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What’s the Buzz on Woody?

Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

Make no mistake about it: Comedy has gotten a lot more lowbrow since the glory days of “Annie Hall.” Tell your friends that Woody Allen is in town, making a rare appearance at UCLA to promote his new movie, “Small Time Crooks,” and more than one quips, “Is he going there to sell the movie or just to check out the college chicks?”

Allen is no longer the unassailable comic icon he was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when his neurotic urban angst made him, as one critic put it, a “Chaplin for the chattering classes.” His private life was consumed by scandal in 1992, when ex-lover (and frequent co-star) Mia Farrow accused him of molesting her children shortly after Allen became romantically involved with Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow’s adopted daughter (and now Allen’s wife). Once his most loyal supporters, critics began obsessively searching for clues to his private travails in his films, viewing them as propaganda-like apologies for his personal problems.

Allen’s audience, modest even in the best of times, has dwindled to cult status in America, though his films still perform well overseas. His past four movies have averaged $7.4 million in domestic grosses. The worst showing was last year’s “Sweet and Lowdown,” which despite good reviews and Oscar-nominated performances by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, took in only $4.2 million in America.

Still, his hard-core fans remain as loyal as ever. He drew a packed house of UCLA students at the Wadsworth Theatre and walked on stage to a standing ovation. Among admirers, Allen was so at ease that he showed the audience the little silver pillbox he carries in his pants pocket that holds “an assortment of pharmaceuticals that would rival the Merck Co.”

One on one, holding court in a penthouse suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel earlier in the day, he is equally charming, as anxiety-ridden and self-mocking as ever. Clad in the same sweater and corduroy pants ensemble he wears in his films, he’s nursing a slight cold that prompted a hurried doctor’s visit.

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“Actually, Soon-Yi was the one that was feeling sick, but I thought, well, as long as he’s here, he might as well look at me too,” Allen says. “I’m not a hypochondriac, I’m an alarmist. If I have chapped lips, I think I might have a brain tumor. That’s the difference--I have something, it’s not like I don’t have anything at all.”

He jokes that his cold got worse after his beloved New York Knicks lost a big playoff game. “I had a cough before the game,” he says. “Chronic nausea afterward.”

Still, he’s full of energy. When the doorbell rings, Allen sprints across the room, as light on his feet as he was evading the police in “Take the Money and Run,” his first film, made in 1969.

Among his movie director peers, Allen’s indefatigable productivity is the object of constant amazement. Allen, who’ll be 65 in December, has maintained a Cal Ripken-like work schedule, writing and directing 32 films in the 31 years since “Take the Money and Run.” DreamWorks, which is distributing his new film, recently signed Allen to a three-picture distribution deal.

He’s also still a magnet for every actor imaginable. His past five films alone featured the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore, Edward Norton, Julia Roberts, Judy Davis, Goldie Hawn, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Kenneth Branagh, Melanie Griffith and Billy Crystal. “Small Time Crooks,” his just-opened romantic comedy about a quarreling couple whose get-rich-quick schemes don’t buy them happiness, teams Allen with the rarely seen-on-film Elaine May, as well as Tracey Ullman, Jon Lovitz and Hugh Grant.

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But does Woody Allen still matter? Can a filmmaker who makes fart-joke-free comedies, refuses to attend the Oscars, pays his actors a top salary of $50,000 and wouldn’t be caught dead schmoozing with Sam Rubin on “The KTLA Morning News,” still play in a comedy game that’s become dominated by outrageous youth comedies like “American Pie” and “There’s Something About Mary”? It says something about Allen’s limited appeal that DreamWorks released the youth comedy “Road Trip” on the same day as “Small Time Crooks.”

Allen’s not eager to be part of today’s how-low-can-you-go media culture. “I hope I’m not in sync because I’ve never been in sync,” he says. “I think the culture is one that deserves a lot of criticism. I don’t respect it. But I’ve always been an outsider. Look at my films. In ‘Take the Money and Run,’ I was a bank robber. In ‘Bananas,’ I was a leader of rebel forces. In ‘Sleeper,’ I was an alien. I’ve always felt like someone who didn’t fit in, in both my films and my life.”

In an era when everyone from Martin Scorsese to Steven Soderbergh has tried his or her hand at accessible, star-driven studio projects, it’s hard to imagine an American filmmaker--OK, other than Jim Jarmusch--less willing to swap independence for a box-office payoff.

As an artist, Allen is set in his ways: He writes in bed, works before and after lunch, then knocks off to practice his clarinet. He won’t do DVD commentaries for his films (“they’re creepy”); he won’t even watch his movies after they’re made. Allen’s tastes are basically the same as they were nearly 40 years ago. His heroes are the foreign film gods he worshiped as a youth: Bergman, De Sica, Kurosawa and Fellini, plus Hollywood icons like Ernst Lubitsch and Orson Welles. Allen said at UCLA that when he was making “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “If anyone had ever told me I’d be directing Van Johnson, I’d have been completely paralyzed,” prompting one young fan to whisper to her friend, “Who’s Van Johnson?”

Along with the likes of Phillip Roth, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, Allen was part of a generation of ambitious ‘60s rebels who created a new pop persona--the hip Jewish outlaw who dazzled audiences with razor-sharp wordplay. Some of his peers have died or retired to the sidelines; others have tried to adapt to the times.

Allen has his style--and he’s sticking to it. He hasn’t seen a Jim Carrey movie or a Farrelly brothers film. He wouldn’t know “American Pie” from “Animal House.” “Small Time Crooks” is set in the present day, but its soundtrack is full of Depression-era big-band music by Lester Lavin.

Most of Allen’s creative team has been with him for years. Juliet Taylor, his casting director, has worked on his movies for 25 years. Santo Loquasto, his production designer, has done 20 Allen films. His managers, Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, have been with him since the ‘60s. Even Jean Doumanian, whose Sweetland Films ends its association with Allen after this film, remains a close friend who will produce several upcoming Allen plays.

“I’m a creature of habit,” Allen says. “Juliet criticizes me all the time for not wanting to cast new people. ‘Sweet and Lowdown’ was the first film I edited on an Avid. I don’t like change. I like a nice, ordered routine; it helps me be productive. I have my hours to write, my time for clarinet practice. I don’t even like to travel. I only do it because I don’t want to subject Soon-Yi to a life of total rigidity.”

Allen sighs. “If I was left to my own devices, you could put something on the coffee table of my apartment in New York, come back in 20 years and it would be right there in the same place.”

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For DreamWorks, just getting the notoriously press-shy Allen to say hello to a camera-toting show-biz reporter is something of a marketing triumph. Before he spoke at the Wadsworth, Allen took questions from TV reporters who formed a line outside the hall, patiently waiting their turn to ask Allen a couple of questions. Nearby, a scrum of publicists and DreamWorks staffers, including studio partner Jeffrey Katzenberg, stood by, eyeing the TV crews (“They’re never, ever this polite,” one amazed publicist explained) and scrutinizing Allen, as if worried that he might suddenly hurdle a fence and sprint away to freedom.

In the past, Allen has limited his media contacts to august outlets like the New Yorker; he’s even turned down Charlie Rose, who has been wooing him for years to do his show. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t do any promotion,” Allen says. “Just a little tasteful advertising and that would be it. I feel my obligation is over after I’ve made the movie. Then it’s up to the audience to decide whether they like it or not.”

Determined to broaden Allen’s audience, DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press flew to New York and persuaded the filmmaker to embark on a four-college tour. Allen reluctantly agreed: “Everyone else was doing something for the film, so I didn’t want to be a louse.” DreamWorks had no problems recruiting moderators: New Yorker editor David Remnick hosted an Allen appearance at NYU; Roger Ebert emceed at the University of Chicago; critic Jay Carr was the host at Harvard; and Andy Kaufman biographer Bill Zehme handled UCLA.

DreamWorks put up $10 million of the $18-million budget for the film, which opened Friday in about 700 theaters nationwide. The studio has even taken out a host of TV ads, including spots on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” (“You have to figure that a movie about someone that robs banks is perfect for ‘Millionaire,’ ” says Press.) Impressed by Allen’s voice work as the lead character in “Antz,” which took in more than $90 million in 1998, the studio believes Allen can reach a wider spectrum of comedy fans if he’s just handled right.

“In a way, ‘Antz’ was the most successful Woody Allen movie of all time,” Press says. “Tons of people went to see that movie that would never have been caught dead at a Woody Allen film. So we’re selling ‘Crooks’ first as a comedy, second as a Woody Allen film. And we’re putting it out at a time when there really isn’t a movie for adults, because all the kids are off seeing ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Road Trip.’ ”

Allen says Katzenberg, who worked with him when the executive was at Disney (they worked together on 1991’s “Scenes From a Mall”), approached him after the success of “Antz.” “I have this drawerful of ideas that I keep thinking I have to do, so I told Jeffrey that I had a few things that I thought might be funny. So he said, great, let’s be in business together.”

Even though Allen’s U.S. fan base has shrunk in recent years, his films bring in nearly three times as much money overseas as in America. So if DreamWorks can simply return Allen to his 1995-era $10-million box-office plateau, he could turn a modest profit, thanks to his video and foreign sales.

“Woody is one of the most singular filmmakers of our times,” Katzenberg says. “And I think ‘Antz’ showed Woody how much fun he could have working with an ensemble of actors. We’re being realistic; we don’t expect him to make $100 million. But he makes movies on a very modest budget, and we think this is a moment in time in Woody’s career where he wants to return to the style of comedy he was doing 25 years ago--broad, physical comedy.”

“Small Time Crooks” is certainly broad. With Allen and Ullman playing bickering blue-collar criminals, it has the knockabout feel of an extended “Honeymooners” episode, down to a concluding “you’re the greatest” embrace. Allen got the idea for the film after reading an article about a gang of thieves who’d tunneled into a jewelry shop from a store they’d rented next door. Allen thought: What if the robbery didn’t work, but they made a killing from the fake store they’d set up next door?

“I still felt I only had half a story,” he explains. “So I started pondering, where do they go from there? They become millionaires. But they miss going to the dog track and watching TV. What they really want is a simple life, and the joy of having each other, which is exactly what they lose when they become rich, so all this sudden wealth makes them very unhappy.”

Throughout his career, from “Take the Money and Run” through “Broadway Danny Rose” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” Allen has had a fascination with criminals. “When I was a child I was always interested in crime,” he says. “Other kids could give you baseball players’ batting averages. I could do that, but I knew all the gangsters and their jail sentences too. In crime, you’ve got suspicion, tension, and there’s always something at stake, which is a very good atmosphere for a comedian. It’s as if you’re always walking through a china shop where any wrong move can be very funny.”

Allen doesn’t audition actors or do rehearsals before he films. Taylor, his casting director, gives him a list of a dozen actors for each part, briefing him on their credits. “If they’re right, I hire them on the spot,” he says. “I think auditions are too uncomfortable for everybody. These are good, professional actors, so all I need to do is see if they look like how I imagined the character when I was writing it.”

He is just as decisive on the set. “I’m big on spontaneity,” he says. “I don’t have the patience to be a perfectionist--it’s just my metabolism. All I ask for in an actor is believability. So all I say to them on the set is, ‘talk faster,’ ‘do less’ or ‘try to be more believable.’ ”

Allen insists that his U.S. box-office slump isn’t the result of fans being turned off by the media spectacle resulting from his messy private life. “I’ve always had box-office problems,” he says. “I’ve never been influenced by popularity. After I had a hit with ‘Annie Hall,’ I did ‘Interiors,’ knowing full well that no one was going to come see it.

“I’m so pessimistic overall as a human being that I’m always surprised by success. Look at ‘Sweet and Lowdown.’ It got nice reviews and Oscar nominations, but it didn’t do well. And I thought, that’s pretty much what I expected. When everything was going on in my life, my movies didn’t really make any more or less money. I think in the end people don’t care about you, they care about being entertained.”

It bothers Allen that critics often confuse his screen persona with his personal life. “Most people just aren’t comfortable with artists who have an active imagination,” he says. “People don’t believe you can make something up completely. Also, most comics, whether it was Chaplin or Keaton, looked totally different in their films than they did in real life. But if you see me, it looks like I’m the same person. People see the same clothes and say, ‘It must be the same guy.’ ”

Many Allen detractors think it’s more than just the threads. After Allen’s affair with then-21-year-old Soon-Yi became public eight years ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd argued that it was the very correspondence between Allen’s life and work that made him popular in the first place. “What makes Allen so irretrievably creepy,” she wrote, “is the way he keeps revising his image in his movies while denying that his movies are about himself.”

Allen is content to let history be his judge. “I know that I can make people laugh,” he says. “And if you’re authentically funny, you will find a way to entertain people. If you watch a Marx Brothers movie made in the 1930s, it’s still hilarious today, whether you show it to a bunch of truck drivers or a bunch of college kids.”

In some ways, Allen still feels like a college kid. “You know, I’ll be 65 later this year, but I still look good. I haven’t had any face work, I’ve got good energy. Say what you will, but I think I’ve aged gracefully.” *


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