‘Woody Allen: A Documentary’
Two-part documentary on American Masters, PBS
Written and directed by Robert Weide
Interviewees include Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson, Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn, Chris Rock, Owen Wilson, Leonard Maltin, Letty Aronson (sister/producer), Marshall Brickman (co-writer), and Louise Lasser
Airs Nov. 20 and 21, 2011, 9:00 p.m. ET/PT
It’s about time! At last, there’s a remarkable two-part documentary about the remarkable Woody Allen. Robert Weide, director and executive producer of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and award-winning creator of several documentaries about comedians, persuaded the secretive Allen to let the world in on his life and work. The film was worth the wait. From the documentary’s opening credits, with the familiar Windsor typeface and accompanying jazz music, you know that you are in for a treat.
American Masters’ “Woody Allen: A Documentary” is presented in rough chronological order. It follows the multitalented writer, comic, actor, director, essayist and jazz musician through his childhood, his gag writing for Sid Caesar’s “Caesar’s Hour” while in his early 20s, his stand-up comedy and TV persona, and, of course, his lengthy and extensive career as a screenwriter and director of 41 films, and as an actor in more than half of them. It’s fitting that at 75, Allen was ready to be candid with his public.
The documentary begins with Woody Allen, née Allen Konigsberg, touring his old neighborhood, the Midwood section of Brooklyn. In frank interviews, Allen’s sister and producer, Letty Aronson, speaks about their childhood, during which his parents either fought or didn’t speak to each other. His solace, à la “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” was going to the movies.
She later reveals ways in which Allen’s renowned shyness affects his work. For example, Allen interviews potential actors while standing. Just when the actors think the “real” interview is about to begin in earnest, Allen thanks them — the interview is over in a minute or two. If you’ve observed Allen working with the same actors over time, you’re right. Once he appreciates an actor’s talent and feels comfortable with the actor, Allen prefers to re-cast the familiar.
Rather than following a specific agenda, Weide’s technique is to ask Allen questions and then explore his responses on topics such as his writing habits (he doesn’t use a computer — only his high school portable typewriter), directing, casting, and relationship with his actors. When asked about the difficulty of inventing new story lines, Allen sat on his bed, and dumped a pile of notes out of a manila envelope. Each note, perhaps one sentence long, is an idea that Allen has jotted down for use as a premise for a new film.
Allen discusses Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, but speaks of them only as talented actors. It is left to others in the film to delve into the emotional content of his life, including his unfortunate scandal with Soon-Yi Previn.
Many actors, directors and critics and are also interviewed about their views and experiences with Woody. Their views of him as a director and friend are enlightening. I was surprised to learn that Allen is a laissez-faire director, encouraging actors to change their lines if other words felt more comfortable.
Allen’s filmography is examined in detail, beginning with his first film, “What’s New, Pussycat?” (1965) directed by Clive Donner. Although written by Allen, the resulting film was out of his hands. Chagrinned by the finished product, Allen was determined to retain creative control of all his projects, and he has.
Making one movie each year, Allen’s creative juices seem boundless. Allen’s films have grossed more than $424 million, with an average of $12 million per film. Some films, as his award winning “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Midnight in Paris” (2010) were creative and commercial blockbusters; others, like “Picking Up the Pieces” (2000) and “Scenes from a Mall” (1991), were duds.
American Masters’ “Woody Allen” also delves into Allen’s filmography and illustrates the distinctive phases of his work, including slapstick (“Bananas,” 1971); love stories (“Annie Hall,” 1977); “Manhattan,” 1979); homage to Ingmar Bergman, e.g., “Interiors” (1978); and nostalgia, e.g., “Radio Days” (1987).
Allen decided to shoot films overseas when his adored New York City became too expensive. An entirely new phase of his film career then occurred, beginning with four movies filmed in London, including the dramatic thriller “Match Point” (2005). The award-winning comedy drama, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008) was shot in Spain, and in the romantic comedy-fantasy, “Midnight in Paris,” (2011) Allen found the most romantic Parisian locations. Allen is already in Rome shooting “Nero Fiddled,” a comedy featuring Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis and Allen himself.
For a famously neurotic boy from Brooklyn, Woody Allen has achieved a uniquely high place in American cinema. Robert Weide’s excellent “Woody Allen: A Documentary” parades the full scope of Allen’s creativity and talent through his 45 years of filmmaking. Don’t miss this wonderfully crafted and insightful exploration of Allen and his oeuvre.
©Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved.