You can still find a good egg cream in New York. It was a drink from my father’s childhood and not one that I had with any regularity as a kid. Still, it’s a delicious treat. My cousin, who knows from these things, says there is only one chocolate syrup to use–it’s not just that it is the best, it is the only one to consider: Fox’s u-bet.
In “Hannah and her Sisters,” Woody Allen goes to the Metro movie theater on Broadway and watches “Duck Soup,” the Marx Brothers’ finest movie and it restores his faith in life. I wasn’t have any kind of life crisis last night, there was just nothing on TV that interested me, so I put on “Animal Crackers,” the Marx Brothers’ second movie. It was released in 1930 and based on the stage play of the same name.
I hadn’t watched it in a few years and I laughed a lot. Pressed pause and said to the wife, “Look at Harpo, watch this, watch this,” and then laughed some more.
Later, she looked up from her book and said, “Wait, so that’s where you got that line from?”
“I could go on about our differences forever: She doesn’t like the city and I adore it. She loves the country and I don’t like it. She doesn’t like sports at all and I love sports. She loves to eat in, early — 5:30, 6 — and I love to eat out, late. She likes simple, unpretentious restaurants; I like fancy places. She can’t sleep with an air-conditioner on; I can only sleep with an air-conditioner on. She loves pets and animals; I hate pets and animals. She likes to spend tons of time with kids; I like to spend my time with work and only a limited time with kids. She would love to take a boat down the Amazon or go up to Mount Kilimanjaro; I never want to go near those places. She has an optimistic, yea-saying feeling toward life itself, and I have a totally pessimistic, negative feeling. She likes the West Side of New York; I like the East Side of New York. She has raised nine children now with no trauma and has never owned a thermometer. I take my temperature every two hours in the course of the day.”
I didn’t follow basketball until 1967. Baseball, boxing, and the theater provided most of my entertainment. The theater has since become boring and there are no plays approaching the pleasure given by a good sporting event. Even a game against a last-place team holds the possibility of thrills, whereas in the theater all seems relatively predictable. Baseball remains a joy for me, but basketball has emerged as the most beautiful of sports. In basketball, more than in virtually any other sport, personal style shines brightest. It allows for eccentric, individual play.
Give the basketball to such diverse talents as Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry, George McGinnis, Dave Bing, or Bob McAdoo, to name a tiny fraction, and you get dramatically distinctive styles of dribbling, passing, shooting, and defensive play. There is great room in basketball for demonstrable physical artistry that often can be compared to serious dance.
So there I was in 1967 leafing through the sports section of a newspaper one day (I still read that section first) when I came across the name Earl Monroe. I had never heard of Monroe, knew nothing of his daily rookie brilliance nor ever heard of his astounding feats at Winston-Salem. I just liked the name, free-floating, three syllables, and euphonious to me. Earl Monroe. The name worked. (Years later, when I did a film called Sleeper, I named myself Miles Monroe. On me it was kind of a funny name.) I came across Monroe’s name again every few days as I glanced over the basketball box scores in a casual, disinterested way and noticed that he invariably led the scoring column.
“Sports to me is like music…It’s completely, aesthetically satisfying. There were times I would sit at a game with the old Knicks and think to myself in the fourth quarter, This is everything the theatre should be an isn’t. There’s an outcome that’s unpredictable. The audience is not ahead of the dramatist. The drama is ahead of the audience, and you don’t know exatly where it’s going. You’re personally involved with the players–they had herioc demensions, some of those players. It’s a pleasurable experience, though not intellectual–much like music. It enters you through a diferent opening, sort of…
You see, life consists of giving yourself these problems that can be dealt with, so you don’t have to face the problems that can’t be dealt with. It’s very meaningful to me, for instance, to see if the Knicks are going to get over some problem or another. These are matters you can get involved with, safely, and pleasurably, and the outcome doesn’t hurt you.”
Woody Allen to David Remnick, 1994
Well said, though I’m sure some fans would argue about not being hurt. Last night’s loss was a tough one, doesn’t matter that the Celtics should have mopped the floor with them. Carmelo Anthony was brilliant but Jared Jeffries will be the memory that doesn’t go away from this one. And that hurts, man.
The people in Woody Allen’s Interiors are destroyed by the repressiveness of good taste, and so is the picture. Interiors is a puzzle movie, constructed like a well-made play from the American past, and given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, without, however the eroticism of Bergman.
Interiors looks so much like a masterpiece, and has such a super-banal metaphysical theme (death versus life) that it’s easy to see why many regard it as a masterpiece: it’s deep on the surface. Interiors has moviemaking fever, all right, but in a screwed-up form — which is possibly what the movie is all about.
The movie is so unfunny it’s not even funny. Actually, it’s so unfunny that it’s funny, which is funny because the last thing it wants to be is funny.
Rollins and Joffe’s assertion that Woody could be the Jewish Orson Welles, a triple threat of writer, director and performer, persuaded him to take to the stage. Allen spent several months preparing an act and his debut was at a coveted headliner’s room, arranged by his management. Woody stood up at The Blue Angel in the summer of 1960 after comedian Shelley Berman’s Saturday night late show. Berman was gracious enough to introduce Woody after his own act, an unconventional procedure to be sure. “Here is a young television writer who is going to perform his own material. Would you please welcome a very funny man… Woody Allen.” Larry Gelbart was in the audience that evening and described Woody as “Elaine May in drag,” as Woody lifted several of her mannerisms. Despite what was, at times, a lack of stage presence, Allen’s material shone through and various showbiz job offers came in. Rollins turned them all down. Woody wasn’t ready yet, he said. He needed to grow. He needed to polish. In the meantime, he stunk.
“I always thought the material alone mattered, but I was wrong,” says Woody, “I thought of myself as a writer and when I was onstage all I could think about was wanting to get through the performance and go home. I wasn’t liking the audience … I was petrified. Yet there was no reason the audience wouldn’t like me… they had paid to see me … But then I went onstage with a better attitude and I learned that until you want to be there and luxuriate in the performance and want to stay on longer, you won’t do a good show.” Jack Rollins recalled that, “He knew zero about the art of performing and bringing the material on a nice silver platter to the audience. He was successful with a segment of the audience that had the brainpower to know what was there. But he didn’t help himself because he didn’t know anything about pacing his material, or stopping for laughs.” Joffe added that, “He was arrogant and hostile … If the audience didn’t get it, he had no patience … the pain in those first years was terrible.” Allen was often despondent. “It was the worst year of my life. I’d feel this fear in my stomach every morning, the minute I woke up, and it’d be there until eleven o’clock at night.” Nearing the end of 1960 he told them, “This is crazy. It’s killing me. I’m throwing up, I’m sick, I shouldn’t be doing this. I know I can make a big career as a writer. We’ve tried it with me as a stand-up and I’m not good. I can’t handle this anymore.” Rollins and Joffe never stopped reassuring Woody and constantly encouraged him. They knew he’d gain his chops but Joffe also admitted in retrospect, “Woody was just awful.” Jay Landesman who booked Allen in his club said, “Woody was terrified of an audience. He used to pace the dressing-room floor muttering, ‘I hope they like me. I hope they like me.’ They didn’t.”
A. Well, I’m against it. [laughs] I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don’t gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart, is what happens. People try and put a nice varnish on it, and say, well, you mellow. You come to understand life and accept things. But you’d trade all of that for being 35 again. I’ve experienced that thing where you wake up in the middle of the night and you start to think about your own mortality and envision it, and it gives you a little shiver. That’s what happens to Anthony Hopkins at the beginning of the movie, and from then on in, he did not want to hear from his more realistic wife, “Oh, you can’t keep doing that — you’re not young anymore.” Yes, she’s right, but nobody wants to hear that.
Q. Has getting older changed your work in any way? Do you see a certain wistfulness emerging in your later films?
A. No, it’s too hit or miss. There’s no rhyme or reason to anything that I do. It’s whatever seems right at the time. I’ve never once in my life seen any film of mine after I put it out. Ever. I haven’t seen “Take the Money and Run” since 1968. I haven’t seen “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan” or any film I’ve made afterward. If I’m on the treadmill and I’m scooting through the channels, and I come across one of them, I go right past it instantly, because I feel it could only depress me. I would only feel, “Oh God, this is so awful, if I could only do that again.”
When critics discuss Woody Allen’s best films, or the great films of the 1980s, I’m consistently disappointed that there isn’t more discussion of his 1987 picture Radio Days. Coming on the heels of his great and somewhat audacious Hannah and Her Sisters, audiences and critics alike seemed to mistake Radio Days as something slight – a fine, funny movie, but not a major statement. As time passes, it becomes clearer and clearer that Radio Days is one of Allen’s most perfectly realized films.
Joe (Seth Green), is the narrator/Woody as a child, a radio-obsessed kid living in Rockaway Beach with his parents (Michael Tucker and Julie Kavner, both excellent), his grandparents, cousin Ruthie, Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel) and Aunt Ceil, and his sweetly optimistic spinster Aunt Bea (Diane Wiest). The film is full of cameos by Allen veterans and notable character actors: Jeff Daniels, Tony Roberts, Danny Aiello, Wallace Shawn, Kenneth Mars, et al. Even Diane Keaton appears as a singer late in the film.
However, it’s Allen’s stand in family that remains the heart of the piece. Radio Days is the most warm-hearted film of Allen’s career and one of his most personal statements. It’s a love letter not only to the pre-TV days when radio ruled American consciousness, but also to family and childhood and to the stories we tell and the way we tell them.
Radio Days has a unique structure: we don’t follow a story from beginning to end, rather we get served a series of anecdotes that are conjured up by the songs and shows of 1940s radio. Allen serves as the voice-over narrator, stringing together memories and commentary on the action, which splits time between a fictionalized version of his own family and childhood, the glamorous world of the radio stars themselves and the rise of Sally White (Mia Farrow) a cigarette girl who dreams of radio stardom. (Allen’s narration functions much like the greek chorus of stand up comics did in Broadway Danny Rose.)
“How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”
One thing I like about Woody Allen is that, for the most part — and unlike so many of even my favorite movie directors — he tries to create complete, psychologically complex female characters. It doesn’t always work, but I appreciate the effort. Martin Scorsese, to pick just one example, has made some of my favorite movies ever, but no more than a handful of female character with more than two dimensions.
Mia Farrow, Dianne Weist, and Barbara Hershey star in Hannah and Her Sisters as Hannah and… her sisters, Holly and Lee. Hannah is married to Michael Caine’s Elliot, and her ex-husband is hypochodriachal comedy writer Mickey, played by — well, you’ll never guess. But Allen wisely casts himself here as a kind of comedic Greek chorus figure, and not the leading man. The sisters’ various relationships, with each other and with a number of different men, make up the movie’s many plot threads, particularly Elliot’s doomed secret affair with Lee. (Michael Caine is one of the very, very few actors who could pull off this role without leaving you loathing the character, although I still end up having less sympathy for him than Allen’s script seems to). The great ensemble of complex, distinctive, well-drawn characters is the real strength of Hannah and Her Sisters – one of my favorite Woody Allen movies after Annie Hall and Manhattan, and one that he clearly poured a lot of care into.
The movie is packed with cameos, and future stars in small roles – Julie “Marge Simpson” Kavner plays a producer on a comedy show that also employs, for one or two lines each, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lewis Black, and John Turturro. Allen must have had one hell of a casting director. Sam Waterston plays a slimy-suave architect who dates both Holly and her friend April – who’s played by Carrie Fischer. J.T. Walsh and Daniel Stern make appearances, the sisters’ parents are played by the late, great Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan, and Lee’s pretentious older artist lover is the awesome Max von Sydow. A very very young Soon-Yi Previn even shows up at the end as a “Thanksgiving Guest”.
Woody Allen, even in his youth, was always something of a grumpy old man – he never warmed up to rock and roll even a little bit, and after complaining about Bob Dylan in Annie Hall, here he grouches endlessly about having to sit through the “noise” of a punk band. Everyone in this movie loves opera, jazz, classical music, fine art, and Cole Porter; only Diane Weist’s insecure cokehead listens to musical genres that developed since 1950. But if you can overlook those rather anachronistic character touches in a movie that’s otherwise very much of its 1980s New York setting, you find some very believable, recognizable people. No one in this movie is a villain; everyone is just trying to muddle through, with varying degrees of success. And Allen’s script is big enough to find some sympathy for everyone.
Much like Mia Farrow’s character in Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen’s Mickey essentially has his life saved after a half-hearted suicide attempt by movies – in this case, the Marx Brothers, who convince him that even if life is meaningless and God nonexistent, we might as well try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here. I never found it especially convincing that he and a suddenly transformed Dianne Weist end up blissfully together at the end of the film (with her sister’s/his ex-wife’s blessing), but I do buy into the moral a bemused Allen expresses in the final scene – “The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle, it really is.”
In a way, it’s the same message Allen had for the audience at the end of Annie Hall – a message I like so much that when my dad asked me to read something at his wedding last month, that’s what I picked. We need the eggs.
Granted, all of this might be a little easier to fully embrace if Allen’s own private life hadn’t taken such a creepy turn in the 90s, but never mind; as is so often the case, you have to separate the man’s personal life from his creative one if you hope to ever enjoy a movie without conducting a moral audit of its director. Which is something that I think Allen, or at least the desperate movie-loving character he plays here, would entirely agree with.
by Jon DeRosa |
July 15, 2010 10:17 am |
After visiting with Danny Rose, Woody Allen’s most optimistic creation, perhaps it’s best to begin our exploration of The Purple Rose of Cairo with Woody’s take on the film, from Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax:
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 is a pretty grim place to be, (pause) but it’s the only place you can get Chinese food.
This should prepare you for the sadness that accompanies a viewing of this film and the sorry state of the lead character, Mia Farrow’s Cecilia.
Set in New Jersey of the 1930s Cecilia is buried beneath a country-wide Depression that has claimed the humanity of her husband Monk, a dastradly Danny Aiello, and, with the help of Allen’s longtime collaborator Gordon Willis, drained the color from the world around her. Woody recollects:
I deliberately wanted her to come out [of the theater] to a very unpleasant situation for her. Gordon was able to do that. I described to him coming out of the movie theater and it suddenly being the real world in all its ugliness.
Cecilia waits tables and trods beaten paths to broken door frames amid drab New Jersey browns. She finds solace at the local movie theater, where, in a neat reversal of the color-coding of The Wizard of Oz, the black-and-white of the fantasy world on screen is a veritable wonderland of richness and possibility and the colors of reality are stifling.
Woody Allen doesn’t appear in this film, and if you squint really hard, I guess you can see some of him in Cecilia. But I think that “looking for Woody” in the films in which he does not appear is sometimes a mistake. And it does a disservice to Mia Farrow’s performance. Woody Allen does not hold a patent on neurotic behavior – I found Mia’s Cecilia to be an original. Her beaming recollections of the previous night’s cinema smoothly countering her fumbling dishes at the diner.
But you can’t break dishes during a Depression. Her job lost and her two-timing abusive husband a constant oppression, she returns again and again to the cinema to lose herself in the latest bit of romantic escapism on display: The Purple Rose of Cairo, featuring an explorer named Tom Baxter, of the Chicago Baxters, whose import to the film is of some contention. Regardless, Cecilia fixates on him to the point that he notices. Upon her fifth viewing, Tom decides to approach her – by walking out of the screen and into the theater.
We’re getting into a definite type of situation here…
My mother took me to see Jason Robards and Collen Dewhurst in Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway for my seventeenth birthday. We went to a Wednesday afternoon matinee in late June, 1988. Before the show I interviewed for a summer job as a messenger at Sound One, at the time the biggest post-production film company on the east coast. Sound One rented out a majority of space in the Brill Building, the city landmark on 49th Street and Broadway.
The Brill Building in the 1930s and Today (New York Times)
The Brill Building was one of the homes to the music business dating back to the Tin Pan Alley Days. Neil Diamond, Laura Nyro and Carol King worked there in the Sixties. By the time I arrived, there were a just few holdovers from the music business—Paul Simon had a suite on the 5th floor—but it was mostly about film. Martin Scorsese had his offices there, so did Paul Schrader, and Lorne Michaels’ company, Broadway Video, ran most of what Sound One didn’t.
It is a small building, only 11 stories. Today, a skyscraper hotel sits to its right on the southwest corner of 49th street. Another skyscraper is across the street on the east side of Broadway between 49th and 50th. In 1988, there was a pornographic movie theater across the street on Broadway, another one on 49th between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, and yet another one on the east side of Broadway between 49th and 48th.
I got the job and spent many days during the hot New York summer walking between the Brill Building and the Technicolor lab down on 44th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenue, passing by hookers with bruised arms and legs and over empty crack vials in the cracks of the sidewalks.
There was one guy left over from the old days of the music business, guy named Benny Ross. He owned “St. Nicholas Music,” which had a dusty office on the sixth floor. St. Nicholas was famous for publishing Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. Benny was a nice man, shrunken little Jewish guy, always ready with a handshake and a kind word. “Hi,howareya?” He’d come upstairs to Sound One and get a cup of coffee and eat a slice of pound cake and schmooze-up whoever was in the vicinity. And he’d take the new messengers into his stuffy little office and offer up any of the dozens of free promotional records that were sent to him.
Benny was from the Old School, the vanishing show business world that is so affectionately depicted in Woody Allen’s 1984 comedy Broadway Danny Rose. Woody plays Danny Rose, a lovable lowlife theatrical manager, whose best act is Lou Canova, an Italian lounge singer. According to Sandy Morse, who edited all of Allen’s movies from Manhattan through Celebrity, they found Nick Apollo Forte, a real-life singer who plays Canova, in the 99-cent cutout bin at Colony Records, downstairs in the Brill Building. They were mixing the sound for Zelig at Sound One, came across a couple of Forte’s records and knew they had their man.
Broadway Danny Rose is all of a piece, a pastrami-on-rye sandwich shot in grainy black-and-white. It’s Allen’s gift to Mia Farrow and a fine tribute to the Broadway Area, from Damon Runyon through Sid Caesar, the Catskills all the way to the Joe Franklin Show.