Essential DVDs: Sleeper (1973); Love And Death (1975); Annie Hall (1977); Manhattan (1979); Broadway Danny Rose (1984); Hannah and Her Sisters (1987); Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989); Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993); Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Match Point (2005), Midnight in Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013)
Oscars: Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture (Annie Hall, 1978); Best Screenplay (Hannah And Her Sisters, 1987); Best Orignal Screenplay (Midnight in Paris, 2011)
In His Own Words: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying.”
If ever a line has come back to haunt Woody Allen it is the one spoken by one of the aliens in Stardust Memories, an uncharacteristically sour moment of introspection he borrowed from Fellini: “We like your films, especially the early funny ones.” Allen’s weary response whenever this is thrown in his face is that not all of his early films were funny, and not all his later ones have been serious. The irony here is that most of his recent films, despite their intentions, have been about as funny as a burning orphanage. Still, he has a point.
With formative influences comprising The Marx Brothers and Ingmar Bergman, Allen’s oeuvre was always going to be a mixed bag. There were glimpses of the existentialist in Borsht Belt clothing as far back as 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (spoofing Antonioni in the female orgasm segment), 1973’s Sleeper (a sly Orwellian satire) and 1975’s Love And Death (philosophical debates on the battlefield, Tolstoy, Einstein, the whole bit). And throughout his career, he has flattered the urban sophisticates who make up the bulk of his audience with asides on Kierkegaard, McLuhan and Mahler, even as the masturbation one-liners came thick and fast (if you’ll pardon the expression). It should also be clear that you can’t mine his level of neurosis for belly laughs indefinitely without going completely off the dial.
His ‘serious’ films have not all been dreary experimental duds like September (1987) or Shadows And Fog (1992) either. Crimes And Misdemeanors, to cite the most obvious example, is a superbly wrought meditation on guilt and culpability that would’ve had Doestoevsky in fits.
As a true auteur, humour has always been Allen’s sharpest tool. He did Bergman far better in 1982’s delightful A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy than he did in either September or Interiors (1978), and sensibly delivered Hannah And Her Sisters (1986) with wistful smiles and a dollop of sentimentality, rather than the rain clouds of despond the material might have suggested in one of his more ‘Scandinavian’ moods. 1979’s Manhattan is, of course, Allen’s masterpiece and his Valentine to New York is as affectionate and wryly amusing as the city that made him deserves.
If Memories’ E.T. had professed a preference for these bitter-sweet, mid-career musings on life’s persistent questions — sex, death, religion, allergies, all the big ones — he would have been more in tune with public opinion. “When a thing is funny,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “search it for a hidden truth.” Sound advice, which reveals that five minutes of the lobster scene from Annie Hall paints a more perceptive portrait of human relationships than an interminable two-hours of self-important, disingenuous shouty angst like Closer could ever hope to. It’s a hell of a lot funnier, too.