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COVER STORY : Funny Isn’t Good Enough : Woody Allen’s got another movie coming out, but there are a few other things on his mind

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The handshake is soft, the familiar face distracted and sallow. In the dim light of the screening room there is the hint of a smile, a tremble of warmth around the eyes. He hears your name and nods ever so faintly, squinting under his glasses as if it’s still too bright in here to see. He doesn’t have to give his name, of course, because it’s clear he’s Woody Allen.

A no-nonsense female assistant has announced that you will sit there and he will sit there , pointing to a sleek, velveteen couch and matching lounge chair in the back of the room. The couch (where he will be sitting) is raised on a small, carpeted platform. It looks not unlike the set for a talk show but will also serve as a temporary throne for a diminutive 56-year-old Manhattan celluloid prince.

This is all happening just off Park Avenue in the East 60s, on the ground floor and in the back of a large apartment building, behind a door bearing a small, inconspicuous brass plate that reads “Manhattan Film Center.” It is where, for the last 10 years, Woody Allen has viewed not only his own much-reworked films-in-progress but the films of other directors that studios send over, as a courtesy, if he requests one. It is where he and casting director Juliet Taylor sit and discuss what actors will be right for the next picture and where, for example, they decided to cast Madonna in the brief role of a bosomy trapeze artist in “Shadows and Fog,” Allen’s latest film, which will be released this week.

“A couple of names were thrown out and one of them was Madonna,” he says. “And it seemed fine. She was right on the nose for that kind of thing. So we cast her. We certainly never exploited her name for the picture. As in all my pictures, everybody gets alphabetical billing.”

To hear Allen talk, you might almost question whether he even knew who Madonna was. Although he is a habitue of Elaine’s, the East Side watering hole of the bi-coastal glitterati, the director seems as blissfully ignorant as ever of what’s happening in the movie business and has yet to let it be known that he has listened by choice to any American popular music recorded after 1956. This is not a man whose airspace has been penetrated by the Katzenberg memo, Ice Cube or Steven Seagal.

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For that matter, he says he still hasn’t seen “When Harry Met Sally . . . ,” the 1989 Rob Reiner comedy written by Nora Ephron that so many people took to be Reiner’s imitation of Woody Allen. Mention of the title draws a blank look across his face and he says: “I just happened to have missed that. I will catch up with it eventually.”

History indicates it has been this way for Woody Allen for a long time, this splendid isolation from all things un-Manhattan and therefore unessential. He has been able to seal himself inside an East Side cocoon of classic jazz, fancy restaurants, existential musings and eccentric movies that play to his own obsessions. He has been able to do this because of his talent, certainly, but also because of his unique relationship with Orion Pictures, a relationship that is coming to an end with the release of “Shadows and Fog.”

Orion is bankrupt, and its most idiosyncratic filmmaker will be seeking shelter at the Japanese-owned TriStar, where he is already making his next picture under a deal with TriStar chairman and former Orion executive Mike Medavoy. Medavoy has offered him, he says, “the exact same situation I had with Orion,” which was complete control over his films--script, casting, final cut--as long as he stayed within a modest, agreed-upon budget.

Meanwhile, “Shadows and Fog,” budgeted at $14 million, goes out into the world Friday as what may be the last Orion movie ever. It is “‘offbeat,” even in Allen’s words, a comic fable in black-and-white, set somewhere in Europe in the 1920s, about a little man (our Woody) who finds himself enlisted against his will in a vigilante committee tracking down a mysterious strangler. Coincidentally, the circus is in town. Death and magic are matters at hand.

As we have come to expect from Allen’s last 10 movies, Mia Farrow has a featured role, as an unhappy circus performer married to John Malkovich, and many other famous names turn up in the scenery, however fleetingly. A local bordello is staffed by Lily Tomlin and two Academy Award-winning hookers: Kathy Bates and Jodie Foster. Donald Pleasence is a sinister medical examiner, John Cusack a rich young whorehouse patron. The score is dominated by the melancholy tunes of Kurt Weill.

This is perhaps the oddest Woody Allen picture since “Zelig” in 1983, and whatever critics will say about it, “Shadows and Fog” seems to come from some other compartment of its author’s imagination than the one where his big, warm, romantic comedies like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall” or even “Alice,” his last movie, were created.

But this should be plain enough, Allen will say in a minute. The whole point of being a filmmaker, his life attests, is not to make money or wow audiences or get good reviews but to keep reaching for the stars and new ideas, never mind that you might get only as far as Venus. Nevertheless, the scenario of “Shadows and Fog” is not altogether new. The story has its origins in a one-act play he wrote years ago for Broadway impresario David Merrick, as part of an evening of one-acts called “Sex, Death and God.” “And the one called ‘Death,’ ” he says, “was the story of a guy who’s awakened in the middle of the night and taken out into the middle of the street by a vigilante committee to help pursue a killer. It was just a little one-act play and I always thought it would make a wonderful movie if expanded and elaborated.”

While he does not always share the secrets of his scripts even with his actors, let alone the public, Allen says he is concerned that audiences remember that “Shadows and Fog” is a comedy.

“Even though it has a serious title and looks serious in the ad, it’s a comic film. And like all my films, I made it for people who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s an offbeat kind of film--I think more so than ‘Alice,’ because ‘Alice’ was the story of a contemporary woman with contemporary problems. People always have an easier time with that.”

As he speaks, his large, pale hands move continually through the air in front of him, helping conduct his directorial thoughts while the rest of his 128-pound body remains serenely at rest on the couch.

It has often been said that he does not relax easily around strangers, and while this is true, he is not an unfriendly man. Amiable in a formal, almost stagy way, it is as if he is gamely fulfilling the role of the precocious Brooklyn kid who was selling gags to newspaper columnists when he was 17, went on to direct 22 movies, win the heart of Mia Farrow, make debilitating anxiety respectable to the modern American man. There have been no fewer than 15 books about Allen written and published. “A lot,” he remarks about the number of books, giving a particularly weary smile.

The stately, worshipful biography of Allen written last year by Eric Lax represents a culmination of all this scrutiny and has done nothing to diminish Allen’s status as a king of comedy. “The criticisms of the book,” he says, “have been that Lax was too hagiographic, too soft on me, too adulatory. I, of course, felt that he wasn’t complimentary enough.” This is a laugh line and so there is laughter as he says it. “I found it sober and accurate. There are no great hidden stories about me. I gave him access to anyone he wanted to talk to. I let him hang around and watch whatever he wanted to watch. His spin on it, his feelings, may be affectionate toward me, and maybe that ruins it for some people who would rather have a more critical biography.”

Lax concludes, for example, in a section on Allen and actors, ". . . there are no bad performances in Woody’s movies; he protects his actors well, never leaving them looking or sounding awkward.”

“It’s all true,” Allen says. “If there are some places he could be more critical of me, I don’t know where they’d be, but he was certainly free to do it.”

Yet why is it that despite the adoring books, the Oscars, the sizable body of work and his continuing influence, the feeling persists that Woody Allen, at 56, is somehow an underachiever? And, Orion or no Orion, where does he go from here? Does he or his audience need to have a Woody Allen film every year, as has been his compulsive pace for almost two decades, and will he ever profit from trying to transplant his oversize comic brain into the skull of Ingmar Bergman?

If it seems ungrateful to raise such questions about a man who has made a film as rich and satisfying as “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the questions really begin with him. “I still have a long way to go,” he says. “I’d like to make a great film. I haven’t made one yet. You don’t start out to make a great film, you start out to make the idea you have at the time. But if my health holds out, I could make, before I’m finished, 50 movies, and maybe I’ll get lucky and one or two of them will turn out to be terrific films.”

The standard he brings to this discussion, for all who are interested, is European rather than American. “Grand Illusion,” “The Bicycle Thief,” “8 1/2,” “The Seventh Seal.” “Those are great films,” says Allen after reciting the list. “It would be great to make a film you could hold up alongside those films. That would be a tremendous achievement for me.”

But hearing this tribute to the European masters, it’s hard not to be reminded of the enduring images of Woody Allen as a sperm in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex,” as the Bogie-quoting lothario in “Play It Again Sam,” the exasperated TV writer whose wife has left him for another woman in “Manhattan,” the sweet but penniless agent to blind xylophone players and midgets in “Broadway Danny Rose"--wonderful images all but not the images, strangely enough, for which he seems to want to be remembered. One can argue that his best movies have been the ones like these in which he also acted, as opposed to his more studied and cerebral works such as the recent “Another Woman” and the Chekhovian “September.”

His personal favorite is 1985’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” the technically virtuosic but otherwise remote Depression-era fantasy, in which waitress Mia Farrow finds temporary bliss when Jeff Daniels steps down off the screen from a Saturday matinee and sweeps her off her feet. He describes “Purple Rose” as “the one where I accomplished what I set out to do most perfectly.” It was not popular in America.

“There have not been a lot of talking comedies that have been great over the years,” he says, returning to the subject of American films and why he doesn’t see more of them. “This goes back historically right to the inception of sound. There’ve been some Marx Brothers movies and maybe a couple of Bob Hope movies and a couple of (Ernst) Lubitsch movies and couple of (Preston) Sturges movies, and that’s pretty much it for talking comedies. There have not been a lot of sound comedies that have really risen to a big level.”

Personally, he looks back before Hollywood for inspiration and career guidance. “Chekhov is one of my idols as far as being amusing: sort of the humor of desperation.”

A recent American movie he admits to watching and actually enjoying was Martin Scorsese’s febrile portrait of life in the Mafia, “GoodFellas.” “That was very funny very often, lively and amusing, as well as being quite serious. You really got a feeling of what those mob guys live like, what day-to-day life is like for them and their values, so it was fun for me that way.”

He dealt with the mob too in “Broadway Danny Rose,” but used its threat of murderous force as an element of farce. The notion of making a serious movie about his own society is far from his mind.

“I’ve never been moved by social material. I would never see myself doing a film on, you know, integration or women’s rights. It’s just not my kind of thing.”

Writing has always come easy for him, perhaps too easy some of his critics would say. One has called him “a writer of episodes more than movies,” meaning that his individual scenes are better than his scenarios.

“I’ve never considered it work,” Allen says about writing. “Another guy will come home from his job and go work on his boat or his stamp collection. I would write. Because it’s fun.”

When he gets serious, it is usually about personal sorrow, the thought of death, the meaninglessness of the universe and, most often, the inability of men and women to be in love with people who also love them.

He has written and directed some reasonably big hits on these themes--"Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors"--and while making his films on budgets well below the industry average, he has been able to avoid studio interference in his lesser whimsies and esoteric meanderings. What major studio executive, for example, would have greenlighted 1988’s “Another Woman,” in which Gena Rowlands, cast as an emotionally blocked philosophy professor, shows us 40 ways to judge her life a disaster as she turns 50?

Will there be room for a movie like this at TriStar and, regardless, does Allen ever worry that the increasingly loud and fractious American culture is slipping out of reach of an artist given to such personal reveries?

“I don’t think about it. It could happen. It could be happening. I never really cared about it,” he says. "(Time magazine critic) Richard Schickel once wrote a piece about me in which he said my audience moved away from me, and later I talked to him about it and said what I felt really happened is that I had moved away from them, that they’ve always been very decent and obeyed the social contract with me: You know, they thought they were going to get a certain kind of film and I usually provided it, and they came and laughed and rewarded me. But then I started to do different things and moved in other directions that I wanted to move in. I mean, I hoped they would come along and that they would enjoy them, but it never bothered me in the least that I was moving out of the mainstream. Because if I wanted to, tomorrow, I could make a mainstream film. That would not be a hard thing to do. I mean, I don’t set out to make a non-mainstream film, it’s just that the ideas that interest me, I don’t censor them because they’re non-mainstream. And as you work more and more, it takes more and more of an odd idea to entertain you, a fresher idea.”

Could Woody Allen make “Police Academy IV” or “Airplane!” on demand? “Yeah, I wouldn’t make that kind of film, but I’d make my own version, a film that would be commercial, a film that any guy in a shopping mall could come on a Saturday night and laugh at and understand. And it would be full of jokes and situations that would be relevant to his life. It would not be hard to make a commercial comedy. What’s hard is to try to make a film that’s really good.”

Allen has been favored through the years by a number of influential critics, including the New York Times’ Vincent Canby, but he says he does not read most reviews, just as he does not read Variety or other trade papers, even when his movies are opening. “I haven’t read Variety since I was 18 years old,” he says. “I never have any idea what my films are doing.”

Distribution executives habitually call him up with reports on how the films are doing, “not that I want them to,” he says. “But they always call me and say, ‘Based on the first showing, we’re projecting $26 million because you opened on a Wednesday and “Hannah” opened on a Wednesday and “Manhattan” opened on a Wednesday.’ But two days later they call and say, ‘We’re projecting $6 million, not $26 million.’ And that’s always the case.”

His smile gets bigger as he contemplates this curious ritual. “I had this exact same conversation, believe it or not, with Ingmar Bergman, who said to me--and we were both laughing over it--they call up just so euphoric after the first couple of showings and make prognostications on the first couple of showings because the first couple of showings are full! And everything’s great. And then it’s always a box-office disappointment after.”

Take “September,” Allen’s somber chamber piece about a group of New York sophisticates all in love with the wrong people at a New England summer house. It’s, by the way, a movie he made twice, starting over from scratch after he didn’t like the first version. “I knew full well, whether it was critically well-received or not, that it wouldn’t make a dime, not a dime. But it’s the idea I wanted to do at the time.”

His least understood movie, he figures, remains “Stardust Memories,” the 1980 comedy about a successful movie director besieged by fatuous fans and critics during a retrospective film festival. “I guess people were up in arms, but it didn’t mean much to me because I was reasonably happy with it. I don’t ever get euphoric over them. I thought it came out pretty well, and it did have its audience. But that’s the only one where there was some real negative passion, some people really felt offended by it, that it was aggressively something to them, I don’t know what. It never struck me that way, but I have no objectivity.”

It was around the time of “Stardust Memories” that the New York Times ran an article by Tony Schwartz about Allen entitled “The Conflicting Life and Art of Woody Allen,” which sought to show he was not just a simple man with marketable neuroses but was rather a wealthy playboy who cultivated his fame. “I wondered what I had gotten myself into when they said they wanted to take a picture of my car,” he says. (It was a white Rolls-Royce.)

More than a few of Allen’s fans were disillusioned by the article. But he is philosophical about this. “People always used to think that I was some poor little schnook who lived in Greenwich Village who was physically weak and so on, and I always tried to explain that this is the natural material of a comedian, whether it’s Charlie Chaplin or Bob Hope. Charlie Chaplin was not inept, this was part of his art. The same with Bob Hope. He’s not just a girl-chasing fool and a coward’s coward. The same with me. I did a certain kind of character publicly but in real life I lived on the Upper East Side in a nice apartment. I was an athletic kid when I grew up and was not what people thought I was. I thought there was something wrong with the culture for wanting to think that. You don’t want to think that John Wayne would walk around with two six-shooters. That’s silly to me.”

Yet the power and influence of the movies is one of Allen’s favorite subjects, showing up in, to name but three, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Play It Again Sam” and “Stardust Memories.” “If you see me on the screen like the character in ‘Shadows and Fog’ schlepping around, fumbling around, it isn’t me. It just isn’t,” he reiterates. “There may be some elements of me in it, but they’re so exaggerated for comic purposes.”

Maybe it’s only Steven Seagal who wants people to believe he is in real life the same chop-socky demon he plays on the screen.

“Steven Seagal?” Allen says, quizzically. This is a name he has not heard at Elaine’s.

“Shadows and Fog” is full of Allen’s recurring homage to Europeans, in this case such German Expressionist directors as Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, along with further allusions to Bergman that aficionados may locate. He says he set it in the ‘20s for practical reasons. “It’s got to be set in a period, so I picked a period that I could believably play in. If I set it in a village in Europe in 1750, you couldn’t believe me in that context--I’m just too contemporary. So I tried to go back as far as I could and still play the role believably.”

If there is one regret that Woody Allen has, and this may not come as a surprise to everyone, it is that he dropped out of New York University after his freshman year and did not get a formal education. “Instead I was working, and that helped me in its way. But I think, on balance, it would have been nice if I had gone to Harvard or Yale or something and had a real super education. It could only be to my benefit now.”

The irony is to think of the number of undergraduates at Harvard and Yale over the last 20 years who probably wished they were Woody Allen. His followers tend to come from that segment of Americans who still read books and can sometimes even identify the philosophers whose names he drops in his movies.

“See, I’ve never considered myself an intellectual at any point,” he protests now here in the screening room. “People always think I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’ve always meant it for real when I say that it was only because of my glasses that people thought I was more bookish than I was. I’ve never been bookish. I’ve always been the guy who preferred watching a baseball game or a Knicks game to an opera or reading a book. I’ve just never been an intellectual, but I have this look.”

He has the look, true, and, it might be added, a penchant for Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini that most Knicks fans do not share.

“I would be very disappointing in a conversation with a group of genuine intellectuals. I remember reading this book by William Barrett, a memoir of intellectual life in the ‘30s,” he says, “and Philip Rahv or somebody criticizes someone by saying, ‘That guy’s a bore, he has no ideas.’ When I read that line I thought, that’s exactly how I’d come off if I was speaking to Philip Rahv or Irving Howe or Alfred Kazin. I mean, I would last five, eight minutes.”

OK, but let’s see their movies.

Some years ago, Allen included on the dust jacket of a book of his comic essays the biographical note, “His one regret in life is that he is not someone else.” This has caused him much trouble ever since because of the number of admirers who took him seriously and were concerned. He says he was kidding, and yet. . . .

“I mean, I would rather be Marlon Brando or Louis Armstrong. There are some people in life who got dealt a very enviable hand of cards. If I had my life to live over, I wish I could be a great pianist or something. This wouldn’t be my first choice. I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice. It’s that life has gone sour for them in some way when they were a kid, you might not even realize how. And it may be that it didn’t really go sour, but you think it did. But being funny is always a second choice.

“If I could have come from a different background, I might have started off with deeper goals and maybe achieved some of them earlier in life and at this point in my life be doing a lot better than I’m doing--doing deeper work or better work. One always thinks, who knows, if things had gone differently, I could have turned out to have been Chekhov or someone with a real deep thing to say and a real talent to say it. But I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”

No one can accuse of him of not trying to make up for his lost education up on the screen. But critics and other Woody Allen watchers might argue that his furious pace and output have become a problem, as if, by taking more time, he would be making better films or at least films they deem worthy of his talent. There is a sweetness about Woody Allen, real or imagined, that provokes in people the desire to see him do better. Possibly, in the years ahead, he will have to if he wants to keep working for recession-era Hollywood.

Not that he seems much concerned about that. He has had offers from European sources to back his films and for the moment he is working for TriStar. His next film, untitled as always, recently completed shooting and stars--besides Mia Farrow--Judy Davis, Liam Neeson and Sydney Pollack. He says, “It came out very close to what I wanted to do,” whatever that might be.

“If that gets shut off,” he says about film financing, ‘if people say you can’t make movies, then I’ll do something else. I’ll write for the theater or I’ll write books. It wouldn’t bother me terribly.

“Your goals reflect your values in life. And they change. My goals when I was younger were much different. When I was a kid watching Bob Hope on television, my goals were to win an Oscar or to emcee the Oscar show and to have some beautiful house in California and be a gag writer on television. But those were the goals of a 15-year-old kid.”

Two Mondays from now, the night of the Academy Awards, he will not be in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or even in front of a television set. He will be instead at Michael’s Pub on East 55th Street, as he is every Monday night, playing Dixieland jazz on his clarinet. Of course, he could tape the ceremony on his VCR and watch it later.

“No,” he says politely, when this is suggested as a possibility, as if someone had just asked him to sing “Okie From Muskogee.”


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