Woody Allen’s “Asian” Problem

2008-08-15 (Limited release)

While some critics suggest Woody Allen’s recent string of failures has to do with his age (as if Hitchcock, Ford, and others stopped making great films in their 70s) or psychic damage from his separation from Mia Farrow (though fugitive-from-justice Roman Polanski didn’t seem to have trouble making the Oscar-winning The Pianist), I believe it is because he refuses to acknowledge the presence of his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, in his films.

Allen is perhaps one of the most autobiographical and psychoanalytical of filmmakers. Though his plots vary widely in subject and theme, his most famous films — Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters — notably star his real-life wives and lovers. When he doesn’t appear in a film, Allen often makes his presence felt by turning other actors into versions of himself. For example, John Cusack donned Woodyesque glasses in Bullets Over Broadway and Jason Biggs played a Gen-X version of Woody in Anything Else. Even the glamorous Scarlett Johansson, as far removed from Neurosis Land as a blonde babe can be, wore glasses, stuttered, and turned into a female version of Woody in Scoop.

Since the scandal, separation, and his subsequent marriage to Previn, however, Allen has stopped making the type of film he became known for: introspective, serio-comic films ruminating on relationships. While Allen’s love for Diane Keaton and Farrow inspired him to create some of his greatest films, such as Sleeper, Love and Death, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, his current marriage has been accompanied by artistic disasters. If Allen has found some measure of personal happiness in his new relationship, then this predicament is all the more puzzling.

Why can’t Allen use Previn’s love to inspire him, the way he has done so often with his former lovers in the past? Unlike what he did with his second wife, Louise Lasser, and Keaton and Farrow, Allen has notably refused to cast Previn in any of his films, whether as a leading lady or even in a cameo role.

Though it’s true Previn has little or no acting experience, I believe Allen could have groomed her for stardom in the way Howard Hawks did for Lauren Bacall or Harry Cohn did for Kim Novak. Ironically, Previn’s only significant appearance on film was in a documentary about Woody’s jazz tour, Wild Man Blues, a film directed by Barbara Kopple. Playing herself, Previn seemed fully at ease in front of the camera and her glowing presence led me to speculate on what might have been.

Even if she lacked the skill to be an actress, Allen could have paid homage to her by casting an Asian actress as her stand-in, in the tradition of the “Woody persona”. But Allen has never done this. Why? The answer, I believe, has to do with race.

As Allen’s first-ever Asian Muse, Previn could be considered problematic for a filmmaker whose vision of New York City is almost exclusively populated by people like himself. Blacks and other minorities have long protested Allen’s New York — an antiseptic city in which middle- and upper-class white intelligentsia debate the meaning of life from the windows of the priciest Manhattan real estate. Asians don’t really exist in Allen’s cinematic world except as food deliverymen, or as quaint, ethereal figures dispensing Oriental wisdom (for example, the mystical Chinese herbalist advising Farrow in Alice). While Allen temporarily transforms himself into a Chinese in Zelig, this impersonation was presented more as a special effect, just one more band in his rainbow commentary on the history of Jewish assimilation.

In this respect, Allen isn’t alone. Hollywood has rarely offered Asians opportunities to be anything other than karate heroes, geishas, wartime prostitutes, or sinister “yellow peril” villains. Even the most famous Asian stars today, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu, are often cast in action adventure tales, video game-like creatures whose exploits don’t have to be taken seriously. To see an Asian in a thought-provoking, mainstream film that didn’t involve karate in some way is as rare as seeing a panda have sex. Is it any wonder, then, that Allen would have hesitated at the thought of giving Previn a role that asks his audience to accept her as a typical Allen heroine, angst-ridden, neurotic, and wondering about the meaning of life?

Unwilling to use her, then, as a muse, Allen has instead turned to a parade of bottle blondes, with Johansson presented as the latest incarnation of that Western ideal of beauty, the flaxen-haired temptress. Judging by the frequency of her appearances, some might suspect that Allen is having an affair with her. But I doubt it. If he were, his films with her would be much more successful, given his history. The fact that most of his post-Farrow films continue to be artistically disappointing suggests that Allen is using a fantasy blonde as inspiration, rather than falling back on his confessional style and reflecting on what is really going on in his marriage to a young, dark-haired Asian lady.

Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn in Wild Man Blues (1997)

Despite her physical absence, however, I believe Previn has left an impression on Allen’s films. The movie that began his trail of disasters was The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, a title whose irony doesn’t escape me. Could Previn be considered the curse of this great director? After this bomb, the next “Asian” reference to pop up was the Chinese cameraman in Hollywood Ending who serves as a seeing-eye dog for the comically blind Allen on the set of his film. Is the director saying, in effect, that love is blind, and that Previn will, like the stereotypical dragon lady, lead him to his demise?

Has being in an interracial relationship changed Allen? I’m tempted to see Previn’s influence in Allen’s decision to cast a black actor as Chloë Sevigny’s love interest in Melinda and Melinda. Some critics were taken aback and praised Allen for this casting choice, as if it was revolutionary for a 70-something auteur to acknowledge that interracial love affairs exist, even though he is in one himself.

Perhaps the only direct allusion Allen has made regarding Previn has been in his portrayal of an older man/younger woman relationship. After Helen Hunt was cast as his love interest in Jade Scorpion, many critics criticized the pairing of the two, suggesting that Allen stop playing the Dirty Old Man and cast women closer to his age. Taking the hint, Allen has not depicted a May-December romance in his last few films, preferring instead to cast 20- and 30-somethings as the stars and occasionally taking a minor role, like the avuncular friend advising Jason Biggs in Anything Else.

What remains clear to me, however, is that the depth of feeling that once energized Allen’s introspective films is gone. In its stead are gimmicky, one-dimensional exercises about murder and infidelity. Traveling to London for a trio of disappointing films (even Match Point had fiery detractors, especially from British film critics) and then Spain for his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen appears to be literally fleeing from his Asian Connection and embracing Europe, and Europeans, with renewed zeal.

To reinvigorate his career, I believe Allen needs to go back to the formula that served him so well: his passion for looking inward and using himself and his love affairs for material. Since he’s an artist whose strongest work has always been autobiographical in some way, I have a hard time believing he’ll ever be successful making a film about people totally unlike himself.

But why couldn’t Allen challenge himself? With China leading a renewed appreciation for everything Asian, the famed director could actually make himself hip again by alluding to his Asian love. Instead of running around like a tourist, he could join the global film industry in a meaningful way by making a contemporary film that reflects upon his interracial marriage and all the issues that this relationship brings up. I would love to see him cast Previn in an updated version of Annie Hall. Why not have her as a spunky, Asian-American girl from SoHo who falls for an older, neurotic filmmaker struggling to update his cinematic style to reflect the vibrant, multicultural city that is New York? Now that’s a film I’d love to see.

Jennifer Tang is an assistant professor at Hostos Community College, CUNY. Her articles have appeared in Newsweek, the L.A. Times, Newsday, and Fitness. She is also co-director of a film discussion group, ReelTalkNYC.