In a career spanning almost 50 years, Woody Allen’s style has become synonymous with and perhaps helped define the cultural stereotype of the self-deprecating, anxious intellectual in New York City. Full of farcical dialogue and neurotic characters, the films appear light and entertaining. Some critics see this lightness as Allen’s greatest limitation as a filmmaker. Others hail his elegance and effortlessness in debating profound philosophical questions.
Woody Allen was born on December 1st 1935 as Allan Stewart Konigsberg to a Jewish family. His unhappy childhood in Brooklyn would later inspire several of his films, such as Radio Days (1987) and Annie Hall (1977). The cinema became his refuge, drawing the young boy into the theatre up to six times a week. He absorbed everything from the latest product of the studio system to Italian neo-realism and Ingmar Bergman’s early work. The films of his childhood and young adulthood made a lasting impression on Allen and would eventually find their way into his own pictures.
He made his entry into show business at the age of 16 when he began writing jokes for the New York Post. Their success soon led to a paid position as a writer for comedy shows. His agents Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe catapulted his career from behind the scenes to the spotlight. During the early 1960s Allen was one of the most popular stand-up comedians in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Allen’s first steps in the film industry proved more difficult. While working on his debut screenplay What’s New Pussycat? (1965), the constant interference by the film’s producer made him realise that in order to adapt his scripts truthfully he would have to direct them himself. Along with his agents-turned-producers Allen created unique working conditions for himself that led to one of the most prolific careers in film history (45 films to date). Joffe and Rollins went on to co-produce all his films until the early 2000s, securing not only the finance but also absolute creative freedom for the filmmaker since his debut Take the Money and Run (1969).
Allen’s early films, genre parodies Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973) and Love and Death (1975) are strongly influenced by his days as a stand-up comedian. In less than ten years Allen has moved from an adolescent joke writer to an auteur whose comedies receive commercial and critical acclaim.
Annie Hall (1977) presents a daring departure from a highly successful formula based on generating as many laughs as possible. Allen’s choice to hire cinematographer Gordon Willis for a comedy raised many eyebrows in Hollywood. Having worked on The Godfather (1972) and All the President’s Men (1976), Willis’ preference for dark images earned him the nickname ‘the Prince of Darkness’. But its sombre images were not the only element that made it difficult to define Annie Hall as a simple comedy. Highly inventive in form – direct audience address, animation, a disjointed chronology, subtitles revealing characters’ thoughts – the film moves swiftly between emotional territories, from comedy and slapstick to heartbreak and sentimentality.
At the end of Annie Hall, Allen’s character Alvy Singer contemplates: “You know you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life?” The discrepancy between fiction and real life has been one of the most dominant themes in Allen’s work. From Stardust Memories (1980) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) through to Midnight in Paris (2011), the influence of art on the individual has been an on-going concern, revealing his ambivalent standpoint towards it.
Most of Allen’s protagonists are either artists or obsessed by art. While celebrating the magical effect the movies can have on their viewers, Allen simultaneously condemns their harmful influence on the individual as – if consumed uncritically – they create ideals one cannot achieve in real life. Allen recognises this ultimate irreconcilability of fiction and reality as a source of depression: “(…) Things in the films always turned out well. I know many people my age who’ve never been able to shake it, who’ve had trouble in their lives… because they still can’t understand why it doesn’t work that way, why everything they grew up believing and feeling was not true and that reality is much harsher and uglier than that.”
Continuing his routine of releasing one film a year, Allen’s career oscillates between extraordinary works, such as Sweet and Lowdown (1999), and meagre, irrelevant ones like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). The obligatory cinema visit to watch ‘Allen’s latest’ is consequently accompanied by a mixture of fear and hope – fear that we are about to witness another To Rome With Love (2012) and hope that the 78 year old will delight us with an unexpected new masterpiece like Blue Jasmine (2013).
Today, fifty years into his career, Woody Allen is as divisive as ever. While some dismiss his work as ultimately pointless and self-indulgent, others see him as one of the most important American filmmakers of all time. Love him or hate him, his influence on American film culture and filmmakers like Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach can hardly be denied. Films like Annie Hall and Manhattan (1979) have changed the genre of romantic comedy forever, making their unusual blend of comedy and tragedy a convention in contemporary film.
Top 5 Woody Allen Films:
Annie Hall (1977): Annie Hall chronicles the failed relationship between comedian Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. The film heralded a new creative period for Allen, who distanced himself from the genre parodies of his earlier career. Blending comic and tragic elements, Annie Hall helped define the conventions of the romantic comedy.
Manhattan (1979): Shot in black and white and featuring one of the most iconic opening sequences in film history, Manhattan continues Annie Hall’s bittersweet tone and reunites the director with cinematographer Gordon Willis. If Allen had had his way, his declaration of love to “the city he adored” would have never been released. Rumour has it that he disliked the film so much upon completion he offered to direct another film for free if United Artists decided not to publish it.
Zelig (1983): Perhaps the most radical film in Allen’s oeuvre, the mockumentary tells the fictional story of Leonard Zelig, who became famous in the 1920s as ‘the human chameleon’ due to a mental disease that makes him transform into whoever he finds himself surrounded with. Zelig creates the illusion of authentic historical material and places the lead character next to real celebrities of the time, foreboding films like Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994).
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985): Set in New Jersey during the Great Depression, waitress Cecilia visits the cinema to escape from her dire existence. When one of the characters of her favourite film ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ steps out of the screen and into her life, Cecilia’s world is turned upside down. Mixing fictional and ‘real’ characters, Allen takes a closer look at the ultimate irreconcilability of art and life.
Midnight in Paris (2011): During a trip to France a nostalgic writer is magically transposed into the Paris of the 1920s and gets to spend time with his idols Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (along with his perpetually drunk wife Zelda). One of the most successful films of Allen’s career, Midnight in Paris revisits the question of which ideals we chose to follow.
Sources: Stig Björkman, Woody Allen on Woody Allen