of his legacy if he hadn’t made the Soon-Yi marriage work. I can’t say; I’m not a part of Allen’s personal life, just a part of his audience. At any rate, Allen’s split with Mia Farrow paved the way for him to give other actresses (such as Cate Blanchett) career-defining moments. In the past 23 years, since Mia Farrow, Woody Allen has given a succession of actresses better roles than most of the rest of the movie industry, which is regularly scolded for largely treating women as sex objects.
Broadway Danny Rose has Woody Allen playing a small-time theatrical agent with a penchant for representing sideshow acts, like a one-legged tap dancer and a blind xylophonist. He sees his big break on the horizon with managing a has-been nightclub crooner (played by Nick Apollo Forte) on the verge of a comeback. Problem is that the crooner is having an affair with a floozy from a mob family (played by Mia Farrow) and cannot seem to function unless she is around to give him warm fuzzies. When she petulantly refuses to attend the show where the crooner is auditioning for his big comeback, Allen is dispatched to calm her down and drag her to the show to ensure that the performance comes off without a hitch. Various hilarious adventures ensue, full of trademark Woody Allen moments. New York City is on display, as in most of Allen’s films. In one of the funniest scenes of the move, we even get to see the warehouse where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade floats are stored. By the end of the film, Allen is channeling Charlie Chaplin, heaping on the pathos, having lost the contract with the singer and having also lost the girl, serving turkey TV dinners for Thanksgiving to the sad assemblage of talent he still represents. Mia Farrow knocks on the door to ask for an apology, and he turns her away. Then, in the closing shot, he chases her down the street to give her another chance, a poignant ending reminiscent of Chaplin and the flower girl at the end of City Lights