And it took the crumbling of the World Trade Center to bring him out. While the filmmaker’s romance with Soon-Yi Previn has been controversial, his love affair with New York City has been legendary, a source of inspiration throughout his career and Allen was among the first in the world of arts and literature to volunteer his services in the wake of the tragedy. Within weeks he joined John Ashbery, Don DeLillo and others for Beyond Words, a series of readings sponsored by The New Yorker to benefit the September 11 Fund.
Allen’s return to public life continued with a surprise appearance at the Oscars in March, his first. The comedian did a well-received bit of stand up and then introduced Nora Ephron’s pastiche devoted to classic films shot in the Big Apple and kicked off by Allen’s own “Manhattan.” The crowd welcomed the unexpected guest host with exuberance and warmth. The moment is considered by many to have been the highlight of the broadcast and I suspect it was also the moment Woody Allen decided to go for it.
The thing is, whether you’re Bill Clinton or Pete Rose or Woody Allen, the time comes when you want to get your legacy in shape. At 66 Allen may not care what the public thinks of him personally but he apparently cares what it thinks of him as an artist and of the body of work — his 35 films in particular — he has created. Television coverage of his problems with Farrow played a pivotal role in his fall from grace. My sense is his experience at the Oscars caused him to realize that the very same medium could be utilized to restore him to eminence.
The result? All Woody all the time TV blitzing like he’s never blitzed in his life. In the last few weeks he’s very probably appeared on or been the subject of more television programming than he has been in the last couple of decades combined. Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, for example, suddenly found himself able to persuade the director to sit down in front of a camera and talk. Unbelievably, this marked the first time Allen has ever participated in an American documentary about his career. “Woody Allen: A Life In Film” consists of a 90 minute interview in which Allen goes into the origin and history of various films. It’s aired several times now on the Turner Classic Movies channel. In conjunction with the broadcast, the station is also airing an 18 movie tribute with Allen films showing every Saturday in May.
Add to that the promotion he and his cast have done around the release of his latest comedy, Hollywood Ending. Now it may not have looked at all unusual from where you sit but I’ve been reviewing movies for almost twenty years and I can tell you I’ve never seen the likes of it in connection with a Woody Allen film. Behind the scenes, it was hardly business as usual. Traditionally, electronic press materials for his pictures have been made available to critics only at the last minute and contain just one or two short clips. Allen is famous for the secrecy surrounding his projects. This time, though, the tapes came weeks in advance bulging with more footage than I could possibly use in a month of movie reviews.
Up front, it was anything but business as usual too. When was the last time you saw Allen hustling a new title on The Today Show? But there he was on the 1st of May, strolling through Central Park with Katie and talking at length about his two eternal passions, filmmaking and New York. And, everywhere one looked, there was his leading lady Tea Leoni and, wherever she went — whether it was Good Morning America or Entertainment Tonight — the actress made a point of discussing her director not only in terms of his artistic skill but also in terms of his animal magnetism. “After working closely with him, I can understand how he wound up bedding some of the most beautiful women in the world,” she told a dubious Matt Lauer. A guy can’t buy PR like that.
On May 15th, Allen flew to France to open the Cannes Film Festival. His first time there too incredibly. Just how, you have to wonder, does one manage to make movies like “Annie Hall,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Zelig,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Manhattan” and never once show one’s face at either the Academy Awards or Cannes prior to the age of 66? The fact that he’s hitting both within two months of one another this year has to be at least as telling as his being a no-show up to now, wouldn’t you think? Every time news of his honorary role in the high profile festival is reported on television and in the press, Allen’s stock is sure to rise and repairs to his reputation draw one step closer to completion.
You’ve got to give the guy credit: the filmmaker has manipulated the media as savvily as he’s ever helmed a motion picture. When it comes right down to it, what Allen is doing, of course, is directing the final act to his life in film, his own personal Hollywood ending.
Hey, if politicians, talk show hosts and rehabbed athletes can spin their way back into the public’s heart, why not Woody Allen? Whether or not he ever makes another first rate comedy, he may just have the last laugh after all.
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