Hoping for a Hollywood Ending: Woody Allen and the Curse of the Jaded Audience

Article excerpt

Nobody expects big box office from Woody Allen. Maybe nobody really wants it. Actors simply die to be handpicked by him to play minor roles in which they invariably don't know what they are doing or what the movie is about. (Or even if their contributions will make it into the final cut.) Woody is an authentic New York City treasure and like New York itself, he may be financially unappealing, but he's got that "certain something" only New York has.

Liz Smith, New York Post, Feb. 20, 1991 (qtd. in Spignesi xi)

Woody Allen has been one of America's most steadfast film directors, releasing roughly a movie a year since 1969. New Yorkers, in particular, have long supported the Brooklyn-born Allen, many of whose films serve as cinematic poems of their city. Given this, it was surprising for the New York Times, on 5 June 2002, to run a disparaging front-page story titled "Curse of the Jaded Audience: Woody Allen, in Art and Life." It began as follows:

A grand total of eight people showed up yesterday for the matinee of Woody Allen's latest movie "Hollywood Ending," one month out of the box and now playing in exactly one theater in Manhattan, a $4.95-a-ticket discount house in Times Square.

Because of technical problems, the screening was canceled. (Newman and Kilgannon A1)

The article, which detailed Allen's legal problems with his long-time producer Jane Doumanian and his difficulty pleasing modern audiences, included the domestic ticket sales figures for all of the twelve movies Allen had directed over the previous ten years. They ranged from a low of $2.7 million for Shadows and Fog in 1992 to a high of $17.5 million for Small Time Crooks in 2000. Allen's most recent release, Hollywood Ending (2002), had earned a paltry $4.7 million. Any way you calculated the figures--the mean and median were both $8.6 million-they did not look encouraging. In fact, the total box office take of Woody Allen's twelve theatrical releases from 1992 to 2002 was only $103.7--the typical earnings for a single successful film. Released the same summer as Hollywood Ending, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), another low-budget, independent filmmakers' release, raked in over $100 million in its first few weeks, making more than a full decade's worth of Allen's films.

The day after the damning New York Times article appeared, the newspaper ran a letter to the editor from Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, who leapt to the beleaguered director's defense. "What offended me most...," Ebert wrote, "was the chart showing the box office performance of Mr. Allen's recent movies. Surely you don't equate box office with quality" (A30). Ebert pointed out that a majority of Allen's recent films won favorable ratings at www.rottentomatoes.com, a website that chronicles North American movie critics. In addition, as a group, the movies cited by the Times garnered fourteen Academy Award nominations and won two Oscars. "Few directors do as well," Ebert concluded (A30).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Rightly so, but the damage was already done. Woody Allen, the one-time boy wonder of the movie industry, apparently had lost his cachet. It was not always the case. Robert Evans, in his popular autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994), describes a conversation with Warren Beatty and his roommate and friend Charlie Feldman in the early 1960s centering on the rising young comic, Woody Allen. As Evans writes, "Charlie was telling Warren and me how brilliant this new kid, Woody Allen, was. 'The kid's a genius [Feldman gushed]. We went to Danny's hideaway for a steak last night. I laughed so hard I couldn't eat" (101). Forty years later, Allen's status as the funny, neurotic Jewish intellectual with a quirky insight into romantic relationships was in question. No longer dubbed "the genius" and no longer hilarious and attractive to the youth audience that makes up the bulk of moviegoers, Allen had fallen so much out of favor that Picking Up the Pieces (2000), a black comedy directed by Alfonso Arau in which Allen played a kosher butcher with an unfaithful wife, went straight to Cinemax, despite the fact that it also starred Sharon Stone and Friends' David Schwimmer. …