Woody Allen

To meet Woody Allen in London is to meet a man violently out of context. Imagine stubbing your toe on the Statue of Liberty while out walking the dog on Tooting Common and you grasp the scale of the incongruity. He belongs in New York, he’s synonymous with the place; as he says at the beginning of Manhattan (1979), it’s his town.

I once saw him there, wearing a baseball cap and a lumberjack shirt, marching towards me across a bridge in Central Park. It was six in the morning – I couldn’t sleep – there was no one else around and I was nonchalant about the encounter until the moment he had passed, at which point I began stalking him. A film crew appeared on the opposite side of the lake, he joined them, and so, surreptitiously, did I – and spent the next few hours staring at him, slack-jawed, as he set up shots, played chess with his sound engineer and ate corn muffins. How could I not? For the past three decades he has made a film a year and I, anorak that I am, have them all on video, in chronological order. I even have that series of wilfully beige and morose films he did in homage to Bergman – September, Alice, Another Woman, Interiors – the ones which nobody likes, including me. In Central Park he was focused and energetic, but cold in the way he directed his actors. In London, by contrast, sitting on the edge of a large sofa in the Dorchester, his 5ft 7in frame seems almost out of focus: slight, spavined, his edges blurred despite the neatly pressed creases in his cream trousers, blue shirt and white vest. It is to do with the paleness of his eyelashes, his freckled skin, his thinning wires of hair and his right eye which, behind black-rimmed glasses, looks lazy and sore.

It’s also to do with the way he holds himself. When I ask a question, he cocks his head to one side and leans forward so far he almost slides off the cushion. ‘I-I-I’m sorry,’ he says softly, with that cracked, reedy, much-impersonated Brooklyn-accented stutter. ‘My hearing is dropping a little in my left ear. This is hereditary. I listen keenly and I read lips. If people’s lips are covered, or I take my glasses off, I don’t hear as well.’

I’d been asking him about the ills the flesh is heir to. He is 66, a good age, presumably, for a hypochondriac? ‘Yes, everything falls apart. You, er, you lose your hair and your faculties, and you eventually get a disease from which you do not recover.’ He folds his arms defensively. ‘I’ve always thought [pronounced to-wart] I was falling apart anyway, but as I get older it becomes a more realistic fear.’

Fear: it’s been said that since September 11 we’ve all become Woody Allens. He and Soon-Yi, his wife, live with their two adopted children in a $17 million, five-storey Georgian town house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was in his kitchen when the planes crashed into the towers. As he has always rhapsodised about the New York skyline in his films, did the attack feel almost personal? ‘It was a shock,’ he says with a wheezy, nervous laugh. ‘Such random slaughter. But not a surprise. We always thought that terrorism would show up in one of our cities. But the government was caught napping when it did.’

Before he began shooting his latest film, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, he sued Jean Doumanian, his producer and one of his oldest and closest friends. Allen claimed Doumanian cheated him out of profits – thought to be about $15 million – from his last eight movies. In July she counter-sued, claiming that a ‘self indulgent’ Allen squandered her company’s money by demanding a large salary, chauffeur-driven cars, rooms at five-star hotels, private jets and a 50 per cent slice of his films’ profits. Hasn’t he been put off going to court after his ordeals in the early 1990s (when he and Mia Farrow were involved in a bitter, bitter custody case)? ‘Er, no. No, I’m a normal citizen and if there are matters that have to be solved in court I go to court. No.’

When Mia Farrow, his leading actress in several films and his long time companion, came across pornographic Polaroids he had taken of her (not his) 21-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi, she went berserk. According to Allen, Farrow had threatened to kill him and commit suicide – she had also sent him a Valentine’s card pierced with knives and skewers. Vindictively, it seemed (or protectively, depending on your sympathies), Farrow brought a child abuse charge against Allen (relating to another adopted daughter, Dylan). The police were compelled to investigate, they put together a 200-page report, and Allen took a lie detector test. He counter-sued, ran up legal fees of $7 million and eventually won and lost: all allegations of abuse were dismissed, he married Soon-Yi in 1997, but was banned from seeing Dylan and his natural son Satchel. The judge said Allen was ‘the most opaque of narcissists’, and added that ‘you don’t have a clue about the needs of your children.’ Since the separation, Farrow has adopted four more children – she already had 11 – and has damned Allen in her autobiography (recording that his neurotic solipsism was such that he needed weeks with his analyst before agreeing to change the bedsheets from polyester satin to cotton).

Does he now regret the scorched earth policy he adopted with Mia Farrow in the courts? ‘I, I, I wouldn’t know what you meant by scorched earth policy.’ I elaborate. ‘Ah, OK. It was big and messy and it could have been handled better and had better consequences. But I didn’t have any choice. I was put in that position and I had to respond. Normally I like to handle everything quietly and discreetly and I’m a, you know, a friendly and forgiving private type. But I will always… There are certain situations where you are forced to act.’ He shakes his head. ‘It was a terrible, terrible, terrible situation. My not having access to the children is completely cruel and unfair. Not in their best interests. But these dreadful things happen in life. To balance that I had parents with good longevity [his father lived to 100, his mother 95]. I’ve been healthy. I’ve been blessed with a talent.’

What effect did the scandal have in terms of his commercial success? ‘None! I’ve never had any success commercially! Never.’ Now, now. It’s not quite true. He had box office successes with his two Oscar-winning films Annie Hall (1977) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). ‘No. Annie Hall was the smallest earning Oscar-winning film in the history of the movies. People always ask me, “Why don’t you do any more of those early funny films?” Well, my first, Take the Money and Run (1969), I made for $1 million and it got great reviews and ten years later it still had not broken even.’

Woody Allen’s films may go unnoticed in America, but in Italy, France and Britain they have a devoted following. ‘In Europe I’m idolised, it’s true. I walk down the street and they shake my hand and throw flowers and kiss me. In the United States I’m a bum. It mystifies me.’ He rubs his hands together; hunches his shoulders; gulps. ‘I’ve had this conversation a million times with my producers. They sit me down and say, “What is it? Is it that you are in these films?” Then I would make The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and not be in it and it would still not do any real business. And they would say, “Maybe it is that they only want to see you as this neurotic New York intellectual type.” So I would make a film like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and it would not do great business and then they would say, “Maybe they want to see you in something different, your films are too alike.” So I would make Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and I still don’t get a decent sized audience.’ He blinks repeatedly and nods to himself. ‘Maybe the problem is that my films are like Chinese food. There is no real similarity between an egg roll and spare ribs but in the end it is all Chinese food.’

In 1998 Allen said to Newsweek: ‘If my films don’t make a profit I know I’m doing something right.’ Doesn’t he take a perverse delight in the fact that they aren’t commercial? ‘No, I don’t delight in it. It would make my life a lot easier if they made money. But I do feel that if you are succeeding all the time you are doing something wrong.’

He claims that failure has dogged his career. But after dropping out of New York University, where he studied film, he found early success as a gag writer for Sid Caesar. He then became a successful cabaret comedian, one of his jokes being that he was kicked out of NYU for cheating in a metaphysics exam. He had looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to him. ‘When I was a nightclub comic I used to get these great reviews and club owners would pay me a very substantial salary,’ he says. ‘But then they would see that half the house was empty. They would have to move these big, potted palm-trees around so that the room looked fuller.’

Dr Johnson believed that all censure of a man’s self is oblique praise and this seems to apply to Woody Allen. He talks himself down but only as a strategy, because he so clearly has confidence in his own abilities. And though he has often cast himself as a self-doubting loser in his films, it has always been as an endearing one. He claims his films aren’t autobiographical, of course. Yet the characters he plays invariably share his neuroses and phobias – most of which are genuine, apparently. He prefers darkness and rain to sunshine. He is so claustrophobic he has on occasion taken a 100-mile diversion rather than cross a bridge or go through a tunnel. He has a morbid fear of dogs and deer and a thing about bright colours – which is why he, and the characters he plays, nearly always dress blandly, in green and brown corduroy. And there are enough examples of his own life overlapping with his characters’ to make his claim seem disingenuous. In 1973, for instance, he became convinced he had a brain tumour, as his character does in Hannah and Her Sisters. Or consider the grimly ironic Husbands and Wives (1992) in which his character leaves Mia Farrow’s character for a 21-year-old. Tellingly, he slips into the first person when talking about the characters he plays: ‘I never went back to Hannah.’ Or: ‘Julia left me in that movie.’

Can he understand why people assume his films are autobiographical? He coughs into his hand and grins crookedly. ‘Right, right. I think what it is is that the sensibility is me. The character I am playing has hypochondria and he obsesses about his life and his mortality and he fails in his relations and, in that respect, it is me, because that is what I do in my off-screen hours. But the details of the movies are, 99 per cent of the time, made up. Once in a while there will be something that comes up, like the concept of the brain tumour you mentioned, but that is so exaggerated compared to my real life that it may as well be made up. In real life I’m productive. I’m not totally incompetent. I get up in the morning. I’m not a little weakling – I was a good athlete when I was younger. I work at the typewriter. I practise my clarinet [he still plays with his New Orleans jazz band every Monday night at The Carlyle Hotel in New York]. I’m able to make films and run my film company.’ He smiles wanly. ‘You know, I-I-I I’m not the character in Deconstructing Harry (1997). This guy had a writer’s block, I’ve never had a writer’s block in my life. I wouldn’t know what it meant. This guy was seeing whores, he can’t stop his alcohol, he kidnapped his child. These are things I couldn’t and wouldn’t do, but people think, “So that is how he lives”.’

What about when his character contemplates suicide in Hannah and Her Sisters? Was that based on experience? ‘Not really, no. I would be too afraid to kill myself. I would never contemplate suicide.’ He touches his glasses. ‘No, that’s not quite true. I have contemplated it in the sense that the thought has occurred to me, but that would never have translated into action. I would be too frightened – that is the only reason – to buy a gun and shoot myself.”

I only ask because he is a notorious pessimist and depressive who has been visiting psychiatrists for most of his adult life. ‘I have stopped seeing a psychiatrist now,’ he says nasally. ‘It’s very hard to have a good relationship, and I didn’t for most of my life. Now, though, I am very very happily married and that has been a wonderful thing for me and I’ve got great kids. But, for me, when you get happy then you start to get these awful existential thoughts. When a guy is lonely or miserable he just thinks, “What will I do to meet a girl tonight?” But when you find you are happy with a lovely wife only then do you realise what is in store for you – it is going to end somehow. You are going to die.’

So the trick is to keep yourself as miserable as possible? ‘No, my antidote is always to rush to work and blot out these thoughts by distracting myself. Film-making for me is like therapy, like basket-weaving or finger painting in a mental institution. When I’m not doing that I make sure I watch baseball or basketball or I play my clarinet. If I don’t distract myself I know I will get depressed and anxious and give in to morbid introspection.’

He is terrified of being left alone with his thoughts? ‘Yes. There have been times when I would buy a newspaper or a magazine prior to a five-flight elevator ride because I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts in the elevator for 30 seconds.’ Must be exhausting being him. ‘Let me tell you, when I go for a walk in Central Park on a beautiful day I have to set myself mental tasks, prepare a speech, think about casting. Otherwise I know I will want to run up to people and shake them and say, “Why are you bothering to sunbathe? What is the point of your pregnant belly? Why are you walking your dog? Toward what end? We’re all going to die one day. Am I the only one who sees it? Am I the only person in the concentration camp who knows what is going on behind that big hedge?”‘ He spreads his arms, fingers splayed. ‘I will look around the park and think, “We can cut to this scene 100 years from now and all these people will be dead.” Every 100 years a big toilet will have flushed and a new group of people will be in their place. The Islamic fundamentalists, the baseball players, the beautiful models, everybody who is here now will be gone. All gone. You and me. It is hard to combat this thought. It’s constantly nagging at me. Our seemingly busy busy lives ultimately mean nothing in this cruel and hostile universe.”

Poor Woody Allen: he sounds sincere but, because he has had so much comic mileage from his angst over the years – bleak despair combined with Jewish wisecracking – it is hard to take him seriously on the subject. Does he find this reaction frustrating? ‘Look, I, I, er, I don’t make jokes about these things deliberately. I just saw one day that that was my response to them. I don’t think, “If I make people laugh or make myself laugh that will alleviate the problem.” I can make jokes, that’s all. I’ve always been able to. It is an awful gift.’

One of my favourite Woody Allen lines is: ‘If only God would give me a clear sign. Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.’ I ask him why he can’t take Thomas Carlyle’s advice and just ‘accept the universe’? ‘If I tell you that someone at some point is going to come and shoot you and your wife it’s hard to live with it. It’s a very disquieting feeling. It’s unnerving. You can’t breathe easily and relax. I find it impossible to do.’

We’re all born astride the grave but surely he has a form of immortality through his films. ‘Yes, but as I have said before, it would be nice to live on in the hearts and minds of my audience but I’d rather live on in my apartment.’ I tell him I find his gloomy disposition in real life at odds with the tone of his films, which is often funny, romantic and charming. He presents his audience with these dark existential dilemmas then offers a diversion from them, a consolation: love, he often seems to be saying, is the answer to the question, ‘What meaning can there be to life when death is the end of it?’ ‘Yes, that is the best you can do. I agree with you. To say, “I love you” is the nicest thing, the most meaningful thing you can do in life. That is why my priorities in life are my children and my wife, not my movies. But this is cold comfort. When I’m with my wife and children I think, “This is so impermanent. There will come a point where we have to say goodbye. Love is the best you can do but it’s just not good enough! It’s too little too late. People should be angry instead. Angry at the whole deal.”‘ He pats my arm and grins lopsidedly: ‘I hope I’m not depressing you.’

Even as a child, Woody Allen – born Allan Konigsberg – was visited by what he called the bluebird of unhappiness. ‘Even as a young child, yes. There was a dark cloud over my head in the cradle.’ He was a lonely boy – his sister Letty was born when he was eight – who usually ate alone. His earliest memories are of Nettie and Martin, his volatile parents, arguing. ‘They stayed together out of spite. Did everything short of exchange gunfire.’ Their arguments were usually about money. Martin, who worked in a poolroom, was a spendthrift, Nettie was frugal. The young Woody would escape the tension by sitting in his room teaching himself conjuring tricks (he became an accomplished amateur magician and at one point considered making a living as a card sharp).

He got married for the first time when he was 20 – to Harlene Rosen, who was three years younger. After six years, the marriage ended in acrimony. Allen had taken to joking about Harlene in public: ‘It was my wife’s birthday, so I bought her an electric chair. Told her it was a hair dyer.’ His second marriage, to actress Louise Lasser, lasted three years, ending in 1969. His longest friendship/relationship has been with Diane Keaton, the Californian actress who monopolised the female leads in his early films. She was his live-in companion for three years in the 1970s and when they split up they remained close friends. They still speak on the phone nearly every day and she is, he says, the only person whose critical opinion he really cares about.

He once joked that he never trusts a woman until she rejects him, yet he has always been successful with women, beautiful women at that. Why does he think this is? ‘I never have been.’ Do I have to list them? ‘OK, but very few. I had a wonderful wife in Louise Lasser and I’m friendly with her to this day. And Diane and I remain very close. Mia I had a bad time with but I had some very nice times with her, too.’ Does he speak to her now? ‘No, I don’t, because it ended too sourly. But I thought she was beautiful and a good actress and in many ways a good person, too. In other ways I had bitter disagreements with her. So, yes, I have had some good relationships in my life but I always thought that when I finally became what I always wanted to be, which is attractive to women, it was too late.’ He laughs a laugh that turns into a cough. ‘It was only after I was married, happily married and devoted to Soon-Yi, and older, in my sixties, only then did I sense that when I met beautiful women I could, you know, think, “Gee, I could really have a chance with this woman. I could really have an affair with her or go to bed with her.” And I never had that feeling before. It’s when you’re off the market, I guess.’

I’m sure it is, but could it also possibly be because he is a powerful figure in the film world? As Henry Kissinger said, power is the great aphrodisiac. ‘Yes, it’s possible that all that melds together. I’m a film director and there might be a reason to cultivate a relationship with me because they will get something out of it. But really, you know, I have had a below average record with women.’

A sense of humour, of course, is also a great aphrodisiac. Is there anyone he hasn’t been able to win over, eventually, with his relentless joking and banter? ‘Yes, the American people.’ And on a one-to-one basis? ‘I think when people meet me and talk to me they find me a reasonable person. Not a nasty egomaniac. Interesting on arts and sports and on the good side politically – liberal, you know. I don’t think I put people off one-to-one, just on a mass scale.’

Some who have worked with Woody Allen might disagree with his analysis. ‘Manipulative’ and ‘self-centred’ are two descriptions that have cropped up when his former colleagues have been asked to describe him. ‘The last person to accept blame’ is another. And, though he has seemed cheerful and engaged enough in this interview, the words which are most often used about him are: reclusive, melancholy, and detached. For his part, he considers himself to be drab and once said he felt sorry for his analyst because, ‘Whenever I am on the couch, I bore on like an accountant.’ Self-loathing, of course, is not incompatible with self-belief and tellingly, in the biographical documentary Wild Man Blues (1997), he talked of a chronic sense of dissatisfaction with himself: ‘I don’t want to be where I am at any given moment. When I’m in New York, I want to be in Europe. When in Europe, I want to be in New York.’

He never watches his old films and claims he hasn’t read any of the 40 or so books written about him. ‘I don’t want to waste time thinking about myself,’ he says. ‘And if I watch my own movies I only see what I could have done better.’ Most directors take about four years to make a film. Allen is able to bring out one a year because, in the past at least, he has always managed to find indulgent patrons to back him – and give him complete autonomy over scripts and production. Also it only takes him between one and three months to write a script. This is followed by eight weeks of pre-production and three months’ shooting. To his regret, though, he feels he has never made a great film – by which he means a Citizen Kane, Bicycle Thieves, or Wild Strawberries – and some of his films, such as Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, he actually hates. Has he considered taking more time over his film-making, devoting five years to one project, say, in order to make what he might consider to be a great film? ‘I don’t think I could do it because when I finish with a script, even if I’ve written it in six weeks, I think it is the best I can do. I don’t think, “If I coddle it for a year I might be able to improve it.” I think, “This is great.” I’m completely uncritical of myself as a writer. But when I translate the script to the screen my slovenliness takes over. When I see what I wind up with I think, “Where did it go wrong? I missed by 90 per cent.” It’s maybe lack of perfectionism or dedication. When it gets difficult I give up. I don’t do enough takes and I only do these long master shots all the time because I don’t have the patience for close-ups. People think it’s a deliberate style of mine, but it’s really just laziness.’

He’s praising himself obliquely again. An indolent man could not make a film a year. Nor would a lazy man be rushing round the world promoting his latest film – he has just flown in from Venice, to be out of context here in London, and is just about to fly off to Paris. He looks around the room, points at himself, raises his eyebrows and says: ‘Me?’ He grins. ‘Know something? I’m so lazy, if I get a really good idea but it has to be shot in Texas I throw the idea away – just because I live in New York!’