Woody Allen’s career has lasted an age. He started selling jokes while still at school and has written and directed a film every year since 1982 (yes, there is one in the pipeline for next year). So, calling this collection The Woody Allen Library is a little misleading as it ‘only’ covers seven of the films he made in the 1990s, with a documentary about his jazz tour Wild Man Blues.
The good news is, they say that Woody Allen never made a bad film. That is debatable, but while it is certainly true that his films might not be uniformly excellent, there probably aren’t any you’ll regret watching. He has made many many films. The 90s might not have contained any that are reckoned to be his very best, but his second best are better than average.
If you watch more than one of these films, the first thing you’ll realise is that they share the same title card format (that is if you weren’t sharp enough to notice this before). Over a (probably) jazz soundtrack, the titles appear in a jaunty white Windsor typeface on a black background. This consistency gives an added harmony to the films that are so recognisably Woody Allen once the action starts.
As Graham Greene’s novels all take place in a landscape of broken-hearted expatriates ruined by Catholic guilt, Woody Allen has created his own fictional world too. The people in Greene’s books live in a place known as ‘Greeneland’, so perhaps the equivalent for Woody Allen should be ‘Alland’ or maybe ‘Woodland’. The geographical centre of this country is undoubtedly New York, with some European locations creeping in recently. The films are usually set in the present, but the jazz age is a strong influence.
This Library doesn’t include the first five films Allen made over the first four years of the 90s but starts at Bullets Over Broadway made in 1994. This was his first film made with Miramax, after Tristar dropped him even though he’d only completed two of three films in their contract. This was probably the result of the scandal after Allen left his partner Mia Farrow and took up with his step-daugher Soon-Yi Previn.
How Allen’s personal life influences his work is a question to which there is no definitive answer but is always fun to speculate on. Woodland is definitely more than just the sum of a complicated private life, more important are his artistic influences, philosophical preoccupations and plain old existential dread. Mostly these films, and this is where Woodland is much more enjoyable than Greeneland, range from very funny indeed to pretty amusing.
So, the films themselves (I’ll add reviews as I see the films):
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Set in prohibition New York where pinstripe-suited gangsters rule the roost, Bullets Over Broadway is a tale of the conflict between our ideals and realism, for art and for humanity. John Cusack plays David Shayne, a struggling playwright who is forced to give a role to an air-headed gangster’s moll Olive (played by Jennifer Tilly) in order to fund his new play.
The situation gets even more complex when Olive’s bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) starts contributing ideas to the play which turn out to be brilliant. The rest of the cast are a piece of work too. The leading lady and man (Diane Wiest and Jim Broadbent) are an alcoholic and a compulsive eater, Tracey Ullman is, well, herself and so on.
Bullets takes a while to get going, you might say too long. However, my misgivings maybe entirely personal as a musical version opened in New York this March starring Zach Braff, so someone believes in it. The acting talent is undeniable – Wiest won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and Palminteri and Tilly were both nominated.
Jim Broadbent is always good news and the film has a sprinkling of delightful cameos, including Rob Reiner and Harvey Fierstein. The jokes are all present and correct, one favourite being a toast: “To an ideal world with no compromise.” However, Bullets probably hangs more at the drama end of the scale rather than the laugh-riot one, without quite being involving enough.
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Mighty Aphrodite might not have been adapted as a Broadway musical yet, but this film is a lot more enjoyable than Bullets. There are more jokes (including one that appeared in the earlier film about someone being ‘superfluous’), the film is faster and the characters easier to like. Not to say the film is simply more lightweight, it probably has more interesting ideas in it. It is also interspersed with a Greek chorus commenting on the action, but even this is funny. When Cassandra appears on the stage foretelling bad news, one of the chorus says, “Don’t be a Cassandra” to which she replies “I am Cassandra.”
This film is also situated in true Woodland – contemporary New York. Allen is sports journalist Lenny Weinrib who, with his wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), adopts a baby. When the young thing turns out to be exceptionally gifted, he wants to track down its mother. She turns out to be a not-especially-clever prostitute and porn actress Linda Ash played by Mira Sorvino. Cue loads of rude, and funny, jokes.
Here it is possible to see Allen’s life working its way into his art. His son with Mia Farrow, Satchel (now known as Ronan) Farrow was a child genius. Mia Farrow has subsequently revealed that Ronan may well be the son of Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, who she was briefly married to in the late 1960s. Now 26, the young man looks the spit of Sinatra and nothing like Allen.
Mysterious paternity and the murky origins of genius are themes that were very much present in Allen’s life at the time and are alive in this film. Is it nature or nurture, or maybe the Fates have the answer? Who knows. Certainly the film seems to have a real feel for the characters. Mira Sorvino won numerous awards for her role including an Oscar and Golden Globe. Mighty Aphrodite is a goodie.
Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Wild Man Blues (1999)
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Small Time Crooks (2000)