The Woody Allen Trifecta
Even the most hardcore auteurist would have a hard time defending Woody Allen's film career in the past decade. His productivity, long a strength, may have been his undoing: because he churns out a film a year, the prolific director has made three failures to most filmmakers' one. Add to this the debacle in his personal life, still a room-splitter some 15 years after all the brouhaha, and the number of extant Allen-lovers seems substantially diminished in 2007.
Some day in the not entirely distant future, the Woodman will be gone, and the obits will wax ecstatic over his best-known career highs, probably treading more lightly over what may or may not turn out to have been an irreversible decline or simply a bad streak (from 2001's Curse of the Jade Scorpion through last year's Scoop, with Match Point the one arguable anomaly). Nonetheless, the man has sustained a mind-boggling run of good and great works (out of 35 features in 38 years) and me, I like to celebrate greatness when the great are still alive and kicking.
Woody, still working as busily as ever, turned 72 this weekend, and an illuminating book of interviews with him (Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax) has just been released. In honor of the occasion, and to inaugurate an occasional series of Romantic Comedy Classics case studies, I'd like to draw the attention of romantic comedy fans (and writers) to what I believe is a One Time in Cinematic History hat-trick. Ladies and gents, man your Guinness records books: has any other director in the history of movies made three great romantic comedies (all starring the same leading lady) in three successive years?
Allen made Zelig with Mia Farrow in 1983; Broadway Danny Rose followed in 1984; then came The Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985. He topped this stellar trio, by the bye, with the Oscar-winning Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986,but I'm not here to re-celebrate the justly hurrah-ed Hannah. I'd like to briefly explore the often underrated pleasures of the Woody Allen Trifecta.
What got all the attention back in '83 was the technical mastery involved. Made long before CGI wizardry had approached its current free-for-all indulgence, Zelig integrates the fictional Leonard Zelig into every manner of real and faux-documentary footage, climaxing in his appearance at a Hitler rally in Germany. A tour de force of cinematography (Gordon Willis) and editing (Susan Morse), the film cannily utilizes more inspired cinematic fakery in a tightly compressed 79 minutes than what's found in many a contemporary 3-hour blue-screen epic.
What I've always loved about Zelig is its illustration of a genre principle: sometimes the best approach to writing a romantic comedy is to not write it as a romantic comedy. On its surface, Zelig is a high concept comedy about "the chameleon man": a guy so eager to be liked that he changes his personality (and physicality) to fit into every group he's with. But the backbone and through-line of the story is a classic girl meets, loses and gets boy: psychiatrist Eudora Fletcher (the sweet and quietly radiant Farrow) becomes the means of Zelig's salvation as she virtually rescues him from himself -- or rather, his selves.
Interestingly, as Allen reveals in the new Lax book, his original intent was to have Zelig, during therapy with Dr. Fletcher, become just like her -- so that Eudora saw, comprehended and learned to love who she really was for the first time. But he evidently wasn't able to realize this variation on his theme, and abandoned that plot development. Nonetheless, Zelig has a deeply satisfying love story at its center that's brilliantly underplayed. The muted but passionate emotions developing between doctor and patient seep through the ostensible plot purpose of its mock-doc scenes until they finally take center stage, climaxing in an absurd but touching reunion that's eons smarter than your average run-to-the-airport finale in a run-of-the-mill rom-com.
That half of Zelig was filmed simultaneously with Allen's (lesser) Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy kind of defies belief (and makes such contemporary film artistes as David "I need 50 takes" Fincher look truly silly). That its very title and character-concept has become a permanent part of our cultural lexicon is one more indicator that Zelig deserves Enduring Classic status.
Broadway Danny Rose
Allen has been derided for being too much himself in movie after movie, but one interesting aspect of this triumvirate's central panel is that (after a similarly character-specific turn as Leonard Zelig) the actor is playing a character other than himself -- and what a character.
Danny Rose could be seen as a collection of tics -- the hunched shoulders and double-handed pointing gesture that accompanies each "Might I just interject one concept at this juncture?", the widened eyes and nervous throat-swallow as he pitches yet another pathetic performer as "a beautiful man, a fantastic individual." But the whole wince-worthy gestalt -- his obscenely wide lapels and trashy jewelry, his motto ("Before you go out on stage, say the 3 S's: Star, Smile, Strong!") et al -- adds up to as complete a characterization as exists in the Allen canon.
The combo of this little shnook with Farrow's astonishing impersonation of an Italian moll-like mistress circa 1960 delivers a weird sort of romantic comedy bliss. It's amazing to see that Mia had both Eudora Fletcher and Tina in her; high-haired and sharp-boned, she barrels through the movie, playing almost every scene in sunglasses, no less, while getting across deft subtleties of emotion. Her combative confrontations with Danny give fresh meaning to the concept of "opposites attract."
The writing principle to cite here is: If you can't tweak the story, tweak the execution. The beauty part of Broadway Danny is how the story is told, through a great framing device. We hear of Danny as a bunch of old comedians sit around a deli (the legendary Broadway, of course), trading gags and telling tales. The intro is staged and shot with the knowing ease of someone who's lived this scene; the players are all the real thing, many of them old colleagues of Allen's, and it's a group you'd love to hang out with. My favorite moment in terms of screenwriting panache is when Allen sets up the rest of the movie by having comedian Sandy, relishing the knowledge that his "greatest Danny Rose story" is about to top everyone else's, asks the assemblage: "You got a couple of moments? You wanna do anything? 'Cause this is gonna take some time." (One guy responds by ordering coffee, and another cracks, "I'd like to go change my suit.")
The high farce that follows includes a classic sex metaphor gag as Danny and Tina, tied together atop a table, have to wriggle out of their ropes, and a shoot-out set piece with a punctured helium tank that gets everyone squeaking in high-pitched voices. But it's the narrative frame (with its smart use of voice-overs), embodying the loving nostalgia that permeates the film, that makes it an especially memorable ride.
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Parody that pokes nostalgic fun at cheap movie sentimentality, and a determinedly dark examination of the pitfalls of romanticism and movie fantasy is what makes up the bittersweet punch in Purple Rose, one of Allen's strongest films on the level of pure imaginative invention. A Depression-era waitress obsessed with movies sees her dream come true, as the handsome explorer star of her current favorite movie steps out of the screen to court her, and they fall in love. Allen discusses the film's genesis in Lax's book:
When I first got the idea, it was just a character comes down from the screen, there are some high jinks, but then I thought, where would it go? Then it hit me: the actor playing the character comes to town. After that, it opened up like a great flower. Cecilia had to decide, and chose the real person, which was a step up for her. Unfortunately, we must choose reality, but in the end it crushes us and disappoints. My view of reality is that it has always been a grim place to be... but it's the only place you can get Chinese food.
One could write a dissertation on the Borges-ian labyrinth of conflicting realities traversed in this seemingly slight romantic dramedy (no doubt, some film student already has), but what's remarkable about the film is how seemingly effortless it is in playing out the themes inherent in its fantastical conceit. Working with theme could be the topic for a rom-com writer's study.
The movie was clearly like a big metaphysical playpen for its creator (Allen himself repeatedly cites it as one of his favorites in the Lax book). Every scene in Purple Rose bats around some aspect of the fantasy-versus-reality issue, from its larger tropes (e.g. What, the movie asks, becomes of the cast of a film when its leading player exits the story and leaves everyone else on their own?) to its neat details (upon entering the film-within-the-film herself, Cecilia is disappointed to learn that the movie-champagne its characters drink at their swank nightclub is apparently cheap ginger ale).
All gorgeous sepia-toned color and silvery black-and-white, Purple Rose is a swan song: this was the last collaboration between Allen and Gordon Willis, who'd shot five films for the director previous to these three, beginning with the scrumptious Annie Hall and the transcendent Manhattan. Allen went on to make six more films with Mia Farrow before their ill-fated parting, but she's never looked quite as wanly, heartrendingly luminous as she does here, eyes fixed on the screen that always promises, but never truly delivers, the escape she yearns to make.
None of these Trifecta gems has entered what's generally considered the top-rank canon of Woody Allen's oeuvre, but to me this trio is a startling cinematic achievement. Each is a period piece of a different era, perfectly rendered; each uses a totally different narrative approach to its story; each delivers a comedic love story that's wholly unique in its characterizations and concept. As a rom-com mini-course in How to Do it Right, it's one tough act to beat.
If you want to gift yourself this holiday season, all three are available on DVD (along with Hannah and Radio Days) as part of the Woody Allen Collection (Set 3). Meanwhile, happy birthday, Woody -- and mazel tov.