Why Woody Allen is the greatest US screenwriter
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The master who never let new trends in cinema outgrow his talent...
"Whilst Woody Allen films are no longer the event they once were, his influence extends beyond the technique of mere screenwriting and film-making to the creation of a sustainable living outside of the Hollywood system"
With almost fifty films under his belt as a writer, twenty-one Academy Award nominations, three Academy Awards - each for best original screenplay - and four films included in the Writers Guild of America’s top 100 screenplays of all time, it is hard to deny the neurotic angst of Allen’s screen persona its place in history.
From his teenage days writing jokes for newspapers, to short stories for The New Yorker, plays for Broadway, critically acclaimed stand-up comedy, and the glitz of showbiz television, Allen has traversed the full breadth of the written word. However, it is for his work as a screenwriter and director that he will forever be known. From his breakthrough ‘serious work’ Annie Hall (1977), which won four Oscars, including best film and best screenplay, the Brooklyn born comedian has never been afraid to take risks with genre and style. However, his greatest works have each highlighted his universally recognized talent for crafting jokes in concert with a sharp ear for punchy dialogue.
In addition to Manhattan (1979), Crimes & Misdemeanours (1989), and Hannah and her Sisters (1986), the other three names on the WGA list, other obvious screenplays come to mind including Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Bananas (1971), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Radio Days (1986).
And yet, whilst Woody Allen films are no longer the event they once were, his influence extends beyond the technique of mere screenwriting and film-making, to the creation of a sustainable living outside of the Hollywood system, which has inspired and influenced generations of fellow-pretenders to Allen’s crown.
Over the last ten to fifteen years critical opinion has made the septuagenarian less relevant to movie goers too young to remember Allen and Diane Keaton playing with lobsters in Annie Hall, or Jeff Daniels stepping out of the cinema screen and into Mia Farrow’s life in The Purple Rose of Cairo. However, with his recent European cycle of films Allen has re-established his relevance to a new generation with modern tales of greed and love such as the highly-acclaimed Match Point (2005) and Oscar-winning romance Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
The former is heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment, and received numerous positive reviews, including an Academy Award nomination despite the last-minute withdrawal of Kate Winslet. The latter, with overtones of Noel Coward’s play Design For Living, and Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, provided Penelope Cruz with her first Academy Award for an outstanding turn as jealous lover Maria Elena and led to her real-life relationship, and later marriage, with co-star Javier Bardem.
Yet, it is his relationship with ‘muses’ Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow that provided a certain stability to the writer-director’s most revered works, the former receiving an Academy Award for Annie Hall, whilst Diane Wiest won twice for Hannah and her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway, and Mira Sorvino for Broadway Danny Rose (1984).
"Through a fine balance between tragedy and comedy, Woody Allen’s greatest achievement is to have created a unique voice that throws every negative aspect of life at us, but still allows us in the end to feel cleansed, invigorated and often uplifted"
Having initially struggled with writing credible female parts, Allen has repeatedly spoken of his transformation after meeting Diane Keaton during the theatre production of Play It Again Sam in 1972: “Keaton and I started dating, we started living together, and became very close. Through some kind of Socratic osmosis or something, I started writing for women. I started writing for Diane, and I found I could write for women. Then I sort of only wrote for women…for some reason I find them interesting to write about." It is unsurprising, then, that Keaton was the lead in Annie Hall, particularly as the title is named after her – she was born Diane Hall, and nicknamed Annie.
Right throughout Allen’s career, the common ingredient to his screenplays has been the dual influences of love and death and their impact on the lives of ordinary people. Through a fine balance between tragedy and comedy, Woody Allen’s greatest achievement is to have created a unique voice that throws every negative aspect of life at us, but still allows us in the end to feel cleansed, invigorated and often uplifted. This is no mean feat and explains his repeated success with critics and his industry peers. He is unafraid to take risks with his audience and himself, memorably appearing in a sperm costume for Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (1972).
Whilst his private life has had its moments of controversy, his public persona remains one of adulation from his numerous followers whose support over the years has allowed the filmmaker to receive an unprecedented amount of artistic freedom in an industry which is renowned for its studio control.
Regardless of whether Allen may be considered one of the last true film ‘auteurs’, his body of work must be considered as one of the greatest contributions to not only film, but also comedy. The greatest myth about Woody Allen is that he always plays himself, but he has disputed this, saying: “[The characters] all reflect me. You can disguise yourself in many forms. It can be either gender or age”. The famous and often imitated neurotic intellectual, angst-ridden persona is actually a development from his successful early comedy performances, voted by UK comedians in 2005 as the third greatest act ever.
The truth, Allen regularly states, is that he is not particularly neurotic, enjoys ‘most sports’, finds reading ‘a chore’, and works regular hours. His films, it seems, are a visceral interpretation bringing the feelings from which he considers other people to suffer to light in a form that is both entertaining and enlightening.
Annie Hall is perhaps the best example of this visceral interpretation when lead character Alvy Singer, played by Allen, begins speaking directly to the camera about the two key problems of his life through humorous metaphors: “the food here is terrible”, “Yes, and such small portions”, and “I could never be part of any club that would have me for a member”. The first relates directly to the horror and misery (his descriptions) of life and the inevitability of death, whilst the second hints at a certain self-loathing on his part and an incapacity to enjoy life which appears right from the beginning of the film as a child.
"The precursor to just about every modern romantic comedy, Annie Hall offers a redemptive and uplifting look at imperfect human beings struggling through life"
The final theme is about the line between fantasy and reality when it comes to remembering the past: some reminiscences feel better than they were, whilst others feel worse, which is expertly shown through a fragmented narrative intertwining various stages in Singer’s life and explaining why his relationship to Annie Hall failed.
Allen has oft-stated that he is extremely comfortable in non-linear narrative, and, in his combination of breaking the fourth wall, combined with abstract cinematic techniques such as a split-screen to show two separate interpretations of a single moment, subtitles to show the thoughts of the actors, and appearing in his own childhood memories, he is able to deftly bring out the full range of expression of his characters.
The film is without doubt a masterpiece, co-plotted with Marshall Brickman, though written to page by Allen himself, and was voted number six on the WGA list. It was originally intended as a murder mystery thriller until editor Ralph Rosenblum chopped out the murder (later to be infused into Manhattan Murder Mystery) and showcased the precursor to just about every modern romantic comedy. At its heart a tragedy of life’s miseries, Annie Hall offers a redemptive and uplifting look at imperfect human beings struggling through life. It is also the key to understanding the body of Woody Allen’s later work and, without a doubt, his legacy to the art of cinema as the greatest screenwriter of the USA.
Top Woody Allen Quotes
"I was thrown out of N.Y.U. in my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final, you know. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me."
"They did not take me in the Army. I was, um, interestingly enough I was 4-P. Yes, in the event of war, I'm a hostage."
"I can't enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening."
"I remember the staff at our public school. You know, we had a saying, uh, that those who can't do teach, and those who can't teach, teach gym. And, uh, those who couldn't do anything, I think, were assigned to our school."
"That sex was the most fun I've ever had without laughing."
"I had a mad impulse to throw you down on the lunar surface and commit interstellar perversion."
"My analyst warned me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst."
"When it comes to relationships with women, I'm the winner of the August Strindberg Award."
"Well, well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point."
"I was just thinking there must be something wrong with me, since I've never had a relationship with a woman that's lasted longer than the one between Hitler and Eva Braun."
Hannah and Her Sisters
"I had a great evening; it was like the Nuremberg Trials."
"For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I can't fathom my own heart."
"I'm afraid once they're done singing they're gonna take hostages!"
"How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don't know how the can opener works!"
"And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said that the life we lived we're gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again."
Crimes and Misdemeanours
"He left a note. He left a simple little note that said 'I've gone out the window'. This is a major intellectual and he leaves a note that says 'I've gone out the window'. He's a role-model. You'd think he'd leave a decent note."
"What is the guy so upset about? You'd think nobody was ever compared to Mussolini before."
"It's probably just as well. I plagiarized most of it from James Joyce. You probably wondered why all the references to Dublin."
"Last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty."
"I think I see a cab. If we run quickly we can kick the crutch from that old lady and get it."
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