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TV Review: American Masters – Woody Allen: A Documentary

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To look at the short ‘shlumpy’ septuagenarian hiding under a floppy hat as he makes his way about the Brooklyn streets of his youth, it’s hard to think of him as the model of the comic genius. To listen to his self effacing comments on his life’s work, it’s hard to imagine him in the role of the dynamo filmmaker who has managed to turn out a film a year for longer than many of us have spent on this earth. To hear the roster of cinema greats and near greats who come to praise him as a great collaborator, tolerant director and sensitive writer, it’s difficult to reconcile their description with the director who makes casting decisions in seconds and fires actors he is unhappy with. To listen to his quick witted dead pan quips, the existential angst he claims as a world view seems ludicrous.

This is the paradoxical portrait of Woody Allen that director Robert Weide paints in American Masters—Woody Allen: A Documentary that premieres on PBS in two parts, Sunday, November 20 from 9-11 and Monday, November 21 from 9-10:30. Weide, an award winning filmmaker, has directed , written and produced in a variety of combinations documentaries on Mort Sahl, W.C. Fields and Lenny Bruce among others. Most recently, after his 1999 comedy special Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm for HBO, he has served as the director and executive of the spin-off series that has been running for eight seasons. He is a man who understands comedy and knows how to work with comedians. Perhaps this is why the notoriously publicity shy Allen was willing to provide him with the kind of access necessary to make this film. If so, Allen made a wise decision.

Not only is Allen willing to sit down and talk about his childhood, his parents, his various wives (although there is only a mention of his current family), and his career, but he even has nice things to say about Mia Farrow, at least as far as her abilities as an actress are concerned. As far as other family matters are concerned the film talks about them, but Allen does not.

He talks about how he began his career as a young high school student writing jokes for newspaper columnists, then graduating to writing for TV shows and comedians. He explains how he was turned into a stand-up performer despite his queasiness about getting up on stage. Weide intersperses clips from some of his early stage and TV appearances; Allen may have been unsure of himself in his own eyes, but one thing for sure he was funny. Clips from his stints with Dick Cavett are hilarious; hilarious enough to make you wish he had somehow found the time to keep doing stand-up. While Weide does mention his playwriting, and there are some clips from Play It Again, Sam, that and his fiction writing get short shrift. It is his career in film that gets the bulk of the discussion, and how can you blame Weide? If your choice is between the New Yorker and Penelope Cruz, there really isn’t much of a choice.

He talks about how he got involved with movies and his unhappiness with what the studios did with his first film, What’s New Pussycat?, which led to his demand that he be given complete control over his future projects. The documentary then goes on to examine his development as a filmmaker through his early sketch-like comic turns to his great character driven comedies and his attempts at more serious drama. It looks at his successes; it looks at his failures. It interviews people involved in the films, and it gets him to talk about what he was trying to do and about what he thought he actually accomplished. If the people he worked with—the Diane Keatons and the Scarlet Johanssons, the Sean Penns and the Chris Rocks—are generally effusive, in their comments, Allen, himself, always gives the impression that he didn’t do all that much. If he has one of those Hollywood egos, he does his best to hide it.

While the film follows fairly conventional documentary tropes—talking heads, family photos, film and video clips, when you have talking heads like the actors from Allen’s films and clips from Love and Death and Manhattan, conventional tropes are nothing to sneeze at. Besides, although the spine of the film is generally chronological, Weide is perfectly willing to break into the narrative to make a point or add a current perspective on something that happened in the past. It is a neatly constructed with an insight, wit and intelligence worthy of its subject.

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About Jack Goodstein