Woody Allen was born on December 1, 1935 in New York City. His parents were both born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Allen spoke Yiddish during his early years. He attended Hebrew school for eight years and then headed to public school. Allen was nicknamed “Red” because of his hair. He used to astonish fellow students with his flair for card tricks and was in point of fact a reasonably well-liked student during his seminal years.
Allen began writing gags for an agent, who sold them to newspaper columnists. Allen says that his first published joke was in a gossip column. By sixteen, he was discovered by Milt Kamen, who got him his first writing job. Allen’s proclivity for comedy was already perceptible and he promptly rose through the ranks. When he left high school, he headed for New York University and studied communication and film. Allen was ultimately expelled from school, however, and failed a film course.
After this, Woody Allen became a writer for American humorist Herb Shriner. By nineteen, Allen was already writing scripts for various television shows, including The Tonight Show. In 1961, Allen started a career as a stand-up comedian. He debuted at the Duplex in Greenwich Village and contributed sketches to a Broadway revue. During this time, Allen also wrote for the popular Candid Camera television show. He wrote short stories for magazines as well, including several for The New Yorker. By this time, Allen had begun the process of transforming his weaknesses into his strengths. This was the time period that gave birth to the anxious and fixated Woody Allen who is known so well today.
Allen began working on screenplays and in 1965 What’s New, Pussycat? was released to the world. Allen’s first experience with filmmaking was a less than constructive one, as many run-ins with producers and movie stars tore away at Allen’s script. He had a comparable experience during his uncredited rewrite of Casino Royale, the James Bond spoof, and decided that enough was enough. Allen made the decision to protect his art and ensured that he had total control of the films he worked on from that point forward.
Allen’s directorial debut was What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, a film experiment in which Allen re-dubbed a Japanese film with original comic dialogue. His second film was Take the Money and Run, a 1969 mockumentary that Allen starred in.
Subsequent films began to generate a buzz and Woody Allen quickly became well known. His early films were almost exclusively packed with slapstick and one-liners. Allen’s early films are also often considered to be among the more wholly comic of his work, as his later work began to take on more dramatic shapes and tones.
Turning Point: Annie Hall
Annie Hall is the film which many consider to be Allen’s finest work. It also marked a period of transition for the New Yorker, as the storyline was infused with drama and romance along with his comic wit. Allen starred in the film alongside Diane Keaton and Annie Hall scooped four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is a rarity for a comedy to win the Best Picture Oscar.
Annie Hall also started the modern romantic comedy trend, standing out as a film that was as much about the break-up as was about the romantic courtship. The characters were realistic, the dialogue was fresh, and Diane Keaton became a bit of a fashion icon for her style in the film.
The Sombre 1980s and the Comic 1990s
After Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen entered the 1980s in a bit of a sombre mood. His films had a more philosophical edge and were profoundly influenced by Bergman and Fellini, two of Allen’s favourite filmmakers. Allen’s films began to play as life imitating art, as characters in the film began to replicate the filmmaker’s mood and thoughts. His films became very compelling and he combined comedy and tragedy very effectively through this time period. A clear example of this would be Hannah and Her Sisters, the 1986 romantic comedy. Crimes and Misdemeanors, my personal favourite Woody Allen film, also takes place in this time period of philosophical exploration and highlights many of the common moral and ethical quandaries that Allen’s characters would investigate.
The 1980s would also include three films about show business, one of them becoming one of Allen’s personal favourite films (The Purple Rose of Cairo). The early 1990s continued Allen’s sombre tone, but the late 1990s saw a renaissance of Allen’s blithe comedy with the masterful Bullets Over Broadway and the musical delight Everyone Says I Love You. The 1990s would end with two derisive and dark films, however, as Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity took aim with sardonic meticulousness.
A New Century of Woody Allen
With the advent of the 2000s, it seemed that Woody Allen had turned over a new leaf. He started doing interviews again and returned to creating films that appeared to be strict comedies. The first example of this would be 2000’s Small Time Crooks. Allen’s next four films, however, would be considered box office flops and many critics began to write Woody Allen off as being extraneous and passé.
After 2005’s Melinda and Melinda, Allen trotted out one of his best works — Match Point. Match Point represented a return to the darker comedy that Allen had been tinkering with in the 1990s. Critics were back on the bandwagon and Allen was back in their good graces. He filmed 2006’s Scoop, which like Match Point starred Scarlett Johansson, and then made 2007’s dramatic film Cassandra’s Dream. Allen is presently working on Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which stars Penelope Cruz and Johansson. Rumours run rampant about a lesbian sex scene between the two, which is a certain departure from Allen’s comparatively tame films. Time will tell if this film will represent a bold new phase in Allen’s career or if it’s all just a lot of hype.
Why Woody Allen Matters
Woody Allen’s films are among the most compelling comedies ever written. Even those films considered “flops” by box office and critical standards still contain an incredible amount of insight into this filmmaker’s frame of mind and psychological understanding at the time. Allen spent at least 30 years of his life in psychoanalysis and almost always works in a gag involving psychology in his films. The process of psychoanalysis was a way for Allen to unleash his personality, which immensely helped the characterizations within his films. Characters would be played by him or would be built around him, making his entire body of work a quasi-autobiographical notion of one man’s very fascinating life. Few other directors have so much of themselves built in to their work.
Allen’s understanding of wit, humour, psychology, philosophy, religion, and comic timing makes his films all the stronger. His characters are constructed with such care, down to the most delicate of details, and his plot lines traverse and entwine like a jazz composition. Even his more eccentric films have a certain chemistry and methodology that make them appealing. Allen’s ability to imbue his films with heart and soul is what makes his films special and it is likely what will make his films timeless, too.
Allen matters in a sea of ostentatious would-be auteurs because his films, even his worst films, have a certain profundity and a measure of care. When “comedies” today are influenced by popular culture and are driven by insulting gratuitous claptrap, Allen’s films influence popular culture and are driven by their own engine. His films don’t answer to others, others answer to his films. With clean and natural cinematography, a dazzling ability to write characters, and solid acting chops, Woody Allen is perhaps one of the most absolute filmmakers of all time. His films aren’t always great, but he embodies the filmmaker as auteur perhaps more than any other living filmmaker.