This is basically a transcript of a podcast segment (www.plotpoints.com) done about great writers we admire.
Imagine you're a genius.
You start life as a boy named Allan Stewart Konigsberg. At the age of 15, in 1950, you begin writing jokes and you never stop. You change your name to Woody Allen. By the time you're 27 you've written thousands of jokes and gags. According to some sources 20,000 in 1962 alone for the top comedians of the time. You also work for the Tonight Show and Candid Camera, with Larry Gelbart, Dick Cavett, Syd Caser - on and on with the best and brightest of that era. Because you're a genius at what makes people laugh.
And also because you work your ass off.
Dick Cavett said of Allen: "He can go to a typewriter after breakfast and sit there until the sun sets only interrupting work for coffee and a brief walk, and then spends the whole evening working. 15 to 18 hours at a time."
Given Woody Allen's work ethic, his incredible, seemingly natural wit, and his drive for perfection, the rest, as they say, is history.
Allen has written plays, screenplays, books, television movies, comedy albums, TV specials, a recent mini-series for Amazon, and articles, cartoons and captions for such luminary magazines as The New Yorker.
Woody Allen is the most nominated screenwriter in Oscar history. His films are legendary: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters. More recently, Match Point, Midnight in Paris, Cafe Society, and the soon-to-be-released Wonder Wheel.
He is the very definition of auteur. He is the writer, director and star of his films, active in the editing, choosing the soundtrack, initiating the projects and in many cases finding funding for his work.
He transferred his carefully crafted alter-ego, the nebishy everyman character from his early stand-up comedy days to his films, taking the lead role and delivering flawlessly both with self-deprecating humor and cutting wit.
From Annie Hall:
Annie Hall: It's so clean out here.
Alvy Singer: That's because they don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.
Allen's humor was topical, rarely political, certainly existential and philosophical - and just plain silly at times.
From Annie Hall again:
[Alvy has just killed two spiders]
Alvy Singer: I did it. I killed 'em both.
[Annie starts crying]
Alvy Singer: What's the matter? What are you sad about? What did you want me to do? Capture and rehabilitate 'em?
Allen's filmography is deep. Over 76 credits as a writer and hundreds as actor, director and producer. Except for one film, everything he's written he's directed.
A true Renaissance Man Allen is also a world-class clarinettist. He started young and has famously played in jazz clubs with legends while he was being nominated and winning Academy Awards. In other words, he doesn't go to the Oscars. He has never once shown up when he was nominated or to claim any of his awards.
In fact, his only appearance at the Oscars was in 2001 after the tragedy of 9-11. He came as an ambassador of his beloved New York City and in true Allen style he joked about it.
ALLEN: The phone rang and a voice on the other end said, this is the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. And I panicked immediately because I thought that they wanted their Oscars back and the pawn shop has been out of business for ages so I have no way of retrieving anything.
As mentioned, Allen is the most nominated screenwriter in Oscar history with 16 so far. He's won three Academy Awards for writing, one for directing.
He also has won nine BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards. )
His movies have received in total 53 nominations with 12 wins for various actors, producers, designers, etc.
Perhaps a little known fact is that Allen had his own TV show beginning in 1965, called The Woody Allen Show, where he would intersperse humor with interviews of famous people. On one episode, the politically liberal Allen and conservative icon William F. Buckley took questions from the audience. It's on YouTube and it's hilarious because Allen was (and still is) one of the most facile comedy minds in the business.
After the show was cancelled, in 1966, Allen tried his hand at plays, writing Don't Drink the Water. It was also adapted to film but not by Allen. He did eventually redo it himself in 1994 for television.
Play It Again, Sam was his next stage production - which he did eventually adapt for movies.
The Broadway and movie adaptation of Play It Again, Sam featured actress Diane Keaton who stated she was in awe of Allen and fell in love with him instantly. That would play out again over and over as he cast her in Sleeper, Love and Death, Interiors, Manhattan and in one of Allen's most critically-acclaimed and commercially successful films, Annie Hall.
The first film Allen wrote "What's New, Pussycat" inspired him to become a director because he didn't like the way it turned out. His first directorial effort was "What's Up, Tiger Lily" a Japanese spy film which Allen re-dubbed with his own dialogue. Truly brilliant and I'm not sure it's ever been done since.
Allen's writing style over the years has always involved experimental narrative styles. Play It Again, Sam - featuring a ghost, Annie Hall where Allen breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the camera and also the use of thought-bubble subtitles, The Purple Rose of Cairo which has Jeff Daniels coming out of the movie screen to woo Mia Farrow, even up to Midnight in Paris where the main character time shifts to different eras in Paris. And yet he does tell many stories linearly with traditional narrative methods like the underappreciated "Irrational Man" starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone.
None of these techniques ever feel jarring or precious in Woody's capable hands. Never mind that there is no explanation as to why Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris is able to travel in time - he just is and that serves the story well.
Allen, a one-man movie machine, would also occasionally collaborate with other writers like Mickey Rose and Marshall Brickman.
In fact, his most successful film collaboration was with Brickman who co-wrote Sleepers and the film that would begin Allen's true legacy, Annie Hall.
Brickman also co-wrote Manhattan, probably my favorite Woody Allen film although Woody thought it was terrible and would bomb. It didn't.
But it was Annie Hall that rocketed Allen into the Hollywood elite as a writer, director, and actor. He was red hot and achieving supernova status after the movie went to the top of the Oscars.
Annie Hall won four Academy Awards in 1977, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Diane Keaton, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director for Woody Allen. Woody was almost 40 when he achieved this milestone.
Like William Shakespeare who wrote comedies in his early life and then became a Jacobean disciple and wrote tragedies afterward, Allen's focus shifted.
He dropped the funny man act and started to channel his filmatic heroes, Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini. His world view turned darker, more existential - some liked this shift, most hated it.
Annie Hall was followed by the brooding Interiors which received split reviews. It was nominated for many awards but also lambasted by some of the biggest film critics of the time as being pretentious and plodding.
Then came Manhattan.
It's not a particularly happy film although it is very funny - but the cinematography and direction paints a beautiful black and white picture of the city that Allen adored. Allen loves to make big cities a character in his narratives. In later years Allen would shift his focus to London and Paris but in the 70's and 80's it was the Big Apple that held sway.
Manhattan's serio-comic storyline is of an older man falling in love with a much younger woman. Unfortunately, this is also somewhat a precursor to what became Allen's worst period in his life - more on that later.
Hannah And Her Sisters was written around this time of Allen's shifting focus - a great movie and a great success. Again, a combination of the humor he was known for and the tragedy leanings he was developing.
Allen's output never faltered but he struggled to find himself creatively during this time. Many pronounced him done. Over. Fini. His best years behind him. Still he continued to make small budget films, many times using the same cast and crew like the old legendary Hollywood directors.
Mia Farrow who would become a huge part of his life both personally and professionally took Diane Keaton's place as his leading lady doing 13 films with Allen.
In the 90's Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets Over Broadway marked a return of some of Allen's old form. He was back it seemed and enjoying good reviews and robust box office.
He was living with Mia Farrow at the time in a committed relationship and working hard on his quote/unquote comeback.
Farrow was at Allen's home one day and came across nude photos of her adopted daughter, 21-year-old Soon-Yi Previn. Farrow knew then that Allen was having an affair with Previn. A horribly bitter, very public scandal & breakup was the result.
Soon-Yi and Allen married in 1997, and have adopted two daughters but at the time it was headline news and people tore him to shreds for the perception and some of the reality of what he had done.
The negative publicity hurt Allen's career at a time when he was just finding his creative flow again. He stumbled a bit but recovered with strong films like Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine.
I have loved Allen's unique writing and perspective for many years and think he is a true genius. He's redefined film in so many ways bringing both hilarity and intelligent, accessible, deeper thought to the screen. I explored a lot of what I know about existentialism in film because of Woody Allen.
I also admire Woody's creative and intellectual courage. Here's a quote from him that sums it all:
If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.
I've heard something similar from other successful artists.
Following his own advice, Allen's had his wondrous successes and he's also had some fairly spectacular failures. Failing brilliantly is the way I see it.
Woody calls himself gloomy. He's admitted for many years to depression. He's stated that he sees no reason to be happy about anything and yet he continues to write movies like "Midnight In Paris" that ultimately have happy endings. I say he's an optimistic cynic. And that constant conflict inside of him is what makes his movies so damned accessible and endearing.
An acknowledged neurotic, in therapy for years, Allen has said he values very few of his films and has never re-watched them after their premiere. He struggles with the same issues all writers do - is it good enough, can I make it work - the litany of neuroses we as writers suffer is in full bloom with Woody even to this day. He's said of his recent foray into episodic television with Amazon studios (Crisis in Six Scenes) that "he took no joy in making it, he doesn't know if it will be any good and he doesn't care if people like it or not." To that I say bullshit - no writer as accomplished as Woody Allen dismisses criticism so cavalierly. He cares. Deeply. But he can also move on to whatever is next without much anxiety.
At the age of 81, Woody still explores, pokes, prods and rattles the doors and windows of the Universe for answers.
Woody Allen makes me laugh, tear up at times, and most importantly think. His explorations of meaning and mortality, our human failings, and frustrations at our inability to answer any of the big questions (with great humor) still resonate with me years after I've seen his films. They can be funny at times, frightening at times, but they are brilliant at all times, even in failure.
Woody may be a flawed human being, but you can bet he was the first one to say so to himself.
Quoting Groucho Marx, Woody has said, " I wouldn't want to be a part of any club that had me as a member."
Like all great writers, Allen's microscope is always turned inward at the ludicrous parts of himself but also focusing on the most glorious he can be while stumbling in that oft times darkness of our existence. By doing that, he opens us up to our own successes and failings; forces us to examine who we are at the same time we're watching as he and his characters, do the same.
Woody turns the mirror on himself but the reflection is of us - humanity, warts and all.
Through his work we learn to laugh at ourselves and to not take this life so seriously - unless we need to.
As Woody says: Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering. And it's over far too soon.
The good news is, although his last few films seem to be looking back, Woody is unable to slowdown and is moving forward as he always has. He's said, "If you focus on mortality, the house always wins." And he won't have any of that. It's my feeling that Woody has looked at the explanations of the afterlife, tried to parse all the great knowledge of the ages, come to no good conclusion, and decided to say" Screw it, I'm just going to make another movie."
Well, I hope Woody has at least another dozen films in him.
There's still a lot I need to learn...about myself.