Allen, Woody: Loss of American Movie Audience

At his prime, from “Annie Hall” in 1977 to “Radio Days” in 1987, Woody Allen was the most famous and acclaimed filmmaker in America. At present, however, Allen is going through rough times, experiencing a creative crisis. He has not made a commercial film in a decade and most critics have dismissed his last five pictures. “Melinda and Melinda” is a huge failure stateside, and for his new movie, Allen is about to leave his favorite locale of Manhattan for London, where he also had shot the previous one, “Match Point.”

As urban America’s favorite worrywart, Allen is one of the most gifted and prolific writer-directors in film history. In his best work, as the funniest neurotic of our time, Allen has combined wit with whimsy, poignancy with thought. While all his movies can be defined as comedies, he has contributed to every brand of the genre: Satire, farce, fantasy. Allen has also shown gift for philosophical and literary humor in his essays for the “New Yorker,” and in several books, including Getting Even and Side Effects.

Onscreen and off, Allen has projected such youthful energy that it’s hard to believe he’s pushing 70, a dangerous age for any artist, particularly in Hollywood, an industry run by young execs who don’t know his best work and dominated by teenagers who hardly know his name.

He has not made a commercial film in a decade, since 1994’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” and the critics have dismissed his last five pictures. The urgent question is how long can Allen be a famous artist, if he hasn’t made an interesting film in years. Allen’s comedies have been so small and inconsequential of late that they make his productivity—one movie per year—obsessive, a matter of habit. Industry mavens wonder whether there will be funding for Allen’s movies whose budgets have steadily risen as his audiences have steadily shrunk.

Which came first, Allen’s artistic decline and lack of experimentation with new forms, or the loss of his loyal following Different theories have been offered. Some claim that Allen’s brand of humor no longer appeals to a market dominated by youth. Others say that he has repeated his formula, the Jewish shtick, too many times and has not really developed as an artist. Still others claim that the tragic turning point in his career was the Mia Farrow public scandal in 1992, for which he suffered unbearable humiliation. All of these theories are valid, at least in part.

What is beyond doubt is Allen’s contribution to American cinema as one of its most inventive and idiosyncratic filmmakers. Also beyond doubt is the power of the particular image he has cultivated in his films: the romantic nebbish.

Allen Stewart Konigsberg was born in Brooklyn to Orthodox parents, Martin and Netty. His father worked, as he once said, at “a million little short-lived jobs,” and his mother kept the account books in a flower shop. Many of Allen’s early gags were gibes at his parents, whose values he described as “God and carpeting,” blaming them for his neurosis: “I was in analysis for years because of a traumatic childhood. I was breast-fed through falsies.”

After dropping out of NYU, Allen wrote comedy material for TV stars and sketches for stage revues. In 1961, he began performing his own routines in Greenwich Village cafes. His special brand of cynical yet self-deprecating humor was soon in demand on TV talk shows and nightclubs.

Allen broke into films in 1965, as screenwriter and performer in “What’s New, Pussycat” which featured his then wife Louise Lasser. The following year, he flaunted an absurd humor by clever English dubbing of the soundtrack of a cheap Japanese thriller, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily” He then wrote two Broadway hits, “Don’t Drink the Water and Play it Again, Sam” (a spoof of “Casablanca”), both of which were later made into films.

In 1969, Allen embarked on a filmmaking career, directing, co-scripting, and starring in “Take the Money and Run,” a hilarious parody of crime flicks. In the 1970s, Allen directed, wrote, and acted in a string of highly successful comedies, in which he updated Chaplin’s old icon of the little man, living in a complex and threatening environment, at odds with mechanical objects and women. Disjointed in continuity, the films contained comic brilliance, highlighted by self-effacing Jewish humor, and references (both serious and spoofs) of his favorite filmmakers, Fellini and Bergman.

Allen’s unique humor is connected more with the golden age of radio comedy than with movie tradition. Among the humorists who had influenced him the most were George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman, but he also borrowed from Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. You didn’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Allen, but it helped, for his inescapable Jewishness had a major influence on his work. As a comic, he continued a rich literary tradition that runs from lowbrow self-mockery of the belt jokesters to the more complex modernist writers, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. What Allen shared with the Jewish humorists, from the Catskill comedians to Roth, is an ironic sense of self and the world and joy in language.

The central link among Allen’s films is the self-deprecatory, gag-spouting nebbish as a romantic hero, a type deeply embedded in Jewish culture. Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool and Roth’s Alexander Portnoy are among the most famous literary schlemiels that, like Allen’s characters, are outsiders and victims. Mangled by their families and unlucky in love, they slide from one upset to another, with failure as their lot and ironic complaint their response.

Allen’s heroes are brilliant talkers who attack their enemies with showers of words. Seeing life from a crooked and idiosyncratic slant, they say the unexpected and do the outrageous. Like King Lear’s Fool, they know more than anyone else, even if they present their special insights in a deliberately cockeyed style. (Allen had appeared as the Fool in Godard’s experimental film, “King Lear”). Allen retains the Jewish mentality of feeling one step ahead of trouble, but ultimately his innocence and affirmation in the face of defeat transform him into a winning character.

Allen’s key metaphor for life is a concentration camp from which no one escapes alive. He believes in individual responsibility for one’s behavior, as he once noted: “The concentration camp is the real test: There are those who make moral decisions and betray their best friends, and there are others who behave with unbelievable courage. That’s exactly what happens in life, some respond terribly and some beautifully. I have never been tested, and I have the greatest doubts about how I’d respond under real pressure.” In this context, Allen was ideally cast in “The Front,” as a nebbish who fronts blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era.

Allen scored his greatest critical and commercial success with “Annie Hall,” a bittersweet account of a failed romance, based on his real relationship with his frequent leading lady Diane Keaton. Allen played Alvy Singer, an anxiety-ridden comedian who falls for the ultimate Midwest Shiksa. A turning point in Allen’s career, revealing a more mature approach to comedy and fuller command of film grammar, the film garnered the best picture, director, and co-screenwriter Oscars.

Characteristically, the tyrannically shy Allen was in N.Y. during the Oscars, playing his clarinet like every other Monday at the bistro Michael’s Pub. Allen turned off his telephone, and he found about his success when he read the N.Y. Times the next morning! Asked about his anomalous behavior, he said: “I was very surprised. I felt good for Diane because she wanted to win. But Im anhedonic.” (The initial title of Annie Hall was Anhedonia!)

In 1978, Allen surprised his followers with his first straight drama, Interiors, a gloomy Bergmanesque tale of people whose lives are ravaged by the kind of anxieties that had always been present in Allen’s work but were hitherto swept under a carpet of laughs. The film earned him a directing Oscar nomination but wasn’t much popular.

With “Manhattan” (1979), considered by many critics to be his masterpiece, Allen returned to the self-confessional format of Annie Hall, again playing the intellectual nebbish, bewildered by romantic relationships and confounded by neuroses. As a TV writer struggling with selling out, both personally and artistically, Allen seeks consolation in affairs with two Shiksas (the mature Diane Keaton and the teenager Mariel Hemingway), after his wife (Meryl Streep) leaves him and writes a revelatory book their failed marriage. It was the last film to star Diane Keaton, who soon gave way to a new leading lady–and lover–Mia Farrow.

This followed with the more intimately personal “Stardust Memories” (1980), an acerbic self-portrait, inspired by Fellini’s masterpiece 81/2, in which he poked fun at those who yearned for his earlier and funnier movies, such as Bananas and Love and Death.

At this point, Allen enjoyed greater success than any of his contemporary Jewish-American filmmakers, including Mel Brooks (Melvin Kaminsky), who’s older by a decade, but became a director about the same time as Allen. Brook’s comedy is based on the theory that genre takeoffs are funnier than real human situations. Deriving from burlesque, Brooks’ comic approach is brash, and his comic persona, variations of the schmuck, superficial and vulgar.

Like Allen, having begun by writing gags for Sid Caesar, Brooks is a product of live-audience TV. In a career spanning 27 years, his output is small (11 films), and the number of hits even smaller. “The Producers” showed bad taste, but its Jewish showbiz angle was sharp, with Hitler as opponent and the blacklisted Zero Mostel as his spokesperson. Preoccupied with showbiz cliches and rip-off parody, Brooks made “Blazing Saddles,” a spoof of Westerns, and “High Anxiety,” a parody of Hitchcock. Brooks’ best film is “Young Frankenstein,” in which he showed greater respect for the horror genre conventions. A mindless desperation to grab laughs, even if it meant concession to the masses, characterizes Brooks’ career, which terminated in 1995 with the disastrous “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.”

In contrast, Allen continued to experiment with narrative and style. “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” (1982), a comic homage to Ingmar Bergman, was his first in a long string of films with Mia Farrow. He experimented brilliantly with film technique in “Zelig” (1983), which achieved remarkable results by matching newsreels and stills with live footage. Allen followed the Runyonesqe “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984) with another excursion into technical invention, the bittersweet movieland fantasy, “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985).

Allen won new admirers with “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), an ambitiously intricate serio-comic family saga, which won Oscars for screenplay and two of its actors, Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest. Of Allen’s subsequent films, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) received the most critical praise for combining dark drama and bittersweet comedy. The movie offered a sad, censuring look at Jewish characters that convince themselves they can do anything because God is not watching.

Then he began to stumble: “September,” “Alice,” “Shadows and Fog,” and “Another Woman,” all starring Farrow, were artistic and commercial bombs. To many, his relationship with Farrow, with whom he adopted two children (Moses and Dylan) and had one biological son, Satchel, was strange, to say the least. The unmarried couple carefully maintained their independence, living in separate apartments on opposite sides of Central Park.

Allen has always been an intensely private individual, rarely doing publicity and avoiding Hollywood at all costs. It was therefore ironic when he became the subject of a huge scandal. In August 1992, his relationship with Farrow came to a dramatic end, when she discovered that he was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, one of her adopted children from a previous marriage to conductor Andre Previn. Though Soon-Yi was of college age and not related to Allen, the appearance of incest made front-page news across the world.

The couple became international gossip fodder, and Allen suffered further embarrassment when Farrow accused him in court of molesting their child. This unprecedented publicity brouhaha for two extremely private people gave unexpected notoriety to Allen’s concurrently released “Husbands and Wives,” which caused snickering in theaters because of the candid dialogue between Farrow and Allen. That Allen played a professor lusting after his young student increased the confusion between life onscreen and off. It’s worth noting that Allen married Soon-Yi and they have a child whose identity remains mysterious.

Over the past decade, Allen has cast his film with “hot” performers, hoping to grab younger audiences. He worked with Jodie Foster and Madonna in “Shadows and Fog,” Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs in “Anything Else,” TV’s Debra Messing in “Hollywood Ending,” and his latest, “Melinda and Melinda,” stars Will Ferrell.

But to no avail: All of these films failed at the box-office. “Melinda and Melinda” will barely gross $4 million stateside. (It has made more money in Spain!). Which proves that the moviegoers who have made Will Ferrell (“Elf) America’s most popular comedian don’t want to see him in an Allen comedy. Consciously or subconsciously, Allen has chained his young performers to his own aging trunk and fretful temperament. Strangely, all his male actors, from Kenneth Branagh to John Cusack to Jason Biggs, end up imitating his unique style.

Allen has strangled himself with old-fashioned strategies, like playing a blind filmmaker in “Hollywood Ending,” or resorting to awkward literal devices, such as amnesia and love potions in “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” Allen seems to be caught in a paradoxical situation. Without his onscreen presence, his films lack gravity and emotional center, and with him acting, he can’t play anymore the romantic schlemiel. He’s simply too old for that, as became evident in “Everyone Says I Love You,” in which he courted Julia Roberts!

Is it Allen’s decline signaling screen comedy, as we knew it In the 1970s and 1980s, he was able to compete with the new comedic style of TV’s Saturday Night Live alumni: Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy. But in the 1990s, the tone of American has changed and it’s now defined by the gross-out humor of the Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary) and Mike Myers’ James Bond spoofs, Austin Powers.

Allen’s detractors claim that he has ceased experimenting with cinematic form, that he has no interest in anything outside himself, that he has become a narcissist who doesn’t connect with anyone anymore. When was the last time Allen took a subway in New York, asked a journalist recently Set exclusively in the chic Upper East Side of Manhattan, his films reflect an isolated milieu, with little sense of purpose his way of looking at the world.

Allen’s last three films had premiered in countries where he’s still popular. He traveled to France’s Cannes festival with “Hollywood Ending,” Italy’s Venice Festival with “Anything Else,” and Spain’s St. Sebastian Festival with “Melinda and Melinda.” In fact, audiences in Spain have embraced “Melinda and Melinda” more warmly than their American counterparts, turning it in to a box-office hit.

Allen’s appeal in Europe and Japan may be his salvation, and the only way to secure funding for his movies, which have gained in visual polish but have lost their comic edge, at least for American audiences. Allen’s latest film, “Match Point,” will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival out of competition next week, and his new film is about to start shooting in London, which seems to be his new, far more hospitable home.

Woody Allen’s Most Popular Films (Box-Office in millions of $)

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), 40.1
Manhattan (1979), 39.9
Annie Hall (1977), 38.3
Love and Death (1975), 20.1
Sleeper (1973), 18.3
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), 18.3
Radio Days (1987), 14.8
Bullets Over Broadway (1994), 13.4
Small Time Crooks (2000), 13.1
Zelig (1983), 11.8
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), 11.3