A generation ago, the twinning of two concepts, “Woody Allen” and “Amazon”, would have conjured a picture dear to Woodyphiles worldwide. A bespectacled nebbish lost in the jungle; up a river without a paddle: thoughts towards a Woody movie called — what? Piranha Memories? Hannah and Her Tribe?
Since then much water has passed under many bridges. We are in a darker, weirder world. Humorists are slaughtered; the word Amazon has gone digital; and Mr Allen himself has passed through scandal and not yet (say some) come out the other side.
Yet this is the moment Amazon Prime, the online retail giant’s video streaming service, chooses to fish the filmmaker from the flow of his big-screen productivity — still a film a year — to commit to a small-screen series. It is still vague. Ten (probably) 30-minute (definitely) episodes about, well, anything.
Roy Price, vice-president of Amazon Studios, stated: “I always thought Woody Allen’s character and comedy would translate beautifully to TV.” Mr Allen’s comment? “I don’t know how I got into this. I have no ideas . . . My guess is that Roy Price will regret this.”
The good news for Amazon is that there has never been a career quite like Mr Allen’s. The bad news unfortunately is the same. It is a lifetime of amazing achievement. It is also a life of setback, scuttlebutt and desperately uneven cinematic creativity. “Oh good, another Woody Allen” alternates with “Oh god, not another Woody Allen.”
There are still giddy successes critical and commercial. Blue Jasmine, his seriocomical riff on A Streetcar Named Desire, won a Best Actress Oscar in 2014 for Cate Blanchett. Midnight in Paris, a 2011 reality/fantasy caprice with a French touch, was a high watermark at the box office. Mr Allen stays ahead of career implosion, if only by creating just enough explosions to confuse the doomsayers.
He does it by hard work and prodigious prolixity, which is much the way he started. Born Allan Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn in December 1935, he was the son of working parents: mother an accounts-keeper, father a gem engraver and waiter. He was earning money himself from age 16. “I used to write 50 gags a day when I worked for a New York press agent,” he once told this writer; “every day, 50 gags after school.”
His first significant job was sitting down at a joke-writing table for top 1950s US television comedian Sid Caesar, alongside Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner. All were then unknown. All were about to define Jewish comedy for the second half of a century, whose first half was all about Jewish tragedy.
But tragedy, too, tinges and characterises Mr Allen’s comedy. From his earliest years as a standup comic, working Greenwich Village dives or Borscht Belt resorts (the famed Jewish circuit in the Catskills), to the comic stories and sketches he wrote for The New Yorker, on to the plays and movies, neurosis, anxiety and pessimism are what have made him funny. “Life becomes so painful at times,” he reasons, “that there’s a need to slip a barrier of comedy between you and it.”
He knows adversity himself: not just rocky periods of career failure but a reputation run ragged by sex life revelations or accusations. Last February the scandal mill produced renewed allegations of abuse from Dylan Farrow, one of his ex-partner Mia’s adopted children, another of whom, Soon-Yi Previn, is now Mr Allen’s wife. Mr Allen has always denied the allegations.
It may be his trademark projection of himself as a human disaster area — the Woody comic “brand” in a 50-year career — that has created, paradoxically, an almost disaster-proof showbiz personality. That and a determination, when possible, to avoid fame’s exposures. He skips Oscar ceremonies, preferring to blow his beloved clarinet in New York’s Michael’s Pub or Carlyle Hotel. (He has also taken his jazz group on overseas tours.) Boxing and baseball are passions too, even watched on TV in the privacy of his Upper East Side home.
Further to deter the prying, he insists that his movies — many of which (like the ever popular Annie Hall) seem to fans to be all about him — are not autobiographical at all. His last great film, for many critics, was Husbands and Wives (1992). A story of relationship break-ups, both comical and coruscating, it was his final collaboration with Mia Farrow. But he says: “The film was made before I had my conflict with Mia. It was a totally made-up story . . .”
It is just as possible to see Mr Allen’s work as the acme of self-effacement. The work of a whole-grain nihilist who sees hope as vanity, and despair as the joke we must exist with. Life doesn’t add up (in the Woody philosophy), but it’s all we’ve got. Let’s get through it, and have some thoughtful fun on the way.
Recently, in a rare burst of ideological engagement, he cosigned American PEN’s protest against the Charlie Hebdo killings. Those — rightly and unsurprisingly — got his wick burning. Killing humorists. Could anything be more life-denying?
Now we must watch and wait. Will his return to television, after decades honing his cinematic craft, be a success? At 79, his best work may be behind him. But a year seldom goes by without him occupying, for one reason or other, the newspaper headlines. Amazon Prime, a fast-growing business seeking to keep its publicity engines revved, probably knows exactly what it is doing.
The writer is the FT’s film critic
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