Looking Back On Woody Allen's Prolific Career
On His 80th Birthday
Quintessential New Yorker, jazz lover, clarinet player, humorist, and (oh, yes!) filmmaker, the multi-faceted Woody Allen turns 80 today.
I’m old enough to remember when the Brooklyn-born Allen was known chiefly as a comic. I’d see him on Ed Sullivan or one of the talk shows, and the impression he made remains vivid: this perennial loser and neurotic with red hair and black glasses could somehow talk about his sad life and negative world view in a totally deadpan way- and make it riotously funny.
Woody had no problem with our laughing at his foibles; that was his act. But he never played the buffoon; anyone who got Woody Allen back then recognized how piercingly intelligent his humor was, and how perceptively it spoke to complex issues like intimacy and identity in a society that suddenly seemed to be questioning everything.
His blazing talent would not confine him to the talk show circuit for long. Soon enough he was on the big screen, first in middling fare like “What’s New, Pussycat?” (1966), and “Casino Royale” (1967), then directing himself as a hapless bank robber in 1968’s uproarious “Take The Money and Run” (1968).
1971’s “Bananas,” in which Woody unwittingly participates in a Latin American rebellion, was funnier still. But it was his futuristic “Sleeper” (1973) that told movie fans that Woody Allen was here to stay as actor, writer and director. His follow-up, “Love and Death” (1975), a quasi-romance set during the Russian Revolution that reunited him with “Sleeper” co-star Diane Keaton, may be his most consistently hilarious outing.
Then came 1977’s “Annie Hall,” the movie that proved Woody Allen could make us laugh and touch us at the same time. This still flawless film would win a Best Picture Oscar, along with statuettes for Best Actress (Diane Keaton again), Director, Screenplay, and a nomination for Best Actor.
The Academy had finally taken notice and over the following three decades, Allen would chalk up 21 more nominations, though actually winning just two more Oscars (for the superb “Hannah and Her Sisters”, and 2011’s “Midnight In Paris,” a movie I felt was overrated). In fact, he holds the record for most Best Writing nominations, and by a considerable margin.
This is less surprising when you consider that Woody is also one of our most prolific directors, with an astonishing 50 credits to-date. However, though he’s grown immeasurably as a filmmaker over the years, with certain notable exceptions his films have never been big moneymakers by Hollywood standards. They tend to do best on the two coasts, less well in-between. Woody's not for everybody.
Though Allen is notoriously publicity shy, his personal life has not always been private. After his second marriage to Louise Lasser broke up, he had high-profile relationships with co-stars Keaton and Mia Farrow, the latter ending on a sensational note when Woody left Mia to marry his adopted stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
Then adopted daughter Dylan went public claiming that Allen had sexually molested her as a child, a charge he vehemently denied. Obviously it was fodder for the tabloids, but also spilled over into the mainstream media. The truth about Dylan may never be known, but inevitably it cast doubt on Woody's character. At the very least, one has to wonder what would drive a daughter to publicly accuse her father of such an act. As to Soon-Yi, she and Woody have been married nearly twenty years now, and have two kids of their own.
Woody Allen once quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” Always obsessed with death, this consummate artist should feel encouraged as he reaches the milestone of eighty years. Not only is he healthy and working as hard as ever, but he can look back with satisfaction at a rich and varied film legacy.
But could he ever be truly satisfied? I doubt it, but that’s what drives the genius that is Woody Allen.