By James Hancock August 4th, 2015
He may have been born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in 1935, but Woody Allen at 79 is an internationally beloved filmmaker with over 50 films to his credit along with 24 Academy Award nominations. For someone as notoriously shy as Woody Allen, he has become one of the most recognizable directors in movie history and for decades has managed to make one film per year, accumulating an enormous body of work that for young cinephiles must seem as intimidating as the sight of the First Folio of Plays by Shakespeare. With so many films to choose from, his admirers have made a sport out of discussing which movies they feel are his strongest and they tend to select from anything Woody Allen made the period of Annie Hall (1977) to his more recent work like Blue Jasmine (2013). Woody Allen’s admirers love his intelligence, his obsessions with psychoanalysis, sex and human relationships, and his devotion to filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman. The movies speak for themselves with my favorites including but not limited to: Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Husbands and Wives (1992), Bullets of Broadway (1994), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), & Midnight in Paris (2011). Most directors are lucky if they manage to put together even one brief hot streak of quality work but as an artist Woody Allen has never stopped evolving and managed to stay relevant throughout his entire career. But the period that too often gets overlooked, often referred to as trivial, is everything he did in his career prior to Annie Hall, a period that all by itself would rank him alongside some of the funniest men in history like Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Mel Brooks. If Woody Allen had never made another movie after 1975, I feel his supposedly trivial period would be looked at today as a goldmine of comedy classics that has rarely if ever been equaled since their release.
What people often forget is that Woody Allen had a successful career as a writer and comedian long before he ever dabbled in making movies. At age 15, Allen Stewart Konigsberg made the switch to ‘Woody’ permanently and started sending out samples of his jokes to writers. By 19 he was writing full-time, working for legends like Sid Caesar as well as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. In 1962 alone, Woody estimated that he had written over 20,000 jokes for other comedians. Urged by his manager Jack Rollins to go on stage, Woody spent most of the 1960s working as a comedian. Although he was admittedly terrible at first, he rapidly improved and conquered Manhattan’s Greenwich Village with regular appearances at the Bitter End. Woody soon appeared on television doing anything from his regular act to sparring with kangaroos. Talk show hosts like Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson loved having him as a guest. Woody Allen guest hosted The Tonight Show three times and eventually had his own show where he famously interviewed/jousted with conservative figures like William F. Buckley. But when he was offered $20,000 to write the screenplay for What’s New Pussycat? (1965) the trajectory of his career changed forever.
What’s New Pussycat? was a monster hit but Woody was frustrated with how his screenplay was mangled at a time when he lacked the professional leverage to do anything about it. He joked about how if he had directed the movie it would have been far funnier but probably a commercial failure. Nonetheless he was bitten by the movie bug and was determined never to lose control over his written work again. What followed was ten years of some of the most batshit-insane, hysterical movies I’ve ever seen. Here are the movies: What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975).If you’re only familiar with Woody’s more respectable work, films where he collaborates with artists like Sven Nykvist, Woody’s early films will be almost completely unrecognizable apart from the fact that they star Woody Allen in every film. With What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody’s first outing as director, Woody took a routine Japanese secret agent movie filled with murder and mayhem and completely rewrote the screenplay, recorded new dialogue, and turned the movie it into easily the strangest film of his career. I would never explicitly encourage self destructive behavior but hypothetically speaking watching this movie with a group of friends under the influence of mind altering substances is about as much fun as a human being can hope to have. With the films that follow, Woody’s comedy continues to shine with premises and scenarios that could not be more wildly different from one another. Take the Money and Run is a brilliant semi-autobiographical film where Woody embarks on a life of crime. Bananas is one of the greatest and most ridiculous political satires ever conceived. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask is one of the only truly great comedy anthology films I’ve seen with honorable mention going out to the segment featuring Gene Wilder as a doctor who falls in love with a sheep. Sleeper pairs Woody with his soon-to-be frequent partner-in-crime, Diane Keaton, in a science fiction farce worthy of the best work by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But the crown jewel of this period is Love and Death, a truly bizarre film set in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars where Woody is expected to die courageously in defense of his country when all he wants to do is get laid. Heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein, the movie clearly marks a pivot point in Woody’s career where his desire to experiment cinematically would only accelerate in the years to come.
Looking at this period from the mid-Sixties to mid-Seventies, it absolutely blows my mind how much Woody Allen evolved as a storyteller. He went from being essentially a gag man adept at sketch comedy to one of the most ambitious and creative filmmakers America has ever seen. While these movies clearly are more preoccupied with making us laugh, there are so many details and moments that foreshadow his films to come in the future. Stardust Memories might be Woody’s official homage to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 but Woody’s homages to Italian filmmaking begin with a segment in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask where all the dialogue is in Italian. Woody plays a fashionable erudite husband desperate to bring his wife to orgasm but the visual style is evocative of a movie by an art house darling along the lines of Michelangelo Antonioni. These so-called trivial comedies reveal a director eager to grow as an artist. One of Woody’s most famous sequences in his filmography features the beautiful black and white silhouettes of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton shot by Gordon Willis in Manhattan. Woody essentially did a dress rehearsal for this scene in Sleeper with almost the exact same shots of Woody and Keaton in a completely different context. So if laughing like an insane person is not enough to encourage you to watch these movies, there is the added incentive of watching Woody Allen’s rapid growth as a director where he gains new confidence with every new project. There is a great scene in Stardust Memories where Woody Allen meets an alien named Og the Spaceman. In typical Woody fashion, he peppers Og with questions about his quest for meaning in both his life and his work. Og replies, ‘We enjoy your films. Particularly the early funny ones.’ I love this scene. I’m sure Woody at that time was exhausted by critics who were confused by Woody’s shift from comedian to respectable Academy Award-winning filmmaker, but even as he was searching for more mature themes and richer meaning in his filmmaking, a part of Woody seems to have already become nostalgic for the incredible comedies he made right out of the gate. Comedy is such a subjective thing for the viewer that I’m hesitant to call Woody Allen the best director of comedies of all time. But I promise you that his first ten years of filmmaking will leave anyone with a sense of humor holding their sides in pain, howling at some of the funniest, most original movies ever made and in the end that is what this crazy business of filmmaking is all about.
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Films Directed by Woody Allen 1966-1975
Films Written by Woody Allen: