[19 June 2009]
Woody Allen needs no introduction. Love him or hate him, he’s been making movies since 1966 and has been a major factor in our cultural consciousness.
His latest, “Whatever Works,” teams his celebrated neurotic persona with the irascible Larry David, of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Q. You originally wrote the script for Zero Mostel, your co-star in “The Front” (1976). Why?
A. He had a big bravura personality and was enormously cultivated, had a tremendous knowledge of art and music and science and literature and was amusingly pedantic and opinionated and a fun character. So I thought it would be great to get that into a movie. But Zero died and I put the script into a drawer.
Q. What got you to take it out?
A. There was an imminent actors’ strike, so people were rushing to make films in the spring rather than summer. If I had waited till summer I might have written a completely different script from scratch.
Q. Why Larry David?
A. He’s believable to me as an intellectual, as a guy who would know physics, who was cultivated, who’d be sardonic and opinionated and really very taken with himself. And, as Zero was, insecure underneath. Also, both of them could both play this kind of character, as Larry does on his television show, and there was still something about them that was vulnerable and likable. Some people can get away with that — Groucho Marx, for example, could insult you, insult you, and you were insulted if he didn’t insult you. Certain people just have that quality. I am not one of them.
Q. David’s character, Boris Yellnikoff, is sort of an Allen anomaly, no? He’s downwardly mobile, and his cynicism is self-destructive.
A. First off, I never consider these people cynical: I consider them realistic. I will say that I do agree completely that too much realism is self-destructive.
Q. “Whatever Works” has some terrific performances. What’s your secret?
A. People think I’m facetious when I say this, but you hire great people and get out of their way. I try and talk to them as little as possible, tell them they’re free to change my lines, drop the lines they hate, give them complete freedom and only intervene if they do something that’s clearly counterproductive to the project. I correct more than direct.
MOM, DAD, THEIR LITTLE RUNAWAY AND A GEEZER
In “Whatever Works,” Larry David plays Woody Allen-esque curmudgeon Boris Yellnikoff, former physics professor and self-admitted genius who meets a thick-witted Southern-fried teenage runaway and has his worldview upended.
Evan Rachel Wood plays Melody, whom Boris finds outside his apartment one night and ends up marrying; Patricia Clarkson is Melody’s mother, who arrives in New York a fundamentalist prig and is quickly transformed by Manhattan into an artist and libertine. And Ed Begley Jr. is Dad, who arrives on the scene and doesn’t know where anyone is going, including himself.
In the process of making the film, Allen revised a 30-year-old screenplay. “I was able to make reference to Obama and do some updates,” Allen said, “but basically the idea that intrigued me was about a guy married to a runaway and suddenly her mother shows up, and she’s the exact opposite of the guy, and hates the guy, and there’s immediate conflict. Then the father shows up.”
ACTORS WHO HAVE PLAYED THE ‘WOODY ALLEN ROLE’
Woody Allen has been gradually been moving out of the center ring of his own movies, with his last real starring role having been in 2002’s “Hollywood Ending.” Long before that, however, various actors have been seen as playing the Woody Role, although the director doesn’t necessarily agree with that take.
“I can’t see that,” he said. “For instance, ‘Match Point,’ to use an extreme example, there’s nothing there I could have played. Jonathan Rhys Myers or Matthew Goode couldn’t have surrogated for me.
“The same with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor in ‘Cassandra’s Dream.’ Or Javier Bardem in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”“
But in the straight comedies, there has been a succession of Woodys, some of who have even adopted an Allen-esque delivery, including:
John Cusack — “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994)
Kenneth Branagh — “Celebrity” (1998)
Jason Biggs — “Anything Else” (2003)
Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine — “Melinda and Melinda” (2005).