Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Woody Allen's December

A Peter Biskind profile of Woody Allen in the December issue of Vanity Fair ("Reconstructing Woody," with pictures by Annie Leibovitz) is dubbed by the magazine as "his first exhaustive interview in years." It has the feel instead of so many of Allen’s movies of the last ten years — never dull but thin and shruggable. We find out that “Aging is a terrible thing,” in Allen’s words (he turns 70 on Thursday), but that and what follows has nothing of the revealing about it: “The diminution of options and opportunities. It’s all just bad news. You deteriorate physically and die! I was an extremely good athlete as a child. I can’t maintain that. I mean, my eyesight is not anywhere near as good. I’ve lost some of my hearing.” This is the sort of thing you expect to hear on a middling talk show on the WB channel at 3 p.m., not from the man Vincent Canby (the late New York Times film critic) once called “our premier filmmaker” and ranked alongside Luis Buñuel and Buster Keaton. But like some of those Allen films that seem to drag a bit, the Allen quote gets better: “All the crap that they tell you about—you know, dandling your grandchildren on your knee, and getting joy, and having a kind of wisdom in your golden years — it’s all tripe. I’ve gained no wisdom, no insight, no mellowing. I would make all the same mistakes again, today.” Christopher Lasch once noted that “to think of wisdom purely as a consolation divests it of any larger meaning or value. The real value of accumulated wisdom of a lifetime is that it can be handed to future generations.” Allen doesn’t seem to find either necessity or joy in passing on that sort of wisdom, though his movies once did, until the scandal with Mia Farrow. He left nude pictures of Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's daughter (with Andre Previn) on the living room mantle, where, lucky for him, Mia Farrow found them. He calls it “one of the fortuitous events, one of the greatest pieces of luck in my life.” Lurid scandal, divorce, lost custody of children, all of it culminating, besides his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, in the June 5, 2002 article in the New York Times (“Curse of the Jaded Audience: Woody Allen, in Art and Life”) essentially burying his career.

Despite the divorce we find out that Allen’s first choice for one of the leads in Mighty Aphrodite in 1994 was Mia Farrow, because he doesn’t care who gets the parts as long as it’s the right person for the job: “I wouldn’t put, you know, Herman Göring in a part, but short of Nuremberg crimes…” Celebrity profiles are by nature more gruel than substance, so the article’s quality inevitably dovetails Allen’s thinness with pat observations from the Celebrity Profile slush pile (“Even those who have worked with him closely don’t pretend to understand him,” “He is still claustrophobic and agoraphobic,” “he can’t help but pierce the darkness of advancing age with a frail ray of light”), leaving to the end a couple of curious bits of information: the biggest box-office grosser in Allen’s career was Hannah and Her Sisters, at $40 million in domestic ticket sales, while his more recent movies’ tackes have been around $5 million. Woody Allen himself has supposedly never made it very big, money-wise, though big enough to buy a $17.9 million Manhattan townhouse in 1999 and sell it five years later for $24 million: “I’ve made more money in real estate than I’ve ever made from movies.” Peter Biskind, article’s author, is cheerleading for Allen’s next movie, Match Point, despite the movie’s pessimism. It reflects, Allen says, “the enormous unfairness of the world, the enormous injustice of the world, the sense that every day people get away with the worst kind of crimes.” As for himself, Allen expects, or hopes, that family heredity will keep him “able to make films for another 17 years.” Given the dearth of interesting film-makers out there, the prospect isn’t a terribly bad one. But keep the private life where it belongs: out of our way, and back into that obscurity Woody Allen intuitively seeks out, for good reason.