Husbands and Wives
Klawans, Stuart, The Nation
"Can I go now? Is this over?"
With these words, Woody
fallen puts an end to his
new film, Husbands and Wives, and to the last of his pseudo-documentary interviews within it. From the seat I was occupying, at Loews 84th Street, that plaintive cry already had arisen many times: "Can I go now? Is this over?"
As audience member, movie character and filmmaker, all three of us were begging to be released from different but related tortures. From the mess he put on screen, I'd guess Woody Allen disliked making Husbands and Wives as much as I disliked watching it, as much as his character, Gabe, disliked living through a burned-out marriage to Mia Farrow's Judy. But was there a fourth level of horror behind that final plea? Was the writer-director-star thinking of his career when he said, "Can I go now? Is this over?"
Woody Allen has given a lot of people a lot of pleasure over the years, so it gives. me no pleasure at all to report, on the basis of present evidence, that his career should end, at least as presently constituted. Judging his new film on the basis of its attendant gossip, a viewer might figure that the picture's disarray mirrors that of Allen's almost-marriage. Working from somewhat broader assumptions, you might conclude that it's been Allen's artistic ambitions, and the conditions in which he's realized them, that have brought, him to this state.
Having started out as a scuffling autodidact from Brooklyn, Allen succeeded by the late seventies in turning himself into a Manhattan sophisticate. Forget the Academy Awards--he was being published in The New Yorker. Someone who had fought less hard for that status might have taken it more lightly. But Alien guarded it by insulating himself, both personally and artistically, with the result that his liveliest films of recent years have been set in fantasies of the past, while his present-day pictures, by and large, have been increasingly wan and self-enclosed. In Husbands and Wives, he's portrayed a solipsist's Manhattan, with no working class except for cab drivers, no people of color except for two extras at a concert hail (and of course the Knicks), no samesexers of any description. Children and the very old are invisible; the young, as we know from the gossip, exist primarily as targets of sexual opportunity. This is, of course, the same version of present-day Manhattan that Allen has been giving us, to less and less effect, since Manhattan.
He's been able to do so largely because he's been shielded from the ruder shocks of commerce, thanks to producers who have been content with prestige more often than profit. Of the major American filmmakers, only Woody Allen has been so protected. Then came the collapse of Orion Pictures and the need to negotiate a new distribution arrangement (ultimately with TriStar). Rumors circulated that Allen's financing might dry up; some people even said that his backers might welcome an excuse to get out of the next succes d'estime. This was the other behind-the-scenes divorce being threatened while Allen made Husbands and Wives--a commercial divorce in which Allen figured to be the partner who was no longer sexy enough. That isn't what you see on the screen, of course. Within the ever more circumscribed terms of his art, Alien could allow himself to dramatize only domes- tic problems within one small corner of Manhattan's intelligentsia. Within that corner, he apparently could envision only | one actor-character as being wholly unlovable, and it wasn't himself. Although he does require three of the principals-- himself, Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack-to look foolish at times, Pollack also gets to be virile; Davis is endlessly lauded by her fellow actors as beautiful and smart; and Alien is greeted wherever he goes by expressions of respect, offered even by total strangers. (He's playing a short-story writer. Of course New York lies at his feet.) And Mia Farrow? Except for the first scene, in which she turns shrill and runs from the room in tears, she frumps her way through the movie, dutifully embodying her writer-director-former boyfriend's notion of an emotional black hole. …