The Extraordinary Versatility of Woody Allen

Blue Jasmine, director Woody Allen’s 43rd feature-length film made for the cinema, is receiving mostly positive reviews from critics. The occasion of a new Allen picture always makes me revisit his previous films. Allen was the first director whose work I became aware of. When I was a kid, I used to watch his old comedies on “The Movie Loft,” the weeknight film presentation series hosted by Dana Hersey on Boston’s Channel 38, WSBK-TV. I’d be watching Sleeper or Love and Death on the 12-inch color Zenith in my bedroom, and my mother or father would drop by to find out the source of my raucous laughter. Sometimes, the culprit was Monty Python and the Holy Grail or, on a different channel, a movie with Buster Keaton or the Marx Brothers (from 1935 or earlier), but more than likely the story that kept me from my homework involved a short man with red hair and glasses who failed to achieve his dream of becoming a successful criminal, or was thawed out by an underground movement 200 years after he was cryogenically frozen, or attempted to assassinate Napoleon I.

Allen’s films changed considerably after those early comedies, as did my tastes. But I still look forward to each year’s Allen film, even though I know he is unlikely to release a film on par with his greatest achievements. The nine films I have highlighted here are, in my opinion, the best he has ever made. Many of the others provide pleasures, too, but these are the films I would recommend to someone who has never seen Allen’s work and wants to learn what it is that many of us admire.

Bananas (1971)

My favorite of the so-called early, funny Woody Allen films. Fielding Mellish (Allen) is a product tester who goes on to become the president of San Marcos, a Latin American country whose chief exports are locusts. Bananas is, to me, early Woody at his zaniest and most inventive and the best of the five directing efforts with which he began his career. Here Mellish and other members of the underground rebels intent on overthrowing the government get food for the rest of their contingent:

Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall is the film that made me fall in love with films. It may not be as deep as Crimes and Misdemeanors or as beautiful to look at as Manhattan, but it’s 93 minutes of unending narrative inventiveness—and it’s hilarious. Diane Keaton’s performance in the title role is endearing, and the film has one of the most heartbreakingly lovely endings of any romantic comedy. In the middle of the film, Allen’s Alvy Singer has Easter dinner with Annie Hall’s Protestant family in Wisconsin:

Interiors (1978)

Critics were divided about Interiors when it came out in 1978. Some thought that Woody Allen’s first drama was brilliant. (Gene Shalit was particularly effusive.) Others thought it arch and a pale imitation of the best of Ingmar Bergman’s chamber pieces. I think it’s fair to say that most people weren’t ready to see Fielding Mellish’s creator direct a somber picture about a domineering, suicidal mother (Geraldine Page), the husband (E.G. Marshall) who decides to divorce her after decades of marriage, and their three angst-ridden, artistic adult daughters. Interiors may not rank with such Bergman classics as Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light, but it is a perceptive and well-made film about family conflicts and the need to create. Here’s a great scene between Page’s and Marshall’s characters.

Manhattan (1979)

One character (played by Michael Murphy) cheats on his wife. When he and his girlfriend (Diane Keaton) break up, the man’s twice-divorced best friend (Allen), who is dating a teenager (Mariel Hemingway) twenty-five years his junior, drops her to go out with his friend’s former paramour. This might have been an unpleasant experience were it not for the witty dialogue and the insight with which Allen and co-screenwriter Marshall Brickman present these characters’ foibles and needs. Gershwin music on the soundtrack adds romance and grandeur. And, of course, there’s Gordon Willis’s extraordinary black-and-white cinematography. One of the great films of the 1970’s.

Stardust Memories (1980)

This is probably the only bold pick in this post. Reviled at the time of its release, Stardust Memories is as weird and cynical as the film’s many detractors say it is, but those qualities are what make it one of Allen’s most original and entertaining films. Most critics call this film Allen’s version of Fellini’s 8 ½. Allen plays Sandy Bates, a successful director of film comedies who wants to make serious pictures and be taken more seriously as an artist. A film critic invites him to the Hotel Stardust for a weekend retrospective of his works. The film is not the attack on Allen’s fans that many viewers thought it was but rather an analysis of a filmmaker in crisis. This sequence is from the end of the film. The extended shot of Charlotte Rampling is one of the most beautiful in all of Allen’s work.

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Woody Allen at his Runyonesque best. Small-time talent agent Danny Rose (Allen) represents acts that never make it big, including the couple that makes balloon animals and the blind xylophonist. But Rose thinks the nostalgia craze could help washed-up crooner Lou Canova. The only problem: married Lou can’t perform without his girlfriend Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow) in the audience, and Tina wants to dump him. A throwback to Allen’s earliest films.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

The happy ending is too simplistic for the events that precede it, but otherwise Hannah and Her Sisters is one of Allen’s best films. Only Woody Allen could take the Chekhovian structure of three adult sisters and their various troubled relationships and turn it into a film that is as warm as it is hilarious. In this scene, Hannah’s husband, Elliott (Michael Caine), flirts with Hannah’s younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), with the help of E.E. Cummings:

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

But for the occasional archness of the dialogue, this is perhaps Woody Allen’s best and most complex film. Two story lines intersect. In the first, married ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) turns to his mobster brother to help him get rid of a mistress (Anjelica Huston) determined to ruin his life. In the second and more humorous, struggling filmmaker Clifford Stern (Allen) wants out of his loveless marriage and tries to romance a documentary producer (Farrow). A friend of mine once said that it’s a given in Woody Allen films that relationships are destined to fail. That’s not always true, but Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of Allen’s bleaker (and most brilliant) takes on the subject. In this scene, Stern is offered a directing job by his brother-in-law, a pompous television producer wonderfully played by Alan Alda:

Husbands and Wives (1992)

Audiences had a hard time recognizing the brilliance of this film upon its release because the scandal involving Soon-Yi Previn was still in the headlines. But this surprisingly earthy film about crumbling relationships (fodder for my astute friend) is one of Allen’s most bracing and satisfying. Some viewers disliked the hand-held camerawork, but the jittery picture and abrupt cuts add to the film’s edginess.

You may be wondering why only nine films instead of ten. The reason is that, while Woody Allen has made many fine films, I can’t elevate any of the others to this level. Most of his films are worth seeing if you like his style. Radio Days is a charming tribute to the 1940s and its popular culture. Manhattan Murder Mystery is a fun trifle and a good excuse for a Woody Allen/Diane Keaton reunion. Sweet and Lowdown is a treat for jazz fans and features a delightfully hammy performance by Sean Penn as the second-greatest jazz guitarist in history (after Django Reinhardt). But the nine I have highlighted here are the best of the bunch. That one can identify as many as nine or more of a director’s films as among his best, and that those films are so different from one another, tells you something about how good that director is. And Woody Allen, for all his faults, is one of the best that cinema has ever produced.

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One thought on “The Extraordinary Versatility of Woody Allen

  1. This is a great Allen tribute, Michael. I agree with all your choices. I have a hard time narrowing it down to ten. I see brilliance in every one of his films. I, too, fell in love with Annie Hall. I’ve seen it dozens of times and have memorized the dialogue. I’m thinking we may have to add Blue Jasmine into the top ten. Will let you know after I see it next week.

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