Woody Allen

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971

Woody Allen is one of the most highly regarded American screenwriters and humorists. He was born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn, New York, on December 1, 1935, the son of Martin and Nettie Cherry Konigsberg. He grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn while his father went from job to job and his mother kept the accounts in a flower shop. The young Allen spent his childhood playing baseball and basketball, listening to the radio, reading comic books, and teaching himself how to perform magic tricks and how to play the clarinet.{$S[A]Konigsberg, Allen Stewart;Allen, Woody}

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When he was fifteen, Allen began sending jokes to gossip columnists Earl Wilson and Walter Winchell under the name Woody Allen, adopting his neighborhood nickname resulting from always being the one who supplied the stick for playing stickball. After his name was mentioned in Wilson’s column, he was hired to write jokes attributed to a press agent’s clients and later to create material for radio and television performers. After finishing high school and briefly attending New York University and the City College of New York, Allen became a full-time comedy writer for such television programs as Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows.

In 1961, he quit his job with The Garry Moore Show to become a stand-up comedian. Allen created the distinctive comic persona of a schlemiel unlucky in love and incompetent in all areas of modern life. His work as a comedian led to an offer from producer Charles K. Feldman to write a screenplay. Allen hated the resulting bedroom farce, What’s New, Pussycat?, so much that he decided to become a film director so that he could exert more control over his scripts. He first tested his skill as a filmmaker by taking a low-budget Japanese espionage thriller and dubbing it with outrageously incongruous English to create What’s up, Tiger Lily? At the same time, Allen expanded his interests to the theater with Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again Sam and to the printed page with humorous short stories appearing in such publications as The New Yorker. He began his exceptionally prolific career as writer, director, and star of films with Take the Money and Run, and his films gradually evolved from extensions of his nightclub routines into insightful studies of male-female relations. Many of these films have included strongly autobiographical elements and have featured his offscreen love interests: Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, and Mia Farrow. In 1987, Farrow gave birth to Allen’s first child.

Allen’s plays have represented his least significant achievement. Only Play It Again Sam is noteworthy, with its hero unsuccessful with women until the spirit of Humphrey Bogart begins giving him romantic pointers. His satirical stories combine sophisticated entertainment with serious observations about love and death. “The Whore of Mensa” is a private-eye parody in which attractive young women are paid to discuss literature and philosophy with men desperate for intellectual stimulation. In “The Kugelmass Episode,” an English professor is given a respite from an unsatisfying marriage by having an affair with the heroine of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). Allen’s fiction, with its many allusions, delight in wordplay, and juxtapositions of unusual elements, is in the tradition of such American humorists as S. J. Perelman and Robert Benchley. Not mere entertainments, “The Whore of Mensa” and “The Kugelmass Episode” depict the shallowness of most romantic relations, and the latter story illustrates one of Allen’s most persistent themes: People rarely get what they want out of love affairs.

The films written and directed by Allen have progressed from parody (gangster films in Take the Money and Run, science fiction in Sleeper) to addressing serious topics. The transitional film is Love and Death, a spoof of nineteenth century Russian novels which compares the fragility of love with that of life itself. Allen’s work evidences his obsession with death; in the Academy Award-winning Annie Hall, the hero is so concerned with the possibility of dying that he cannot enjoy life. Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters, in contrast, completely changes his life after learning that he is not suffering from a fatal illness. To underscore his point about embracing life, Allen has the character miraculously overcome sterility and impregnate his second wife.

Allen’s attempts to emulate his cinematic hero, the great Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman, with studies of the angst-ridden have not met with the favor of audiences or most critics. Interiors, September, and Another Woman have been attacked for the banality of their upper-middle-class characters and the awkwardness of their dialogue, especially in comparison with such a heartfelt seriocomedy as Manhattan, generally considered his finest film. Even his best films and stories have been accused of pandering to a limited audience: urban intellectuals with artistic pretensions, especially Jewish New Yorkers. His proponents claim that his works exemplify the essence of contemporary American wit, sophistication and irony blended with an understanding (for a male artist) of women and the intricacies of male-female relations surpassed only by his master, Bergman.

The latter view, however, came into question in 1992 following the breakup of Allen’s long relationship with Farrow, the revelation of his affair with the actress’s adopted, college-student daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and a bitter, accusatory custody battle over Farrow and Allen’s son and two adopted children. The public outcry painted the writer-director-actor as everything from selfish to self-deluding to evil, while critics began to reevaluate his work, especially his attitudes toward women. Allen’s response to this highly publicized controversy could be seen in films such as Bullets over Broadway, in which he seems to take artists to task for allowing art to interfere with their personal lives. His subsequent films drew mixed reviews, with praise given to Mighty Aphrodite and Sweet and Lowdown.

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