Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Woody Allen: A Documentary


From the PBS American Masters series, this film is a two-parter that runs about four hours. I could only wish it had gone on longer, because this is by far the best look we have ever had at this real American master. It covers about 18 months, during which he was one of the judges at Cannes (which he wasn’t too enthused about). But the important thing is that it covers his whole career, from writing gags for Sid Caesar while still a teenager, right up to just before his most financially successful movie, Midnight in Paris. (At one point he admits he would like to make a movie that appeals to a huge audience, but doubts it will ever happen. He had no idea he was on the verge of a blockbuster.)

He talks about his writing, and it’s amazing. He has this huge collection of scraps of paper from who knows where, which he pulls out of a drawer and spreads out on the bed, where he does his preliminary work. Each scrap has one idea on it. He goes through a few of them, reads them, puts them aside. Not now. Not yet. Maybe some day.

When he gets serious he writes it all on a portable manual typewriter from Germany … the same machine he used to write for Sid Caesar! I don’t think there has been a director like Woody Allen since the end of the studio days. Back then, a director might direct two, three, even four movies a year. But mostly he was assigned to them by the studio bosses. These days, no one can put together even as much as a film a year … except Woody. He has been doing it for over forty years now, regular as can be. Not all of them are masterpieces, but what amazes me is that several of them are masterpieces, and many more are just great, and many are just very, very good, and only a handful are not successful artistically. (He’s seldom been a big money-maker. Some of his best films didn’t make any money.)

This film starts at the beginning. We even see interviews with his elderly mother, who still seems to believe he should have been a druggist or a shoe salesman or something solid and normal like that. It takes us through the gag writing jobs, when he would write fifty jokes in a day with no sweat at all (he says he has never been blocked as a writer for so much as one minute), into the stand-up days, when he would throw up before going on stage. He was on all the late-night shows, made comedy records, wrote for the movies, and then hit his groove when he directed Take the Money and Run. It was a big hit, as were his next half dozen films. But that wasn’t enough for him. Much as I love Sleeper and Bananas, they are gag movies. He wanted to do more, and now he’s in the position where he can do anything he wants to do … and he has been for forty years. Read it and weep, Orson Welles.

There are too many films to deal with individually even with four hours, but they cover a great many of them here, as well as interviews with the actors, and the producers. One thing you will notice if you watch one Woody movie after another, as we have been doing, is that he runs what is the closest thing there is to a movie repertory company. The same names show up over and over as producers, editors, costume designers, music composers, production designers, cameramen, and other technical people. And it’s the same thing with actors. Some will show up over and over for a ten year period or more.

But what gives me the best insight into Woody the man is the interviews with the actors, particularly the women. Several of the women state flatly that Woody Allen is the best writer of women’s parts alive. Period, end of story, no real competition. Actors kill to work with Woody, because he never gets in their way, and they are thus encouraged to do their best work. He doesn’t defend his words like a prima donna, he loves it when an actor finds a better way to improvise a scene. Diane Keaton, Diane Weist, Margot Hemingway, Louise Lasser … over and over we hear it. They love him. (Mia Farrow being the obvious exception; she doesn’t appear here.)

And when Woody speaks of himself, he speaks of failure. All his movies fall far short of what he had intended. He feels embarrassed by Manhattan, for instance, which in my view is one of the Top Ten romances ever put on film. He is in awe of his idols like Bergman and Fellini, and feels he will never touch their genius. All I can say is, stay humble, Woody, it apparently works for you. And you are dead wrong about yourself. You are easily as good as or better than that Swede or that Italian.