“Until we find a resolution for our terrors, we're going to have an expedient culture.” Is this Woody Allen speaking? Yes -the new Woody Allen. His latest film reveals an uncommonly serious artist at work.
April 22, 1979
By Natalie Gittelson
By Natalie Gittelson
The only time Woody Allen rises from his chair is to change the background music in his duplex penthouse living room: He switches records from Mozart to Beethoven, from Beethoven to Schumann. On the coffee table beside him, crowned with fresh spring flowers in perfect esthetic array, bowls of nuts and fruits - arranged with Cezanne-like care - look almost too good to eat. He doesn't eat. He doesn't peel a banana or nibble an almond. He doesn't smoke and he doesn't drink - not even a glass of water. He hardly even gestures. Not to put too fine a point on it, he hardly even moves.
He sits somewhat uneasily on the edge of his favorite easy chair and talks about his craft. In the eight movies he has directed, Allen says, he has been steadily, "trying to advance in the direction of films that are more human and less cartoon." “'Take the Money and Run' and 'Bananas' were my first two movies," he points out. "I was learning, floundering, trying to get by on my sense of humor. When it came to the moment of truth, I felt I could count on the laughs. I depended on the laughs to bail me out."
Behind the familiar, thick-lensed glasses, his eyes grow reflective as he continues to trace his evolution: "With 'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex,' I struggled a lot to pay a bit more attention to technique." Of the vignettes that shaped that movie, Allen says, "It was experimental for me to do all those short pieces but it helped me to improve a little technically.
"'Sleeper' and 'Love and Death' were cartoon-style films. I was still struggling to develop a sense of cinema, a better feeling for technique. But even though those films tried for some satirical content, they were still cartoons. I had intended to be very serious in 'Love and Death.' But the serious intent underlying the humor was not very apparent to most audiences. Laughter submerges everything else. That's why I felt that, with 'Annie Hall,' I would have to reduce some of the laughter. I didn't want to destroy the credibility for the sake of the laugh."
Woody Allen believes in allowing himself room to dream the largest of dreams. As a consequence, he sleeps in an enormous Early American four-poster, canopy bed. In other ways, however, his personal life style is modest –he says “dull.”
Woody Allen also excised many funny scenes from his latest movie, "Manhattan," which opens Wednesday. "They were superfluous. They stopped the flow. And sometimes they were too funny," he says.
Too funny? Can this be Woody Allen, the man we once knew - or thought we knew-as a lovable, self-mocking nebbish! Well, yes and no. Both creatively and personally, this is where he's at today - more mature, less comic, than anyone might expect and, at 43, on the verge of becoming one of America's major serious film makers.
"Manhattan" blends the drama and high concerns of "Interiors" with the comedy and charm of "Annie Hall." The result is an incandescent comedy-drama, bristling with grown-up insight - in short, it's a showcase for the new Woody Allen. What he sees as a bad time for our culture has provided him with an excellent opportunity to view the erratic couplings and uncouplings of men and women with a wide-angled lens more intensely scrutinizing than he has put to comedy before. "Manhattan" testifies to Allen's ever-deepening personal vision and his growth as an artist. He has shed his adolescent insecurity. He has largely given up the slapstick and sight gags which, although often hilarious, were also a defense against the confrontation with self.
Woody Allen emerges - in the character of a television joke writer who, symbolically, quits his job - as a human being with a stronger mind and also with a stronger heart. If he ever was self-deprecating, he is not anymore. And with his new self-acceptance, has come a new willingness to communicate honestly his male emotions. As "Annie Hall" was Diane Keaton's movie and a story about the condition of contemporary woman, "Manhattan" is Woody Allen's movie and a story about the predicament of contemporary man.
Possibly not since Chaplin - one of Allen's idols - has there been an American film that captures with such tenderness, hilarity and virile muscle what it means to be a vulnerable, selfish, innocent, corrupt, hollow, harried, loving, frightened and terribly mixed-up human being.
In the Allen apartment, 20 floors above Central Park, the walls are windows and all of Manhattan seems wrapped around his living room. "It really lights up out there," he says, almost smiling, of that cityscape which - like the questions he raises - also seems to jab recklessly at eternity.
"There's such widespread religious disappointment, a general realization about the emptiness of everything that's very hard for the society to bear," he says. "Either we've got to accept that life is not meaningless, for reasons as yet unknown, or we've got to create some sort of social structure that offers us the opportunity for real fulfillment.
"It's not a good time for society," he continues quietly. "It's a society with so many shortcomings - desensitized by television drugs fast-food chains, loud music and feelingless, mechanical sex. Until we find a resolution for our terrors, we're going to have an expedient culture, that's all- directing all its energies toward coping with the nightmares and fears of existence, seeking nothing but peace, respite and surcease from anxiety.
"We've got to give up the immediate, self-gratifying view," he goes on. "We've got to find the transition to a life style and a culture in which we make tough, honest, moral and ethical choices simply because - on the most basic, pragmatic grounds - they are seen to be the highest good."
This advocate of the summum bonum may be controlling a lot of repressed fury. The tone of his voice and the set of his mouth suggest it. It is said that on the sets of his films he politely but firmly distances himself from everyone but Diane Keaton, actor Michael Murphy and other trusted friends. He delivers most of his orders to the technical crew through intermediaries. Otherwise, his anger might explode at mortal men and blow the production sky-high.
Allen takes out some of his feelings on show business generally, which he sees as a microcosm of society: "They're a lot of worldly, sophisticated, talented people who seem to be conducting their lives reasonably well - except that they buy out the really tough choices by doping themselves up."
Woody Allen does not believe in buying himself out of tough choices. He believes, more than anything, in his work.
In "Manhattan," Allen plays Isaac Davis, a 42-year-old fellow whose former wife (played by Meryl Streep) "left me for another woman." Partly to rationalize her own feelings, she writes a book that exposes, graphically, why their marriage went haywire. Perhaps to console himself, Isaac takes up with a 17-year-old girl (played by Mariel Hemingway). On these fragile relationships, Allen has hung a strong, hilarious, haunting modern morality tale.
After "Interiors," his first foray into serious drama, Allen explains, "I wanted to make an amusing film, but a film, with feelings that went deeper than 'Annie Hall.' It would take place in New York, again it was Diane and me [Diane Keaton does not play the wife but the other woman], and again it would be a comedy. But this time, I wanted to try and go farther on the serious side than I had done before. That continues along a path I would like to follow."
What he did, he says, was to "incorporate into 'Manhattan' areas and ideas I had learned to handle a little bit in making 'Interiors.' There I was trying to deal with heavy emotions, heavy confrontations. I was also learning things about myself and my craft: how far one can go, how to go even farther. Each time, I'm attempting to express more and more feelings."
Feelings - and translating them into potent images - are Allen's primary concerns. Of the new film, he says "It's my own feelings - my subjective, romantic view - of contemporary life in Manhattan. I like to think that, a hundred years from now, if people see the picture, they will learn something about what life in the city was like in the 1970's. They'll get some sense of what it looked like and an accurate feeling about how some people lived, what they cared about."
The film is, of course, no somber documentary on our frayed morals and mores. Yet in "Manhattan," the comic mask slips one more inch without by any means forsaking comedy. Allen still grins, if ironically, at his large philosophic questions. He still mocks what he takes seriously and takes seriously what he mocks. This is Woody Allen dualism intact - in the full flower of his maturity as a writer, director and actor; and dealing more directly than ever with his own ambiguity, ambivalence, emptiness and ours.
Still, the comic despair of "Manhattan," no matter how brilliantly conveyed, is not enough for today's Allen. He dreams of confronting the despair cold. “Interiors" was his first farewell to the determinedly comic vision. Now he plans to come out more often from under the cover of even dark (as against light) comedy and what he deems the comfort of "playing it safe."
"Tragedy," Allen says flatly, "is a form to which I would ultimately like to aspire. I tend to prefer it to comedy. Comedy is easier for me. There's not the same level of pain in its creation, or the confrontation with issues or with oneself, or the working through of ideas."
At Michael's Pub, a Manhattan watering spot where Allen plays the clarinet in a New Orleans-style jazz band on Monday nights, he sits down between sets to refine his self-portrait. He does not, he says, want to be thought of as a "cheerless, grim, comic personality."
Furthermore: "I'm not holed up in my apartment every night poring over Russian literature and certain Danish philosophers. I'm really hardly a recluse. When a half-dozen paparazzi follow me down the street, naturally I don't like that very much. But I do go out all the time - to movies, to shop, to walk around in the street, to those parties I think I'll enjoy, to Elaine's." Why to Elaine's, that most obvious of New York celebrity enclaves? Allen says he likes the food. "And besides, I'm comfortable there."
He goes to great lengths and strange hats to avoid recognition.
Woody Allen is trying earnestly to introduce the real Woody Allen. He is, he says, an ordinary man. Bland. Unexciting. Without the "fresh, explosive, wonderful insights of, say, Norman Mailer. I have no flamboyant side," he claims. "I'm a middle-class film maker. I'm not a druggie or a drinker. I relax with my friends in a very uninteresting way. After I play the clarinet here, I go home, have a bite to eat, and go to bed. "
As proof, Allen describes the weekend just past: "On Saturday night, I went with Michael Murphy and Marshall Brickman and his wife to John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street. [Brickman wrote "Manhattan" with Allen; Murphy plays the second lead.) But we failed to go into John's because the place was jammed to the rafters. So we came back to my apartment and I got a lot of food out of the refrigerator." Like his entire residence, Woody's eat-in kitchen has a warm, country-house look: ex-. posed red brick wall hung with copper pots, Early American dining table.
"We watched the Bob and Ray special on TV, sat around for a while, then went to a late party in honor of Jean Doumanian, who produced the show."
Allen numbers Jean Doumanian among his best friends, along with Diane Keaton, Louise Lasser, his second wife, Dick Cavett, Brickman, Murphy, Mickey Rose, a childhood chum with whom he once planned to open an optometrist's shop, actor Tony Roberts and Joel Schumacher, the screenwriter and costume designer.
Sunday morning: "Trying hard not to work, I watched 'Richard II' on TV, because I like the play. In the afternoon, there were a few little budget things on 'Manhattan' - I had to be present at a meeting with Charles Joffe and Bobby Greenhut [producer and associate producer]. At noon, before I left home, I had lunch standing over the cookie jar: chocolate-chip cookies and two glasses of milk."
Contrary to legend, Woody Allen says, not everybody loves either Allen or his movies. "My pictures," he notes, "are reasonably successful at the box office, not overwhelmingly successful. I told United Artists that there was every possibility I would have to fail with 'Interiors,' that it might be a catastrophe. Yet even it turned a little profit." Particularly because of that film's heavy themes, "I worked hard to make it entertaining," he explains. "I wish I could have done better."
"I'm able to entertain audiences," Allen says with that faint but unmistakable air of deprecation he reserves for mere entertainment. But on the other side of the coin is pride: "If one of my pictures is playing, it's a worthwhile gamble, as often as not, that there's going to be at least some entertainment. And audiences know I won't insult them. I may strike out - and I often do - but it won't be demeaning. They're not going to have to sit through a lot of stupid, infantile jokes."
Actually, Woody Allen almost never just makes jokes anymore - that trait which once caused the critic John Simon to write (about "Love and Death," Allen's favorite Woody Allen film), "We could have gotten roughly the same effect from laughing gas, sneezing powder or a mutual tickling session with a friendly prankster." Today, Allen's humor probes the deeper vein of character - basically, his own. No other American moviemaker working today uses himself as his source of material more consistently or to better effect.
Although comedy comes naturally to Woody Allen, he makes no bones about the fact that, even so, "work is very difficult. You miss the mark so often." He admits that making movies brings him fulfillment, but he will not admit that it brings him joy. "It's hard for me to find out where the pleasure is," he says. "I'm too concerned about all the aspects of the thing coming together."
As it does often, Allen's perfectionist mind returns to "Interiors": "If you try for something and it fails honorably, it's better failing that way than to succeed with something exploitative."
Sex, per se, seems to him exploitative. Nevertheless in "Manhattan," Allen allows the character he plays more authentic sexuality - without any taint of exploitation than he has ever done before. He has abandoned his customary comic diffidence for a sexual posture much more forthright and unembarrassed.
"In films," he says, "what you do - in bed or elsewhere - is dictated by the tone of the piece. In 'Manhattan,' we played much less broadly, much less for laughs, than in pictures like 'Bananas' or 'Sleeper.' This could be perceived as a change in my own sexual style. But it's simply that the character I play has, hopefully, more breadth. This demands a certain sort of comedic restraint."
Allen denies having much sex appeal of his own. If women do like him - and he reluctantly concedes that some of them may - it has little to do with sexual attraction, he says. "Maybe one or two people have said that. But if you took a poll, if you did a wide survey," he suggests, "you'd find it isn't true."
By the age of 21, a college flunkout, Allen had already wed Harlene Rosen, his "first girl," and entered psychoanalysis. "I was very young, writing, high-strung and married. I had a tendency to get a little depressed." At about the same time, he was also making the crucial conversion from gag writer to stand-up comic.
Of his 22 years of psychoanalysis (today he has a female analyst), Allen says: "You don't learn anything in a dramatic rush. It's very slow and unnoticeable. But an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who's trained to evaluate this material - over a period of years, you're bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort. I think that has a tendency to liberate your natural gifts. Possibly you work more productively, too, because you don't obsess over self-destructive things."
In 1964, when he was 28, Woody Allen was performing at the Blue Angel, a New York nightclub. Film producer Charles K. Feldman entered his life on the arm of Shirley MacLaine. The MacLaine laughter helped persuade Feldman to offer Allen his first movie job as writer and actor. The eventual result was "What's New, Pussycat?" a huge commercial success that did not, and does not, please Allen. But the film grossed $17 million, more than any other comedy before it.
Palomar Pictures then put up $1.6 million for "Take the Money and Run." Allen wrote the screenplay with Mickey Rose, this time without interference; he also directed and starred. It and "Bananas," "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask," "Sleeper," "Love and Death," and "Play It Again, Sam," were all small (in the Hollywood lexicon) but profit-making pictures as well as critical and popular successes. Then "Annie Hall" saw Woody Allen triumphantly emergent, taking Diane Keaton with him.
Of course, he himself would never put it that way. He denies Keaton's alleged professional dependence on him. "She would accept any good, intelligent, significant role that comes along, and that she feels she can do, whether it's in my picture or not," Allen says.
The once celebrated Keaton-Allen love affair has long since lapsed, and she is now seeing Warren Beatty. But she stars with Allen in "Manhattan," and her director continues his abundant praise. "Diane's fortunate. She got hit by the talent stick in a very big way. I'm overwhelmed, I'm awestruck by her gifts. She always makes me look good. I think the biggest contribution I've ever made is bringing Keaton as an actress to the attention of the public."
Conversations about craft absorb Allen intellectually, but Diane Keaton enlists his emotions. They lived together for a year in Allen's penthouse, which Keaton helped to decorate. "We were real friends when we split up," he says. "There's never been any strain between us; no fights, no falling out, almost never a bad word."
Allen adds that he and Keaton have never discussed Warren Beatty, whom Allen says he does not know. Of Beatty, Allen remarks, "He's probably very sweet and nice. In fact, I'm sure he's wonderful. He certainly seems to be intelligent."
The two most important women in Allen's life have both become part of the contemporary American legend - Diane Keaton, with "Annie Hall," and Louise Lasser, television's "Mary Hartman." How alike are they in other ways?
"They're two huge talents -unique stylists in the entertainment world," Allen says. "They both had more to give me than I had to give them. I couldn't have accomplished half of what I accomplished without Louise ... and Diane." Like Keaton, "Louise is a great woman, a great companion. Her comprehension of life is very great," he adds. "Both of them are hilariously funny. Both of them are highly, highly perceptive. And both of them have very sweet faces. I've had other nice relationships in my life, but these two women I have lived with spoiled me to a very great degree. I'm crazy about both of them."
In the end, however, Woody Allen returns to Diane Keaton, her artistic intuition and her taste. "If she tells me something's no good, I may not understand why at the time, but eventually I come to realize it's no good. That's some strange form of genius."
"Manhattan" testifies with eloquence and candor that Allen also may have a soft spot in his heart for young, young women. But there is little of Humbert ("Lolita") Humbert here. Although sex is by no means devalued, the real attraction lies between kindred spirits. The older Allen grows, the more he seems to value innocence in women - not sexual innocence, but that shiningness of soul that age so often tarnishes. Nevertheless, he says decisively, "There's no significant woman in my life at this time," either young or older. "But I do take women out pretty often," he explains. "If either of us doesn't have a nice time, we don't do it again."
He has various platonic "letter-writing relationships" with young women, "when they read out as serious and substantial." His youngest correspondent is an 11-year-old girl, whose letter was precocious in the extreme, Allen says. "I wrote her back, 'If you're really the age you say you are, it's phenomenal. But if you're not, don't write to me again and waste my time.' Finally, I met her whole family. They all came to see me, including her mother. She's a nice, intelligent girl. She's 11."
In "The Whore of Mensa," one of Allen's most wickedly funny and endearing New Yorker "casuals," the private eye, Kaiser Lupowitz, says to an 18-year-old girl who, "for a price, will come over and discuss any subject. - Proust, Yeats, anthropology. Exchange of ideas ... 'Suppose I wanted to-have a party?'
'Like what kind of party?'
'Suppose I wanted Noam Chomsky explained to me by two girls?'
'Oh, wow! ' " the young woman sighs. "Mensa" may express the dichotomy that Allen apparently cannot resolve regarding the female body and the female brain.
"I really do get hooked into bright, highly educated girls," he admits. "It must be some carry-over from my teen years."
Woody Allen likes success as much as any other man, but perhaps does not court it with quite the same fervor. The luxury of failure is always on his mind. "It's very important that there's a certain amount of stuff one fails with. That's very important," he emphasizes. Failure, to Allen, is a sure sign that "you're not playing it safe, that you're still experimenting, still taking creative risks. It's frightful to get into the habit of trying to make hits. Compromises and concessions begin to turn up in the work.
"Bergman once asked me," he goes on, " 'Have you ever had a picture that simply nobody liked, a total disaster?'"
Allen actually looks sheepish. "I hadn't. And it causes you to doubt yourself. If you're succeeding too much, you're doing something wrong."
This need to reach, to stretch, to adventure out, he says, "has to do with putting a value on developing and trying to grow artistically. Some artists don't have that value. They find something they can do superbly, and they love doing it, and they keep on doing it, and the audiences grow to depend on it. I think that's a mistake."
Allen points again to Chaplin: "He was preoccupied with developing. He was willing to take many chances and he often failed. Some of his movies were quite terrible. But he was always trying to grow. And whatever he did, you felt in contact with an interesting artist."
Chaplin was not only willing to fail; he was also, Allen says, "willing to disappoint his audience." This, he thinks, may be the highest act of courage for a star. "Even though the public loves you the way you are, and counts on you, and showers you with love and affection, you've got to risk having people come into the theater expecting everything and walk out disappointed because, this time, you've overreached yourself. If you don't take that risk, you find yourself modifying your potential in order to ingratiate yourself with your fans."
Much of Allen's artistic independence grows out of his iconoclastic attitude toward money. He seems challenged by a modest budget. "Money is an important creative tool," he says. "For instance, if I make the decision for 100 extras, I shoot for one less day. If I go for 50 extras, I buy one more day of shooting. Money becomes a part of the art. "
United Artists has financed all of his films except "Take the Money and Run." "I never ask U.A. for a lot of money,' Allen says. "My own salary is exactly the same today as when I made 'Bananas.' It's only been in the last couple of movies that I've made some money on the percentage end. A picture's really got to soar for me to make anything at all that way." So far, the only Allen picture that has actually soared is "Annie Hall." And, he says, he also made "a tiny bit of money" on "Sleeper."
To write, direct and star in a film takes more than a year, Allen notes. "I get less, all told, than what Marshall Brickman would get just to write a script. I could probably make more playing four weeks in Vegas than I make on an entire picture." The writer-director-star has never made even close to a half-million dollars on any film. Put against the million or more many actors make for eight weeks' work, this is indeed a modest sum.
But money is of no intrinsic interest to him, he maintains. "Of course, in terms of the standards I was brought up with, I do make an awful lot. But many an average movie actor makes much more money. In fact, I make nothing but a pittance compared to most actors working today.
"Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe [his managers and also his producers] are smart enough to know that money is a fortunate byproduct, that's all. What interests me is solely the work itself. I could probably put myself to hire and direct other people's scripts and make a lot more than I do, but that's not my intention. I didn't enter the film business and then ask myself, 'What can I buy? What can I option?' I have ideas that I want to express."
Allen explains how the idea for "Manhattan" grew: "Marshall and I walk around the city. We review the experiences of my life. We talk about the ideas and feelings that are meaningful to us, that we would like to express. It happens in an amorphous way. 'What if my ex-wife were writing a book about me?'we ask each other. Characters begin to appear: people I know, people we both know. Then others appear that are totally fabricated, sheer flights of fantasy."
Once they develop the basic screen play, Brickman disappears and Allen puts on his director's hat. "On the set, many things change," Allen says. "One actor may turn out to have a slightly different quality than I expected: I rewrite. I change tons of dialogue. Keaton doesn't feel comfortable with something I've written, but she feels very comfortable with something else. That goes in. I never thought of Meryl Streep as a possibility for the role of my wife in 'Manhattan,' but as soon as it was suggested, it was clear to me that she would just be great. More rewriting. I met Dustin Hoffman's wife, Anne Byrne, at a basketball game; I saw her as correct for Emily. [Emily is the wife of Isaac Davis's best friend.] I changed several things to suit her. The movie was always growing, being rewritten and rewritten on the set." Allen's productions are notorious within the industry for "wrapping" promptly at 5 P.M. He goes home every night - to continue to rewrite.
The score for "Manhattan" is by George Gershwin. Allen has photographed the film in black and white. "The Gershwin music fits in with Isaac's comprehension of the city," Allen explains. "He sees Manhattan in black and white and moving to the tunes of George Gershwin. The score helps to vibrate several themes in the picture: the passing of time; the poignancy of where the city's gone; the fact that, in a certain sense, Isaac's living in the past, when things seemed better to him."
Allen returns to his own creative process: "As I edit the film, it continues to metamorphose. Sometimes concepts get lost, or I abandon them completely, and stronger concepts emerge. Finally, I finish the rough cut, the first draft, of the film. It's always 45 minutes to an hour longer than it ought to be. It's full of things I hate."
Allen pauses to lament: "There's such a disparity between what you set out to make and what, at last, you do make that you just want to …die. " You want never to see it again.”
But even after the film is 'frozen," Allen "sees it five or six more times - to check the prints, to even it out, to fix the sound. " He sighs.
“You get a funny idea for a New Yorker piece on Monday; by Thursday, you've written most of it. But a film is a gigantic undertaking from the point of view of sheer quantity. There are tons of decisions to make in areas where you can only hope your instincts will guide you properly." As an auteur with total control ("You're only aware of total control when you don't have it," he says), Allen must make decisions about everything from the color of the couch to the clothes the stars wear and whether the dress looks right with the wallpaper. "You want different throw pillows," he says, "different ashtrays. Then it comes down to the music behind the scene: Do you want them to hear just the music or do you want them to hear the faucet dripping and the wind rustling in the trees, or just the faucet dripping or just the trees?"
Finally, the picture winds up in a screening room for the first time. "Something happens there that's really nonverbal and preconscious," Allen says of the reactions of the few intimates who preview his films. "It's never what they tell you. What they verbalize is very deceptive. You feel the way they're responding.
"The more I can keep people separate from the project up until this point, the fresher they come to it. Marshall sees it quite freshly now. There are some surprises in it for him, some disappointments. I get a fresh feeling toward it through him and a few friends. [Allen's younger sister, Letty, is always one of the early viewers.] Then I go out and shoot some more. Little by little, I round it out."
This postproduction work can be both determining and agonizing. "In the theater, when you have a scene that's wrong, you can rework it in a hotel room. But film is footage in a tin can. It waits around for four months while you're shooting the thing and it's all done out of sequence. When you start the editing, your heart sinks. That joke doesn't work, this is no good. You've guessed wrong on a lot of stuff. The relationships between the people aren't clear, therefore, they're not believable. You've got to go back and redo those scenes." Allen always makes sure that his budget allows for between two to four weeks of reshooting. "I've never not needed it," he says. "I've never gone from start to finish with nothing to redo."
When asked, Allen adds that the fact of being Jewish never consciously enters his work. "It's not on my mind; it's no part of my artistic consciousness. There are certain cultural differences between Jews and non-Jews, I guess, but I think they're largely superficial. Of course, any character I play would be Jewish, just because I'm Jewish. I'm also metropolitan oriented. I wouldn't play a farmer or an Irish seaman. So I write about metropolitan characters who happen to be Jewish." But these, to Allen, are surfaces; and, as he has let us know, it is interiors that interest him.
Although he is now writing another screenplay for a movie scheduled to begin production around Labor Day, theater - specifically, Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont- is much on his mind. As one of the Beaumont's new five-member directorate, "I hope to write some plays for it: a funny play to help get the Beaumont off the ground, and then some more serious works." He also may try to stage a play or two. While Allen hopes to "have some voice in what goes on at the Beaumont," he sees his role there only as "formalizing a commitment to devote some of my time to working at Lincoln Center." Theater intrigues him, he says, because, "like literature, it deals primarily with words. Film is about photography. It's a very different thing."
He prefers writing, he says, to performing or directing. "I go upstairs to my bedroom and close the door. I don't have to go anyplace. I can knock off and play the clarinet for an hour. I can go out and hit a couple of tennis balls. It's a bum's life," he declares. "If you don't like what you're doing, the work never has to meet the test of reality. When I'm making a film, I can't tear it up and throw it away if I don't like it. I've already spent United Artists' $3 million."
But the sheer complexity of moviemaking keeps Allen continually tuned in to that medium. "In 'Sleeper,' I became more aware of visuals," he says. "Since then, I've gotten deeper and deeper into visually arresting films. It's not just decorative, of course, but hopefully part of the storytelling. In 'Manhattan,' the black-and-white photography, the Panavision, the romanticized view of New York - all that's part of the story. In 'Annie Hall,' Gordon Willis, the cinematographer, used the gray, overcast skies of this city against the unremitting, harsh blue sunlight of Los Angeles. With each film, one struggles to utilize photography, light,
colors, sound track, performances more effectively and integrate them better into the character of the film."
The moviemaker Allen ranks highest is Ingmar Bergman. Bergman's gloom is, spiritually, Allen's gloom: "I have a personal taste for the mood he sets. That's my kind of good evening. He makes innovative, cinematic, magnificent, strong, high dramas. In his film or that film, he may have missed out. But 12 or 15 masterpieces, in varying degrees, out of 40 pictures? That's astounding!"
Of course, Allen's creative thinking is not stimulated only by tragedy. "As great as I find the Marx Brothers," he says, "in the final analysis, I still get more emotionally involved with Chaplin. Many of my friends prefer Buster Keaton to Chaplin. Was he more sophisticated, more inventive, more superb? Perhaps so. But after all is said and done, I still prefer Chaplin because he's a funnier human being. As soon as Chaplin comes down the street, I start to laugh -that really primitive, unmotivated hostility, pulling other men's beards, blowing into their bowls of soup! Sometimes he slobbers into sentimentality, sometimes he makes it. Many friends of mine prefer Keaton's clean, artistic, American interpretation better. I do appreciate that. But Chaplin I must say I love.
"He presented the human condition, so that the laughter resonates on another deeper level than it does when you watch the Marx Brothers, who always appeal to your intellectual, cerebral appreciation. You laugh, but you don't feel the pain. In Chaplin, pain has a lot to do with it: to win the girl, to feed the kid. His humor is more dimensional."
Woody Allen's ever-growing and all too attentive public sometimes causes his private life to take on the aura of a Woody Allen comedy. To him, it's a mixed blessing. One afternoon recently, he returns, perturbed, from his own front hall, throwing his arms into the air. The elevator man has just delivered a message. "I've got the worst problem," Allen moans. "There's a live white rabbit waiting in my lobby. Somebody left me a rabbit." He considers making room in his life for a white rabbit. "No, it would really be cruel to bring it up here. It would starve to death. I don't know how to take care of a rabbit." Accustomed to making life-and-death decisions, he -opts for the A.S.P.C.A.
He says fans leave shirts, layer cakes, candy, records, photographs, books, but this is his first rabbit. Other fans, spying him in the street, follow him all the way home. Recently, one young woman, driving a car, paced him slowly down Fifth Avenue.
While a companion waited in the automobile, Allen says, "she got to me as I was coming into the building. She was dressed strangely and she was a little noisy, but the guys in the lobby restrained her.
"I never know who's following me, I'm doomed to be recognized and I handle it badly," he admits. "I depend a lot on hats for disguises." One is a battered gray panhandler's fedora, another a taxi driver's cap which he wears pulled down over his eyes. "If I remember to wear one of these hats, I am not recognized 75 percent of the time," he confides.
Woody Allen's existential anxieties, as he has called them, follow him home, too. On a recent afternoon, during a photographer's sitting, two young women set up equipment outside on his terrace. Watching them through a living-room window, Allen's pale face grows paler. "I'm convinced that one of them is going to fall off. I don't want any guests to fall off my terrace," he says, going outside to police the operation. Later, the photographer puts one foot on a very low ledge, no higher than a street curb, trying for an interesting angle. "Don't do that!" he demands, refusing to continue to pose until she returns to safer territory. "Do you know what kind of red tape would be involved for me if you fell off?" he asks, appealing to her human sympathy. There is a tall fence around the Allen terrace. No one could fall off, not even a giraffe.
"Early in life," Allen says, "I was visited by the bluebird of anxiety." That anxiety has informed his work and his persona to extraordinary, droll effect from the early slapstick to the vintage wit and rue of "Manhattan." It may be a symptom of his new maturity that rue is the herb of grace.
Natalie Gittelson, an editor of this Magazine, is the author of "Dominus: A Woman Looks at Men's Lives."