Posted in: by Greg Way, Contributors, Essays

Woody Allen: Together Again for the First Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Take the Money and Run and Bananas, Woody Allen’s first films as a writer-director-actor, were energetic messes redeemed by the novelty of seeing Allen’s comic vision transferred to the screen minus the dilutions of What’s New, Pussycat? and Casino Royale, on which he performed script and acting chores only. (Allen also worked on the experimental What’s Up Tiger Lily?, unseen by this viewer; and Don’t Drink the Water was based on an Allen stageplay.) Take the Money and Run and Bananas invoke far less the Buster Keaton–Charles Chaplin tradition of comedy actor-directors than they do the indulgent tradition of vehicle comedians such as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, the excesses of whose generally funny films one almost invariably must be blind to in order to call the films themselves—as opposed to the comic performances—successful. In these early efforts one could forgive Allen his excesses, too, in order to get to the laughs because, after all, the man was still learning his craft.

‘Play It Again, Sam’

Nineteen-seventy-two was the year that Allen seemed to arrive as a filmmaker and performer. The Allen-scripted, Herbert Ross–directed Play It Again, Sam benefited from the discipline Allen found necessary to include in its stageplay antecedent, and the cinematic and cosmic inevitability of its Casablanca-remake conclusion carried with it a surprisingly touching and self-informed realization of Allen’s comic persona. In contrast to Allen’s own egocentric directorial tendencies, Ross’s generally undistinguished direction contained two minor, but in retrospect significant, virtues: Meaningful presences other than Allen were permitted onscreen—Diane Keaton, Jerry Lacey, Viva, Susan Anspach; and for once Allen himself was guided successfully through a physical universe. Compare the economy and dramatic utility of the record-casting gag in Play It Again, Sam with the pace-, grace-, and proportionlessness (this from a man who studied with Martha Graham, and fancies himself a jazz musician) of another prop gag, the basketball business in Bananas, a bit that is flatfootedly typical of actor Allen’s attempts under his own direction at the sight-gag subspecies of physical comedy. (There are exceptions, of course: The wheelchair business in Sleeper, Allen’s fourth film as a director, comes instantly to mind, but even here actor Allen is subservient to the scene’s dramatic tension—the risk of discovery—and the upfront emphasis on mechanical anarchy.) Klutziness requires grace to define it, and the relative gracefulness of Play It Again, Sam‘s physical and behavioral environments imparted to Allen’s physical comedy a sense of chaotic interruption that his own (up until then) perpetually chaotic film environments did not underscore.

Later that year, the Allen-directed Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask found a comfortable form for its writer-director-star’s style. Seven short films organized around the theme of the bestseller and parodying cinematic styles from Italian art films to Fifties game-show kinescopes, in three of which Allen doesn’t even appear, relieved him of the pressure to sustain a single, feature-length narrative and character concept.* Comments by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema (p. 244), discussing Jerry Lewis’s films, are equally applicable to Allen’s work:

[There is] the question of the feature-length film as the proper vehicle for farce with continuous belly laughs…. Perhaps belly laughs are not enough to sustain a feature-length film. Screen farce, like screen pornography, may involve culturally embarrassing examinations of audience metabolism and endurance, examinations which may explain why modern audiences are seldom moved as emotionally as they think guiltily they ought to be by the five-act tragedies of Shakespeare. For Lewis, this may mean a renewed attention to plots, dialogue, and, above all, grading.

Sarris’s comments are irrelevant to Allen’s work to the extent that Allen plays a creative role other than that of farceur, a creative role that he seems at times carelessly reluctant to play: In Love and Death, his fifth and most recent film as a director, he sets up some grandly deflatable images of Napoleonic warfare, and then the deflation itself is executed as a sloppy piece of filmmaking. I object to the cheerleading gag, for example, not because Mort Drucker has done similar things a hundred times before in Mad magazine, but because it, like almost everything else in Allen’s physical and (himself excluded) behavioral universes, exists only as an inorganic idea—a paceless, irresonant insertion—just as Allen’s preachy to-the-camera conclusion, for all its comic aspiration, testifies to his failure to successfully laminate a comic vision onto a “serious” outlook—a failure, more precisely, to recognize and integrate two dimensions of one and the same thing, that bodes ill for Allen’s future aspirations to entertainment or art. Allen’s refusal to realize that the incompatibility is unnecessary can lead and, in the case of Love and Death, has led his film career to an unfortunate turning point: Acquaintances with the proper referents in their meaning systems assure me that Love and Death is a brilliant sendup of 19th-century Russian literary conceits. I certainly don’t want to deny the man his right to make special-audience pictures, but I question whether the cosmetic trappings of kidding-the-serious-as-an-excuse-to-be-serious have blinded Allen to the limitations and speciousness in his own vision.

Woody Allen and friend, ‘Love and Death’

Such a turn is to be lamented because Allen can, when he’s being careful and craftsmanlike, compete successfully for laughs and meaning along the physical dimensions that film comedy requires. Here’s the place to define my terms, lest it be inferred that Allen must top the conclusion of Seven Chances in order for me to regard him as an arrived director of physical comedy. Elaborate, conventional sight gags are of course not necessary to the realization of successful physical comedy. In fact, to my taste Allen’s more prosaic sight gags—the monster breast in Everything, the helicopter business in Sleepertend to fall flat. Allen’s screen character (and here’s where his undisputed verbal talents undermine him) is too much, too often, and too selfconsciously the cynical verbal sophisticate to credibly commit itself to the naïve physicality that slapstick and prop comedy demand: a mouth full of bons mots and a body full of anarchy have problems coexisting organically in a single comic presence. In Son of Paleface Frank Tashlin solved a similar problem for Bob Hope by fully committing the film’s sight gags to the mythic grotesqueries and bouncing-back-therefrom of Road Runner–style animated cartoons, but like a ten-year-old kid perpetually yelling “Fake!” at King Kong and then putting on the ape-suit himself and expecting us all to love him, Allen in his physical performances seldom transcends the self-imposed and self-defining limitations of his prominent verbal hipness.

There is a form of physical comedy that is demonstrably compatible with Allen’s words and attitude—the behavioral aside—and I wish he’d explore it more fully, but it’s also a more dangerous form economically because of its links to the concept of subtlety—and a film comic risks all by being subtle in the bang-’em-over-the-head Seventies. When in Play It Again, Sam Allen’s recently divorced character is fixed up with someone new, he confesses to his matchmaking friends to having “mixed feelings about this.” Allen’s reading, face, and body all thwart the viewer’s expectations by implying a more euphoric emotional condition than mixed feelings—until the inconsistencies coalesce into a precise definition of the character’s neurotic identity as a person whose emotional peak is reached at the point of mixed feelings. No one else in the audiences with whom I viewed the film seemed as delighted as I was at this moment, so maybe what I’m doing here is congratulating my own taste for subtlety in screen comedy; but even in so doing it’s proper to insist that subtlety, along with pace, proportion, and rhythm, is one of the least flamboyant yet most reliable tools that the careful crafter of film comedy has at his disposal.

Similarly, when Allen’s anthropomorphized body components toast to potency in Everything, that smug, champagne-sipping Burt Reynolds grin defines, far beyond the immediate film situation, all those aggrandized moments of self-congratulation that we in the audience have experienced either directly or by osmosis. Furthermore, when Allen wants to construct carefully physical comedy, he doesn’t confine himself to mise-en-scène alone: That whole final sequence in Everything is a precision example of energetic comedy cutting, as in that rivetingly timed shift in place and emotion to Tony Randall’s face god-damning a surrealistically critical snafu. The notable thing about these moments, and the other moments of both physical and verbal grace in EverythingRobert Q. Lewis’s look and attitude as he ventures a “wild guess” game-show speculation on a contestant’s perversion; Gene Wilder’s “You’re a nice man” urging to the bestial shepherd to get a psychiatrist’s help, the shepherd’s recital of love for his sheep, and Wilder’s own early moments of drifting into fascination with the animal; the beheading scene; the cut to the lust-crazed Cub Scouts—is how little Allen the performer has to do with such moments. When Allen progresses beyond his own character, as in Play It Again, Sam and Everything, he achieves worthwhile things; but whenever he regresses, as in Sleeper and Love and Death, to a cinematic equivalent of his “on one” nightclub act, the monstrosity of his egoism fills the screen to no legitimate purpose, a condition that is nowhere more evident than in his treatment of his frequent co-star, Diane Keaton.

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in ‘Play It Again, Sam’

Not surprisingly, Keaton comes off best in Play It Again, Sam, where Allen’s stageplay-disciplined script provided a character for her, and someone else’s direction permitted it to exist. Despite scenes of Allen’s absence, both Sleeper and Love and Death leave her largely adrift in the scenario-serving ether, and that hurts. When Keaton started showing up on television a few years back, track-suited in deodorant commercials or spilling her guts out on talkshows, she seemed, going in, the ideal female counterpoint to Allen’s eccentric presence. Something happened on the way there, and while a goodly share of the blame for Keaton’s flatness on the big screen should go to the actress herself (she was no more distinguished as a comedy player in Lovers and Other Strangers than in the Ross or Allen films), her position in Allen’s work essentializes his recent, regressive refusal to share meaningful screen space with other performers, or—more accurately—his refusal to create or encourage meaningful screen presences other than his own.

The salvation of Allen’s future films, handicapped as the existing ones are by their creator’s tendency to carry the entire film on his own onscreen shoulders, would seem to be a return to that more inclusive and generous vision that Everything demonstrated Allen is capable of achieving. Woody Allen not getting laid was funny once, but five pictures later, if Woody Allen can’t get laid in any more interesting a way than the first time out, I’m ready to spend my precious comedy-purchasing dollars elsewhere. So, Allen defenders, if my perceptions of the value of the man’s films are radically askew, I’d love to have you set me straight. Until or unless that happens we are, regrettably, not amused.

* I think of Allen’s fine prose collection, Getting Even, more than any of his films, as the companion piece to Everything: Allen’s mock-perfect imitations of literary styles go on for just the right number of pages and then stop before spilling over into Harvard and National Lampoon–style excess; and I speculate that a comic novel by Allen would run into the same problems of proportion that his films do.

© 1976 Greg Way

A pdf of the original issue can be found here