Since I saw my first Woody Allen film years ago, I became and am still a dedicated fan of his work. He has combined intellectualism with comedy to create a number of film masterpieces that still hold up with time. He is a productive writer, director and comic actor who has had the fortune to be able to maintain total artistic control over the majority of the movies he has made.
This means that his work remains largely his own vision of what it should be rather than the compromised version of some huge studio. He is an original whom some others have made anemic attempts to copy, but have never come close to succeeding.
Born into a Jewish family in 1935, his original name was Allen Stewart Konigsberg. His memories of his New York City upbringing and cultural connections have all been used to good effect in several of his movies. He started out as a gag writer, then progressed to writing for big-name comedians like 1950’s television comics Herb Shriner and Sid Caesar.
He began doing standup comedy himself in the early 1960’s, gaining quite a following and eventually writing humorous plays and satiric short stories. If you have never read any of Allen’s short stories, I recommend that you get a copy of a book entitled Complete Prose of Woody Allen.
It may be a challenge finding it in your local library, but you can purchase it online at Amazon.com.
Allen started doing movies in the mid-1960’s and has continued ever since. While it is a feat to reduce the number of what I consider to be among his best films down to five, I find the following Woody Allen movies to be at the head of the list, in my opinion:
(Spoilers are here, just to let you know!)
Take the Money and Run (1969)
I have a sizable Woody Allen film collection and this is one of the first of his movies I bought. Allen directed, co-wrote and starred in it. Take the Money and Run is done in documentary-like style. The story revolves around Virgil Starkwell (Allen), an inept thief, and his many unsuccessful endeavors to satisfy his aspirations to become a big-time criminal.
No matter how hard poor Virgil tries, he never quite makes the mark he desires, as the various comments by family members, law enforcement and prison officials and the like attest to. His exploits never quite measure up and he always seems to get caught or lose out.
There is a hilarious scene, for example, in which, after having planned a big bank robbery, Virgil and his gang find that another gang also wants to rob the bank at the same time. He then takes a vote from all the bank customers as to which gang they prefer to be robbed by and they choose the competing group of bank robbers.
This is a clever, absurdly funny film and I still laugh at it now just as much as I did when I first saw it on video. It’s sort of an under-appreciated treasure, in my estimation, because this was made before Allen became known as a “genius”, but it is every bit indicative of his talent as any of his later works.
Again, Allen scores in another film he wrote, directed and starred in. In Bananas, he plays the role of the uninspiring loser Fielding Mellish. When he gets the hots for a girl (Louise Lasser, whom he wed and divorced in real life), he pretends to share her interest in extreme social advocacy by visiting an island that is in the mist of a big revolution, which he inadvertently finds himself getting caught up in.. Fielding ends up being forced to serve as the new President after the revolution triumphs and the new leader goes bonkers , due to too much power.
Wearing a phony beard, smoking a cigar and outfitted in Castro-like military fatigues, Fielding comes back to the United States to request help for the ailing San Mateo, but is exposed as a fake and denounced as a communist and traitor to his country. You will see very few things as hilarious as the courtroom scene and also the final scene in which the consummation of his wedding night with the girl he loves is covered by Howard Cosell and ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Love and Death (1975)
This is clearly a mockery of all those pretentious intellectual Russian novels by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky most of us were required to read in high school and/or college. In Love and Death, Allen is Russian soldier Boris Grushenko, yet another lovable schlep, with a big yellow streak down his back. Boris becomes a war hero, strictly by accident, in a scene that is simply side-splitting to watch.
He is hopelessly in love with his cousin Sonja, played here by Diane Keaton. Sonja is really in love with Boris’s brother Ivan, but goes on to marry a wealthy and, frankly, rather gross herring merchant. While she never lets her husband touch her, she evidently lets just about every other male in the village do so.
Her spouse laters dies and she charitably agrees to wed Boris, expecting him to die in a duel before she actually has to follow through on her word. When he survives, she reluctantly marries him and eventually falls in love with them. They later come up with a plot to assassinate Napoleon and, like everything in a typical Woody Allen movie, it all goes awry and Boris is executed. Alllen’s own fear and obsession with death is a recurring theme in this movie.
This is not on everybody’s list of Woody Allen “favorites,” but I enjoy the underlying dark feel of the film combined with its silliness factor.
Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall got Woody Allen an Oscar and helped put Diane Keaton on the map. Not only is it still one of his most enduring films, but I have seen countless movies made by others trying to duplicate its ambiance, the most memorable one being the Billy Crystal/ Meg Ryan film- When Harry Met Sally.
Allen portrays Alvy Singer, a character whose personality is close to his own, in many ways. Alvy is a marginally successful comedian with all sorts of psychological hang-ups. The plot revolves around his relationship with the shy, rather insecure Annie (Keaton), how they meet, move in together and eventually grow apart, as she breaks away from Alvy’s possessiveness and learns to become her own person, as Alvy learns that he has to let go and move on.
This is less satirical than his earlier pictures and, though funny, rather poignant. Since Allen and Keaton were romantically involved in real life at one time, Annie Hall is somewhat autobiographical in nature.
It continues to be one of my favorite movies of all time.
In Zelig, Allen returns to his Take the Money and Run roots by creating an even more wonderful documentary-type film. Zelig just proves the brilliance of Allen, who portrays a character named Leonard Zelig, an amnesiac who becomes a part of the cultural legends of the 1920’s. This is because he is able to change the way he looks just by being in the presence of other people, like the scene where he is around black jazz musicians in a club and then he turns physically into a black musician and when he hangs around a group of fat guys, he suddenly appears to be huge, as well. He is known popularly as “the chameleon man”.and he and his odd ability are exploited by his sister and her husband for publicity and financial gain.
Pitying Zelig, Eudora Fletcher, a lady psychiatrist (Mia Farrow), attempts to help him and, with patience and various treatment techniques, manages to get him cured. The two also fall in love and Zelig becomes a well-known and celebrated person in the media, until everything begins to unravel. (Come on, it’s a Woody Allen flick, so you knew it had to happen!) Women come forth with paternity suits against him, claiming he fathered their babies back in his “human chameleon” days and he falls out of favor with the public, who now heap endless criticism on him.
Zelig reverts back to his old ways, changing into the same type of individuals he happens to be around, because he wants people to like him again. His sister and her husband take charge of him again, taking him far away to Europe, while Dr. Fletcher searches for him. She later discovers that he is in Nazi Germany. having taken on the appearance of them, and she goes to rescue him. The two are reconciled, get married and the public loves him once more.
Zelig was filmed in black and white and the cinematography is exceptional, as old film clips are merged with current ones, to make it look, for example, like Zelig is really standing beside Herbert Hoover or Fanny Brice. This is an incredible movie that I don’t think gets the kind of credit it deserves.