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Where's Woody?

by Alan A. Stone

Woody Allen's best movies entertain by bringing comedy to serious, philosophical themes. Typically, Allen worries about death, the "reef of solipsism," and the meaning of life. The subject is his neurosis, but also Kierkegaard and Existentialism. Educated audiences recognize and appreciate the idiosyncratic blend of philosophy and autobiography. Indeed, they come not merely to watch the movie; they want to decipher Allen's "cinema à clef."

His most recent effort, Bullets Over Broadway, explores the morality of the Nietzschean artist whose will to power and to create accepts no conventional constraint or compromise. It opens with this "mock-moral" question: "Which would you save if you rushed into a burning building and could only save one: an anonymous human being or the only remaining copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare?" The result is a slick, art-deco production that has everything going for it -- everything but Woody Allen himself and the quirky flair of originality that earned him his reputation.

Bullets Over Broadway revolves around a typical Woody Allen character, David, a young playwright who goes through an identity crisis as an artist. His agent makes a Faustian pact with a big-time mobster who agrees to put up the money and let David direct his own play on Broadway but only if the mobster's bimbo has a major role. David agrees to sell his artistic soul, and in the first blush of worldly success succumbs to every other temptation he encounters, including an affair with his leading lady, the fading Broadway legend Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest). Along the way, however, he discovers he has no artistic talent. His play is rescued and rewritten by Cheech (Chazz Palmentieri), a hit-man gangster who comes to rehearsals as the bimbo's body guard, but turns out to be the Nietzschean artist.

Cheech works in secret, letting David take all the artistic credit. But he cannot accept the compromise of having his boss' bimbo ruin what has become his play. He rubs her out and is gunned down in return. The play within the screenplay opens to rave reviews, but David wants no part of it. Recognizing that he has neither the talent nor the will of an artist, he heads back to Pittsburgh with his hometown sweetheart. Mensch not Übermensch is the moral of the story.

Bullets is, in its own way, an astonishing accomplishment, another demonstration of the scope of Woody Allen's artistic sensibilities. He has done absurd humor -- What's Up Tiger Lily; spoof humor -- Play It Again Sam; Marx Brothers humor -- Bananas; zany parody -- Take The Money and Run; science fiction humor -- Sleeper; angry humor -- Stardust Memories; bitter sweet humor -- Annie Hall; slice of life humor -- Broadway Danny Rose; weird humor -- Zelig; and the list goes on. Now with Bullets Over Broadway he has given us his facsimile of sophisticated Cole Porter comedy -- witty, clever, not hysterical. Hollywood has made the prohibition years into a gangster fantasyland, and Allen sets his film in those roaring twenties when machine guns had entertainment value and alcoholism was still charming.

Along with all his other talents, Allen is a musician and no one choreographs films to music better. You know you must be in Cole Porter make-believe land when a tin-pan alley tune called "Nagasaki" can produce more amusement than painful memory. In the anodyne world he created, Allen felt no need to eschew offending stereotypes. The maid is an Aunt Jemima, the gangsters are Italians, the bimbo is a bimbo, and only the Jewish characters (i.e., the pretentious artists) have been noticeably de-ethnicized.

Bullets Over Broadway is also lacquered with a sheen of film-making sophistication. Instead of the hand-held cameras that gave some of Allen's recent films the herky-jerky feeling of home-made movies, here every frame is carefully balanced, every setting artfully chosen and filled with color. Allen's preference when he films outdoors is to shoot on gray days and fill the background with color. It works to memorable perfection in one scene where the playwright and his leading actress take a stroll through Central Park. They sit on a bench and behind them is a luxurious floral display that must have been installed for the occasion. The image is stunning and the excess is funny in a sly way.

But cinematography can do only so much for a film and Bullets Over Broadway gives new life to the phrase "less than meets the eye."

Allen felt that he was too old for the part of David, the playwright -- too old to make David's affair with Helen Sinclair a believable part of the plot. So he cast the youthful John Cusack in that role. Born in 1935, Woody Allen will be 60 this year. His film-making career spans more than four decades. He has been looking a little long in the tooth in his recent films and he may well have been correct in concluding that he was now too old for the obvious Woody Allen part.

Woody Allen has always been the central character in his comic films. Even his leading ladies -- Lasser, Keaton, and Farrow -- were defined only by their relationships to Allen. More straight-men than love interests, they were modern-day versions of Margaret Dumont, the socialite foil for one of Allen's comedy idols, Groucho Marx.

Keaton and Farrow both conveyed on the screen a childlike quality of arrested emotional development that made them perfect playmates for Woody Allen. In contrast to these childlike and vulnerable heroines, Dianne Wiest's Helen Sinclair is an empowered and man-eating older woman. Her performance is the most interesting achievement of the film. She dominates the screen in a way that no other woman has in a Woody Allen comedy. Her great moment comes when she is seducing David. Whenever he gets ready to declare his love for her, she puts her fingers to his lips and says "Don't speak, don't speak." Playing the campy, aging actress who knows how to use men rather than be used, she takes the wind out of his sails and renders the wordsmith dumb. It's a running gag that gets better with repetition. But if Woody Allen had been there making faces he would have sent it over the top.

And had David been played by a Woody Allen half in and half out of the role, we would have known from the very first scene that the playwright and his Greenwich Village artist friends were poseurs. When David's friend Flender (Rob Reiner) delivers his Nietzschean catechism about artists having the right to take whatever they want, the Woody Allen we knew would have looked into the camera and said, "Flender uses that line to get women." His mere presence would have started us laughing at Flender's pomposity. But with just another actor on the screen almost no one in the audience knew when to begin laughing. Remember those elegant social soirees in the Marx Brothers' movies? As soon as Groucho walked in, you began to laugh. Allen, though a much more intellectual comedian, can do the same thing. Bullets got off to such an awkward start that some filmgoers were sure that it had to be intentional. But even Woody Allen is not that abstruse. The early scenes of Bullets Over Broadway are stilted and stylized because without Woody Allen the screenplay has to work to establish its comic premise. There is no lightning rod to gather the humor and electrify the movie.

Even offstage, however, Woody Allen's presence is strongly felt. To be sure, the Allen cinematic persona, quaking in his boots with existential unease and neurotic fear of rejection, is the antithesis of the Nietzschean Übermensch. But at this moment in his all-too-public private life, when his open relationship with Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon Yi, overshadows his creative achievements, even his most devoted fans have reason to wonder about the closet Woody. The reclusive Allen could not have been too surprised when, having consented to a late night TV interview, he was asked about possible connections between his film's theme and his private life. Specifically, he was questioned about the line in the film where Flender (who has no moral qualms about taking advantage of David's absence by bedding his friend's long-time sweetheart) opines that the true artist has the right to take what he wants. Allen denied any connection to his own life, insisting that the whole Nietzschean theme was meant to be farcical and had nothing to do with his values or his personal situation.

Woody Allen knows better than most of us, however, that humor is a way (indeed his way) of getting at the truth in life, and ever since Husbands and Wives his fans have been reading between his lines to get at the truth about Woody. The code seemed all too easy to break in Husbands and Wives because the surface parallels were so obvious. Mia and Woody were splitting up on the screen as well as in life and he was chasing a college student. One was reminded of the even more prophetic Manhattan where the middle-aging Allen has a no-holds-barred affair with a high school student.

Allen's art had always seemed to be mocking his life, particularly his sexual life. Even before anyone could have imagined the scandals that were to come, his more incisive critics were having a field day with Woody Allen and his sexual-schmertz, his Jewishness, his New Yorkness, and his "Zelig"-ness. Pauline Kael led the way. As Allen's films became more ambitious, the great film critic, once his personal friend and fan, went on the offensive. She attacked him with uncompromising confidence, certain that she had the full measure of the man as well as his art. Here are a few of her devastating jabs: "so hung up that he has no interest in other people's hang-ups;" "for Woody Allen being Jewish, like being a comic, is fundamentally undignified;" "for Woody Allen being Jewish is like being a fish on a hook."

One can imagine Allen stumbling after each of these punches and asking, "Where am I?" Pauline Kael certainly knew. More than twenty years ago in reviewing Sleeper and long before he had taken up with Mia Farrow -- the ex-wife of sex-legend Frank Sinatra -- she wrote, "Woody Allen is a closet case of potency, he knows he's potent but he's afraid to tell the world." Kael was even more prescient when she wrote about Manhattan, "What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values." What she saw that seemed to affront her most was his lack of personal dignity.

No matter how telling and even prophetic a critic's interpretation may be, it is a mistake to believe that the exact likeness of the artist can be found in his work. D.H. Lawrence complained bitterly about the "half-lies" that Freudians had made up about him based on his novels. Vladmir Nabokov, whose widely acclaimed Lolita may have inspired Manhattan, was prepared to throw verbal acid in the face of any critic who dared to place him in his fiction. Allen must have had similar feelings after reading Kael's reviews of Manhattan and Stardust Memories. Indeed Stardust Memories seems like Allen's "get a life" revenge on Kael and her fellow film fanatics who dissect and feast on the artist's entrails.

But Allen has always made himself an inviting target for dissection; he is one of the most explicitly autobiographical filmmakers of his generation. It is common knowledge that for most of his adult life he has been in psychoanalysis. His joke used to be that when he went into analysis years ago he was worried that he might be turned into a 19th century bourgeois Viennese; today he would be more than willing to settle for that. Unfortunately, this joke, like all of his humor, has taken on new meaning. But the joke demonstrates how he used his psychoanalytic experience as grist for the mills of his creative mind. His material often seemed to be coming straight from the couch to the screen.

His style as a stand-up comic had a similar revelatory structure. He would be in a genuine panic of stage-fright and would win over his audience by letting them sense his terror. That is not an easy thing to do. Raw terror will discomfort the audience; histrionic terror will bore them. Allen was able to walk the emotional tight-rope, and like performing acrobats who evoke gasps and then relieved applause, he made his tight-rope tremble.

In the very act of revealing himself, the artist conceals his naked and vulnerable self. Indeed that is one of the elusive differences between a spontaneous confession and a constructed story. Admittedly this is a psychoanalytic and not a literary distinction, and one that is best appreciated sitting behind the couch as the hidden audience. There one learns that the exhibitionist hides behind his exposure -- it is a matter of control.

But Allen's spin control has been completely undermined by the events in his real life. Comedians more than any other artists depend on the good will of their audiences. Allen's audiences now sit in judgment of the performer, estranged by pity, contempt, or prurient curiosity from the performance. Kael's "closet case of potency" has been outed. With the once-protective veil of humor having lost its power to conceal, many of Allen's jokes now seem painfully transparent.

Twenty-five years ago college students flocked to Woody Allen's films and idolized him as their anti-hero. Harvard and Yale's graduating classes competed unsuccessfully to have the reclusive Allen speak at their graduations. The American Psychiatric Association showed Woody Allen films at their conventions, when Woody Allen wouldn't come himself. He was the Charlie Chaplin of the second half of the twentieth century, less universal but to the educated taste non pareil. And he has eerily followed Chaplin who destroyed his comic identity chasing teenage girls.

It is no accident that Woody Allen's star had begun to fade along with psychoanalysis. The new generation of intellectuals that scoffed at Freud found little to laugh at in Allen's narcissistic preoccupations or in his neurotic, doormat heroines. Woody Allen's fans had begun to age with him and many of them were soured by the revelations about his private life. The comic hero of the liberal intellectual establishment has now become an embarrassment and an easy target. Newt Gingrich described the Allen-Farrow domestic arrangements as the Liberals' idea of an alternative family life-style.

All of this skepticism and scrutiny has understandably put Allen on the defensive, fighting to recover his public reputation. He now seems to be playing it safe and as in Bullets Over Broadway wants to entertain rather than challenge his audience. When the scandal first broke, he went back to old friends Keaton and Alda to do Manhattan Murder Mystery, an amusing take-off on Hitchcock's Rear Window. A blowsy Diane Keaton plays a bored housewife married to a boring Woody Allen. She is energized by trying to solve the murder mystery and comes close to having an affair with the Alan Alda character, a family friend who shares her excitement. Woody Allen's own performance was tentative and a depressing imitation of what we have come to expect.

Compromising his long held standards he also did his first made-for-TV movie: a remake of Don't Drink the Water, which was originally written for Broadway 25 years earlier and had already been made into a film. If he meant to reach a broad new TV audience to show them how amusing he could be, he may have succeeded only in proving how outdated he had become. It was the first time that Woody Allen ever put me to sleep. Bullets Over Broadway comes in much the same inoffensive spirit. Some film critics have welcomed it as a return to the old Woody Allen who doesn't take himself so seriously. But the old Woody Allen always took risks.

Humor is dangerous. A joke that misfires is a social disaster but to make a joke you have to take that risk. Every time Allen made his "hang-ups" and his "fish on a hook Jewishness" into comedy, he challenged a social convention. Bullets Over Broadway takes no such risks. Those who hope to glimpse the real Woody Allen in this movie will have a difficult task. Part of him might be the Mensch David and part might be the Übermensch Cheech. But the most telling feature of this film is his absence. Perhaps because his clowning can no longer conceal his vulnerability, the real Woody Allen has gone into hiding.

Allen's angst-ridden persona turned his audiences and particularly his fans into co-conspirators; he was a character in the film, but he was also outside the character, directly engaging the audience. The technique is as old as the theatrical aside to the audience, but Allen gave it a modern spin: muttering under his breath, telling inside jokes, looking into the camera, doing voice-overs, delivering his lines to the audience instead of to the other characters.

The Woody Allen that speaks to his audience is paradoxically trapped on the reef of solipsism. On the one side is the angst that isolates him from shared experience. On the other is his fear of rejection and inability to attract or to satisfy a woman sexually. But out of that solipsistic predicament of fear and self-loathing on the screen comes Allen's contact with his film audience. And for those who feel they understand that predicament there is a momentary meeting of minds affirmed by laughter. Pauline Kael may have been right that Allen was so hung up on his own hang-ups that he wasn't interested in other people's hang-ups. But Allen may have understood that if you look deeply enough into your own hang-ups, you discover the human predicament.

Allen's comic imagination works at the ambiguous boundary between reality and fantasy. He invented, perhaps reinvented, a kind of mental slapstick. One of his most important jokes, perhaps his credo as an artist, appeared in his prologue to Annie Hall. He tells of a man who is so worried about his brother that he goes to a psychiatrist for help. The man describes to the psychiatrist how his brother runs around the house cackling because he thinks he is a chicken. The psychiatrist is shocked and asks why the family doesn't have the brother confined in a mental institution. The man's answer is, "We couldn't do that, we need the eggs."

The Woody Allen who knows "we need the eggs" is what Bullets Over Broadway lacked. And it is no surprise to this reviewer that John Cusack, after reading the script, turned up at the filming and tried to impersonate Woody Allen. It was the director who told Cusack to stop impersonating and act. So Cusack acted, and it wasn't enough.

But Woody Allen can no longer play the role his movie needed. Life has triumphed over art, the naughty child has turned into a dirty old man. He is like the middle-aged man in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of An Author. Those Characters have been deprived of their human identity because they are defined by one scene, trapped forever in a moment in time. Pirandello's middle-aged man has been portrayed having sex with a teen-age girl. He will never escape that social reality unless he can find an Author. Woody Allen is an extraordinarily talented author and he may be able to write himself out of his current trap. The incorrigible Chaplin had four teenaged wives, lived to be knighted by the queen, and was awarded a special Oscar by the Academy. But Allen will never convince his old fans that he is the Mensch he played in Broadway Danny Rose. And I doubt that he will ever be as daringly funny as he once was.

Originally published in the February/March 1995 issue of Boston Review

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