Allen, Woody (1935—)

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Allen, Woody (1935—)

Woody Allen is as close to an auteur as contemporary popular culture permits. While his style has changed dramatically since the release of Take the Money and Run (1969), his work has always been distinctively his. Over the last thirty years, he has epitomized the ideal of complete artistic control. His reputation for eclectic casting, neurotic privacy, and the intertwining of his personal and professional lives has made him a recognizable public phenomenon even among people who have never seen one of his films.

Born Allan Stewart Konigsberg, Allen broke into show business while he was still in high school by writing jokes for newspaper columnists. As depicted in Annie Hall (1977), Allen grew tired of hearing other comedians do less than justice to his material and took to the Manhattan nightclub circuit. He also appeared as an actor on Candid Camera, That Was the Week That Was, and The Tonight Show.

In 1969, Allen was contracted to write a vehicle for Warren Beatty called What's New Pussycat? Though Beatty dropped out of the project, Peter O'Toole replaced him and the film was a moderate financial success. The experience (and the profit) provided Allen with the entrée to his own directorial debut, Take the Money and Run (1969). His early films—Take the Money and Run and Bananas—were retreads of his stand-up routines. They starred Allen and various members of improvisational groups of which he had been a part and were made on very low budgets. In 1972, he made a screen adaptation of his successful play Play It Again Sam. The film starred Allen and featured Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton, actors who would come to be known as among the most productive of Allen's stable of regular talent. Play It Again Sam was followed by a string of commercially viable, if not blockbuster, slapstick comedies—Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975)—which established Allen's hapless nebbish as the ideal anti-hero of the 1970s. Interestingly, while Allen is primarily identified as the personification of quasi-intellectual Manhattan, it bears mentioning that of these early features only Bananas was situationally linked to New York. In fact, the movie version of Play It Again Sam was moved from New York to San Francisco.

In 1977, Allen wrote, directed, and starred (with Keaton and Roberts) in Annie Hall. The film was a critical and commercial triumph. It won Oscars for itself, Allen, and Keaton. It was Annie Hall—a paean to Manhattan and a thinly veiled autobiography—that cemented Allen in the public mind as the penultimate modern New Yorker. It also established the tone and general themes of most of his later work. In 1978, he directed the dark and overly moody Interiors, which was met with mixed reviews and commercial rejection. In 1979, he rebounded with Manhattan, shot in black and white and featuring then little known actress Meryl Streep. Manhattan was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and three Oscars. It won awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics' Circle. While it was not as popular with the public as Annie Hall, most critics agree that it was a substantially better film.

Refusing to be comfortable with an established style or intimidated by the public rejection of Interiors, Allen entered a period of experimentation: Stardust Memories (1980) a sarcastic analysis of his relationship to his fans; the technical tour-de-force Zelig (1983); The Purple Rose of Cairo, a Depression-era serio-comedy in which a character (Jeff Daniels) comes out of the movie screen and romances one of his fans (Mia Farrow); and others. All appealed to Allen's cadre of loyal fans, but none even nearly approached the commercial or critical success of Annie Hall or Manhattan until the release of Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986.

Since then, Allen has produced a steady stream of city-scapes, some provocative like Another Woman (1988) and Deconstructing Harry (1998), and others that were simply entertaining such as Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Mighty Aphrodite (1995). All, however, have been sufficiently successful to sustain his reputation as one of the most creative and productive film makers in American history.

—Barry Morris

Further Reading:

Brode, Douglas. Woody Allen: His Films and Career. Secaucus, Citadel Press, 1985.

Girgus, Sam B. The Films of Woody Allen. Boston, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lax, Eric. Woody Allen: A Biography. New York, Vintage Books, 1992.

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Allen, Woody (1935—)

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