A Guide to the Lesser Woody Allen Films

by Michael Buening

20 December 2006

The Film Forum has programmed a full-scale Woody Allen retrospective titled "Essentially Woody" featuring all the movies you've already seen. So, Buening provides a brief guide to all the Woody Allen films you didn't know existed.

Film Forum Presents: Essentially Woody (22 December 2006 – 11 January 2007)

The Living Ones Want Their Life Fiction, and the Fiction Ones Want Their Life Real.
The Purple Rose of Cairo

Deep into the holiday season, the Film Forum has programmed a full-scale Woody Allen retrospective titled “Essentially Woody.” Since it will feature all the movies you’ve already seen, along with all the movies you’ve been meaning to see, I’m providing a brief guide to all the Woody Allen films you didn’t know existed.

Here’s Looking at You, Yid (1968)
Blake Edwards’ sophomoric and borderline offensive film, shot during Allen’s “lost weekend” at Sardi’s, stars Anita Ekberg as a busty femme fatale lusted after by two hippie Borscht Belt comedians (Allen and Jon Voight). Despite a Grammy-winning score by Barry Manilow, one wishes the sole surviving print had stayed in Jacques Derrida’s basement, where it was unexpectedly rediscovered beneath a pile of deconstructed Hustlers.

Doughnuts (1970)
Flush from the success of his first directorial effort, Take the Money And Run, Allen cranked out a series of sketches crudely held together by the story of a nervous young man (Allen) who is drafted into the Salvation Army. The story doesn’t make much sense, but who cares? Of special interest to cinephiles is the use of the Three Stooges and Sam Peckinpah as primary inspirations. The violence is shocking and gratuitous.

Tender is the Tender (1976)
Allen cements the silly but smart character and filmmaking style he developed with Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask), Sleeper, and Love and Death. Depending on whom you ask, this is either a Freudian riff on Deep Throat or a musical homage to Dostoyevsky. Allen plays a boy who wants love but isn’t very serious about it. Louise Lasser plays his love interest, but leaves after the first act, deciding she would much rather work in television. Diane Keaton replaces her and everyone agrees she at least smells funny. Though he was no Gordon Willis, David M. Walsh creates classic comedic imagery in a deceptively nuanced style and one can’t think but that his contributions to Allen’s early work have been underappreciated. The music consists of Jelly Roll Morton standards played by R. Crumb, during his “Woody Allen phase,” on the kazoo.

Annie Keaton (1977)
Allen and collaborator Marshall Brickman originally conceived Annie Keaton as “The Hundred Years War in the Year 3000,” but after cutting the space battles, they discovered they had written a sophisticated romantic comedy. Halfway through shooting, they changed the location from Venus to Manhattan and rewrote Keaton’s character from a fur-covered she-bat to a neurotic art curator. Allen was nominated for 15 Academy Awards, but couldn’t attend the ceremony, held in New York that year, because he was stuck in Los Angeles. He didn’t win an Oscar, and the film would later be overshadowed by Annie Hall. Still, Annie Keaton shows the development of the neurotic character that would be known as “Woody Allen.” He shows increasing cinematic sophistication, assembling performances, visuals, and sound into a mature and delicate whole. The movie also marks a momentous change in Allen’s production crew. After “accidentally” swapping the original credits font with Windsor Elongated, editor Ralph Rosenblum was replaced by Susan Morse. The credits were left in place, however, when Morse couldn’t figure out how the “damned” machine worked.

Cries and Mewlings (1981)
Allen decided to indulge his passion for death with this dirge about a depressed director whose mother (Uta Hagen) goes insane and burns his final cut clause. The critics didn’t understand “what got into him,” complaining that he was “acting moody all the time.” The director was roundly criticized for making the sort of film he used to mock. Referring to the earlier, similarly maligned Stardust Memories, Allen would later complain to Stig Bjorkman, “They thought the lead character was me! Not a fictional character, but me, and that I was expressing hostility toward my audience.”

Depression Blues (1986)
Contrary to its misleading title, this is an affectionate look at Allen’s upbringing in Brooklyn, where he wrote for Your Show of Shows and a Teutonic action hero climbed out of a movie screen and took him on an adventure. None of this ever happened, but this nostalgic universe is so lovingly rendered that few complain. This and future period pieces like Radio Days and Bullets Over Broadway will come to seem like reliably well-constructed and pleasurable distractions from his harder edged society dramas. In this past the supposedly corrupting and deadening influences of television, rock n’ roll, and Park Avenue are not around to be complained about.

Divorce, Upper East Side Style (1992)
Typical of Allen’s mid-late period resurgence, the film focuses on a sweet housewife (Mia Farrow), married to a rich jerk (Michael Douglas). DP Carlo DiPalmi’s distinctive documentary-like style approximates the characters’ neurotic uncertainties, although DiPalmi later claimed he was just drinking a lot of coffee at the time. The cast was culled from the masthead of The New York Review of Books, interpreted by many as Allen’s bid to be featured in their annual “Sex, God and Death” issue, a charge he denied. Others drew parallels between the film and Allen’s scandalous personal life. Was he as unfaithful as his character? He told Bjorkman, “You know, I’ve never been the character I played.”

Deconstructing Harry (1997)
In the ‘90s, Allen’s films drifted into sameness (jazz agey pieces, murder mysteries, and heist flick spoofs). This brutal departure dissects a bitter old writer named Harry, a character blurring distinctions between Allen’s image and his comic creations. Combining a road trip and a psychological portrait, the movie grasps at a style until grasping seems the style. The cast is made up of co-conspirators from the past, including Mariel Hemingway and Judy Davis, with Billy Crystal as the devil. It seems as if Allen is crying out: “I can’t function well in life, but I can in art.” The anger and nihilism here feel dangerous. Some critics praised the film, others dismissed its self-hating “Woody Allen.” It may be the last great film he’ll ever make.

The Thinnest Man (2002)
By the time The Thinnest Man was released, Allen’s films were making less money and he was forced to let go long time crew members like Morse. Since then, his movies have had less technical polish and they don’t seem as authentic. He now looks fragile, like he’s played too many characters. Here he plays another character named “Woody Allen”, whose shtick is wearing thin. He also solves crimes with a girl (Thora Birch) roughly one quarter his age. The occasional one-liner hits and behind his black-rimmed glasses, you can occasionally detect the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Critics still complain that they miss his earlier, “less ha-ha funny” films. The “Allen” character is also played by Jason Alexander, Nora Ephron, Sylvester Stallone, the New York Philharmonic, and Haley Joel Osment. Everyone agrees, Allen’s voice sounds most natural coming from the original man. In the final scene, he dances with Death down Fifth Avenue, an utterly implausible bit of fiction.

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