Making sense of Woody Allen’s confusing career

America's puzzling comic genius, from the "early, funny movies" to the mid-career masterpieces to Euro-self-parody

Topics: Movies, Comedy, Woody Allen, cate blanchett, blue jasmine, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Golden Globes, Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson, Movie Awards Season, Editor's Picks,

Making sense of Woody Allen's confusing careerWoody Allen in "Sleeper," Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in "Midnight in Paris"

This weekend Woody Allen will receive the 2014 Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes ceremony, and it’s tempting to crack jokes about these two enduring but seemingly irrelevant American institutions. Tempting but wrong. Whatever you make of the opaque, unpredictable and often bewildering genius of the man born 78 years ago as Allen Stewart Konigsberg — my own feelings are immensely mixed, and given the length and variety of his career, whose aren’t? — he doesn’t belong to the same category as the Globes in any way. Woody Allen famously doesn’t attend the Oscars, even when he’s likely to win one (he made an exception in 2002, but only to talk about filmmaking in New York after 9/11), so there’s no way he’ll show up for the Oscars’ self-evidently whorish second cousin. In fact, I feel confident in saying this award means nothing to Allen, and possibly less than that. The honorary Palme des Palmes he received at Cannes in 2002, or his lifetime Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival (in 1995!) — those he cared about.

Yes, Allen received a career achievement award from the most venerable of European film festivals nearly 20 years ago, which only highlights the difficulty of talking about his career. Which one do you mean? There are various ways of carving up Allen’s career, which encompasses 44 feature films (I think) as a writer-director across almost half a century. There are the funny movies versus the serious ones, the Diane Keaton period and the Mia Farrow period, the movies set in New York and the globetrotting period, the ones where Woody is the star and the ones where he ventriloquizes through someone else. Those are all somewhat valid distinctions, but in considering all of Allen’s films from “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” through “Blue Jasmine” (he has another, “Magic in the Moonlight,” with Emma Stone and Colin Firth, already in the can), I found them naturally dividing into four categories that seem thematically, philosophically and technically distinct from one another.

Each of these periods has its own highlights and lowlights, but it’s the differences between the periods that seem most striking to me, and that begin to lend some shape and clarity to a discussion of Allen’s bewildering output. I use that industrial term deliberately. Allen has reliably made a movie every year since the late 1970s (OK, he skipped 1981, but made up for it by releasing two in 1987), and it has sometimes felt as if the pace and the intense productivity were more important to him than the question of whether each individual picture was actually any good. As he recently told Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times, “the Colin Firth-Emma Stone film is over and history to me. ‘Blue Jasmine’ is ancient history.” Allen has, in a certain sense, demystified the artistic process; it barely seems possible that the same person made “Bananas,” “September” and “Melinda and Melinda,” to cite three extreme examples. (I once saw him, at a Cannes press conference, unable to remember the title of the latter film.)

Two of my periods overlap, as we will see. In fact, I think the transition zone of the mid-1990s, approximately from “Husbands and Wives” to “Sweet and Lowdown,” could be classified as its own period. That was the end of Allen’s romance with New York and the end of his period of concentrated cinephilia, when he self-consciously followed in the footsteps of European idols like Fellini and (especially) Ingmar Bergman. It was in that period that he left behind the withering Manhattan intelligentsia that had long been his principal audience (which included an entire generation of film critics), in search of a younger and larger audience that could ensure his late-career viability. He didn’t find it in a misguided attempt to make Hollywood entertainment (“Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” anyone?) but ultimately did find it — first in Europe, and then at home — with a series of middleweight, misanthropic comedies and thrillers shot in picturesque locations with all-star casts.

If the public’s view of Allen was conditioned, for many years, by a longing for his “early, funny movies” (as the invading aliens put it in “Stardust Memories”) and later by the tabloid scandal over his love affair, and subsequent marriage, with his longtime girlfriend’s adopted daughter, those questions have now faded. I’m not a huge fan of Allen’s later films — my favorite of his post-New York movies is probably the openly mean-spirited “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — and as numerous readers have reminded me, I’m a critical outlier on the lavishly praised “Blue Jasmine,” which I found a rickety and silly construction built around a remarkable Cate Blanchett performance that goes right to the edge of painful self-parody. But there’s no doubting the scale of Woody Allen’s achievement, or his prodigious, voracious creativity. He shaped an entire mode of neurotic and self-conscious American comedy, he nurtured an entire generation of brooding art-house depressives (myself very much included) and then, of all things, he reinvented himself, in his mid 70s, as a commercially successful filmmaker with a worldwide middle-class audience.

When He Was Funny: 1966-1976
Key Works:
“Bananas,” “Sleeper,” “Love and Death”

The first movie to carry Woody Allen’s name as a director was “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” which is somewhere between an idiotic practical joke and a brilliant work of Situationist détournement. Allen redubbed a grade-B Japanese action movie with gag-laden Borscht Belt dialogue about a secret egg-salad recipe, exposing the essentially mannered and artificial quality of the original film. Indeed, all of Allen’s “early, funny movies” — from the crime farce “Take the Money and Run” to the pseudo sci-fi of “Sleeper” to the surrealistic sketch comedy of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” — are spoofs that entirely reject any claims of realism, and I think that’s important when considering his later movies. He’s always been interested in frame and genre, never in trying to represent the world-as-it-is, and those of us who understood “Interiors” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in the latter context were making a categorical error.

Turning Point: “Annie Hall”

What many critics and fans still regard (justifiably) as Allen’s best and funniest film actually began life as a murder mystery to be called “Anhedonia.” The decision to recut the movie as a romantic comedy focused on Diane Keaton’s character (and her iconic wardrobe choices) happened during post-production, and reflects the immense influence of editor Ralph Rosenblum on this stage of Allen’s career. Allen biographers have suggested that Rosenblum, across the course of “Sleeper,” “Love and Death” and “Annie Hall,” essentially taught Allen how to structure a dramatic film and began to push him more toward a heightened level of naturalism or realism. As I’ve just said, I think any use of those terms with respect to Allen’s career should be viewed with extreme caution.

The Bergman of Manhattan: 1977-1997
Key Works:
“Manhattan,” “Stardust Memories,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Husbands and Wives”

These are without doubt the works of highly self-conscious drama-tinged comedy, and comedy-tinged drama, for which Allen will be remembered the longest. Some of them haven’t aged as well as others: Given what we would later learn about Allen’s personal life, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that “Manhattan” (although it remains a lovely movie to look at, and often very funny) is about a 42-year-old guy who’s dating a teenager. “Hannah and Her Sisters,” although a revelatory work of dysfunctional family dramedy at the time, has been imitated (and outdone) so often over the years that it no longer looks like anything special. I loved his smaller and more serious Bergman imitations back then (“Interiors,” “September,” “Another Woman” and so on) but don’t feel much desire to revisit them now. A strain of misanthropy, self-mockery and even self-hatred that surfaces most clearly in this period has endured through all of Allen’s subsequent work, major and minor. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Husbands and Wives” still seem to me Allen’s dramatic masterpieces, and a great many of his later films feel like attempts to sugarcoat and repackage the bleak insights into human nature found in those two films, such that a larger audience will swallow them.

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Not coincidentally, the movies of this period were all made with the same tight-knit New York-based group of collaborators: producers Robert Greenhut, Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins; cinematographers Gordon Willis (until 1985) and then Carlo Di Palma; editor Susan E. Morse; casting director Juliet Taylor; and production designers Mel Bourne (until 1984) and then Santo Loquasto. That group stayed together through the fascinating, troubling and intensely narcissistic public meltdown that was “Deconstructing Harry” — the last Allen film to feel risky in a personal sense. But it was an expensive all-star team working in an expensive city, and over the course of the ’80s and ’90s Allen’s style of filmmaking became less and less economically viable. His work changed in the 21st century in various ways and for many reasons, but one of the key factors was pure business: He needed to lower his production costs, find different sources of financing or do both at once.

Turning Point: “Celebrity”

“Celebrity” is not a good film — indeed, it borders on being a terrible one — but this attempt at a hard-edged satire starring Kenneth Branagh pointed the way toward Allen’s future. It was one of his first films with a younger actor in the “Woody role,” and the last one he made with editor Susan E. Morse. Carlo Di Palma was booted from the D.P.’s chair in favor of Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s longtime cinematographer, a decision that produced no measurable benefits. If anything, “Celebrity” tries too hard to be a quintessential New York movie; all kinds of name actors drift in and out, from Charlize Theron to Leonardo DiCaprio, and there are cameos for Isaac Mizrahi, Donald Trump and other irritating celebrities. It was as if Allen were bidding farewell to his native city by portraying it as obnoxiously as possible.

Back to Comedy 1993-2004
Key Works:
“Manhattan Murder Mystery,” “Sweet and Lowdown”

Yes, this phase begins before the previous one ends: I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Allen’s 1993 “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” but it came right after the hugely depressing “Husbands and Wives,” and I get why some people love it. It’s amusing and does not require you to feel entirely terrible about the human species, and it had an appealing back-to-the-future feeling, reuniting Allen with both Diane Keaton and Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and several other beloved early Allen movies. It seemed to signal a turn back toward lighter comedy, which Allen intermittently pursued for the next several years. He had a minor hit with the wistful, Jazz Age “Sweet and Lowdown” in 2000 (starring Sean Penn, one of the unlikeliest of non-Woody leading men), and parlayed that into a brief and disastrous attempt to make Hollywood comedies for a mass audience. But “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” was an expensive flop, “Hollywood Ending” was a mid-budget flop, and “Anything Else,” a youth-oriented rom-com with Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci, represents the undoubted low point of Allen’s entire career. (The ad campaign tried to avoid any reference to the crotchety old dude who wrote and directed the film and played the Biggs character’s mentor.)

Turning Point: “Melinda and Melinda”

Really? Do I mean this? How can such a thoroughly forgettable film be a gateway from one phase to another? While I can barely remember seeing “Melinda and Melinda” — I had to watch a bit of it on Amazon to be sure I had seen it — I kind of do mean it. Mediocre as this is, it feels a lot more like an Allen script than the lame comedies that preceded it, and while it isn’t set in Oslo or Prague, it has the odd mixture of qualities we’ve seen in Allen’s movies ever since. There’s an unstable blend of comedy and tragedy (indeed, that’s blatantly the theme and subject of the film), and the casting feels somewhere between a random raid on the L.A. phone book and a desperate attempt to be “contemporary”: Will Ferrell, Radha Mitchell, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Carell, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Indeed, any reassessment of the current phase of Allen’s career — I’m not volunteering! — needs to treat “Melinda and Melinda” as a key text.

Globetrotting Dramatist: 2005-present
Key Works:
“Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris”

With his four London movies of the new millennium — the stylish but dispensable thrillers “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” the tepidly pleasant comedy “Scoop” and the misanthropic romantic ensemble “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” — Allen launched an almost characterless international phase that has included the biggest hits of his entire career. “Midnight in Paris” is an easily parodied but admittedly enjoyable diversion, much of it either highly superficial or blatantly ripped off from Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” Both that film and the more openly acrid and hostile “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” rely heavily on dated caricatures of how vulgar Americans behave in Europe. Those movies, and the less successful “To Rome With Love,” offer attractive if miscellaneous casts, some amusing if familiar comic situations and a reasonably high fun factor. They seem a lot like the films of a lightweight, aging European director who has seen a lot of Woody Allen pictures. (To be specific, they seem like the films of Danièle Thompson, director of “Change of Plans,” “Jet Lag” and “Avenue Montaigne.”)

Turning Point (or is it?): “Blue Jasmine”

As I’ve already noted, Allen’s lavishly praised 2013 film didn’t do a lot for me. Its plot is nonsensical and its social backdrop feels more like a ‘70s sitcom set in New York’s outer boroughs than any version of contemporary San Francisco. But it does appear that Allen got bored with the easy shtick of his last few movies, and you can’t claim he didn’t try something new. He cast a major star in a scenery-eating dramatic role as a fast-unraveling, hard-drinking WASP society wife and got out of her way, with the likely result that Cate Blanchett will have some new hardware for her mantelpiece. There’s no wisecracking Woody-esque character anywhere in sight. There are intriguing supporting roles for Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard, and moments where the whole thing almost coheres as knockoff Tennessee Williams melodrama. (Allen has denied any such influence, which only means that it wasn’t conscious.) Is this maddening, mercurial, often brilliant and often careless comic genius, a sui generis figure in the history of comedy and the movies, about to turn the corner into a new phase in his 80s?

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