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Woody Allen: A Documentary (DVD Review)

20 Feb, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 two-DVD set
Not rated.

Like a novelist who wows the critics and cult followers for years before enjoying his or her first and notably belated commercial bonanza, 76-year-old Woody Allen recently scored what was by far the biggest box office hit of his 43-year directorial career with Midnight in Paris, which currently boasts a worldwide take of $148 million and change. Would Paris still be up for the imminent best picture Oscar were its revenues more like the $34 million (and just $3.2 in the U.S.) of his previous picture: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger? Even if the latter had been a much better movie, there wouldn’t have been a chance; more often than not, the academy has never shown itself to be very functional without the power of turnstile suggestion. Yet was Paris (like the equally Oscar-unworthy The Help) still a blessing for the grown-up demographic during the unbearable summer dog days? You bet.

From roughly 1973’s Sleeper (but certainly follow-up Love and Death) through, say, 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, Allen was on one of the great rolls of the modern era — occasionally stumbling (usually with his dramas) but rarely going more than a couple pictures, artistically speaking, without a loud extra-base hit. For this, he was rewarded with predominantly niche acclaim — what must it be like to make movies as wonderful as Zelig or The Purple Rose of Cairo or Radio Days without popular huzzahs — while the masses first tended to reward, say, stage-bound movies of Neil Simon comedies and later the crude farce of the week. But look around. Pecking away, Allen has amassed 15 Oscar nominations for screenwriting (Billy Wilder had a dozen) and seven for directing. That he has two more in the second category than even Hitchcock is even more amazing when you think that Allen’s direction of Manhattan (among the signature movies of its decade, as was Annie Hall) failed to earn a nomination. 

This is the kind of life achievement that ultimately gets you pedigreed "American Masters" treatment, and Robert B. Weide’s three-and-a-half-hour portrait indeed aired over two nights in November. Yet the copious film clips look crisper on this DVD than via my normal PBS reception — no small consideration when you’re talking movies photographed by the likes of Gordon Willis, Carlo Di Palma, Sven Nykvist and other long ball hitters. Allen has always talked, as here, about regarding his work as simply a regular job, churning out a movie a year at a lickety-split pace that, among his peers in the American pantheon, only Robert Altman approached over a long period, and hoping the law of percentages will lead to an occasional one being “good” (never, in his estimation, great). But you’ll notice from his camera personnel — to say nothing of the musical choices for his soundtracks and the astounding lineup of actors he’s worked with – that he’s not exactly running a sausage factory. This said, he did have a run of pictures in the early 2000’s that were, in effect responsible for 2005’s crime-of-passion drama Match Point being regarded as a major comeback picture.

Though this is so much an authorized biography that it utilizes the same opening-credits font style that we automatically associate with Allen’s own movies, Weide isn’t hesitant to bring up this fallow period. Nor is he afraid to bring up Allen’s marriage to quasi-stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn  — the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Andre Previn and 34 years Allen’s junior. In tabloid fodder that exploded the Farrow-Allen unwed relationship (both personally and professionally) for good, Allen took a lot of the social pariah heat Charlie Chaplin did in the early ‘50s when the latter married Oona O’Neill (an even larger age differential). But at least the American Legion didn’t also picket Allen and his movies over personal politics, as in the Chaplin case. Interestingly, both marriages endured — and though this documentary doesn’t show us much of Soon-Yi, it was obvious from Barbara Kopple’s 1997 Wild Man Blues that she was a better match for Allen than the spooky Farrow, a brilliant performer (at least for Allen and also Roman Polanski) who nonetheless struck me as the kind of person who would own 127 cats, all of them in her bathtub. Still, any woman who can attract Allen, Previn and Frank Sinatra has to have something, and Allen is unceasingly generous to her here as a performer, as he should be.

Other women, including Allen’s sister and early lover/collaborator Diane Keaton, are very warm to the subject, and Allen is on screen a lot in a remarkable array of archival footage (interviews and standup comic stuff) and more recently shot material that includes drives through his old formative haunts in Brooklyn (or what remains) and a lot of insights into how he works. One wonders if he can possibly be as blasé as he seems about the worth of his work — but when Weide asks him a fanciful but serious question in the DVD’s bonus section about a trade-off in terms of life longevity, Allen’s answer is fully consistent with his standard shrug-off attitude about his artistry. The entire bonus section here is a highlight, but the Q&A part is special: Weide says he labored to ask Allen ten that no one else had ever asked. And in one, Allen is asked to name a movie he loves but has to defend to dubious others — and then one he dislikes in an evaluation that also goes against the popular grain.
The one he loves is Bob Hope’s Casanova’s Big Night (1954) — which tickled me to hear because when it first came out on video, I said in USA Today (without any personal knowledge at all) that I had a hunch it was a movie Allen would like. The choice he dislikes is Some Like It Hot, which begs all kinds of questions — though Allen does agree with Weide that it’s better that one name a film where all the principals are dead.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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