This Old Dog’s Tricks Are Getting Tiresome

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

If Joan Rivers were to write one movie after another, direct and star in them and cast herself opposite the yummiest young actors in town, would eyebrows not be raised? Joan in a heavy make-out session with Johnny Depp? Joan lounging in bed, basking in the afterglow with Leonardo DiCaprio?

No one bats an eye when Woody Allen does it, however, perhaps because he began preparing audiences to accept his weird romantic proclivities almost 20 years ago. His 1979 film “Manhattan” found him paired with an adoring nubile of 17 played by Mariel Hemingway, Allen’s junior by 26 years.

Allen has made 18 films since then and chronicled dozens of relationships, not one of which has involved a man in love with an older woman--something apparently inconceivable to Allen. (The one possible exception was the pairing of Dianne Wiest and John Cusack in the 1994 film “Bullets Over Broadway”; that romance hardly qualifies, though, as it was broadly played as a farce).

The double standard of American sexual politics is old news indeed, but at 62, Allen is beginning to push the outer limits of this particular envelope in terms of believability--to say nothing of taste. In his 29th film, “Deconstructing Harry,” which opened Friday, he gets to lay a big, wet kiss on the gorgeous Elisabeth Shue (who’s 28 years younger).

Last year, in “Everyone Says I Love You,” we saw Julia Roberts (32 years younger) turn to him in bed and purr, “That was unbelievable, absolutely perfect.” Also turning up in “Everyone Says I Love You” is Goldie Hawn, who’s cast as Allen’s ex-wife, an attractive woman long ago cast on the scrapheap. At one point he turns to Hawn (who’s actually younger than Allen by a decade) and snaps, “A few more years and I’m gonna look like your son"--a comment everyone in the scene seems to find plausible.


Can you imagine a female comedian of Allen’s age--Joan Rivers, for instance--saying something comparable to Harrison Ford or to Clint Eastwood (who’s seven years older than Rivers), and anyone taking it seriously for a minute?

What makes the sexual politics of Allen’s films particularly distressing is the fact that you can’t dismiss him as your standard-issue Hollywood jerk. His 1989 film “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” for example, a stunningly eloquent inquiry into questions of justice and faith, is one of the most philosophically sophisticated American films of the last 10 years. Allen can’t cop a “I’m just a horny, lonely old man” plea, because he is clearly a thinker (he helped finance “Hotel Terminus,” the epic documentary on Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie), and he has made questions of morality central to almost all his films.

Now and then Allen does pay lip service to the dubiousness of dating teenagers. “Manhattan” and the 1992 film “Husbands and Wives,” which cast Juliette Lewis (38 years younger) as his prey, both include scenes of Allen wringing his hands and moaning to a friend that the object of his affections is perhaps too young.

(Playing Lewis’ mother in “Husbands” is Blythe Danner, who’s nearly a decade younger than Allen. Also turning up in that film is the long-suffering Mia Farrow, cast as a manipulative passive-aggressive who constantly whines that she wants a baby. Farrow played a similar character in “Shadows and Fog,” also out in 1992.)

Having expressed the occasional flicker of doubt about the propriety of seducing people who need help with their homework, Allen simply shrugs his shoulders and charges full speed ahead. Apparently no one has told him that one of the distinguishing characteristics of adulthood is the capacity to refrain from acting on inappropriate impulses.

And so he continues. In his 1995 film “Mighty Aphrodite,” Mira Sorvino (34 years younger) does the honors. To survey Allen’s oeuvre of the last 10 years is to conclude that it’s only fair to let Roman Polanski back into the country.

Several years ago, during an interview with musician Joni Mitchell, we got to talking about the fetishization of youth that pervades every aspect of pop culture. Just for the sake of argument, I asked her: “Is it wrong to cherish and admire youth and innocence?” She replied: “To cherish and admire innocence is one thing, but to want it in your bed is something else entirely.”

Needless to say, love is an endlessly mysterious thing that often arrives in surprising packages, but I don’t think we’re talking about love here--we’re talking about an abuse of power by someone hung up on a stage of human development. In her review of Allen’s critically acclaimed 1986 film “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Pauline Kael commented in the New Yorker, “It’s a funny thing about Woody Allen: The characters he plays learn to accept life and get on with it, but then he starts a new picture and his character is back at square one.”

She’s certainly right about that. In “Manhattan,” Allen turns to Hemingway--a freshly scrubbed beauty in a chaste little school uniform--and tells her, “I don’t want that thing I like about you to change.” Apparently the thing he liked about her was the fact that she couldn’t legally buy a beer, because in film after film Allen’s paired himself with girls of approximately the same age and emotional maturity.

(“What man in his 40s but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” Kael said of “Manhattan.”)

Most of Allen’s stories, in fact, pivot on a resistance to change (check his taste in music and literature), which he usually represents with the metaphor of the fading of romantic passion--an eventuality he perceives as inevitable. And naturally a guy’s got to keep his spirits up, so he has no choice but to buzz from one freshly opened flower to the next.

Theories are spouted, usually by people of the masculine persuasion, about the male animal being attracted to females of childbearing age in order to ensure the survival of the species, but we’re not talking about a biological imperative here.

What we’re really talking about is capitalism, a spiritually bankrupt system that has drained all meaning from the process of aging and death and replaced it with a quest for immortal life on Earth through the acquisition of things. Buy this product, go to that gym, be rich and powerful, woo a beautiful young girlfriend, live in a now of perfect pleasure and you never have to die.

OK, maybe you do have to die, but you’ll be too distracted to think about it. To reject the full arc of what it is to be human, however, is to live a diminished life grounded in fear--which is, of course, another major recurring theme for Allen. It’s interesting to note that the flip side of his compulsive pursuit of the quintessential ingenue is his obsession with death, and that the characters he plays invariably have no spiritual life whatsoever.

The events of Allen’s private life of the last five years have been thoroughly documented in the press, and personally I believe them to be nobody’s business but his. What he does with his formidable skills as a director is another matter. To release film after film presenting erotic relationships between very young women and very old men, as if it were business as usual barely worth commenting on, is potentially destructive--and I’m not talking about the fact that Allen may or may not be corrupting minors. I’m referring to the fact that these nymphets Allen finds so irresistible are going to be asked to cash in their chips and exit the playing field once they turn 35. But one can only presume that Allen believes otherwise.

“Guilt is petty bourgeois crap: An artist creates his own moral universe!” declares Sheldon Flender, a character played by Rob Reiner in “Bullets Over Broadway.”

I wonder if Woody Allen believes that.