A documentary illuminates elusive Woody Allen

By Frazier Moore

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 17 2011 5:15 a.m. MST

FILE - In this July 14, 2011 file photo, filmmaker Woody Allen is shown on the set of his movie "The Bop Decameron" in Rome. Allen will be profiled in the "American Masters" presentation, "Woody Allen: A Documentary," airing Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.

Andrew Medichini, file, Associated Press

NEW YORK — You will see his typewriter, the Olympia portable Woody Allen has used for pounding out everything he's written since his teens.

You will see the contents of the "idea drawer" in his bedside table where he stashes random paper scraps, any of which might inspire his next film.

You will see him in the role of director, both in the distant past and while making his 2010 film, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" — a remarkable unveiling by an artist known for keeping a locked-down set.

In sum, you will see this legendarily private filmmaker up close and personal, charming and candid, and, yes, funny as he strikes a clear contrast with the neurotic, death- and sex-obsessed Manhattanite he has famously depicted in so many classic films.

Turns out, Woody Allen at heart is a writer.

"Writing is the great life," he says at the start of the film, seen recumbent on his bed scribbling on a legal pad.

Only when production begins on the screenplay he has written does reality set in, he says, and "all your schemes about making a masterpiece are reduced to, 'I'll prostitute myself any way I have to, to survive this catastrophe.'"

An "American Masters" presentation, "Woody Allen: A Documentary" is a two-part, three-and-a-half-hour feast for all Woody fans and anyone else who is interested in a prolific, persistent artist's creative world. It airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.

The film revisits Allen's childhood in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and his first venture as a professional writer: supplying jokes to columnists and comics while still in high school. It covers his growing success in the 1950s and 1960s as a comedy writer for TV, then as a rising standup comic in his own right.

But this was all a prelude to "Take the Money and Run" in 1969, a zany comedy he wrote, directed and starred in — his first outing as an auteur who, astonishingly since then, has averaged one film per year for more than 40 years.

Allen has never been distinguished by his box-office might, although "Annie Hall" (1977) was a critical and commercial sensation, and this year's "Midnight in Paris" caught everyone off-guard by becoming his highest grosser yet.

Speaking of his up-and-down fortunes, Allen says, with the flicker of a smile, "I don't really care about commercial success — and the end result is, I rarely achieve it."

More meaningfully, what sets Allen apart is the scale, scope and inquisitiveness of his output, which continues apace, even as he approaches his 76th birthday on Dec. 1.

No la-di-da artist's temperament complicates his working life. John Cusack, one of many stars from Allen's films seen in the documentary, reports how, as a workday wears on, he will signal that it's time to speed things up: He doesn't want to miss the Knicks' tip-off.

"I don't have the concentration or the dedication that you really need to be a great artist. I'd rather be home watching the ballgame," says Allen.

"What sometimes comes off as false modesty truly is modesty; the self-deprecating streak is very real," said filmmaker Robert Weide, a lifelong Woody-phile who spent the past three years making the Woody Allen documentary.

"In his own mind," said Weide recently, "he's just this journeyman director who has the opportunity to make a film a year, and so he does. And yet he grades himself on the same curve as Bergman and Kirosawa, so he thinks he's just some little pisher who has managed to get by with a percentage of the public."

How did Weide win over Allen as the subject for a portrait when others had wooed him and lost?

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS