VETERAN filmmaker Woody Allen is an icon of American film. The 76-year-old Jewish director and screenwriter has made almost a film a year since 1966.
His longevity outlasts almost every other American film director with the exception of Clint Eastwood, still going strong at 82.
During the 1970s and the 1980s, Allen turned the liberal, intellectual, comic, small, Jewish New Yorker into an art form in films such as Annie Hall, the 1977 multi-Academy Award winner that is still Allen’s most popular film.
It was followed by Manhattan (1979), still his second-most popular film that links George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with New York romance.
Adding to the list from that era is Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), a deft mixture of comedy and tragedy as an extended metaphor of good and evil.
Many Allen fans prefer his early, funnier films such as Bananas (1971), about a Latin American dictator; the comic sci-fi Sleeper (1973); Love and Death (1975), a hilarious parody of Russian literature; and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), which is more like a collection of Saturday Night Live television sketches, but pushed the envelope of comic sex jokes when first released.
There was also the 1972 hit Play It Again, Sam about a movie critic who is haunted by visions of Humphrey Bogart trying to get him to toughen up.
Anyone who started watching Allen movies in the 1990s must have wondered what all the fuss was about, as this was the decade of his worst films at the box office.
Ironically, his most popular screen role in that decade was in the animated children’s film Antz (1998) where he voiced an ant!
In 2005, Allen decided to embrace British and European locations for his films, as opposed to a New York sound stage that was used for early 20th century Germany in the 1991 film Shadows and Fog or the Venice and Paris locations of Everyone Says I Love You (1996).
Allen directed four films shot on location in London – You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Match Point, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream, although only appeared in one of them.
He then moved to Spain for Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), and last year to Paris for the popular Midnight in Paris, in which Owen Wilson took on the role of the romantically confused writer so long associated with Allen. Midnight in Paris won an Oscar for best screenplay.
His latest film is To Rome with Love, which opened last week in Australia. The comedy stars Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis and Jesse Eisenberg (plus Allen in a small role) and follows the lives of a variety of people – some American and some Italian – around the enchanted ancient city of Rome.
In a recent interview, Allen explained that he had been talking for many years with his Italian distributors about making a film in Rome. When they finally said they would put up all the money to make the film, he jumped at the chance.
“I’ve made 30 or 40 films in New York. And then, suddenly you find yourself working in London or Barcelona or Rome, and the necessity of accommodating these new surroundings forces you into areas that you would not have otherwise explored. It gives it a certain freshness and exuberance.”
Allen has admitted that he does not like to travel – the reason he has never been to Israel, as much as he strongly identifies as being Jewish and has expressed admiration and support for that country.
And he has resisted the efforts of his Korean-born wife (Soon Yi Previn, the once adopted daughter of former partner Mia Farrow) to get him to visit Korea.
Until his six recent European films, the only city that featured significantly in Allen’s films was New York. (Although the film Play it Again, Sam was set in San Francisco, Allen’s original stage play took place in New York.)
This sense of place became so important that New York almost became a character in many films. How many people can listen to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and not picture the opening montage of Manhattan?
Allen’s films include Bullets Over Broadway and Manhattan Murder Mystery and he contributed to a trilogy called New York Stories with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.
Allen’s fascination with New York was so strong that he began to be criticised for rarely leaving Manhattan’s Upper East Side, unless it was for the Upper West Side.
This was the world that he knew and loved, and many of us loved him for bringing it so brilliantly to the screen for almost 50 years.
To Rome With Love is currently screening.
REPORT by Don Perlgut
PHOTO of director Woody Allen and actress Penelope Cruz.