CHICAGO — Before he made movies — “Magic in the Moonlight” is his 44th film as director in 48 years — Woody Allen worked as a gag writer, then a television writer, then a stand-up comic. Here’s a Chicago Tribune item from the July 31, 1963, Tower Ticker column. In the parlance of the day columnist Herb Lyon spoke of actresses not as emoters, but “she-moters,” and referred to female vocalists as “thrushes.”
“The current Mister Kelly’s show,” he wrote, “with rising young comic Woody Allen and thrush Nancy Wilson, is the town’s sleeper. Big business nightly and rightly so. It’s great…P.P.S.: Trade giggle of the week is clever Woody, who fell asleep smack in the middle of one of those TV panels talk shows the other night.”
Magic in the Moonlight
Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Simon McBurney, Jacki Weaver
(US theatrical: 25 Jul 2014 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 19 Sep 2014 (General release); 2014)
The one-time rising young comic and I are in the private room behind the main room at NoMI restaurant at the downtown Park Hyatt. I’m looking at the top of Allen’s head, gray and unruly, as he looks over the newspaper clipping.
“Yes, that’s true. I remember.” Now 78, Allen speaks in a steady, unhurried rhythm, with a faint reminder of the joke-slinger he used to be. “It was Irv Kupcinet’s show. I sort of closed my eyes, and it was … it was ... a sleep-related gesture, I suppose. I guess I was tired from the night life. When I came to Chicago I always had a strong night life, ‘cause I had friends here. After my late show at Mister Kelly’s, they’d take me out for ribs someplace, and we’d go to someone’s house, and wind up at (Hugh) Hefner’s mansion at 2 o’clock in the morning. I’d play pool and sit around there with other show business people ‘til 4. And then go home to the Astor Tower, where I stayed. The hotel next to the Astor Tower, what was that called?”
The Ambassador East, I say. “The Ambassador East, right. I’d already checked into the Ambassador, and Warren Beatty was in town, making ‘Mickey One’ with Arthur Penn. He called me and said, ‘They just built a hotel next door, and you’ve gotta check in here, it’s great. It’s all glass and the views are sensational.’ So I did. I checked out, and checked into the Astor Tower, and stayed there on and off for the next 15 years or so. I loved it. I wrote my play ‘Play It Again, Sam’ there. The room service was from Maxim’s downstairs. I had a lot of great times there.”
By that time Allen was living with future wife No. 2, Louise Lasser, a vocalist and actress. From a 1964 Tower Ticker column: “Arthur Godfrey and friends popped in on hot comic Woody Allen at Mister Kelly’s late show and flipped; but poor Woody later timidly told Arthur, ‘Man, did you make me nervous just being there!’...Woody’s talented fiancee, thrush Louise Lasser, scored so sharply at the Happy Medium Downstage room, she’s being held over or two more weeks — and Woody has to head back to New York tomorrow without her. Ah, show biz.”
“Magic in the Moonlight” is Allen’s latest showbiz venture, a period comedy set among Jazz Age Cote d’Azur swells. It’s about a hard-headed illusionist, played by Colin Firth, out to debunk a spiritualist, played by Emma Stone. Allen is making a rare Chicago appearance in promotion of the film, primarily because a key investor in “Magic and the Moonlight,” Ronald L. Chez of Merriman Capital, Inc., lives here. Chez tells me he put $9 million in the movie, approximately half its budget. He’s committed for $20 million or so more across Allen’s next three projects. “Say nice things about Woody,” Chez instructs. “He’s a nice man.”
Obliquely, he’s referring to Allen’s recent and most damning news cycle. Earlier this year, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow accused Allen of molesting her when she was 7, during which time Allen and Mia Farrow were involved. Allen answered the charges in a New York Times piece, declaring himself innocent and the matter finished. Since 1997 Allen has been married to Soon-Yi Previn, also an adopted daughter of Mia Farrow’s, from her relationship with Andre Previn.
To anyone who asks Allen about the Dylan Farrow accusations, he has a simple retort: “Google it,” he says. “I’m done.”
Googling it, of course, brings up a maelstrom of contradictory opinion regarding Woody Allen and his off-screen life. “I wouldn’t know,” he says, “I never Googled anything in my life. I’m not a technology person. I don’t have a word processor. I type on a typewriter. I don’t Google. I don’t text. I don’t know that whole world. I only know that anything I have to say on the subject, I said. It’s readable somewhere in the ether.”
These days Allen makes a film a year, shooting out of New York during the summertime, so his wife and their two children can accompany him to Paris (“Midnight in Paris”) or Rome (“To Rome With Love”) or San Francisco (“Blue Jasmine”). He filmed “Magic in the Moonlight” last summer, primarily in the South of France. The supporting cast includes Simon McBurney, of the London-based theater troupe Complicite.
“Very, very, very private” is how McBurney describes Allen. “But very, very smart. It was raining one day on the set and I said, ‘So, Woody, how’s it going? And he said, ‘I have no idea! I have no idea! I’m just trying to stay one step ahead of everybody. I’m just the guy who goes fishing, and when he goes home he finds out what he’s caught.’ He’s constantly revealing another aspect of himself in all of his movies. That’s what you do as an artist. Your own self is your reservoir.”
Eileen Atkins, who plays the Firth character’s aunt, says she found Allen “absolutely enchanting, which I didn’t expect to. He’s the only person whose work I’ve consistently enjoyed throughout his life. We all know some of it’s better than others, but you still say: That was bloody good.”
Magic, fakery and the illusionist’s game have provided Allen with a lifelong theme, on stage (“The Floating Light Bulb”) and many times on screen. When he was kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen was “not an illusionist, I was a sleight-of-hand person. Illusions would’ve been too expensive for me to buy. I could buy some tricks, you know, that were $5, $10 — trick milk pitchers, linking rings, things like that. I couldn’t afford a guillotine or sawing a woman in half. Those were $150. So I got interested in sleight-of-hand. I used to buy books a lot, and I worked with cards, silk handkerchiefs, billiard balls, cigarettes, coins, I set up a three-way mirror and practiced diligently, all the time, isolated. Some of that stuff never leaves you.”
Look at any five Allen films, and it’s clear he’s a shameless nostalgist, seduced by illusions of the past. If he weren’t three weeks into filming on his new, untitled project, a serious-ish drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone set in Newport, R.I., Allen says he’d be tempted to hang around Chicago a day or two.
He was last here, by his reckoning, in 2000 on a promotional tour for “Small Time Crooks.” “I remember my wife and daughters going down to the beach from the hotel, and I went looking for all the old spots where I used to hang out. And not finding a lot of them.”
Mister Kelly’s is long gone, of course. “(Those) were very, very good years, with all the comedians and singers in town. Downtown at the London House, you had Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck. And Hefner attracted an enormous amount of show business people to the mansion ‘cause the girls were so beautiful and abundant there.”
He can’t help but sound like Woody Allen when says something like that. “Chicago was a late-night town, and it was a very good era, but you don’t know it at the time, when you’re going through it. You never think: ‘I’m living in an era, and someday I’ll be looking back at this.’ And missing it.”