In Defense of Woody

I will defend Woody Allen to the hilt. No, not as person. I have my own feelings about what he did and its appropriateness (or lack thereof). But as a filmmaker.

Love the man. Hate the man. Woody Allen is one of the best American filmmakers of the last fifty years, if not all time.

Woody Allen’s name should be mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick, Coppola or Scoresese when it comes to great American filmmakers. Yet, this is being forgotten. Or worse, his reputation is intentionally being rewritten as a reaction to the man, not his work.

I am not saying it is easy, or even fully possible, to separate the two. This is especially true since Allen is actually in many of his best films. In addition, many of those same films strongly reflect his personality and viewpoints. The very things which gave those films the stamp of an individual author are what can make them so difficult to watch.

But try. Try to remember these movies are great works. Things which reached extraordinary heights of craftsmanship and artistic expression as films.

That’s not just my opinion. Allen has won an astounding amount of awards over his career which back me up on this.

Among them are eighteen Academy Award nominations for Original Screenplay. Eighteen. That’s a record which still holds to this day.

He has also won several Academy Awards for Best Director. And three of his films have won for Best Picture. But it’s not just the very flawed institution of the Film Academy that has bestowed such recognition. Festivals and organizations around the world have honored his films for decades. These include Cannes, Venice and BAFTA.

And these honors are for a huge variety of projects. A reflection of the fact that Allen has had an astoundingly prolific career.

As of last count Allen has written and/or directed over fifty films. That puts his output well over that of AKIRA KUROSAWA at thirty and near the sixty of his idol INGMAR BERGMAN.

All of which means what?

Maybe nothing in terms of who Woody Allen is as a person. That very much depends on your personal point of view. But it means that the works, the things the man has created and put in front of audiences for decades, should remain respected, honored and most importantly, seen by anyone who cares about movies.

Some of Allen’s movies, many of them, are fantastic and should be seen and appreciated as such.

I would love it if that point seemed ridiculously obvious. But given the culture we live in, I fear otherwise.

Now, to those of you who think Woody Allen is just a crap filmmaker and always has been, while, that’s a different story altogether. I would vehemently disagree. But there’s not much I can say about it that I already haven’t.

On the other hand, if all you think or know about Woody Allen is the scandals and documentaries about him, maybe it’s time to change that. Maybe its time to see, or see again, the films that made him so famous to begin with.

Films that were unique. Films that were powerful. Films by one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

ANNIE HALL

This is the film many consider Allen’s best. Which is saying something considering the quality of his other works. It was made in 1977 and starred Allen and Diane Keaton. The story centers around the relationship of Allen’s character with the quirky, some would say a bit weird, Annie. It was a huge success commercially and critically, including winning three Oscars. It also started an unfortunate fashion trend of women wanting to dress like Annie. AFI ranked it 31st on its list of the Greatest American Films of All Time. It’s, flat out, just a great movie.

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA

For decades Woody Allen wouldn’t films outside of New York. However, in the 2000’s he finally started making movies abroad. Sometimes with terrific results such as 2008’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. The story centers around two young American women, played by Scarlet Johnansson and Rebecca Hall, who take a vacation to Spain. They meet an artist, played by Javier Badem and his passionate, but nuts, ex-wife, played by Penelope Cruz. Romantic complications ensue. More drama than comedy. More actor focused than cinematic. It’s an easy-going, entertaining movie that still holds up year after year and viewing after viewing.

SLEEPER

Released in 1973, this is my favorite of “the early funny ones,” a reference to Allen’s earlier, more purely comic films. Among this same group are BANANAS and TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN which most find as good, if not better. However, SLEEPER remains my personal favorite of the group. In it, Allen is accidentally frozen and wakes up in the year 2173. The world has become a dystopian nightmare and Allen’s character finds himself recruited by rebels to stop a plot by the fascists to cement their power. A plot which revolves around the cloning of a dead, evil dictator from the one part of his body that they have preserved…his nose. It’s as silly as it sounds, and then some, but damn entertaining.

MANHATTAN

If you have any doubts that Woody Allen is/was one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, see MANHATTAN with an audience, on large screen, in a good theater. As I’ve written about before, this movie loses much of its power on a small screen. It is about New York City as a place of fantasy and oversized dreams captured in breathtaking black and white images by Allen and Cinematographer Gordon Willis. Released in 1979, the plot centers around Allen’s character questioning his relationship with a very young girl and pursuing a woman closer to his own age. It can be tough going to keep Allen’s real life issues out of your mind while watching. But try. MANHATTAN is an absolutely incredible movie. In my opinion, even topping ANNIE HALL as Allen’s best of all time.

BLUE JASMINE

2013’s BLUE JASMINE does not reach the heights of MANHATTAN or ANNIE HALL. However, its main character, Jasmine, as portrayed by Cate Blanchett, is one of Allen’s most complex and interesting characters. Which is saying something since Allen has long been able to portray interesting characters, particularly female characters, so well on the screen. But Blanchett pushes Jasmine to a new level. The character is a wealthy wife who suddenly falls from grace when her husband is jailed for fraud. She visits her sister while recovering from a nervous breakdown and trying to formulate a plan for her decimated financial situation and destroyed life. As a character she alternates between earning our sympathy and being pathetically self-absorbed, uncaring and out of touch. It is a high wire act that makes the entire film highly engaging, even if it’s not full of chuckles like the early funny ones.

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

In the 1980s Allen turned out a slew of memorable movies. Among them were: BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and, at the end of the decade, ALICE. They are all very good. However, my favorite is 1986’s HANNAH AND HER SISTERS. It’s a lighthearted drama about three sisters and the men that fall for them. The most notable is a character played by Michael Caine who falls for one of Hannah’s sisters. The cast included not just Caine but Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Max von Sydow, Barbara Hershey and Allen himself. All turn in rock solid performances. In addition, although nowhere near the sweeping visual style of Allen’s 70s movies, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS was a much a love letter to New York as some of those other films. A love which seemed to fade over the next several decades.

MATCH POINT

In 2005, after dozens of films, Allen finally made a film outside of New York. MATCH POINT, shot in London, seemed to jolt him back to form after a series of less successful efforts. There’s nothing funny about MATCH POINT. It’s a pure, well-told crime story about love, lust, money and murder. It was also the first of several films Scarlett Johannson would start in for Allen over the next several years. In MATCH POINT she plays the highly sensual lover of former tennis pro, Chris, played by Johnathan Rhys Meyers. Things get ugly and people die. It’s a great crime film. Something which, given Allen’s comic past, nobody would have predicted in the early days of his career.

STARDUST MEMORIES

Although disliked by many when it came out in 1980, I still consider this a great film. Part of the reason for its initial hostile reaction is Allen’s previous movies had included the wildly successful ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN. Although superficially similar in some ways, STARDUST MEMORIES is, ultimately, not much like either of them. It’s a combination of humor with a very dark take on life and fame. In it, Allen plays a film director, much like himself, who attends a film festival honoring him. As the festival unfolds, we learn that Allen is still in love with the incredibly beautiful but mentally unstable Dorrie even though he’s trying to move on. Charlotte Rampling plays Dorrie and totally nails the enigmatic beauty and insanity of the character. Its black and white images are also visually stunning in a way that Allen’s movies would never be again as he moved to a more acting-centric form or filmmaking for the remainder of his films.

This list reflects my personal favorites but there are a multitude of noteworthy Allen films out there. Just to name a few there’s: CRIES AND MISDEMEANORS, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, MIGHTY APHRODITE, HUSBANDS AND WIVES, DECONSTRUCTING HARRY and the Ingmar Bergman-like INTERIORS.

Which is the point. Woody Allen is not a filmmaker who has made one or two pretty good films. He is a man who has made dozens of truly great movies. The sort of movies that a hundred years from now will still be looked on with respect and will, hopefully, have settled into their place in the history of cinema.

But in the meantime, it’s gonna be rough for some people. Between the books and documentaries, far too many people are focused exclusively on the scandals and flaws of Woody Allen the man.

And that’s just tragic in all sorts of ways.

Happy viewing.