Woody Allen: A Documentary
This engaging documentary from Robert Weide is a timely reminder of the comic genius of one of the world’s great comic actors and film directors. If you only know Allen from Midnight in Paris, be assured that he has made many better and funnier films in a long and distinguished career.
There are interviews with Allen’s family and friends, critics and actors including Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts, Penelope Cruz, Larry David, Mariel Hemingway and Marshall Brickman. However, the most revealing scenes are the reflections of Woody Allen himself. It becomes clear that he is not motivated by money or fame but by the hope of making a great film worthy of his heroes, Fellini and Bergman. He is clearly disappointed at how some of his films have turned out, though why he should single out Manhattan for criticism (widely regarded as one of his very best films) is puzzling.
At the start of the film, Allen reveals that it is the writing of scripts that is his first love. Translating the screenplay into film is a frustrating process for him. His first involvement in film came when he was commissioned to write the screenplay for What’s New Pussycat? (1965). Studio interference mangled his script and left him feeling bitter. He resolved that if he ever made his own films, he would demand complete control. He’s never had any studio interference on any of his films.
The documentary gives an informative account of Allen’s background, an upbringing in Brooklyn, his early love of the cinema, early success as a gag writer for newspaper columnists and how he forced himself through the ordeal of stand-up comedy until he made himself a success.
The film provides a good overview of Allen’s career as a film director but it was a shame there wasn’t more attention given to some of his best films, particularly Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours, two of his most ambitious and critically acclaimed films. After the scandal over his private life when he left Mia Farrow to marry Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, his films struggled to secure a cinema release for a number of years, which led to some good films being rather overlooked. These included the very funny comedies Anything Else and Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
One of the features of Allen’s film career has been how many established film actors have wanted to star in his films. Very few have turned him down. Scarlett Johansson and Naomi Watts speak of appreciating the freedom he gives actors to interpret the script in whatever way they see fit. On the other hand, Josh Brolin clearly wanted more of a steer from the director.
Allen comes across in this documentary as a driven man, compelled to bring out a film every year. He also appears to be a humble, warm and very funny man. If you enjoy this film, you’ll also enjoy Wild Man Blues, a 1997 documentary by Barbara Kopple of the European tour Allen undertook with his jazz band. That film reveals a Woody Allen close to his neurotic screen persona, and again brings out his natural humour and warmth.
There have been some great Woody Allen films, a lot of very good ones and quite a few mediocre efforts. Let’s hope he will be remembered for his best films, which hold their own against the very best films ever made. He should certainly be remembered as the funniest film actor there has ever been.
Review by David Hawthorn