In my very first review, of What’s New Pussycat, I said “many of [Woody Allen’s] films are indisputably products of their era.” In retrospect, this was inaccurate. Woody Allen’s films are remarkably frozen in time — change the hair and the outfits, and almost any one could just as easily have been made almost any time between 1965 and 2015.
The reason I initially made that claim was to challenge the commonly held notion that he makes the same movie over and over again. However, if I had just waited, I would have realized how obvious that point is. The movies from this period of Woody Allen’s career are so diverse, the only thing they have in common is how wildly different they are from each other. A bleak family drama (Interiors), a feel-good message movie (The Front), a whimsical fairytale (The Purple Rose of Cairo), a deconstructed romantic comedy (Annie Hall), a bizarre “documentary” (Zelig). For nine years, Woody Allen was bouncing heedlessly around the extreme artistic limitations of the film world.
Who was Woody Allen in 1985?
With the exception of The Front (which Allen didn’t write or direct anyway) and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (which he barely wrote), the movies from this era all share one other common trait: bold, original, uncompromising artistry. Despite eventually developing an increasingly earned reputation as a safe and repetitious director, Allen spent at least one decade working without a safety net.
The periods of 1965-1975 and 1986-1992, with a few exceptions, were times that Allen mostly focused on particular facets of his skill-set — slapstick comedies and philosophical chamber dramas, respectively. But in between, he seemed unbound by any constraints. He might have been difficult to pigeonhole in terms of genre or tone, but it could safely be said that in 1985 he was a very exciting, unpredictable filmmaker.
1976-1985: Top 5 favorite scenes
Tom Baxter walks off the screen, The Purple Rose of Cairo
The biggest, most famous moment of a beloved movie seems to serve two purposes: on an emotional level, it’s the big moment we’ve been waiting for, as the film’s hard-luck heroine’s dreams are answered when a handsome leading man walks off the movie screen and into her life; it also elevates the film from simple fantasy into more modern, complex surrealism. These might seem like clashing ideals, but it’s directed so skillfully, it manages to be funny, smart and sweet at the same time.
Neurotic introduction, Manhattan
The music (Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”) and the stunning imagery suggest grandiosity and operatic emotion. The voiceover by Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) on the other hand, is uncertain and insecure. This essentially sets the tone of the rest of the movie: people taking on big questions in a complicated world, but not really knowing how to answer them.
Ending, Annie Hall
In a movie filled with asides, diversions and unexpected flights of fancy, Annie Hall’s ending cuts sharply and unexpectedly to the movie’s emotional core. Running into Annie with another date long after they’ve broken up, they remember their time together with an easy-going but powerfully felt mix of nostalgia, longing and regret.
Danny’s introduction, Broadway Danny Rose
A group of show-business veterans tell us about Danny Rose, a mythic, tragic figure in the New York artistic community. He’s a talent agent who’s as well-meaning as he is hopeless. He see him as a “comedian” telling corny jokes to a retirement community before we cut to him in his new career as an agent, offering a flopsweat-soaked sales pitch to the owner of “Weinstein’s Majestic Bungalow Colony.” The scene neatly encompasses one of Allen’s most endearing characters.
Sandy’s anger unleashed, Stardust Memories
Sandy Bates’ anger manifests itself as a sentient, furry animal (you never quite get a good look at it) and attacks the people in his life that have incurred it — such as his ex-wife, her alimony lawyer, and his mother. Not the most profound thing, I suppose, but thanks to its timing and direction, I definitely laughed more at this scene than any other from this period.
1976-1985: Top 5 Favorite Performances by People That Are Not Woody Allen
Mariel Hemingway, Manhattan
Acting is a difficult thing to judge. I, of course, am not an actor, nor do I know anything about the craft of acting. All I can do think and write about performances, characters and the emotions they convey on screen. Hemingway, who was only 17 at the time, offers a heart-breaking portrait of a smart, kind teenager who is too mature for her high school classmates, but too naive to deal with the jaded machinations of Manhattan’s middle-aged socialites.
Mia Farrow, The Purple Rose of Cairo
While Broadway Danny Rose showcased Farrow’s impressive range, Purple Rose of Cairo made perfect use of the warmth and vulnerability that she naturally exudes. The emotional core of this movie, Farrow crafts a plucky heroine in the tradition of Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy. It is a credit to her performance that the movie’s dark twist at the end feels so cruel.
Diane Keaton, Annie Hall
A performance that, in Diane Keaton’s own words, “barely counted as acting,” yet somehow resulted in one of American cinema’s most enduring characters. Perhaps because it was so natural and effortless that it seemed like Annie was such a real person, not a cog in a movie machine. It’s easy to imagine Annie having a life outside what we see in Annie Hall
Geraldine Page, Interiors
As the suicidally depressed mother of two troubled daughters and a departing husband, Geraldine Page was tasked with creating an interesting character with nothing to go on but cavernous needs and boundless misery. Miraculously, she creates an indelible woman who makes genuine efforts to improve the lives of herself and her family, despite decades of depression and family strife.
Jeff Daniels, Purple Rose of Cairo
Tellingly, the only man on the list (Woody Allen is still playing most of the male leads). Jeff Daniels plays two characters — the oblivious, sincere adventurer Tom Baxter, and the flustered, seemingly-sincere actor Gil Shepard. Both creations essentially exist within the mind of Cecilia — in Tom’s case, she’s deluding herself, but in Gil’s case, it’s Gil who’s doing the deceiving. With each one, Daniels is playing what seems to be a simple character, but simple in a very particular way, and serving a very particular purpose.
1976-1985: Top 5 Overall Movies
It’s almost impossible to comparatively rank Manhattan and Annie Hall. Annie Hall is funnier, while Manhattan is more tragic. Annie Hall is bursting with ideas, while Manhattan is more of a long, hard look at relationships and loneliness. Annie Hall works on a more emotional level, whereas Manhattan seems to have a more cerebral appeal. For me, at least right now, this movie, about intersecting lives in New York’s most famous borough, seems to resonate more deeply.
- Annie Hall
Definitely the most innovative and influential romantic comedy of all time, Annie Hall balances fantastical asides with a warts-and-all look a single relationship from beginning to end. It’s a movie so dense with ideas it seems to burst at the seems, yet takes the time to really get to know its two main characters. As I said in the review: it’s playfully obtuse but painfully direct.
- The Purple Rose of Cairo
This is the one Woody Allen film that is truly impossible to dislike, by virtue of its sweet, charming nature. With incredible attention to detail, Allen creates a vivid fantasy world, and fills it with darker, more modern undercurrents.
Despite being one of the most symbolic and subversive films Allen has made, it’s still incredibly fun, and incredibly funny. Woody Allen plays a man who can literally transform himself into anyone, in a funny, romantic movie with powerful reflections on identity, mental illness, and the universal human need to be liked.
- Stardust Memories
I realize that many members of this site’s small following will disagree with the exclusion of Broadway Danny Rose. Comparing Stardust Memories and Broadway Danny Rose is another impossible/pointless task. Danny Rose is charming, entertaining and meticulously directed, while Stardust Memories is a free-wheeling, messy movie with a dark heart and an even darker tone. But, speaking purely based on personal preference, Stardust Memories is a movie that seems to have a little more going for it. It has a more interesting (if less likable) lead character, haunting and beautiful cinematography, and a healthy supply of shocking, audacious humor unlike anything in Allen’s filmography.
- Originally, my goal was just to review movies as fast as Woody Allen was making them. With 18 movies down in four months, I can definitely say that I am succeeding!
- I have now seen more Woody Allen movies than Woody Allen’s wife.
- During this period, The Front, Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Broadway Danny Rose were the only movies I hadn’t seen before. Although, I have seen a relatively small portion of the films he’s made since 1986.