Woody Allen: Big Comeback?

“Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s new, exuberant comedy, marks his 41th feature as a filmmaker.  A return to form, the movie (in wide release!) stands chance of becoming one of his most commercially popular pictures.

Indeed, Sony Pictures Classics announced  that as of June 23, 2011, “Midnight in Paris” has become Woody Allen’s highest grossing film in North America in 25 years..  “Midnight in Paris” has grossed $23,330,859 to date.  Allen’s most commercially popular film is “Hannah and Her Sisters,” in 1986.

Midnight in Paris Trailer

Just when you were ready to write-off Woody Allen as a commercially viable director, comes a long a comedy like “Midnight in Paris,” which is the best reviewed Allen picture in decades.  According to Rotten Tomatoes,” Midnight in Paris” benefits from a huge critical support: The vast majority of reviews (92 percent) have been positive.

I saw the film in Cannes Film Fest, where it served as opener, and liked it well enough to give it grade B.  As I pointed out in my review, the movie is NOT original (by any terms), but it is enjoyable and pleasurable in ways that the last 10-12 of Allen pictures (with the exception of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) were not.

Last weekend, Sony Classics, which releases the film in the U.S., expanded the showings of “Midnight in Paris” to 944 screens, an unusually high number of venues for an Allen movie.  It paid off: As of today, the movie has grossed $14,000,000 at the box-office.  If this trend continues, “Midnight in Paris” will become one of Woody Allen’s most popular movies–ever.

Though he looks younger than his age, 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 well into their 70s and even 80s.  (Sidney Lumet, who had worked steadily until 2006, was 86, when he died last week, and so was Robert Altman).

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, the beautiful and the mediocre, the commercial hits and the artistic flops.

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 also 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.
For a whole decade, though, from the late 1960s to “Annie Hall,” Allen had 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 the same year, 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.
Read these Woody Allen Reviews: