Watching PBS’ documentary on Woody Allen is like spending an afternoon with an old friend — one who’s funnier and more interesting than any of your actual friends. It’s enormously entertaining, but despite a running time of over three hours and the full participation of Woody Allen and almost all of his notable, still-living associates, it feels less like an in-depth examination of Allen’s life than a light-hearted overview of it. In its admirable but foolhardy attempt to cover every facet of Allen’s life and career, it’s forced to gloss over a lot of topics and speed through decades in minutes. The fact remains, though, that Woody Allen: A Documentary is enthralling, hilarious, and guaranteed to evoke powerful nostalgia from all Woody Allen fans.
This movie’s closest parallel is probably Wild Man Blues, another documentary for which Allen opened himself up. Wild Man Blues captured Allen naturally, which made it loose and intimate, but Woody Allen: A Documentary consists entirely of staged interviews and archive footage, which gives it a more official feel.
And while Wild Man Blues was micro — looking at Allen over the course of a month — Woody Allen: A Documentary is macro — starting with Allen’s birth, and going all the way up to the success of Midnight in Paris. So vast is its focus that there were obviously a lot of decisions that needed to be made about what to keep and what to cut. I have some quibbles with what they’ve chosen to include and exclude, and just about everyone else will too. In trying to do so much, they’ve prevented themselves from being able to wholly satisfy anyone, other than the curious non-fan looking for a quick overview of what Woody Allen is all about.
Woody Allen: A Documentary was written, produced and directed for PBS’ American Masters series by Robert B. Weide. Weide, a career chronicler of funny people, has directed documentaries on the Marx brothers, Mort Sahl, W.C. Fields and Lenny Bruce. He’s also executive-produced the entire run of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and directed half of its episodes.
Weide’s most relevant work with regard to Woody Allen: A Documentary is Marx Brothers in a Nutshell, a 1982 documentary he made for PBS. His first project out of film school, it was produced by Allen’s long-time agent/producer Charles H. Joffe, and, likely as a result of this, managed to land Woody Allen as a talking-head contributor. This led to Weide allegedly spending years trying to convince Allen to participate in another documentary, this time with himself as the subject.
Allen was quite reclusive in the ‘80s and ‘90s but started to open up and make more public appearances in the ‘00s, so it makes sense that he’d finally agree to this project in 2010. Filmed over 18 months, Woody Allen: A Documentary boasts “unprecedented access” to Allen, although he’s no more revealing, candid or emotional than he’s been in any of his press junkets of the last decade. He says a lot of the same things we’ve been hearing him say forever, although he’s charming and hilarious as always.
He also offers many seemingly mundane tidbits that are likely to thrill Woody Allen obsessives — like a tour of his childhood neighborhood, and a look at the typewriter on which he’s typed up every single one of his movies.
Woody Allen: A Documentary is broken down into two parts, which aired on separate nights. While the break is theoretically chronological (Part 1 covers his childhood until 1980, and the second part covers 1981 to 2012), the two parts also differ so greatly in tone that they feel like two different movies.
The first part of Woody Allen: A Documentary is by far the superior, more interesting half. In all likelihood, virtually all of the new information about Woody Allen that you will learn from watching this documentary will be obtained before Part 1 concludes, as Weide feverishly digs through Allen’s past, turning up fascinating nuggets of information about his childhood and early career.
The film begins, predictably, with Allen’s early family life and schooling. Allen gives the documentarians a guided tour of his old neighborhood, including his childhood home and the theatre around the corner where he went to the movies every weekend.
Many of Allen’s childhood anecdotes are familiar from his movies. Weide realizes this too, and humorously intercuts Allen telling stories with the versions of those stories Allen has committed to film. When Allen talks about his childhood realization that life is finite, so what’s the point, the movie cuts to the scene from Annie Hall of young Alvy Singer telling his therapist that, as long as the universe is expanding, there’s no real point in doing any homework. Allen talking about how his father never actually told him what he did for a living is intercut with a scene from Radio Days in which Seth Green’s father refuses to reveal his career.
Allen’s parents had passed away by the time this movie was made, so they don’t appear, except briefly in archive footage. Simply by virtue of having been lucky enough to film a single tense conversation between Allen and his parents, 1997’s Wild Man Blues has a lot more insight to offer on this topic. Woody Allen: A Documentary’s most revealing parental moment comes in an archival interview of Nettie, Allen’s mother, saying that she was too strict with him, and as a result he’s too harsh and unfeeling, which she also said, nearly verbatim, in Wild Man Blues.
Allen’s sister/producer Letty Aronson does appear, however, just as she did in Wild Man Blues. She remembers him being a very kind brother, which Allen’s mother corroborates.
The movie then moves on to its most fascinating section, its chronicle of Allen’s rise from teenage joke-writer to stand-up comedian to major celebrity, all before he appeared in a single movie. Woody Allen’s movies are recorded documents that have been discussed and picked apart endlessly, but the days of Allen’s career prior to 1965 are much more mysterious.
In addition to being this documentary’s most fascinating section, this is also its most entertaining. Woody Allen circa early 1960s is a serious contender for funniest human being of all time. In every television appearance and every interview, he’s almost inhumanly sharp and quick-witted, and his stand-up comedy performances will force you to abuse the pause button to prevent from missing the jokes and interviews under the sound of your own laughter. Woody Allen: A Documentary could have devoted all three of its hours to Allen’s pre-film career and never have had a single dull or uninformative moment.
As a young teenager, Allen started sending jokes to the local newspaper. He didn’t want his real name (Allen Stuart Konigsberg) appearing in print because he was afraid his classmates would make fun of him, so he came up with the pseudonym ‘Woody Allen’ (he says “it was just the first thing I thought of”). As for the iconic glasses, he saw comedian Mike Merrick sporting a pair of black plastic glasses, thought they looked pretty sharp, so he got a pair for himself and then never really gave it a second thought.
As his name became a mainstay in all of New York’s city columns, he started to garner a lot of attention from agents and producers. Soon, he was writing jokes for comedians like Arthur Godfrey, Peter Lind Hayes and Herb Shriner, and sketches for shows like The Chevy Show and The Sid Caesar Show, alongside another up-and-coming comic writer named Mel Brooks.
By 16, Allen was making more money that his parents. By 18, he was married, and by 21 he was divorced. These broad details you may remember from 2003’s Anything Else, a movie inspired loosely by Allen’s early life. Despite being based (loosely) on fact, that movie never felt particularly credible, mostly because Allen failed to acknowledge how exceptionally gifted he is, and expected us to accept Jason Biggs’ character a normal guy.
Allen casually reveals that he wrote up to 50 jokes per day, and a quick scroll through some of his typewritten sheets reveals that almost all of them were quite funny, and many of them are timeless quotes that still populate Facebook profiles and e-mail signatures to this day. There’s a fascinating interview segment from the CBC in which Allen displays his very nonchalant attitude about his genius. He compares writing jokes to drawing horses — some people can just do it easily, others can’t. And he’d rather be able to draw horses.
Allen soon signs up with talent agents Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, who he describes as “the Cadillac of talent agents.” They managed, according to Rollins, “comedians and personalities, but never writers.” But they agreed to take on Allen anyway, in part because they had bigger plans for him.
One of this movie’s most insistent lessons is just how monumentally important Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe were to Woody Allen’s career. I’ve mentioned these two before on this site: they’ve produced every single movie Allen has written or directed, appeared in various small cameos, and Jack Rollins even inspired the character of Broadway Danny Rose.
What I didn’t realize, though, is that they represented Allen back when he was just a writer, and it was their idea for him to start performing stand-up comedy. Rollins claims they were so convinced he’d be a hit, they’d literally push him on stage. All of his television appearances were orchestrated by Joffe and Rollins. They also helped produce his stage plays Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam.
Then, when Allen decided he might like to write for the movies, Rollins and Joffe got him What’s New Pussycat. When that experience left a bad taste in his mouth, they made sure his directorial debut, 1969’s Take the Money and Run, would be untouched by studio meddlers. They then continued to keep the studios off his back for the next 40 years and counting. Joffe passed away in 2008 (and only appears in this movie in archive footage), but Rollins is still alive and working at age 97. For all the Woody Allen films we’ve enjoyed, we owe those two just as much thanks as we owe Allen himself.
After Joffe and Rollins pushed him to perform as a comedian, Allen became a national sensation. He appeared on game shows, variety shows, guest-hosted The Tonight Show, and did countless talk-show interviews. Allen says that Rollins’ and Joffe’s plan was to get him onto television as often as humanly possible, which often led to bizarre gigs like singing to dogs, boxing kangaroos, and doing a big song-and-dance musical number on the Perry Como show in front of giant light-up letters spelling W-O-O-D-Y.
Peter Biskind’s 1998 book about 1970s New Hollywood Easy Riders and Raging Bulls opens with a scene-setting story about What’s New Pussycat, and about how it went from a Warren Beatty comeback vehicle to Woody Allen’s debut as actor and screenwriter. In that book’s version, which is recounted by Beatty himself, he essentially stormed out just prior to production as he was outraged that Allen’s re-writes (which the studio preferred) had enlarged Allen’s part while reducing Beatty’s. That’s the version I was relying on when I wrote my review of What’s New Pussycat, but Woody Allen: A Documentary presents a very different version it.
This movie claims it was Shirley MacLaine (Beatty’s sister, incidentally), who’d worked with Allen on The Chevy Show, who brought movie mogul Charles K. Feldman to see Woody Allen perform at The Blue Angel nightclub. Feldman, Rollins and Joffe then worked out a movie deal for Allen. According to Woody Allen: A Documentary, What’s New Pussycat was really intended to be Allen’s movie all along, and Warren Beatty is never even mentioned. The book and the documentary also differ on how much Allen was paid for his work.
What both accounts agree on is the end result: a movie that was hugely popular but despised by Woody Allen. Allen says “if I had had my way, that movie would have been much better, but made much less money,” and I have no reason to doubt him on either count. There’s no mention of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? or Casino Royale which is too bad, as I was wondering what extenuating circumstances would have forced Allen into working on them. After the studio meddling of What’s New Pussycat, he must surely have been aware that additional meddling was all but guaranteed in those two even more hackneyed projects.
Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death are sped through pretty quickly. Allen’s plan to make Sleeper as a two-part three-hour movie is discussed, and Allen’s mysterious ‘70s writing partner Marshall Brickman reveals they had considered making it as a silent comedy, entirely without dialogue.
When it comes to Annie Hall, the movie devotes a surprising amount of time to discussing Allen’s hiring of cinematographer Gordon Willis, yet don’t really make any mention of his contributions. Willis, cinematographer for The Godfather and All the President’s Men, had both a personality and a photographic style that earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness” and many talking heads express much bemusement that a comedy director would seek him out, but none give examples of what exactly Willis’ darkness brought to the movie. Although Allen does point out that it was Willis’ idea to build a literal split set for the psychiatrist scene.
Diane Keaton, effervescent as ever, tells a hilarious story about the real Grammy Hall, who’s a lot like the Grammy Hall of Annie Hall (Grammy Hall described Allen as “a typical Jew”). Keaton also claims that she tried to “trick” Allen into falling in love with her. She adds “I don’t think it quite worked, but I was around a lot.” I half expected her to end the interview by muttering “la dee da, la dee da” and backing out of the room.
The oft-regurgitated story of how Annie Hall was originally a murder mystery is not mentioned, and in fact, is somewhat contradicted. Allen claims he had conceived of Annie Hall as an episodic journey through the mind of his character, and even filmed it that way, but in the editing room, he found a love story running through it that was more interesting. Tony Roberts and Marshall Brickman back this up.
When it comes to Interiors and Manhattan, it sticks mostly to the well-know trivia and established narrative. The most surprising insights come courtesy of Martin Scorsese, who delves into just how difficult, rare and unlikely radical departures like Interiors really are, and talks about how foreign Allen’s vision of New York in Manhattan is from his own.
On Manhattan, Allen once again speaks of his dissatisfaction with the movie, but I was disappointed that Weide couldn’t finally get Allen to divulge what, exactly, he hates about it so much. Brickman suggests Allen had envisioned it as far grander in scope and disliked that it emerged so modest.
Mariel Hemingway drops in and offers a take on Manhattan that drastically differs from my own. She views the movie not as a sad story of lonely people flailing in the darkness, but a sweet story about nice people in love. To hear her tell it, Manhattan could just as easily have starred Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn.
Hemingway also says that Allen directed her with incredible care and dedication, spending time with her outside of filming to help her understand her character and the city. This contrasts dramatically with the stories we hear in Part 2, in which Woody Allen is described as an aggressively hands-off director.
Weide also goes into how phenomenally popular Allen’s films were in this period, which is always fun to hear about. Manhattan was the Avengers of its day (or at least the Bridesmaids of its day), which is so difficult for anyone under 45 to imagine. Elder New Yorkers like Larry David and Martin Scorsese try to describe the feeling in New York at the time, and talk about the seismic shifts that would echo throughout the city whenever Allen released a movie in the late ‘70s.
Part 1 concludes with a fascinating look at one of Allen’s most controversial movies, Stardust Memories. The vitriol this movie received was legendary, which the documentary backs up by providing devastating quotes from critics like Rex Reed and Pauline Kael.
Fans and critics (and Allen had plenty of both) took it as a personal affront, which is understandable — it’s a movie about a famous comedy director who wants to start making more serious movies (which is exactly what Allen was at the time) whose critics and fans are grotesque, idiotic sycophants. I respect that there are subtle differences between Sandy Bates and Woody Allen, and that the movie is in no way literal, but when Allen says (as he does in this documentary), “I can’t understand why people thought that movie was about me,” he has his head buried very deep in some very thick sand.
In Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple could only be heard asking questions twice, and one of them was near the end, when she asked Allen’s mother Nettie if Allen based his films on his own life. Woody Allen: A Documentary is interested in that question too, and provides a definite answer: yes, he does, but don’t tell Woody Allen that.
After the riveting first half, Part 2 was bound to disappoint. It does, but in a way that probably has more to do with me than the movie. It picks up in 1982, meaning it has some of Allen’s most interesting and challenging movies to look at, but it’s less interested in discussing individual movies than in discussing Woody Allen in general — his outlooks, his techniques, his personal life. That’s all well and good, but the movie is more anecdotal than probing and investigative, so very little of it was new to me, nor is it likely to be new to you, if you’re a follower of Allen’s career.
Virtually all the factual tidbits about Allen’s movies from 1982-2010 revealed in this movie have already appeared on this blog. That’s not bragging (well, maybe it’s bragging a little bit), but rather a testament to how shallow this movie scratches the surfaces of some of the greatest American movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Part 2 is the shorter half, running just an hour and 20 minutes, and only around 45 of those minutes are dedicated to explicitly discussing the films.
It begins with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, which it mis-represents as a hugely popular slapstick comedy. Sex Comedy, with apologies to David K. Barnes, was a humorless, banal movie that Allen himself described as little more than a make-work project (he wrote it in two months and filmed in two weeks during the post-production process for Zelig). It also grossed even less than Stardust Memories, yet Woody Allen: A Documentary would have you believe it was the second coming of Annie Hall.
From there, it blazes through the rest of Allen’s career at lighting speed, as if Weide suddenly checked his watch and noticed how little time was left. With each film, it follows virtually the same formula: a clip is shown, a film critic (usually F.X. Sweeney or Leonard Maltin) gives a brief overview of the plot and a sentence on how it was received, a sentence or two from Allen on what he was going for and whether he liked the end result (usually not), and then an actor and/or a producer from that film offers up some trivia.
That said, it is fun revisiting these movies, even if the visits are brief and uninformative. I will admit that I even choked up a little at the clips from The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and her Sisters, out of context as they were. It definitely filled me with an urge to re-watch some of Allen’s classics. There’s also some fun to be had in catching up with actors we haven’t seen in a while, and putting a face to some of the names that keep appearing in the credits of one Woody Allen movie after another.
Amidst the familiar trivia, there are some true gems. For me, the Holy Grail of pop culture memorabilia is probably the abandoned footage of Michael Keaton in Jeff Daniels’ role in The Purple Rose of Cairo (with apologies to that missing reel from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons), and while this movie doesn’t have that, it does have the next best thing: pictures of it. It also has some clips of September’s fired cast, and a look at the woman that inspired Mia Farrow’s outlandish character in Broadway Danny Rose.
Radio Days, Another Woman, Alice, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Celebrity are never discussed, nor are any of Allen’s ‘00s movies other than Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. If forced to pick some movies to ignore, these are perfectly reasonable options, although there’s literally no Woody Allen movie I’d be uninterested in learning more about.
The most shocking omission is Husbands and Wives, which is discussed only in the context of the Farrow/Soon-Yi scandal. Neither the content nor technique of the film, nor Allen’s feelings on it, are ever addressed. That movie was doomed to be overshadowed by that scandal when it was released, and I guess it still is 20 years later.
My single biggest complaint about this documentary is that it spends too much time on You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight in Paris, a decision that is sure to date it — Weide wisely realizes that Allen’s early ‘00s movies are the ones people care about the least, but fails to realize Stranger will likely be joining them at the bottom 10 years from now. I stand by my claim that You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is possibly the least distinctive, least original movie Allen has ever made, yet in Part 2 it’s given more screentime than any other movie.
Woody Allen: A Documentary was filmed concurrently with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, so I suppose it’s understandable that it would feature it so heavily. Weide obviously desired to show Allen at work, and the only way he could do that was to show him at work on Stranger. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes looks at its filming and editing that are mildly interesting, but would be more at home on a You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger making-of featurette. Given this documentary’s resources and ambition, I would have preferred these scenes get excised in favor of more talk about Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors, or, really, any other movie.
As for The Scandal (you know the one), Woody Allen: A Documentary deals with it, of course, and I think it spends the exact right amount of time on it. It would be possible to dwell on it for hours, and I’m sure it was tempting to do so, but pretty much everything that could ever be said about it has already been said. This documentary provides a only a brief recap of the events.
Part 2’s funniest moment comes in a super-cut of people talking about well Allen is able to compartmentalize his life, and go on making movies while in the midst of tabloid hell and ugly custody fights. Weide strings together 10 people in a row saying “he’s very good at compartmentalizing his life” and ends it with Allen saying “I’m very good at compartmentalizing my life.”
Almost all of Allen’s notable contributors are present, but the one glaring exception is Mia Farrow. This is not a surprise, and I’m sure no one expected to see her. At times, though, her absence is very conspicuous.
Allen’s wife, Soon-Yi Previn, is also absent. As was the case with Allen’s parents, Wild Man Blues eclipses this movie’s insights into Allen’s personal life simply by virtue of having been able to document them together.
The rest of Part 2 is devoted to the quirks of Allen’s filmmaking. It goes over his secret script delivery system, his approach to directing (which is, basically, not directing at all), his disdain for rehearsals, his reputation for firing actors, his prioritization of Knicks games over filming, etc. There’s also an extended discussion of his prolific nature, and about how and why he’s able to make as many films as he does. Again, if you’re a big enough fan to be reading this blog, you’ve probably heard this stuff before.
At the end, there’s a too-lengthy overview of Midnight In Paris’ surprise success. It seems tacked on, probably because it was. It was also filmed amidst Midnight in Paris’ theatrical run, as opposed to after it, so it doesn’t even have the definitive numbers. Producer Stephen Tenenbaum talks about its success in vague terms and it shows an out-of-date screen-cap of BoxOfficeMojo.com while Allen shrugs his shoulders and basically says he doesn’t really know (or care) why some of his movies are popular and others are not.
Robert B. Weide is clearly a Woody Allen fan, and this movie was made for other fans. The tone is loving, verging on worshipful. None of the many criticisms leveled against Allen over the decades are addressed (outside of a brief acknowledgement from Leonard Maltin and Mariel Hemingway that he’s made ‘some clunkers’). Weide doesn’t invite anyone with any remotely harsh things to say about Allen, and doesn’t ask any tough questions. If he had levelled those tough questions, it’s unlikely he would’ve gotten any answers from Allen, but it might have been nice of him to try.
Please, though, don’t let my criticisms of its second half convince you that Woody Allen: A Documentary is anything but joyously entertaining. It won’t open your eyes or drop your jaw the way Wild Man Blues did, but it’s as brisk and fun as the best movies Woody Allen himself has made.
- The DVD has some pretty entertaining special features: an extended tour of Allen’s childhood neighborhood and some more small talk with Weide about dating, politics and things like that; a conversation with Woody about The New Yorker magazine; a hilarious story from Mariel Hemingway, who talks about how, in exchange for Allen having shown her Manhattan, she offered to return the favor by showing him Idaho, where she grew up (and he accepted); an interview of director Robert B. Weide where he talks about how and why he made the movie; a final, 45-second interview with Allen’s mother shortly before her death; and best of all, a hilarious mini-interview called 12 Questions for Woody Allen (which is also on YouTube).
- There was another documentary about Woody Allen’s life than Allen participated in — Woody Allen: A Life in Film from 2001. I didn’t review it, because I honestly did not know about it until now. It ran only 90 minutes and was written/directed by film critic Richard Schickel, who also appears in Woody Allen: A Documentary.
- Woody Allen: A Documentary claims that What’s New Pussycat was the most successful comedy ever at the time, although according to Wikipedia, it wasn’t even the most successful comedy of 1965.
- A condensed, two-hour version of this documentary was released into movie theatres in Europe.
- This is the second documentary Robert B. Weide has directed for PBS’ American Master series, the first one being about comedian Mort Sahl (of whom Allen is a fan).
- Strangely, this documentary was produced by Brett Ratner, director of the Rush Hour movies and the guy who got fired from directing the Oscars after proclaiming “rehearsals are for fags” at a press conference. He’d never produced any documentaries or worked with PBS before, so I’m not sure how he managed to get involved in this.