The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Allen Bares All

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

Image courtesy of PBS

Woody Allen has always been something of an enigma, slipping effortlessly and Zelig-like from one persona to the next.

He started as a gag and television writer (most famously for Sid Caesar), became an extremely successful stand-up comic, wrote humorous essays for The New Yorker (many of which were collected into best-selling books), played jazz clarinet, wrote Broadway plays, metamorphosed into a screenwriter-director of lowbrow, Catskill-style comedies, and then of increasingly serious (and occasionally less accessible) work.

And oh yes, he married his girlfriend’s adopted daughter.

Robert Weide, a filmmaker who specializes in comics and comedy (his work includes “The Great Standups” for HBO and the Emmy-winning “W.C. Fields: Straight Up” for PBS), convinced the normally reclusive star to allow him what the press release describes as “unprecedented” access. The result, shown over two nights on November 21 and 22, is a masterful PBS special, “Woody Allen: A Documentary.”

Unprecedented may be overstating the case, but not by much. Allen previously cooperated with Eric Lax, author of the aptly titled (and extremely good) “Woody Allen: A Biography.” He also allowed filmmaker Barbara Kopple to accompany him and his jazz band on a European tour for a documentary, “Wild Man Blues.” For the most part, however, he’s avoided the media and does not even allow cameras on his sets to gather behind-the scenes promotional footage.

Still, there are no great revelations here; anyone who’s followed Allen’s career will be familiar with most of the details. But the documentary is fascinating, informative, and paints a complete picture of someone whose work will likely be studied as long as people go to the movies.

Allen Stewart Konigsberg was born in New York and grew up in an unhappy Jewish family. Letty Aronson, his sister and the executive producer of most of his films, says their parents “wanted him to be a pharmacist. He was the wrong person born to those parents.”

His mother and father bickered constantly, or didn’t talk at all. Allen started writing gags for local columnists and spent a summer at a mountain resort where he wrote weekly sketches and directed. “You couldn’t sit in your room and wait for the muse to strike,” he says. It’s a lesson he absorbed. Since 1966 he’s written at least one theatrical screenplay a year (most of which he also directed and often starred in), while also writing several TV movies and numerous essays.

His cinematic career began when producer Charles K. Feldman caught his nightclub act and offered him $20,000 to write the screenplay for what became “What’s New Pussycat?” He felt the final product mangled his script, however, and insisted on total control for all future films.

And they came pouring out of him, usually hilarious and wacky in a Catskill kind of way. “Until Annie Hall, I was only interested in making the audience laugh,” he says. There followed a number of important, often successful movies: “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and most recently his highest-grossing film, “Midnight In Paris.” They earned him 21 Oscar nominations and three wins.

Despite success, Allen is some ways still the insecure Jewish kid from Brooklyn. “Writing is great. You can imagine it’s ‘Citizen Kane.’ But when you have to go out and do it reality sets in. Your dreams of directing a masterpiece are redirected to ‘I’ll prostitute myself and do anything I have to to survive this catastrophe.’”

It isn’t until about 40 minutes into the second part of the documentary that Soon-Yi Previn (who surprisingly is not interviewed) is mentioned. Weide doesn’t ask Allen probing questions. Allen disingenuously claims he’s surprised by the uproar it caused. He didn’t think he was that famous. And after just a couple of minutes they move on.

It’s easy to be critical of Weide’s failure to explore more deeply, but it’s not easy to ask hard questions in a one-on-one situation. Not everyone is Howard Stern. Plus, there’s always the possibility that the wrong question might sufficiently upset Allen that he’d get up, walk away and refuse further cooperation.

Still, it’s a wonderful documentary, and mandatory viewing for Allen’s many fans.

Watch a preview for ‘Woody Allen: A Documentary’:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Woody Allen, Television, Robert Weide, PBS, Film, Curt Schleier, Documentaries

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.