Woody Allen: A Screenwriting Legend
The following is an excerpt for FilmCraft: Screenwriting by Tim Grierson © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
Few film artists have been as prolific, talented, and utterly dismissive of their body of work as Woody Allen. “When I’m home lying on my bed and I’m writing something, I have these incredible ideas,” he once said. “I think I’m going to write Citizen Kane every time out of the box, and it’s going to be so great. And then I make the film, and I’m so humiliated by what I see afterward. I think: ‘Where did I go wrong?’”
He is far too modest. Born in December 1935 in New York’s Bronx, Allen has been steadily writing and directing (and often starring in) his own films since 1969, and he’s proved equally capable at delivering hilarious comedies and thought-provoking dramas. Both have intrigued him since his childhood: In his teens, he was already selling jokes to local newspapers, but he was also intrigued by the great European films that were making their way to American cinemas. “Suddenly I saw that movies could actually be something substantially wonderful,” he recalled. His journey to moviemaking began in earnest when he wrote the 1965 comedy What’s New Pussycat?, but his unhappiness with how the film turned out convinced him that he needed to direct his screenplays in the future. Thus began a level of creative control that has been the envy of several generations of filmmakers.
After early success with comedic films like Sleeper (1973) and Love and Death (1975), Allen made a major creative breakthrough with Annie Hall (1977), a mature romantic comedy that went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (which Allen shared with co-writer Marshall Brickman). Determined to stretch himself, Allen spent the next several years making films that demonstrated the breadth of his ambitions, moving from the Bergman-esque drama of Interiors (1978) to the grand-canvas romantic melancholy of Manhattan (1979) to the 81/2-inspired Stardust Memories (1980). The switching between serious and lighter fare has been a cornerstone of Allen’s work ever since, and indeed some of his very finest films are the ones that have merged the two: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Husbands and Wives (1992).
Allen has received 23 Oscar nominations, winning four: three for writing and one for directing. Because of his self-effacing manner, he would probably diminish his own accolades. (“The whole concept of awards is silly,” he said in 1974.) But perhaps he would be more receptive to the six Academy Awards that have gone to actors in his films, which explains in part why performers happily sign up for his projects, even if it means playing small roles for not much money. Indeed, few contemporary writers have crafted so many memorable parts, whether it’s the movie-mad Depression-era wife (played by Mia Farrow) of The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), the adulterous murderer (Martin Landau) of Crimes and Misdemeanors, the emotionally adrift philosophy professor (Gena Rowlands) of Another Woman (1988), or the lovable titular heroine (Diane Keaton) of Annie Hall.
As he is so prolific, Allen has experienced fallow periods in his career—it would be impossible not to have a few duds over the course of 45 films—but even his weakest efforts reveal an insight into eternal human concerns. Allen’s writing grapples with how people struggle to find contentment: through love, through success, through a few laughs. But, as his characters discover repeatedly, those comforts don’t last—a fact that supplies his films with their poignancy. At age 77, he remains as searching as his protagonists, and for audiences around the world, that tireless quest for meaning has been one of the greatest, most enduring rewards the cinema has offered over the last four decades. “I’m obeying nobody but my artistic muse,” he once said about how he decides what project to write next. “The experience is doing the project; the critical and commercial responses are not terribly relevant. Doing the idea and expressing yourself, maintaining your own criteria, is.”