Occupation: Director, actor, screenwriter
Also: Comedian, author, musician
Born As: Allen Stewart Konigsberg
Born: December 1, 1935, Brooklyn, NY
Education: Midwood High School, Brooklyn, NY; City College of New York, New York, NY; New York University, New York, NY
Woody Allen is one of a handful of American filmmakers who can wear the label "auteur." His films, be they dramas or comedies, are remarkably personal and are permeated with Allen's preoccupations with art, religion and love. While the comedies are upbeat and the dramas rich in detail, most of Allen's films are fiercely personal. They betray his yearning for physical beauty, a traditional sense of machismo, intellectual and professional acceptance and knowledge. His obsessions with his own Judaism, the WASP world that eludes the Jew, and the balm of psychiatry—which may or may not chase these devils—are also never far beneath the surface of his work. After a semester at New York University (where he reportedly failed a film course), Allen began a successful career in comedy by joining "Your Show of Shows" as a gag writer and providing comedic material for TV stars like Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar and Art Carney. In 1961, Allen, exploiting a rebellious and guilt-ridden urban Jewish mentality, soon began performing his own material as a standup comic and became a well-known figure on the Greenwich Village club circuit, on records and on college campuses.
In 1965, Allen made his feature film acting and writing debut with director Clive Donner's farce WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT? Shortly thereafter he debuted as a filmmaker of sorts by re-tooling a minor Japanese spy thriller with his own storyline and with English dialogue dubbed by American actors. The amusing result was WHAT'S UP, TIGER LILY? (1966) which, along with the James Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE (1967), which he co-wrote and acted in, launched Allen on one of the most successful and unusual filmmaking careers of recent history.
In 1966 Allen's first play, Don't Drink the Water, was produced on Broadway. In 1969 he made two short films for a CBS TV special: CUPID'S SHAFT, a parody of Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS, and a loose adaptation of PYGMALION which saw Allen—characteristically—impersonating a rabbi. Most importantly that year, Allen directed, co-wrote and starred in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, a loosely structured, occasionally hilarious send-up of gangster movies. Allen also wore all three hats for the two visually inventive screen comedies which followed: BANANAS (1971), a south-of-the-border satire that lambastes both politics and mass media; and EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) (1972), a series of skits loosely related to a title borrowed from a self-help book enjoying popularity at the time.
In 1972, Allen adapted from his own play and acted (with offscreen companion Diane Keaton) in the CASABLANCA spoof, PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM, directed by Herbert Ross. He returned to directing with SLEEPER (1973), a sight-gag-studded comedy in which Allen plays a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle who, after being frozen for 200 years, wakes up in a futuristic America ("worse than California").
LOVE AND DEATH (1975) showed the first clear signals that Allen was questioning the comedy genre, his own stature as a filmmaker and his own intellectual and creative capabilities. A spoof of the Napoleonic wars featuring persistent references to history, Russian culture and innumerable classic films, it suggested Allen's higher aspirations and need for acceptance as a "serious" filmmaker and thinker.
The year 1977 saw a step toward more serious territory with the bittersweet ANNIE HALL. While still a comedy, the film embraces more sophisticated narrative devices (Allen as hero, for instance, addresses the camera). It's also a more personal film, with the director-screenwriter-star tackling themes and problems closer to his own experience. Allen's screen persona in ANNIE HALL reflected his real-life status at the time: a New York Jewish entertainer with a "shiksa" girlfriend (Keaton), an outsider looking in on the exclusive worlds of both Hollywood and the gentile. For many, ANNIE HALL remains the quintessential Allen movie: personal and thoughtful and at the same time sharply satiric and entertaining. The film won four Oscars, two of which (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) went to Allen himself.
After an acting stint in THE FRONT (1976), Allen shifted gears, moving away from the familiar send-ups, quirky satire and laughable neuroses and anxieties of his comedies. Focusing on the starchy world of the "WASP" (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Allen wrote and directed his first drama, INTERIORS (1978), an intimate Bergmanesque probing of angst and betrayal within an upper-class family. Here the world that had so humorously intimidated Allen in ANNIE HALL was confronted in dead earnest. Although the film brought Allen Oscar nominations for best director and screenplay, some critics felt he had betrayed his comic vision in a sophomoric quest for "artistic respectability." MANHATTAN (1979), with its lush Gershwin score and ensemble of actors/friends, is one of Allen's best films and his last film with Keaton for many years. Marking a return to comedy peppered with autobiographical and romantic elements, this handsome black-and-white Panavision film generated some controversy because Allen's love interest on celluloid was an underage Mariel Hemingway.
STARDUST MEMORIES (1980), a self-indulgent but interesting Felliniesque fantasy, tinged with equal parts anger and humor, starred Allen as a celebrated film director struggling with the burdens of fame, the desire for artistic fulfillment and the public's demands for more "funny movies." A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY (1982) was the first Allen film to feature Mia Farrow, his future companion. It was an homage—albeit a comic one—to Ingmar Bergman crossed with Shakespeare.
ZELIG (1983) combined Allen's continued fascination with celebrity and his growing interest in cinematic technique and trickery. The piece brilliantly sends up the documentary genre, seamlessly merging new footage with old and recreating vintage newsreels and sound recordings. BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984), a more intense collaboration with Mia Farrow, again saw Allen in his "lovable schnook" role, here a good-hearted show-biz agent. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), like ZELIG a technical tour de force, has a Depression-era matinee idol Jeff Daniels stepping off the screen into the life of a repressed, exploited fan (Mia Farrow).
Apart from the music-filled, elegiac RADIO DAYS (1987), a memoir of growing up in Brooklyn, and the goofy "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of the omnibus film NEW YORK STORIES (1989), Allen returned to adult drama in the last half of the decade. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986), a knowing, Chekhovian look at New York family relationships, won Allen his second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. SEPTEMBER (1987), a finely acted but bloodless drama, and the intensely Bergmanesque ANOTHER WOMAN (1988), starring Gena Rowlands in a virtuosic role as a betrayed wife, marked Allen's return to a world of emotionally bereft upper-class WASPs. Arguably the most pessimistic of Allen's dramas was 1989's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS whose grim denouement leaves mediocrity triumphant and evil unchallenged.
ALICE (1990), possibly the filmmaker's first "New Age" comedy—a riff on Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland"—was a marriage of the comic and serious in which a disaffected Mia Farrow resorts to spiritual means to confront WASP angst. The film, their eleventh together, cast Farrow as a distaff version of the familiar flustered, neurotic, desperate, self-conscious character usually played by Allen.
Allen made a rare acting appearance in another director's feature in SCENES FROM A MALL (1991). Directed and co-written by Paul Mazursky, the film was an attempt at a humorous take on Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Allen starred with Bette Midler as a long-married couple spending their anniversary together in a shopping mall and baring their souls. While it has its moments, the film is a general misfire. SHADOWS AND FOG (1992) was a critically reviled allegory about anti-Semitism that combined homages to the Expressionistic suspense and horror films of the 1930s and European art films of the 1950s, while keeping Allen's trademark New York angst intact. This 12th Allen and Farrow collaboration was plagued by one-note characters, fearful of change and love, themes that are reminiscent of his earlier work.
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992), though not without his trademarked rueful humor, was one of the most emotionally violent films in Woody Allen's body of work. Highlighted by jittery cinema verite-style camerawork and a pessimistic attitude about the possibility of enduring love, the film was released early by its distributor to capitalize on its uncanny parallels to the real-life turmoil between Allen and Farrow. By the time of its release, the couple had separated; Allen had begun an affair with Farrow's adopted daughter Soon Yi Previn and Farrow had accused Allen of molesting their adopted daughter.
In the midst of all the personal turmoil and highly-publicized court battles, Woody Allen chose to make the light MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993). Adapted from an idea originally intended for ANNIE HALL and reuniting him with Diane Keaton and co-writer Marshall Brickman, MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY was a comic thriller that attempts to capture the banter and urbanity of such 1930s and 40s features as THE MAN.
1994 marked a year of high activity for Allen. He co-wrote (with Douglas McGrath) and directed the acclaimed comedy BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, a period comedy about a struggling playwright (John Cusack as Allen's stand-in) who finally achieves success through a mob connection. The film, a meditation on what defines an artist, featured a tour-de-force performance by Dianne Wiest as a past-her-prime stage diva. The same year, Allen returned to TV after a 25-year absence with a remake of his 1966 play DON'T DRINK THE WATER (ABC), which he adapted, directed and co-starred in. Unlike the 1969 film version (with which Allen was not involved), the remake was essentially a filmed play, but Allen used the feature techniques of hand-held cameras and long, unbroken takes with few close-ups. The result, like much of his other work, equally divided critics and audiences. MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995) marked a return to the more serious comedies of the 1970s and 80s. The film traces a middle-aged sportswriter's search for the birth mother of his adopted child and his shock in discovering she isn't a bright, cultured woman, but rather, a vulgar prostitute. Allen has enjoyed fruitful professional relationships with co-writer Marshall Brickman, cinematographers Gordon Willis and Carlo Di Palma, producers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, production designers Mel Bourne and Santo Loquasto and editors Ralph Rosenblum and Susan Morse, as well as with the actors/friends who populate his film world.
With so much of the filmmaker himself up on the screen, it is not surprising that Allen has remained unusually guarded and protected in his private life. As consistent as he is in the themes he chooses, so he is in the way he lives and works. Allen so values his privacy that, until his much-publicized separation battles with Farrow, he had been virtually absent from the media; he rarely appeared in public and consistently refused to be interviewed or photographed. He is loath to travel and always remains close to New York.
Alone among contemporary independent filmmakers, Allen has had a constant stream of highly personal films produced and distributed with "mainstream" money, while still exerting complete control over his work. The unique relationship with Orion Pictures that enabled him to do this for so long came to an end in 1992, during the company's prolonged fiscal crisis, with TriStar Pictures stepping in to distribute HUSBANDS AND WIVES. A remarkable businessman as well as artist, Allen has protected himself with low budgets that allow him to reach his like-minded, intelligent, mostly urban audience on a regular basis.
In addition to his impressive body of film work, Allen is an experienced author and an accomplished musician. His Getting Even is a collection of comic essays previously published in The New Yorker. Without Feathers is a collection of short fiction. For many years, Allen has taken time out to play clarinet once a week at the New York jazz club, Michael's Pub.
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