In the 1970’s, the funniest films belonged to Woody Allen. During the decade, became a skilled and insightful filmmaker. Then he did two things that damaged our “relationship.”
First, he decided to become Ingmar Bergman, and mostly stopped being funny. Eventually, he did regain his sense of humor but it was never quite like his early films. Second, in Manhattan, he centered his relationship around a man over age 40 and a girl in high school. That may have seemed “very French” but it struck me then as inappropriate. I love Manhattan, it’s artful, funny and and a very revealing look at relationships. But, his character’s relationship with the teen is dreadful.
In recent decades, Woody Allen’s personal life is a scandal magazine. I won’t rehash his life problems, but even now, when I watch one of his films from the 1970’s, I feel a bit jaundice. It’s a struggle to separate a person’s private life from their public art.
He did make several films after 1980 that I thought had a bit of the old Woody Allen magic, but pale next to his classic films. A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy had a terrific cast and a typical Allen storyline. It was light and breezy like cotton candy. Radio Days was a bit like Annie Hall, a warm, whimsical view of the past. The Purple Rose of Cairo brought an amusing premise. Manhattan Murder Mystery was a very absorbing mystery, funny and engaging. Hannah and Her Sisters was urbane and won an Academy Award for Michael Caine.
Many of his more recent films have drawn praise, and actors seem to line up to appear in his films and speak his dialogue. I’ll stick to his early films, before his personal issues and when he was both silly and clever.
Allen’s film career began with writing the screenplay for What’s New Pussycat? (1965), a film he dismissed, and vowed to direct his future films. Next, he took a Japanese spy film and re-wrote the dialogue, becoming What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966). He turned the nondescript spy drama into a zany comedy. Casino Royale (1967) was a detour, he was an actor only for this variation on James Bond. His first actual writing and directing credit was Take the Money and Run (1969), a slight film but had the ingredients for much greater things.
To date, Allen has 55 directing credits and 79 writing credits, almost exclusively in feature films. Prolific, he releases a new film almost every single year as both writer and director. He works within a set budget and enjoys artistic freedom to pick his stories. He is a very efficient director, his stories are very tightly written but he allows his actors a very supportive space to work.
The 1970’s would be, in my opinion, his best decade of film.
Bananas (1971) Allen’s first big hit, a film full of satirical scenes, fake commercials and a very funny appearance by Howard Cosell. Allen is not ever close to being the silliest character in the film, in fact, he is the hub around which the craziness spins. The film has a very skinny narrative, many of the scenes only serve as comedic devices, but some are brilliance in their observation and humor. Allen plays Fielding Mellish, a “loser in love” who decides to visit the war-torn country of San Marcos where Howard Cosell and ABC’s Wide World of Sports is covering a coup d’état. See where this is headed? Mellish is enlisted as a guerilla fighter and through a series of events, he becomes the country’s President. His first order of business is to travel to New York to ask for foreign aid. His true identity is discovered and he ends up on trial, in one of the film’s most creative sequences. Only as the foreign President is his former girlfriend attracted to him, played by former wife Louise Lasser. While the film is a bit unconventional by normal film structure, it contains some of Allen’s funniest and wittiest satire.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (1972) Based on the bestseller by Dr. David Reuben, Allen wrote the screenplay, directs and stars in several of the film’s seven vignettes. Allen was able to get many A List stars including Burt Reynolds, Tony Randall, Gene Wilder and Lynn Redgrave to play roles in this unusual sex comedy. Allen took various chapters denoting sexual problems or issues and built skits around the topic. The film was very successful and took advantage of the sexual revolution of the early 1970’s. Today, the film seems silly and a bit over the top, but very daring at the time.
Play It Again, Sam (1972) Allen wrote and starred in the Broadway production, then wrote the screenplay for the film, in which he starred, along with Diane Keaton. Allen did not direct the film, that was Herbert Ross. The film has less slapstick than his early films and follows the narrative closely, something a veteran director like Ross was skilled. The film targeted the growing American nostalgic phenomenon, with direct references to Casablanca and other films of that era. Allen plays his typical “loser in love” character, but gets some help from Bogart to win the heart of his love.
Sleeper (1973) Sleeper and Bananas have much in common, both very effective satires. The social satire of these two films embraces some of Allen’s best comedy. Science fiction films were hugely popular in the early 1970’s, mostly portraying a grim future. Sleeper shows the new world as a totalitarian society where emotions are tightly regulated by scientific methods. Allen’s character is like Rip Van Winkle, frozen in the past and thawed out in the future. He has a difficult time understanding the new world. He poses as a robot, as he is being hunted as an alien. Diane Keaton becomes his unwitting accomplice and both escape from the state police and hide out with the underground, a group of rebels wanting to overthrow the government. Allen is returned to society and reprogrammed, while Keaton works with the underground. He is kidnapped by the underground and the brainwashing done by soiety is reversed. He and Keaton then pose as doctors and are expected to clone the nose of the Leader into a full person. They kidnap the nose and it is destroyed. Allen’s smart screenplay tackles cloning, robotics, time-travel, artificial emotions and other cutting edge topics. Sleeper might seem dated after 45 years but the themes in the film are timeless. Again, the film is filled with slapstick humor, in addition to satirical jabs at Richard Nixon and Howard Cosell.
Love and Death (1975) A farce set during the Napoleonic Era, with Allen as a Russian who enlists to fight Napoleon, but is really wanting to marry his cousin, played by Diane Keaton. Allen becomes a war hero and Keaton consents to marry him, although her heart is not into the marriage. They conspire to assassinate Napoleon, which of course fails. The film takes aim at the seriousness of Russian literature, which might have sailed over the heads of some of his audience. This is Allen wanting to put more depth into his comedic targets. He partially succeeds with a funny film, full of physical humor, and something to offer those wanting a bit of thinking-man’s humor in Allen’s broad-brush comedy. The first time I saw this film, I was disappointed. The ingredients were there, I just didn’t enjoy the result. Over the years, I have warmed to the film and gained more appreciation of Allen attempting to grow.
The Front (1976) Allen neither wrote or directed this film, only starred in it. A tale of the “blacklist” of the 1950’s, it was written and directed by two Hollywood veterans who were blacklisted. Allen pretends to be a writer who “fronts” for other blacklisted writers. His success gets the attention of investigators who pressure a comic, Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), into spying on Allen’s character. Brown’s career is sinking and after he gets cheated by a club owner, he kills himself. Allen’s character is called to testify before the Committee to give names of Communist sympathizers. He refuses, wins the girl, but goes to prison. This is a very straight role for Allen, who surprises with a fine, measured performance.
Annie Hall (1977) Recognized as Allen’s best film, it won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Lead Actress, Screenplay and Director. It was a hugely successful film at the box office and was a critical success as well. The film does not follow a linear structure, it moves from the present to Alvy Singer’s (Allen) past and back again. At the core of the film is his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), who evolves from a ditzy, fashion-challenged woman to a more self-confident, successful singer. Alvy tries to understand why his relationship with Annie failed. Allen’s narrative moves around in time, and break’s the barrier so he talks directly to the audience, and even has an animated sequence. Allen was at his most creative and never quite accomplished again what he did with this film. The film ranks on many list of best films of all time.
Manhattan (1979) One of Allen’s most artistic films, the black & white photography is dazzling, as it is the Gershwin score. The film focuses on Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, who is going through both career and romantic problems. Manhattan is Allen as a more adult filmmaker. The slapstick humor is gone, as is the broad satire, he is more focused on integrating his satire into the context of the characters and a serious story. Allen’s films are centered on relationships and Manhattan has many relationships in transition. Allen’s frantic humor is dialed down, although in a few scenes it pops loose. The film was a huge hit and scored many awards, and has landed on many lists for best films. If he just had not included the relationship with the teenager, this might have been a perfect film.
Woody Allen’s films were brilliantly funny. His comedy became more sophisticate and character-driven, and his camera and editing became more mainstream. He evolved as a filmmaker. The 1970’s served as his laboratory, and what a journey it was.