- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

Woody Allen not only has a new movie opening this weekend, but Turner Classic Movies plans a monthlong tribute to the 66-year-old humorist beginning tonight.

"Mmmmmm. Are you sure it's on Saturday? Wouldn't that be a bad night? Doesn't everyone go out then? I always felt as if the whole town goes out on Saturday night," says Mr. Allen while in Washington for two days recently to promote his latest film feature, "Hollywood Ending."

Mr. Allen hasn't seen the 90-minute TCM special, called "Woody Allen, a Life in Film." It's produced and directed by Time magazine senior film critic Richard Schickel, who moonlights on documentary surveys about famous directors.

"I probably will never see it," Mr. Allen says during an interview at the Jefferson Hotel. "I love Schickel and only did it because I have so much respect for him. He's very knowledgeable, and it seemed to go well as we were chatting. But I couldn't look at it. I've never seen any films about me or any films of mine that I didn't have to see. My own I have to see up to a point, because I need to edit them."

Does Mr. Allen protest too much on this score? Probably, but it's also become an amusing characteristic of his.

"Woody" airs at 8 and 11:30 tonight, as part of a tribute that includes revivals of 18 Allen pictures over four consecutive Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. This cavalcade begins with "Annie Hall" at 9:30 tonight, with "Manhattan" at 1 a.m. tomorrow and then "Stardust Memories" at 3 a.m.

Undeniably, many people will be going out tonight. Perhaps to see either "Hollywood Ending" or "Spider-Man."

That suggestion tickles Mr. Allen. "Yes, that's the idea," he says, "but there's a big abyss between the idea and the reality. I don't think we're a serious threat to 'Spider-Man.' I'll never be able to bridge that abyss. But thinking back, I guess I'm wrong [about Saturday nights]. The original Sid Caesar show, 'Your Show of Shows,' kept people at home on Saturdays in its prime. The original Jackie Gleason show was also on Saturdays. And we shouldn't forget 'Saturday Night Live.' I still think of it as the night when people who work all week go out. Maybe some of the stay-at-homes will be kind enough to watch."

"Hollywood Ending" marks No. 31 in an exceptionally prolific career of directing, writing and starring in movies that began in 1969 with "Take the Money and Run." (He had broken into the business earlier in the 1960s, but not as a director.) If one stretches a point and includes the featurette, "Oedipus Wrecks," that Mr. Allen contributed to "New York Stories" in 1989, his productivity almost approaches a feature a year during 33 years.

Mr. Allen suggests that the filmed interview format of tonight's special is likely to be his only concession to fans who might want to listen to authoritative, retrospective comment on his body of work. The idea of participating in DVD audio commentary tracks for any of his movies has yet to appeal to him.

"I haven't done that, and for two reasons," Mr. Allen says. "I feel the films should well, you know, when I went to the movies as a kid, no one was explaining anything or showing me outtakes. I saw the film, period. Also, when a movie is over, I lose interest in it. I don't really care. Some guy in a room somewhere is putting the films on DVD, and I'll get a little money, maybe, if they sell in the hundreds of millions, or maybe hundreds of billions, of copies. But I don't care enough about adding to the documentation."

As a result, the detailed accounts of what Mr. Allen was trying to do in "Interiors," his first non-comedy, may remain a privileged feature of the Schickel survey of his work. The TCM special also devotes considerable time to such problematic films as "Stardust Memories" and "Alice" and such favorites as "Annie Hall" (winner of an Academy Award for best picture and Oscars for Mr. Allen as best director and co-screenwriter) and "The Purple Rose of Cairo." Two superior Allen comedies, "Manhattan Murder Mystery" and "Deconstructing Harry," are surprising omissions. Somewhat incredibly, the update on "Hollywood Ending" includes a complete giveaway of the finale, which revolves around an affectionate joke about French movie buffs.

At Mia Farrow's request, the special includes no footage of her.

•••

Mr. Allen soon will be in Cannes, France, to introduce "Hollywood Ending" at the annual festival. It's another first, like his recent surprise appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony.

"I thought I should repay the French," he says. "They've been so affectionate and wonderful to me. I've turned down invitations for 25 years. Some of my movies played out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, but I've always said, 'No.' I wanted to make a nice gesture to them, and I felt I had the film to do it with here, since it's about the movie business and I take the liberty of using the French to wrap up my plot on a happy note. I think they'll like this."

Mr. Allen in recent years has attributed his plots to a drawer that teems with scraps of paper containing story ideas he scribbled in moments of fleeting inspiration. "Hollywood Ending" has emerged as the most satisfying of this bunch, in part because it is a vigorously updated and sustained farce about moviemaking. Mr. Allen plays a down-on-his luck director, Val Waxman, who gets a comeback chance at a major picture. On the eve of the production, he suffers an attack of psychosomatic blindness. A handful of intimates conspire in a hoax that permits him to fake it for the duration.

Mr. Allen credits two scraps of paper with engendering his new movie. "One said something like, 'Don't forget psychosomatic blindness.' It had first come up in the context of something I was writing with [longtime associate] Marshall Brickman. I thought it would be a funny thing for me, although I envisioned a different professional setting, maybe as a surgeon or a boxer. Fixing on a movie director became a much better idea. There's an extended period of time needed to keep up the deception, so you can really have some fun with it.

"I jot down these kinds of notes all the time. Some work. Some don't. I may throw one in the drawer and look the whole collection over a year later. Re-reading some, I'll be amazed that I could ever have thought they were amusing. Others seem to hold up. Those I'll write up and be proved right or wrong. They all look good at the time."

The second notion that led to "Hollywood Ending" concerned a "washed-up director, who gets a chance he can't say no to." The catch: the opportunity comes from his ex-wife, who will be supervising the comeback project. Tea Leoni portrays the realization of this second major character, embodying a film business "type" that Mr. Allen has observed for many years.

"I used to know a number of women in New York who were like that," the filmmaker says. "Attractive, bright women who worked for the studios and sincerely wanted to make good projects. They were forever going to lunch with writers and directors, forever trying to get them together with the studios, babying along projects and never getting any of them approved. Ever. They were sincerely encouraging. Their hearts were in the right place. Why the studios kept them working with such futility I don't know. They began to seem like professional lunchers. You'd see them at the Russian Tea Room or some other venue in town always trying to develop quality projects, but they couldn't get them to fly."

Val's temporary blindness triggers additional sensory defects that never are mentioned while being exploited humorously every so often: His hearing and sense of direction are also about 90 degrees askew. The character played by Mr. Allen in "Manhattan" 22 years ago alludes to a slight hearing loss. Mr. Allen acknowledges that the hearing in his own right ear has declined.

"That's why I'm sitting so close to you," he says. "I've lost some of my hearing, and it helps if I can see the person speaking. Not that I could read your lips, but it's important to see them. The faculties are related, at least in my mind, so I think it's funny to have Val getting confused about voices when he goes temporarily blind. I also notice that when I go to the eye doctor for my checkups, I need to put my glasses back on when he speaks to me. For many years I worked with Sven Nykvist, who was Ingmar Bergman's great cameraman. Sven had lost hearing in one ear the same as mine, I think, but quite a bit more. The two of us were always drifting around and around each other trying to find a more effective alignment toward the good ears."

•••

Asked about his Oscar appearance, Mr. Allen says: "I can't say I enjoyed myself, but the reaction was great. I knew they were going to be a good audience. It's a festive occasion. No one is going to be there saying, 'Prove to us you'll be funny.' They were very warm and very friendly. And I've been a stand-up comedian for years. I can do that sort of thing. The worst part for me was schlepping out to California, taking my whole family on a plane, getting into a tuxedo. That was the pain. That and the secrecy beforehand. But once you're backstage, you can sense the 'up' feeling in the house."

Mr. Allen consented to break his Oscar fast out of loyalty to New York City. "Since all those terrible things happened on September 11, there's been so much pressure and incentive to do things in the city," he says. "I've done a commercial with [former] Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani and a number of other New Yorkers. I did a six-minute film along with Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee and Ed Burns that was shown at a big rally in Madison Square Garden. The New Yorker magazine held readings to raise money for the widows of firefighters. So I read. When the Academy asked me to do this thing, I did it because we do it, you know, for New York."

The element of secrecy produced "ludicrous aspects" that embarrassed Mr. Allen, since he had to keep friends in the dark. "I couldn't leak it to anyone," he says. "I was dining with close friends in New York the night before and couldn't say anything. I felt like such a fool. They flew me out to Los Angeles on the Sunday of the show. They had spread this silly rumor, to be deceptive, that the New York portion of the show would be introduced by Rudy Giuliani. That made me feel great. The most beloved man in America would not be there after all. Instead, it would be me."

On the other hand, Mr. Allen was given freedom to say what he wanted. "Everyone else has to read. They come out, these wonderful actors and actresses, and have to say, for example, 'Editing is the taking of one piece of film and placing it onto the other' You know. So everyone is bound to be a little stiff. If everyone could come out and speak from the heart, or speak naturally, they'd be fine. They shouldn't write so much of the show, or write it so mechanically.

"The only thing I'd ever like to do which I'm not gonna do is emcee the show. Ever since I saw Bob Hope do it, when I was still a kid, that idea has appealed to me. I don't want an award. I don't want to present an award. But I've had such reverence for Hope that there's always this temptation. I always thought it would be a good room for me. I'd be among peers, and they'd get my jokes."

•••

Asked about his attachment to New York, Mr. Allen says much of it derives from movie depictions. Although he was born in Brooklyn, years went by before he could actually reside in the Manhattan of his fondest aspirations.

"I would probably have been one of those people who migrated to New York," he says. "My concept of the city is so romantic, and it was strictly garnered from the Hollywood movies of my youth. It's not based on the real New York. If I went to a movie, as a kid, and the picture faded up on a farm or something, maybe one of those rural mailboxes with a flag on it, I would tune out. But if it started with a skyline and a scene of mixing a martini in a penthouse, and there was a white telephone, and women were coming home at 4 a.m. with ermines draped over their shoulders, I was completely entranced.

"This was completely Hollywood's conception of New York, usually shot in Hollywood. But that's the New York I grew up with, and I've tried to sustain it in my films. Of course, I also shoot them in New York. I don't like to leave the area. My scenic designer, Santo Loquasto, has always been able to find things for me. I've been able to do Chicago in New York and L.A. in New York. Once we even did a car ride across America in New York."

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