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Cloud In the Silver Lining
After Praise for Woody Allen's Last Film and With 'Scoop' Set to Open, Things Are Looking Up for the Director. No?

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; C01

NEW YORK

Woody Allen is saying goodbye with the same wan handshake he used for hello 30 minutes ago. "I hope I haven't depressed you," he says apologetically.

The 70-year-old writer and director has been musing about life, sex, work, death and his generally futile search for hope, and frankly, mere depression hardly seems like the right response. Flat-out terror is what is called for here.

Yes, the world according to Woody is so bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy. Alternatively, you could try the Allen approach, which is to make a feature film every year and try, however briefly, to distract yourself from the darkness.

"You do the best you can within the concentration camp," he says, cutting straight to the life-as-Auschwitz metaphor. "It's very hard to keep your spirits up. You've got to keep selling yourself a bill of goods, and some people are better at lying to themselves than others. If you face reality too much, it kills you."

What'd you expect, a pep talk?

You thought a sit-down with Woody Allen would cheer you up? He is not the anxious, gesticulating quipster he's played in so many of his movies, a man who bundles his despair with a batch of winning one-liners, a bit of vaudeville by way of Camus. There is little shtick about the real-life Woody Allen, who says that outside of his work, he is rarely funny.

Instead, he is chatty, rueful and, though he seems vaguely uncomfortable with the setting -- an empty reception room at the Mark Hotel, where he is gabbing his way through an afternoon of interviews -- he is almost evangelically passionate about a few subjects. None more so than the chilling emptiness of life.

"It's just an awful thing," he says, shrugging a little, "and in that context you've got to find an answer to the question: Why go on?"

The answer, at least for today, is the publicity drive for "Scoop," his second movie in a row set in London. Opening Friday, it's a comedy, with Scarlett Johansson as a student journalist who falls in love with a hunky aristocrat (Hugh Jackman) who just might be a serial killer. Johannson is tipped off to the story by a famous reporter (played by "Deadwood" star Ian McShane) who returns from the dead and nudges her investigation along. Her panicky sidekick is an old-school magician, played by Allen, who pretends he's Johannson's father and helps her wheedle her way into the privileged echelons of British society.

Despite the murder plot, "Scoop" is Allen's lightest movie in a while, an about-face from the unnervingly grim "Match Point," released last year to raves and nominated for an Academy Award for original screenplay. That movie performed a nifty bit of CPR on Allen's career, which had all but flat-lined with a spate of forgettable films starting in the mid-'90s. Raise your hand if you saw "Melinda and Melinda," his last New York movie. It grossed $3.8 million domestically.

Allen's star had fallen low enough that he claims one of his recent films earned more in Paris alone than it did in the States. By the time he wrote "Match Point," he couldn't find American backers willing to cede the total creative control he has always demanded.

"When you invest in a Woody Allen movie," says Letty Aronson, his sister and longtime co-executive producer, "you don't get to read his script, you don't get a say in casting, you don't see the dailies. And the studio system in Hollywood has been taken over by people who think of themselves as creative forces, not just bankers."

A group of European investors, among them the BBC, underwrote "Match Point," on the condition that Allen shoot in England. When the film was released and went on to gross some $90 million worldwide, a narrative emerged in reviews and profiles: Woody Allen was back. It was surprising that he reclaimed his audience with a movie that lacked a single chuckle. But so what? He was back.

That was the story, anyway. Woody Allen isn't buying it.

"I wasn't away," he says patiently. "And I'm not back. 'Match Point' was a film about luck, and it was a very lucky film for me. I did it the way I do all my pictures, and it just worked. I needed a rainy day, I got a rainy day. I needed sun, I got sun. Kate Winslet dropped out at the last moment because she wanted to be with her family, and Scarlett Johansson was available on two days' notice. It's like I couldn't ruin this picture no matter how hard I tried."

Filling the Cosmic Void

It's safe to say that nobody is less impressed by Woody Allen than Woody Allen. He has long confessed to what his "Stardust Memories" character called "Ozymandias melancholy," the sadness of looking at a body of work and believing it won't last. This isn't false modesty. He hated "Manhattan" so much that after it was finished he wanted to buy it from the studio and destroy it. On a good day he'll admit to liking four of his movies. ("Stardust Memories" and "Match Point" are right up there.) The rest he could take or leave.

"It's strange," he says, "because I'm a comedian doing comic films with this bleak view all the time, and either that's what makes my movies interesting or it's what torpedoes them."

He is sitting in the middle of a mostly empty room at a small round table, a setup ideal for either tea or an interrogation. His publicist on this sunny afternoon treats him like an exotic plant that can be viewed only in half-hour increments lest it wilt. Allen seems hardier than that. Diane Keaton once said he has you-know-whats of steel. There is a gravity about him that he doesn't show in his movies.

A good caricaturist could still capture Allen with a few squiggles -- the isosceles head, the black frames, the politely befuddled eyes. He is grayer and little frailer than you might remember, his voice softer and a touch raspy, but he's aging with dignity, if not grace. His father died at 100, which he finds encouraging.

"It's a constant struggle to see that your body doesn't break down," he says. "You put more time into maintenance and it's boring, as you'll see someday."

If Allen lives another couple decades and works half as hard, he could easily make another dozen movies. But if he stops tomorrow, he'll have created a filmography that has no precedent. With the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin, nobody has ever directed, written and acted in as many standout movies as Woody Allen, and he did it without anyone else, except for an occasional co-writer, vetting his lines.

The critics and public have panned more than a few of his efforts, but among the 37 movies he's made -- that's counting "New York Stories," a trilogy to which he contributed one film -- there's an astounding variety of keepers. Lyrical takes on love and neurosis ("Annie Hall," "Husbands and Wives"), Big Question comedies ("Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Zelig,") and leaps into magical realism ("The Purple Rose of Cairo"). Plus the occasional period piece, like "Bullets Over Broadway," and some deeply serious chin-strokers, like "Interiors" and "Another Woman." A total of 21 Academy Award nominations, mostly for directing and screenwriting. Three wins, including Best Picture for "Annie Hall."

We can marvel at this list and still acknowledge that our relationship with Woody Allen has been fraught of late. He is the only director whom moviegoers break up with, like he's a boyfriend or something. You hear a lot of variations on this theme. A fter "Celebrity" I called it quits . Or I gave up after "Deconstructing Harry. "

Behind the kiss-off is either (1) the aforementioned sense that at some point in the mid-'90s, he lost it. Or (2) the thing with Soon-Yi. (In 1992, for those in need a refresher, Allen started dating Soon-Yi Previn, the 21-year-old adopted daughter of former girlfriend Mia Farrow, a relationship that led to a bitter custody battle over the children Farrow and Allen had jointly adopted, a battle that Allen lost.) For some, the choice of Soon-Yi, to whom he's been married for nearly a decade, was evidence that Allen and reality had parted company, or that he was just too creepy to find entertaining any longer.

There is also (3) some combination of 1 and 2. "Match Point" won back many of those fans, but Allen didn't appear in that movie, which made it more palatable to the Woody-doubters. "Scoop" will test whether Allen and the relatively modest audience he had in the '80s will truly hug and make up. He hopes the answer is yes, but unlike a lot of jilted paramours, he isn't pining.

"I do a movie and I put it out there," he says. "I hope everybody likes it, that's my fondest wish. If they don't like it, I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to change my style of work. I'm not going to do something to curry favor."

For Allen, the point isn't really popularity or immortality. The point is therapy. For months at a time, the craft of moviemaking submerges him in the highly diverting business of writing a script, casting actors, picking out costumes and creating a realm over which he has total control. It turns the mind away from the gloom. It's also a pretty sweet lifestyle.

"I never wanted movies to be an end. I wanted them to be a means so that I could have a decent life -- meet attractive women, go out on dates, live decently. Not opulently, but with some security. I feel the same way now. A guy like Spielberg will go live in the desert to make a movie, or Scorsese will make a picture in India and set up camp and live there for four months. I mean, for me, if I'm not shooting in my neighborhood, it's annoying. I have no commitment to my work in that sense. No dedication."

You'd need a good shrink or two to explain how someone so prolific -- he's also written lots of comic pieces for the New Yorker, plus the occasional play -- could consider himself a slacker. But he isn't kidding.

"Look, it takes a couple of months to write a script. This isn't 'Finnegans Wake,' " he says. "I pull it out of the typewriter, bring it in, three days later I have a budget. Then we do pre-production, which is about 10 weeks. I mean, I'm not doing a $100 million budget. I'm working with $15 million or so. I shoot for about 10 weeks maximum."

When the cameras are rolling, he knows what he wants, but unless there is a joke in there, he isn't wedded to the script. Improvisation is encouraged. If an actor can't deliver a line, Allen reads it aloud, and hopes that he or she will catch on. If that doesn't work -- and the problem persists -- the actor is occasionally fired. One of them is Annabelle Gurwitch, canned from a play Allen was directing. She later parlayed the experience into an anthology, which she edited, called "Fired!" What she remembers most is Allen's succinct appraisal: "You look retarded."

"People come worried that they'll be fired," Aronson says. "But it's very rare, because he chooses people for their acting ability instead of their celebrity. And it happens only in those cases when he really thinks it's not going to work out."

Perfectionism is not his style. Asked why he doesn't try the Stanley Kubrick approach to filmmaking, which involved fine-tuning for years, Allen plaintively says he doesn't have it in him.

"Kubrick was a great artist. I say this all the time and people think I'm being facetious. I'm not. Kubrick was a guy who obsessed over details and did 100 takes, and you know, I don't feel that way. If I'm shooting a film and it's 6 o'clock at night and I've got a take, and I think I might be able to get a better take if I stayed, but the Knicks tipoff is at 7:30, then that's it. The crews love working on my movies because they know they'll be home by 6."

Reflections

All of this started with a joke and an envelope. Woody Allen was then Allan Stewart Konigsberg, the son of a cabdriver in Brooklyn, and this is back in the late 1940s, when newspapers printed one-liners just for fun. After a bunch of his were published, a PR firm tracked down their author and offered him a job, writing jokes for celebrities to plant in columns like Walter Winchell's. He'd get on the subway after school, sit at a typewriter and crank out 50 a day.

By his senior year in high school, Allen was earning $1,600 a week writing for television, for stars like Sid Caesar, and later for the "Tonight" show, Ed Sullivan and others. His first movie script, in 1965, was "What's New, Pussycat?," which he says the studio mangled. He vowed he'd never let anyone else change his dialogue, and after "Take the Money and Run," in 1969, nobody did.

He dislikes looking back, if only because his life seems wispy to him in hindsight and death is a punch line that turns the past and present into cruel farce.

"It's like the two trains at the beginning of my movie 'Stardust Memories,' " he says. "There's a train with these gorgeous winners on it, and a train with all the losers in it. You want to be on the train with the winners, but five minutes later, you're pulling into the same depot. My 70-plus years will be spent better than those of a beggar on the streets of Calcutta. But we'll wind up in the same place."

No consolation. Not religion, not drugs. There isn't even the pleasure of gaining wisdom.

"There's an upside to going from 19 to 25 because you stop making the Three Stooges mistakes you make when you're a teenager," he says. "But once you get up in years, like seventies, there's nothing good about it. The dynamite women you see on the street, that world is gone to you.

"You know, it's inappropriate," he mutters, as though he's about to think better of discussing this. "One of the great pastimes of my life was eyeing girls in short skirts, and that's gone. They're unavailable to you, and in the few cases where you could work your magic, it's to no practical avail because you can't plan a future if you're 70 and she's 22. So your flirtation life goes, which is a big part of everybody's enjoyment in life."

But how about this? Thanks to Woody Allen, a couple of generations of nebbishy non-jocks were able to get dates. He created the archetype of the nerd who lands the babe. Can he look back on that achievement with some joy?

"No. Because I was always the guy struggling on the outside to get in. I remember being in Chicago and I was invited to the Playboy mansion. This was a long time ago. And this bevy of beautiful girls was there and I couldn't get to first base with any of them. And this guy I was with said, 'They only talk to me because I'm with you. I can go to bed with them because I'm with you.' And I am me! And I'm not in bed with any of them."

He isn't knocking his past girlfriends, and no disrespect to his wife, whom he has often called the best thing that ever happened to his romantic life. It's just that he missed out on the whole groupie experience. And like a lot of things, it leaves him feeling cheated.

"For me, being famous didn't help me that much. It helped a little. Warren Beatty once said to me many years ago, being a star is like being in a whorehouse with a credit card, and I never found that. For me, it was like being in a whorehouse with a credit card that had expired."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company