The prospect of interviewing Woody Allen seems daunting—how do you talk to the man who virtually invented the art of witty conversation in American movies? You brace yourself for disappointment, and not just because meeting an icon in the flesh can be deflating. For ages we’ve complained that Woody Allen films— like Saturday Night Live or the Rolling Stones—are not what they used to be. Allen abdicated his role as a wry moralist when he ditched Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, while Husbands and Wives (1992), a movie that echoed the scandal with grisly timing, was his last excoriating look at relationships.
Since then, like a compulsive vaudevillian trying to win back our affections, Woody has been dancing as fast he can, with a prolific output of stylish confections and zany farces: Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown, Small Time Crooks and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Nine movies in eight years—and not a single smart comedy about love in the real world. But when he makes us laugh, all is briefly forgiven.
Allen’s latest offering, Hollywood Ending, is another light comedy and it’s funny— for a while. At least it’s not icky. Instead of playing another neurotic creep with a weakness for hookers or students, Woody sends up his role as a neurotic auteur at odds with Hollywood. He plays Val Waxman, an Oscar-winning American director whose career has seen better days. Vais ex-wife, Ellie (Téa Leoni), who dumped him for a slick studio head named Hal (Treat Williams), is producing a remake of a ’40s movie set in Manhattan. And, against everyone’s better judgment, she persuades Hal to hire her ex. “Who better to direct this?” she says. “The streets of New York are in his marrow.” Maybe so, but Val chooses an art director who wants to rebuild Central Park in a studio, and a Chinese cameraman who speaks no English. And when Val comes down with a case of psychosomatic blindness, his artistic vision becomes the movie’s central joke.
When we first glimpse Woody’s character, he’s shooting a deodorant commercial in Canada, wearing a parka in a blizzard. “I can’t stand it here,” he stammers. “They
got moose up here. Are moose carnivores?” Then, beating the caricature to a pulp, Val comes home to Manhattan and pulls out a couple of pelts he got in a trade with a trapper. It’s weird to see this fakesnow blast of Canuck cliché in a Woody Allen movie. And his character’s name, Val Waxman—is it a homage to the late Canadian actor Al Waxman? Is Hollywood Ending inlaid with a sophisticated ironic subtext about the Great White North as Hollywood’s backlot?
When I arrive at Toronto’s elegant Windsor Arms Hotel, Allen is lunching in the dining room as Ella Fitzgerald sings The Lady is a Tramp on the sound system. It’s as if he’s still in New York, carrying Man-
hattan with him wherever he goes, like an aura. Later, the 66-year-old filmmaker shows up at the interview suite, a pale figure in a beige jacket, red cashmere sweater, tan cords and gleaming brown shoes. His handshake is soft and fragile.
It’s Allen’s first trip to Canada. “I’ve never been close to Canada,” he says. “I’ve never been to upstate New York even. I’ve been hearing complaints from people in California who say everyone is going to make their films in Canada because the shooting conditions are user-friendly. People have said that Toronto is like New York.” But by depicting his Hollywood Ending character in a snowstorm, he adds, “I wasn’t thinking of Toronto. I was thinking more like Saskatchewan. I was thinking of the wilds, Eskimo country, because that’s funnier. I wanted to bury the guy up in the woods where there are moose and everything— some place where it was no fun to make a film and juxtapose it with people sitting around a pool in Los Angeles.”
So much for the sophisticated ironic subtext. But what about Al Waxman? Allen looks baffled. “I’ve never heard of Al Waxman.”
Fine. But why after all these years, has Woody come to Canada? He shrugs. “They always map out a little tour of places I’m supposed to go, and I always say there are some cities you should really send me that I’ve never been to. So they finally sent
me here.” Allen hates travelling. “I don’t like to be in strange hotels and strange cities. I’m forever thinking what if my appendix bursts and I’m in Bangkok or some variation of that.” But Soon-Yi (who’s shopping up the street at Roots) “gets me out of the house. I go to Europe and these places because she really likes it. The whole family always travels ensemble. Today I came here with two nannies and two kids.” Suddenly Woody is everywhere. He appeared at the Oscars for the first time ever, and in mid-May he makes his first visit to the Cannes Film Festival, which opens with Hollywood Ending. So is the studio pushing him harder to promote his movies? “No,” he says. “There’s some pseudo-science that the studio has of how
to open a film. They’re always figuring these things out as if it were physics, and then they lose money With all their market research, and sending me various places, it doesn’t make any difference.” Among American directors working with Hollywood money, Allen has a unique level of independence. His deal with DreamWorks allows him to script and direct a movie without a shred of interference. Studio executives don’t even know what they’re getting until it’s finished. “The only thing that keeps me working is France,” says Allen, suppressing a laugh at the mere idea of France. “Europe in general has been very good to me. And my films don’t cost a lot of money Even when they lose, which they do frequently they don’t lose that much money”
Like Val in Hollywood Ending, Allen has been on a losing streak with audiences and critics. But, he says, “I’m much more stable than the character in the movie. I’ve never been fired for not completing a picture, or had major budget problems. I’m not a hypochondriac.” Not a hypochondriac? “No, I’m an alarmist. I don’t imagine that I’m sick when I’m not. But if I wake up in the morning with chapped lips or a hangnail, I think it’s a brain tumour.” Contracted, perhaps, from splitting hairs.
Allen does share his character’s disdain for Hollywood movies. Asked to list his favourite recent films, every title he came
up with was foreign—The Taste of Others, Amores perros, Y tu mamá también and Sunshine. When pressed for an American title, he digs back two years and comes up with You Can Count on Me. “American films just don’t engage your interest as an adult,” he says. “I don’t mean an intellectual adult, just a common-sense adult. They’re silly, dumb, middle-of-the-road, uninspired films for the most part.”
Of course, some critics find his own work lacking substance these days. And when I suggest that it’s been over a decade since he’s made a serious comedy like Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors, he says, “Those are the things that really come easiest to me. It’s hard to get good out-and-out comedy premises. But relationships, there are many different aspects that lend themselves to stories.” His next film, he promises, “doesn’t have an overall comic premise like Hollywood Ending, and it does have a very serious undercurrent.” He starts shooting it in June, and all he’ll say is that “it’s a character comedy, it’s contemporary, and it stars Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, myself, Danny DeVito and Glenn Close.”
Sitting across from Woody Allen, it’s easy to accept what he always insists is true: that, contrary to popular belief, he’s very different from the character he plays onscreen. Though shy and soft-spoken, he exudes confidence. He’s thoughtful and articulate; he doesn’t stammer or whine. So why then does he always cast himself as a dithering nebbish? “Well, I’m trying to be funny and I have a very limited range as an actor. I could never play Chekhov or 99 per cent of the things Dustin Hoffman could play. But the two things I can do is play that character and a low-life griffer, for some reason. I’m not an intellectual—but I’m believable as an intellectual because of my height and my glasses. I guess I fall back on what I’ve seen other comedians do, whether it’s Bob Hope or Charlie Chaplin, to always be cowardly, and dreaming grandiose schemes that are ludicrous, and lusting after women you can’t have.”
Speaking of women, I segue to Soon-Yi and expect him to flinch. Instead, he seems warmed by the subject. “I’ve been married for, I guess, four years, and it’s been wonderful. I wish it had happened much earlier in my life. I don’t know if it could have. To have [two adopted] chil-
dren and a wife at this stage is great, because I can afford it and I can educate them and bring them up well. So I’m having a wonderful time, but with it comes the anxiety that it’s going to end suddenly in some catastrophic way. That I’m going to get hit by a streetcar.”
For someone so notoriously concerned about his own mortality, isn’t there something poignant about him being more than twice as old as his wife? “There is, but interestingly enough, it’s the thing that makes it work. The age difference makes it work very, very well. There’s a paternal sense, a sense of wanting to do something for somebody else. The downside is, if I say ‘John Foster Dulles’ or something, she’ll say, ‘Who?’ It doesn’t even have to be John Foster Dulles. It can be Ava Gardner. She’ll say, ‘Who’s Ava Gardner?’ So there it becomes very poignant.”
But Soon-Yi is now 31, and the taboo romance has grown up into a nuclear family. Which may explain why he’s stopped making serious comedies about sexual morality and personal angst. The worlds most notorious consumer of psychoanalysis has even stopped his therapy. “When I started going with Soon-Yi,” he recalls, “some kind of burden lifted from me, some kind of anxious feeling, and I just stopped and never returned.
“I’ve always felt this about psychoanalysis. I’m a bad clarinet player, and I once brought my clarinet in to have it overhauled because the pads were getting rotten and the springs were no good. The guy did a beautiful job, and I came back and said to him, ‘Will I play better now?’ And he said, ‘Yes, but not as much as you’d like to.’ That’s the exact same thing with psychoanalysis. One hopes it’s going to solve all your problems, and it doesn’t really solve any of them, but it does help.” Meanwhile, Allen is slowly losing his hearing. “I can hear but I don’t have the same animal acuity I had when I was younger,” he says. “My father was over 100 when he died and my mother was over 93, and they never had hearing aids. So I’m hoping I can stretch it out as long as I can without having to do this while you’re talking to me.” He mimes turning up a hearing aid and grins. You can see the dark flicker of an idea—a movie about a master of witty dialogue going deaf might be even funnier than one about a visionary director going blind. El
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