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An Interview with Woody

10 minute read

It is not the largest apartment in Manhattan, but it may be the airiest. Woody Allen’s penthouse duplex is high above Fifth Avenue, and its glass walls provide an illusion of floating. Outside, in foreshortened perspective, like Saul Steinberg’s popular poster, stretches much of the city: the lakes and woods of Central Park, the skyscrapers of midtown, the rococo parapets of the West Side. This is literally and figuratively Woody Allen’s Manhattan: the movie’s opening sequence, a montage of romantic cityscapes, was largely shot from the director’s own terrace.

Last week, just before the film’s premiere, Allen sat on a comfortably worn couch with his back to the view. He had caught the flu and was huddling over a bowl of chicken soup (“the mythological panacea,” as he called it). Between his upset stomach and the details of Manhattan’s opening, Allen’s normal routine had been disrupted. When he is not shooting a film, Allen usually gets up at 7, writes all day, and then goes out for a late dinner at Elaine’s with a few pals (Actor Michael Murphy, Saturday Night Live Staff Producer Jean Doumanian, his frequent collaborator Marshall Brickman).

Last week not much writing was being done. His home phonewhere his movie will play and found some of them wanting: new screens and projectors had to be ordered to “keep Manhattan from looking like The Day the Earth Blew Up.” Equally unsatisfactory was the typeface in a full-page Sunday New York Times ad for the film: a new mock-up awaited his inspection. The most annoying problem was the Motion Picture Association’s decision to slap Manhattan with an R rating because of a few four-letter words. Allen was not pleased: “People say that the industry has a ratings board to keep the Government from invoking censorshipoesn’t work, I have no trouble slamming it.”

Such trivial bothers aside, Woody Allen seems content these days. Or at least as content as he can be. Rather uncharacteristically, he even seems tentatively pleased with his own work. “I wanted to make a film that was more serious than Annie Hall, a serious picture that had laughs in it,” he says. “I felt decent about Manhattan at the time I did it; it does go farther than Annie Hall. But 1 think now I could do better. Of course, if my film makes one more person feel miserable, I’ll feel I’ve done my job.” He is only half joking. It is no wonder that his original title for Annie Hall was Anhedonia, a psychoanalytic term that means “incapable of experiencing pleasure.”

Allen has his own misery, which is sincere and lifelong. It cannot be dissipated by the success of his movies. A shy workaholic who avoids the show-biz whirl and is never “on” in private, he not only talks about death in his films but spends a great deal of time thinking about it. “My real obsessions are religious,” he says. “They have to do with the meaning of life and with the futility of obtaining immortality through art. In Manhattan, the characters create problems for themselves to escape. In real life, everyone gives himself a distraction-whether it’s by turning on the TV set or by playing sophisticated games like the characters of Manhattan. You have to deny the reality of death to go on every day. But for me, even with all the distractions of my work and my life, I spend a lot of time face to face with my own mortality.” In order to distract himself, Allen has spent his entire life compulsively mastering talents with fierce concentration: just as he spent hours practicing magic tricks as a child, he later set out to learn gag writing, performing, poker, sports, clarinet playing and finally film making. He also deals with his anxiety by seeing an analyst, but says, “That’s only good for limited thingsI was always careful not to get seduced into TV writing. I was making a lot of money and knew it was a dead end; you get seduced into a lifestyle, move to California, and in six months you become a producer!

“At the personal level, I try to pay attention to the moral side of issues as they arise and try not to make a wrong choice. For instance, I’ve always had a strong feeling about drugs. I don’t think it’s right to try to buy your way out of life’s painful side by using drugs. I’m also against the concept of short marriages, and regard my own marriages [five years to Harlene Rosen, two years to Actress Louise Lasser] as a sign of failure of some sort. Of course I sell out as much as anyone my possessions to charity and living in much more modest circumstances. I’ve rationalized my way out of it so far, but I could conceive of doing it.” He adds, laughing: “I could not conceive of leaving New York and becoming monastic, like in Walden. I’d rather die than live in the country-in a small house or even in a nice house.” (His friend Dick Cavett says, “Woody is at two with nature.”) Even now, Allen does not live up to his means. His home is attractive, but not opulent, containing more books and records than anything else. His wardrobe of plaid shirts, jeans and beat-up jackets is the same he wears in his movies. “Mariel Hemingway just saw Annie Hall again and called me up, amazed that I wore the same clothes she sees me in all the time,” Allen recalls. “Actually I wear some of the same clothes in both Annie Hall and Manhattan. I’m still wearing a shirt I wore in Play It Again, Sam on Broadway in 1969.” The only true indulgences he allows himself are a cook and driver, as well as a compulsion to pick up dinner checks. His isolation from financial affairs is so complete that he gave his producer-manager, Charles Joffe, the power of attorney to sign all his contracts and even his divorce papers.

Allen places no more of a premium on intellectual prowess or talent than he does on money or status. “I know so many people who are well educated and supereducated,” he explains. “Their common problem is that they have no understanding and no wisdom; without that, their education can only take them so far. On the other hand, someone like Diane Keaton, who had not a trace of intellectualism when I first met her, can always cut right to the heart of the matter. As for talent, it is completely a matter of luck. People put too much of a premium on talent; that was a problem of the characters in Interiors. Certainly talent can give sensual, aesthetic pleasure; it’s like looking at a beautiful woman. But people who are huge talents are frequently miserable human beings. In terms of human attributes, what really counts is courage. There’s a speech I had to cut out of Manhattan and plan to get into the next film, where my character says that the metaphor for life is a concentration camp. I do believe that. The real question in life is how one copes in that crisis. I just hope I’m never tested, because I’m very pessimistic about how I would respond. I worry that I tend to moralize, as opposed to being moral.”

Allen first began to grapple with these issues on film in Interiors, and he plans to make more serious films in the future. “I have always felt tragedy was the highest form, even as a child, before I could articulate it. There was something about the moodiness, the austerity, the apparent profundity of Elia Kazan’s films then that sucked me in. With comedy you can buy yourself out of the problems of life and diffuse them. In tragedy, you must confront them and it is painful, but I’m a real sucker for it.” Allen did not have a role in Interiors and will not act in his serious movies. “I can act within a certain limited range,” he says, but notes that while making Manhattan, he had to resist a “real temptation” to play a sad drunk scene for laughs. “I could never see myself sitting in an analyst’s chair in a film, talking about my mother and shock treatments and gradually crying-not if my life depended on it.”

If Allen has a favorite actor, it seems to be Keaton. Talking about her always cheers him up: “She has no compunction about playing a lovable and gangly hick in Annie Hall and then very neurotic and disturbed women in Interiors and Manhattan. That’s the mark of an actress and not a movie star. Keaton also has the eye of a genius, as you can see in her photos, collages, silk screens and wardrobe. She can dress in a thousand more creative ways than she did in Annie Hall. When I first met her, she’d combine unbelievable stuffat boots, some chic thing from Ralph Lauren.” Though Allen and Keaton have not been romantically involved since 1971, they remain close, and he hopes some day to create a musical for her.

Another actress Allen admires is his Manhattan costar, Mariel Hemingway, who is 17. “I wrote the part for her after seeing her in Lipstick and stumbling across her photo in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. She met with me, and after two minutes I knew she was right. When we were making the film, she always stayed in character when we improvised. Even when I went off in an unexpected direction, she could always go with the scene.”

Allen will be in his new film, which begins shooting in September. He hopes the movie will go “deeper in both comic and serious directions” than Manhattan. “I want to make a film that is stylized and very offbeat. I want to try being funny without jokes, to rely less on dialogue and try to tell the story in images more.” Once again, audiences will see some emulation of Ingmar Bergman, his favorite director. “Bergman amazes me in part because he tells intellectual stories, and they move forward for endless amounts of time with no dialogue.”

Not that Allen has forgotten about laughs. While in the thick of making Manhattan, he spent dozens of hours watching Bob Hope movies to compile a one-hour film tribute for a Lincoln Center gala honoring the comedian. “I had more pleasure looking at Hope’s films than making any film I’ve ever made,” Allen says. “I think he’s just a great, huge talent. Part of what I like about him is that flippant, Californian, obsessed-with-golf striding through life. His not caring about the serious side at all. That’s very seductive to me. I would feel fine making a picture like Sleeper tomorrow, but I get the feeling the audience would be disappointed. They expect something else from me now. But I wouldn’t let that prevent my doing it. It would be just too much fun to make a real out-and-out junk kind of thing.” With some regret, Allen found himself having to cut jokes out of Manhattan in the editing. “They were very funnyalways called up my travel agent and called it off at the last minute. It got to be a big joke among my friends. But I like Paris. It wouldn’t kill me if someone said I would be forced to live there the rest of my life.” In Paris, Allen plans to do “the exact same things” he does at home: drift around, eat and go to movies. Or maybe he won’t. “If I get my predictable anxiety attack,” Allen adds, “I’ll get on the next plane and come right back to New York.”

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