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Life with Woody 

New York's auteur remakes himself again

click to enlarge Vintage Woody Allen: nerdy, balding and in a fetal - position. - PHOTO BY FRANK COWAN/TIME MAGAZINE/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES
  • Photo by Frank Cowan/Time Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
  • Vintage Woody Allen: nerdy, balding and in a fetal position.

He was hanging over the back of a large-armed chair that he'd swiveled around, face in hand, simultaneously concerned father and pliant child. He says he doesn't like the sun, and when he woke up that morning, it was a clear, bright day.

The sun was out, and it was Woody Allen's 70th birthday.

"[Ingmar] Bergman said the worst thing would be to die on a sunny day," he said.

"I'm morbidly resigned," he added, unsmiling, with quick shakes of his head. "Once you get over 20, all the birthdays stop being fun. You start to get anxiety about being 30, and then 40. ... It's just another birthday to get through. More bad news."

But it hasn't been all bad news lately, not by a long shot. Just a few days before, Allen had spoken at Lincoln Center to hundreds of worshipful Upper West Siders, as the ticketless mobbed outside in a kind of historical re-enactment of the 1970s, when Woody's every movement caused a New York frenzy. They were pressing against the glass doors to see him, as they used to in the pre"Stardust Memories days, when he was the adorable auteur, as much the gold standard for New York cuteness as Ed Koch, Barbra Streisand and the Mets.

Now they were back, lined up outside with hopeful eyes, all in celebration of the release of his new, pre-confirmed movie, Match Point, cheered at Cannes, juiced in the press. In mid-December, he was back in the awards game that he had left behind years ago, nominated for four Golden Globe Awards, including nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and, for Scarlett Johansson, his new Keaton-Farrow stand-in, Best Supporting Actress.

Match Point looks, at first, nothing like a Woody Allen film, not even like Crimes and Misdemeanors or Another Woman; it's bigger and more austere, chilly and tragic. It's about all the classic Allen subjects: class, love, infidelity, fertility, character. It's witty, but isn't funny. It isn't mind-blowing although one scene is.

And it's little surprise that a man who started working at 15 as a joke writer, who succeeded in many areas of show business and has created 40 films, would have, at least, the capacity to reinvent himself at 70.

The scene at Lincoln Center, however, did look like a Woody Allen film: troops of fans and intellectuals pushing, shoving, sputtering film trivia, looking for a little osmotic dose of Woodyness. At that moment, it was amazing to be driven back, back into the age of Annie Hall or Manhattan or even Hannah and Her Sisters, when it was Woody's New York and we just lived in it.

For New Yorkers of a certain age and I'm 28 he still is our director, the Jewish Male of All Jewish Males, an important and orienting force for nascent American shiksas everywhere. He has celebrated a kind of perpetual adolescence.

He is the New York of wit, banter, bookstores, infidelity, hardwood floors, moldings and area rugs, cocktail piano, live television studios, gray skies, sell-by-date romances, movie lines and movie-line references, fallible best friends and fragrant dinner parties, young and nave beautiful women, older and smarter quirky men. His milieu is his memory, his persona not him, he says, but a construction: Alvy, Isaac, Gabe, Harry. Fielding Mellish.

Then, black clouds, etc. Mia culpa.

Shadows and fog

The past decade has been another era: Soon-Yi, children, Europe, some empty art houses, Small Time Crooks, Anything Else, a cruel crack in the jaw from his old safe port, The New York Times the paper whose late, great film critic, Vincent Canby, saw Renoir and Bergman in Woody Allen. Then, a stunningly successful stand-up at the Oscars after Sept. 11, a couple more stinkers, and, out of the mists of Variety, a cry: "Woody's back!" It was for Match Point. The hype returned, but calmly, without the strain of wishful desperation.

Still, the question isn't why audiences left him even Mickey Mouse, who didn't have personal problems, and Chaplin, who did, lost theirs but why his audiences felt so desperate for him to return. To them, he's ageless, and physically familiar: They want him to look like that, 40, balding so as to suggest age; libidinous, to suggest youth; always the same, to suggest permanence. A Time cover once blared "Woody Allen Comes of Age" 25 years ago. Woody Allen and age never seemed to meet comfortably.

click to enlarge Woody Allen and his adopted daughter/wife Soon-Yi - Previn, at the premiere for his 1997 film - Deconstructing - Harry. - VINCE BUCCI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
  • Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images
  • Woody Allen and his adopted daughter/wife Soon-Yi Previn, at the premiere for his 1997 film Deconstructing Harry.

"The difference is, when you're younger, you know that you can die at any moment something goes wrong, you're going to," he said. "But when you're older, you know that even if things go right, you're going to."

Allen said he has accepted that he won't be another Bergman. But he wants to make serious films from now on. "Now that I'm older, I don't know how much time I have to make movies for the rest of my life," he said, after noting that his next film, Scoop, is a light, light comedy. He said that Scoop might be his last comedy. "I should try and not indulge myself in little comic caprices, but try and do something more meat-and-potatoes."

And the interesting things weighing on him these days are the usual preoccupations: "the meaninglessness of life, the unreliability of humanity nothing good, nothing commercial. Nothing that can't be turned against me." He laughed at that and seemed unfazed, the confidence of a man who's been through much worse already, whether he's pessimistic about what the future holds or not.

His screening room is tucked into a classic Park Avenue building, in the back, behind the foyer, as if a clever and reclusive animal had burrowed its way back there and no one cared much as it settled in. The entire room is soft and comforting and hushed. Allen looks good or the same. His skin is clean, more velvety than wrinkled or hardened.

"I think probably the best I've had it in my life is when I met Soon-Yi," he said. "It's been the best relationship I've had in my life. You know, it lasts, it keeps strong all the time, it remains intense and positive, and I have kids that I'm raising but you can only think the worst is yet to come!" He laughed. "If I could keep it this way all the time, that would be great.

"The question is, I'm much older than her, and I have to take care of myself to be able to keep in good shape," he said. "The first thing you need is luck I have had luck. Because there's longevity in my family. My father lived to over a hundred, and my mother lived to about 95. And then I live cleanly I go to sleep early and wake up early. I was never much of a drinker. I used to drink wine a lot, but I drink beer mostly. I do like beer." (He drinks Beck's, in case you're interested.) "I exercise just about every day, and I eat well, I don't eat a lot of junk. To the mild degree that you can help yourself, I help myself."

New York stories

Allen grew up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, the son of lower-middle-class parents, a mother who worked in a flower shop and a father given to menial jobs driving a cab, waiting tables, bartending, making books. Woody Allen was athletic, loved baseball and the movies.

"There's a portion of it that was grim," he said. "I don't mean a specific portion I mean, a portion of everyone's life is grim, or there were a cluster of grim realities that I had to face as a child. I hated school, and there were many crises that came up that maybe weren't crises, but I experienced them as such as a child. Life was very lower-middle-class, prosaic, relatively uninteresting, non-glamorous for all of us at the time.

"So when you went to the movies, this was a different world entirely," he said. "When you lived in a ratty little apartment and it was a hundred degrees out in the summer, and suddenly you go into an air-conditioned movie and buy a lot of candy and popcorn and sit down in this cool atmosphere, and on the screen suddenly Manhattan would materialize in front of you it was a different life entirely. Then you'd walk back out, and it was a hundred degrees out and your mother made pot roast or something, and it wasn't that thrilling."

So he perpetuated the dream in his own films, ones he temporarily can live in himself. "My conception of Manhattan was based strictly on Hollywood movies, and the Manhattan I grew up loving was a Manhattan that appeared only on the silver screen: the grand nightclubs, the penthouses, the people dressing for dinner in tuxedos in their own home at night, the champagne corks popping, the people wandering through Central Park romantically at 2 o'clock in the morning. All of this was from Hollywood movies. So the New York and Manhattan that I've given the world through my movies has been my Manhattan conceived from films, rather than actual apartments and neighborhoods.

"I grew up in the era of double features," he added. "So in the space of three hours, you would be transported to some penthouse on Fifth Avenue and, moments later, on a pirate ship from Casablanca to the Alamo. It was just astonishing, the overwhelming magic. And I believe that people who grew up in the era I grew up in many of them never recovered from movies. Many of the men and women never could adjust to the fact that love and relationships were not as you saw them in the movie. Values were not the same, integrity was not the same, and heroism was not.

"I don't think that I ever recovered fully," he said. "Because I went into movies and have lived a big portion of every year in a very unreal world. I go in the morning and there are beautiful women and handsome men, and they're in costumes and 1920s nightclubs. I make the stories come out the way I want them to. And so I have always led a very unreal life."

And he endorses this way of living. He talks about it with conviction. "The less reality, the better. You get enough reality," he said. "It finds you you don't have to seek it out. If you were locked into reality all the time, you'd go crazy. You're reduced to escapism. Magic."

(Not) everyone says I love you

In 1979, Joan Didion wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books called "Letter from Manhattan" about Interiors, Manhattan and Annie Hall. The cool Didion had very little affection or sympathy for the hand-wringing, self-absorbed protagonists of Allen's movies and wasn't shy about challenging the reflexive love for Allen movies that she had observed.

click to enlarge Diane Keaton and Allen talk everything out in 1977s - Annie Hall. - PHOTO BY UNITED ARTISTS/COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
  • Photo by United Artists/courtesy of Getty Images
  • Diane Keaton and Allen talk everything out in 1977s Annie Hall.

She quoted Allen in Manhattan: "People in Manhattan are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves that keep them from dealing with more terrifying unsolvable problems about the universe."

When Allen was asked about the rewards of life, he laughed and cursorily mentioned family and "momentary flashes."

But then he went back to his work. His work was his shield. Match Point, he said, had "served its function when I made it to distract me from thinking of the worst parts of reality. I was able to spend time on solvable problems as to how to make the characters work, and how to make the scenes flow, and I never had to face up to the unsolvable terrible problems. These are all distractions for me."

"Anhedonia," as the Allen pack knows, was almost the title of Annie Hall. And at one point in the course of our conversation, all these years later, Woody Allen still used the word to describe his state.

In her essay, Didion scratched at the Woody glaze by attacking the famous litany at the end of Manhattan, when the Allen character lists his reasons to live: "Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues' ... every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen's is the ultimate consumer report."

She wrote that it "suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary." Didion was both right and mean: Woody Allen's movies freed people to be self-obsessed; he made it look fun to be a narcissist.

Didion also suggested that all of the rapid-fire "references" in Allen's films something so common in popular culture today were "smart talk meant to convey the message that the speaker knows his way around Lit and History, not to mention Show Biz."

"I'm not intellectual," said Allen. "I'm the guy that you see at home with the beer watching the Knicks on television, or the football game. I'm not sitting up in bed with my Kierkegaard or reading Dostoyevsky."

For a moment, all those messy, sexy women in his films who never seem to be able to choose a profession but always want "to write," who read e.e. cummings when they're told to by their more sophisticated lovers, who fall in love with Woody Allen because he's their teacher seemed less silly. In fact, he's not unfamiliar with the inferiority complex.

"I found myself I don't know why attracted to what I guess you would call these kind of uncommercial-looking women," he said of his teenage self. "They all were highly literate. They knew poetry and classical music and opera and novels and philosophy. And I was a major illiterate, and I couldn't hold my own with those women at all. For the first time in my life, I had genuine motivation toward education."

Deconstructing Woody

In recent films, Allen has been attacked as being out-of-touch, a man hermetically sealed in a high-ceilinged Manhattan without a sense of the world or of time. Allen said that he likes his apartment and his bedroom, and he likes to stay there.

He said he doesn't think New York has changed much, or if it has, it's hard for him to notice: "I don't see a radical kind of change," he said. "It's always been evolving ever since I've lived in the city." He said he likes the same directors we all like. "Sideways was a wonderful film," he said. He said there weren't enough good American movies. He called Turner Classics Movies "as good a thing to happen to the movies as anything."

We played a game about the past and the present:

Philip Roth?

"I think he's great. Great writer and a great comic writer as well."

click to enlarge Anhedonia? Please  the man keeps movie-lovers - transfixed. - PHOTO BY EVENING STANDARD/GETTY IMAGES
  • Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images
  • Anhedonia? Please the man keeps movie-lovers transfixed.

Marilyn Monroe?

"I discovered her at a very, very early age way, way before anyone knew her. I was just a kid, and there was an abortive magazine that had a short life called Varsity, and they came by the neighborhood and sold me a subscription to Varsity, and in the back pages of one of the issues, in a tiny photo, was a girl in a bathing suit, and I was paralyzed when I saw it. I thought, "My God, this is the sexiest' I couldn't have been more than 12 "this is the sexiest creature I've ever laid eyes on.' And I followed her career thereafter."

Sidney Bechet?

"A genius, and one of the most maybe the most influential and pleasure-giving artists of my lifetime."

George W. Bush?

"Arguably the worst administration in the history of the United States. I didn't start out with any hostility; I started out rooting for him. I was rooting for him, certainly, after 9/11, and when I was in Europe a few days after September 11 and people were asking me questions about him because I was from New York and people thought I was an expert I was saying, "Well, I hope he'll do a good job, I'm optimistic, I think he will.' He certainly got off to a good start and showed sympathy and enthusiasm and said all the right things. But he didn't. He let the country down brutally."

Bill Clinton?

"I always liked Bill Clinton. I campaigned for him before he was first elected president, and always regarded the Monica Lewinsky thing as laughable evidence of a prudish population and thought the whole thing was totally absurd, and that he was very smart and would have if he ran today, he'd be elected in a landslide."

Chris Rock?

"Funny. I like him."

"Sex and the City"?

"I don't watch television. Not out of principle it just doesn't fit into my schedule."

Hollywood ending

It was his birthday, he would have to get through it. Somewhere, there should have been a Bobby Short piano or a Preservation Hall jazz score playing.

He had worked that morning. For the rest of the day, he planned on color-correcting Scoop. After, he said he might go out to dinner to some "reasonable" restaurant in his East Side neighborhood; he was looking forward to traveling to Europe in a few weeks to play the clarinet. Again and again, he brought up his own black moods, insisted that he is mildly depressed and consumed with thoughts of his own mortality and the miserable state of the human condition, others' and his own.

"I'm sorry if I've depressed you," Allen said. "But it is a birthday."

On the street, it was sunny. But Allen looked grudgingly happy. There was no black-and-white card suggesting the end.

Suzy Hansen is an editor at the New York Observer, in which this article originally appeared.

  • New York's auteur remakes himself again

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