Woody Allen's Black Magic
Tanenhaus, Sam, Newsweek
Byline: Sam Tanenhaus
The legendary filmmaker returns to his old obsessions-sexual avarice and megalomaniacal control.
It's the first Monday in June, 10 days before Woody Allen's new movie, To Rome With Love, will open the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Allen, dressed as usual in brown, is perched on a chair in the screening room in his functional office on the ground floor of an anonymous Park Avenue building.
It used to be he strictly limited publicity for his films, even banning glowing quotes from newspaper ads, which instead were as stark as his signature black-and-white title cards ("Written and Directed by Woody Allen"). But times have changed for Woody, and for moviegoers, and he now acknowledges the need to hustle his product. He flew to Rome for the world premiere in April and now patiently holds still under the umbrella strobe, genially bantering with the photographer, Platon, who confesses he is uncommonly nervous. "I've learned so much about life from you," he says. Allen deadpans his reply: "I've learned not to believe anyone who says that."
Everyone chuckles, though it is not at all clear he's joking. Allen's fabled career has had exhilarating ups, but also abysmal downs, and praise has often been followed by attack. At one low point, in 2002, when he was locked in a bitter lawsuit with his onetime producer, Jean Doumanian, The New York Times, which in better days had consistently proclaimed Allen's genius, counted a "grand total of eight people" in the seats of the Times Square discount house that was the sole local venue of his latest flop (Hollywood Ending) and speculated that "his long moment as cultural icon may be over."
Since then Woody has stormed back, perhaps not bigger or better, but more popular than ever, with a sequence of solid hits filmed abroad. Midnight in Paris, released last year, won Allen his third Oscar for best original screenplay, along with a nomination (his seventh) for best director. More remarkably, it is Allen's top all-time box-office success, earning well over $110 million worldwide.
The shoot finished, we move next door to Allen's editing room and sit on facing chairs amid unopened cartons and cluttered surfaces, the space resembling the garage of an unhandy suburbanite rather than the atelier of a celebrated filmmaker. "This has always been such a little rathole," he says. "I've been here 30 years or so, and it suffices. We edit in here. We take it in there. We look at it. We hate it."
At 76, he has aged with unholy grace: the mussed carrot-top, now the cloud tint of jiffy-bag innards, has scarcely thinned; the oblong face remains a mobile mask of amused perplexity; the wiry physique, thanks to daily exercise, still exudes the vigor of the athlete he once was--a skilled-enough boxer, in his teens, to have trained for the Golden Gloves competition. His one obvious debility, no joke for a master of spoken idioms, is defective hearing; his phone, keyed to ear-splitting volume, trilled six times before he asked, in puzzlement, "What's that?" Unperturbed, he continues calmly, not bothering to raise his voice.
Allen in person is nothing like the nebbishy mess of phobias and insecurities he has been impersonating, on stage and screen, for half a century, dating back to his days doing stand-up in Greenwich Village clubs like The Bitter End. He has the reputation, in fact, for almost terrifying self-assurance and will brusquely dismiss established stars (casualties include Michael Keaton, Sam Shepard, and Christopher Walken) if they fail to meet his exacting standards on the set. But monomania has made him his era's greatest comic presence, the one true heir of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Allen, however, measures himself against stiffer competition. "I think I've now made almost 45 films," he says. "Some nice ones. No masterpieces. I don't kid myself. It's not false modesty. If you look at Rashomon, The Bicycle Thief, The Grand Illusion, as masterpieces, [then] no: I don't have a film I could show in a festival with those films. …