BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Woody Allen is one of America’s most well-known and distinctive filmmakers, but he is also intensely elusive, a filmmaker who is private personally and professionally due to what one of his favorite actresses, Scarlett Johansson, calls a “crippling shyness.”
He rarely gives interviews even to promote his films, does not appear on talk shows and has turned down numerous requests by the film industry to be honored for his body of work or be given lifetime achievement awards.
But Allen has agreed to finally open up about his life and career for a two-part PBS “American Masters” documentary tentatively titled “Seriously Funny — The Comic Art of Woody Allen” which will debut Nov. 20 and 21. The documentary will feature vintage clips of Allen performing stand-up on variety shows in the 1960s, show him visiting his old New York neighborhood and showcase clips from several of his landmark movies, including “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Match Point.”
The special also comes as the 75-year-old filmmaker is enjoying his greatest recent success with “Midnight in Paris.”
Robert Weide, who produced the documentary and conducted several interviews with Allen, said it took persistence over several years to persuade Allen to give insight to his work, but he finally convinced him in 2008 that “it was time.” The project was highlighted Sunday at a panel discussion during the PBS portion of the Television Critics Assn. gathering in Beverly Hills.
“He can’t stand it,” said Weide of Allen as he referred to the filmmaker’s aversion to being the center of attention or to receive honors. If the Kennedy Center were to include him in their annual salute to artists, he might spend most of his time backstage “throwing up,” Weide said.
But Allen deserves to be recognized as the “quintessential independent filmmaker,” Weide said. “The people who finance his films don’t read his scripts, they don’t even get an outline. His thing is, he delivers his films on time and on budget, and no one can mess with that. This is the scam he’s had going on all this time.”
He’s also shown as an artist who is very specific and critical about his work. Using a grading system, “he says he’s made a couple of A’s, a few Bs, a few Cs and a lot of Ds and Fs,” Weide said. He counts “The Purple Rose of Cairo” as one of his favorite films, while downplaying more popular films such as “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”
Allen doesn’t give a lot of feedback or direction to his performers, said two actresses on the panel who have worked with him. Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of a troubled prostitute in “Mighty Aphrodite,” said he encouraged her to use the script only as a blueprint, and to use her instincts to flesh out her character.
“It was like being treated as an artist, not a craftsman,” she said. “It was very freeing and very terrifying.”
But in addition to acclaim, Allen’s personal life and relationships with women has also prompted criticism. His romance and eventual marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of former lover Mia Farrow, prompted a scandal that damaged his career.
The personal controversies “may have been detrimental for a while,” said Mariel Hemingway, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing the underage high schooler in love with Allen’s character in “Manhattan.” In that film, the couple were depicted as being very sexual.
“But he’s such a creative genius,” Hemingway said. “He’s an artist. That doesn’t mean he’s not an odd person, or makes choices we may not agree with.”