American Masters: Woody Allen


Woody Allen: American Masters

9 p.m., Nov. 20 and 21

WFYI (Channel 20)

I’d like to thank Woody Allen someday. For Annie Hall and Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose and Zelig, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Midnight in Paris. For the books and stories — especially The Kugelmass Episode. For showing me the full beauty of Rhapsody in Blue. For helping me understand humanity a little better. For the line “you say that like it’s a negative thing.” And so much more.

It’s unlikely I’ll ever get the chance to do that, but in a way, I feel like filmmaker Robert Weide did it for me with his excellent two-part American Masters biography of Allen. In these 3½ hours, Weide hits on much of what makes Allen great while addressing his foibles and failures as well. He gives us a well-rounded picture of a brilliant filmmaker whose approach to work is surprisingly simple.

“It’s just storytelling and you tell it,” Allen says at one point. “There’s no big deal to it.”

This career retrospective takes us from the streets of Brooklyn, where Allen Stewart Konigsberg grew up in a family with a loving little sister and parents who either argued or didn’t talk to each other, to his metamorphosis into Woody Allen. He started as a joke writer and evolved into a standup comic, screenwriter, actor and director. Weide touches on most of his 40-plus films, lingering on the most important ones, and shows us how he works and, perhaps more importantly, how he thinks.

Part one covers his early life and career up to 1980’s Stardust Memories; part two delves into more professional and personal behind-the-scenes stories. (The credits in both parts are done in the same font that Allen uses in his films.)

What Weide does so well throughout is to show rather than merely tell. Numerous actors discuss Allen’s directing style — “It’s a bare-bones clarity than any personality can understand and interpret,” says Sean Penn, who actually smiles at a couple of points. But rather than leave it to talking heads to tell the story, Weide shows Allen directing Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin in a scene from You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger so we can see what Penn means.

Allen says he writes longhand on a legal pad and then types his scripts on an old Olympia typewriter. We see that. Allen says he has a drawer filled with movie ideas. We get to see that — and hear one about a man who inherits a magician’s tricks. Actors talk about letters Allen wrote them; we see multiple examples. Allen even walks through his old Brooklyn neighborhood to reminisce.

What emerges is a portrait of a man driven by his work, who believes he’s never going to get it quite right but wouldn’t think of not trying. He’s self-deprecating —“I don’t really care about commercial success and the end result is, I rarely achieve it” — realistic, fatalistic and, sometimes, a bit un-self-aware.

In the portion that deals with the breakup of his 12-year relationship with Mia Farrow and the lurid aftermath, Allen says, “I didn’t think I was that famous to warrant that coverage.”

Um, really? But in typical fashion, he also offers a superb one-liner: “It took a little edge off my natural blandness.”

The film ends beautifully, with Midnight in Paris becoming his most financially successful picture ever and with a quote that sums up his view of his life perfectly. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a great laugh line. Thanks for that, too, Woody.

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