Woody Allen: 41 Films/41 Years

“Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s new comedy marks his 41s feature as a filmmaker.  The movie, which is rumored to be a return to form for the up-and-down-and up auteur, will open the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, on May 11.

Though he looks younger, and projects a youthful energey, Allen turned 75 last December.  At his rate, he will soon join the short list of American filmmakers–Clint Eastwood included–who continues to be productive and creative in their 70s and even 80s.  (Sidney Lumet, who had worked steadily until 2006, was 86, when he died last week). 

Over the next month or so, we’ll examine Woody Allen’s prolific, always versatile, sometimes brilliant career by revisiting each one of his pictures, the good and the bad, and the beautiful and the mediocre, the hit and the flop. 

At his prime, from his Oscar-winning film “Annie Hall” in 1977 to “Hannah and Her Sisters,” which was nominated for Best Picture and won Original Screenplay Oscar in 1986, Woody Allen was not only the most famous Jewish director but the most famous and most acclaimed American filmmaker, with a strong cycle of serio comedies.

Only one of a handful American directors who justify the label of “auteur,” Allen has enjoyed complete artistic control over his work, an enviable condition first forgd with Orion Pictures in the early 1980s and then with United Artists and other studios.
 
Regardless of their specific genre (comedies, dramas, melodramas), most of Allen’s films are highly personal, containing many allusions to his private life as well as to his notions of art, love, philosophy, and religion.
 
But for a whole decade, from the late 1960s to “Annie Hall,” Allen specialized in making funny, broad, often shapeless comedies that lacked the structure, coherence and discipline of his later work.
 
Born in 1935 as Allen Stewart Konigsberg, in Brooklyn, to working class parents, Woody Allen began his career as a comedian, humorist, and playwright. Allen started writing comedy material for TV stars while still an adolescent. He also wrote jokes for newspaper columnists and contributed sketches for stage revues. 
 
After a semester at NYU, where he failed a film course, Allen dropped out. He began his career as a gag writer for “The Tonight Show,” as well as providing material for TV personalities like Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar, and Art Carney.
 
In 1961, Allen began to perform his own material, which relied on and flaunted his notorious rebellious and guilt-ridden Jewish urban mentality. As a result, he became quite successful as a figure on the Greenwich Village club circuit, as well as on college campuses and on records, producing some popular albums.
 
In 1965, Woody Allen made his feature film acting and writing debut in the psychiatric farce, “What’s New Pussycat?” directed by Clive Donner, and starring Peter O’Toole and other high-caliber thesps, such as Peter Sellers and the beautiful Romy Schneider and Capucine.
 
O’Toole, expanding is range after a stunning performance in the 1962 Oscar-winner “Lawrence of Arabia,” plays a fashion magazine editor, who consults an important psychiatrist (Peter Sellers) about his “unhealthy” vulnerability to girls who pursue him.  Jealous and obsessed, the psychiatrist goes berserk, trying to find the secrets of his patient’s success for his own good.
 
Set in Paris, the production is suitably lavish, and there’s much to look at, not least three beautiful and eccentric comediennes, played by the suave European actresses Romy Schneider and Capucine, as well as our very own American Paula Prentiss, who at one point reads solemnly a poem titled “Ode to a Pacifist Junkie.” You do want such a farce to be crazier, funnier, and more frantic than it is, an in moments it is, but not enough.
 
In 1966, Allen made his debut as a director by retooling a minor Japanese spy thriller, “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” by supplying his own storyline and with English dialogue dubbed by American actors. It was an original idea, but minor effort artistically, though there were quite a few clever and amusing moments.  He then co-wrote and acted in the James Bond spoof, “Casino Royale” (1967).
 
These efforts put him on the map, launching Allen as one of the most inventive, resourceful, and commercially successful filmmaker.  In 1966, Allen’s first play, “Don’t Drink the Water,” was produced on Broadway.
 
In 1969, Allen made two short films for a CBS TV Special titled “Cupid’s Shaft”: a parody of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights,” and a loose adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” in which Allen cast himself as a rabbi.
 
In 1969, Allen directed, co-wrote and starred in the hilarious comedy “Take the Money and Run,” a loosely structured spoof of American gangster movies.
 
Allen also woe all three hats (writer-director-star) in “Bananas,” in 1971, a South-of-the border satire, which targeted tyrannical politics and the increasingly powerful mass media of communications.
 
“Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex” (but were afraid to ask), a series of sketches, loosely related to a title borrowed from a self-help book by doctor David Reuben, which was very popular at the time.
 
In 1972, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know,” in 1972, basically an aggregate of vignettes, sketches, and gags, loosely based on the book by Dr. David Rueben. As written and directed by Woody Allen, the comedy contains some very funny moments, closer to his Jewish origins–the Catskill kind of broad and gross (sometimes dirty) humor.
 
The absurdist, often hilarious vignettes probe sexuality in all its facets! Aphrodisiacs prove effective for a court jester, played by Allen, who finds the key to the Queen’s (Lynn Redgrave, then very hot after gaining Oscar nomination for “Georgy Girl”) heart but learns that the key to her chastity belt might be more useful.
 
Unnatural acts get wild when a good doctor (Gene Wilder) falls for a fickle sheep. Jack Barry gives fetishism 20 questions on a wacky TV show called “What’s My Perversion?” Sex-research goes under the microscope when a mad scientist (John Carradine) unleashes a monstrous, marauding breast.
 
The absurdity comes to a climax, in more senses than one, with a hilarious image of Tony Randall, Burt Reynolds and Allen as sperm having second thoughts about ejaculation!
 
By standards of mainstream Hollywood comedies, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know” was audacious, depicting, among other deviant phenomena bestiality, exposure, perversion, and S&M. The final scene, which takes place inside a man’s body during a hot date, is truly funny.
 
The movie benefits immensely from the fact that Allen himself appears in many of the sketches. Critics at the time marveled at how Allen succeeded in pushing the envelope of the comedy genre, by incorporating his madcap, eccentric sensibility and his wicked irreverence. Cue magazine wrote, for example: “Allen reveals himself as a filmmaker of wit, sophistication, and comic insight.”
 
In the 1970s, Allen directed, wrote, and acted in a string of highly successful comedies. Typically disjointed in continuity, these films contained many moments of comic brilliance, highlighted by self?effacing humor, inside jokes, and endless spoofs of filmmakers (Antonioni, Bergman, Eisenstein), movie conventions, and philosophers. 
 
The versatile performer Allen also honed his skills as a jazz clarinetist, with a regular Monday night gig at Michael’s Pub in New York that has continued for decades.