Woody Allen 1935–
(Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg) American director, actor, author, playwright, and scriptwriter.
In his films, Woody Allen has created a persona as distinct as that of Charlie Chaplin's little tramp. The Allen character is typically a maligned, confused adolescent who becomes an isolated adult; an observer who finds it difficult to participate. Sexually and emotionally inadequate, he is the quintessential schlemiel, or Jewish underdog. However, his experiences reflect aspects of everyone's lives. While Allen's earlier films are gag-oriented and reminiscent of Chaplin's tradition of a little man dealing with an overwhelming society, later works are more introspective. Initially, Allen attacked society as a whole. This attitude evolved into a more personal view of his failure to deal with emotions and intimate relationships.
Born in Brooklyn, Allen claims as his earliest memories rejection and harassment by his peers, a situation that figures prominently in his comic routines. While studying cinema at New York University, Allen mailed jokes to newspaper columnists who in turn passed them on to local celebrities. Consequently, an advertising agency hired him as a jokewriter. This led to writing for standup comedians, until he began writing and performing his own material. Allen also experimented with playwriting before turning to cinema. His first film, What's Up, Tiger Lily?, is actually a Japanese spy film that Allen re-edited and supplied with new dialogue. The result, while referred to as a "one-gimmick" film, introduced his leading character: the lovable klutz. Like the Woody Allen character that followed, he is alienated, an observer.
Take the Money and Run, the first film in which he both starred and directed, reflected the misadventures of an unsuccessful bank robber; it relied on a comic sense that compensated for any structural difficulties, as did Bananas, his next film. They consist of verbal and visual "one-liners." Both are simplistic forms of the parodies he created later. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex provided an innovative experiment for Allen. More than a comedy created from a sex manual, it not only parodied the book, but its concept and audience as well. Sleeper is a social satire as well as an amusing parody of futuristic science fiction. With this film, Allen began discussing his deprived childhood less while utilizing broader symbolism about man's blasé attitude towards life.
With Love and Death, Allen chose an even more ambitious topic: the satirization of classic Russian literature and cinema. He draws from other sources, too, reflecting in particular his great admiration for Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. Love and Death is a black comedy of death, despair, and life in a godless universe. While still concerned with visual humor, Allen's films were developing thematic and visual sophistication.
Annie Hall is generally regarded as his masterpiece, and a landmark of his stylistic development. An autobiographical romantic comedy, Annie Hall examines Allen's failure in intimate relationships. For the first time, he consciously avoids excessive use of humor, so as not to destroy his tale's credibility. Significantly, this film was nearly called Anhedonia, meaning the inability to experience pleasure, a common failing of the Woody Allen character. By changing the name, Allen concentrates on the positive aspects of his relationship with Diane Keaton, his ex-girlfriend who costarred with him in the film, instead of emphasizing his ultimate failure. In this film, the schlemiel becomes more complex; he is beginning to search for permanence in the world, and finds it in art. Annie Hall met with resounding critical and popular success.
After the success of Annie Hall, Allen undertook his biggest challenge: writing and directing a noncomic film in which he did not appear. Although Interiors met with mixed critical receptions, some critics found it Allen's most outstanding work. An austere, somber film, it reflects his taste for Bergman. Interiors treats human frailty in much the same manner as Annie Hall; however, this time he did not have his familiar network of visual and spoken humor to fall back on. Manhattan combines elements of both Annie Hall and Interiors. The style is sparse and more confident, reflected by his use of black and white film. It is a drama with comedy, instead of a comedy with drama. While some critics labeled the film superficial, disjointed, and boring, others pronounced it Allen's most mature work to date. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)