A documentary illuminates elusive Woody Allen

NEW YORK (AP) — You will see his typewriter, the Olympia portable Woody Allen has used for pounding out everything he’s written since his teens.

You will see the contents of the “idea drawer” in his bedside table where he stashes random paper scraps, any of which might inspire his next film.

You will see him in the role of director, both in the distant past and while making his 2010 film, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” — a remarkable unveiling by an artist known for keeping a locked-down set.

In sum, you will see this legendarily private filmmaker up close and personal, charming and candid, and, yes, funny as he strikes a clear contrast with the neurotic, death- and sex-obsessed Manhattanite he has famously depicted in so many classic films.

Turns out, Woody Allen at heart is a writer.

“Writing is the great life,” he says at the start of the film, seen recumbent on his bed scribbling on a legal pad.

Only when production begins on the screenplay he has written does reality set in, he says, and “all your schemes about making a masterpiece are reduced to, ‘I’ll prostitute myself any way I have to, to survive this catastrophe.”’

An “American Masters” presentation, “Woody Allen: A Documentary” is a two-part, three-and-a-half-hour feast for all Woody fans and anyone else who is interested in a prolific, persistent artist’s creative world. It airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.

The film revisits Allen’s childhood in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and his first venture as a professional writer: supplying jokes to columnists and comics while still in high school. It covers his growing success in the 1950s and 1960s as a comedy writer for TV, then as a rising standup comic in his own right.

But this was all a prelude to “Take the Money and Run” in 1969, a zany comedy he wrote, directed and starred in — his first outing as an auteur who, astonishingly since then, has averaged one film per year for more than 40 years.

Allen has never been distinguished by his box-office might, although “Annie Hall” (1977) was a critical and commercial sensation, and this year’s “Midnight in Paris” caught everyone off-guard by becoming his highest grosser yet.

Speaking of his up-and-down fortunes, Allen says, with the flicker of a smile, “I don’t really care about commercial success — and the end result is, I rarely achieve it.”

More meaningfully, what sets Allen apart is the scale, scope and inquisitiveness of his output, which continues apace, even as he approaches his 76th birthday on Dec. 1.

No la-di-da artist’s temperament complicates his working life. John Cusack, one of many stars from Allen’s films seen in the documentary, reports how, as a workday wears on, he will signal that it’s time to speed things up: He doesn’t want to miss the Knicks’ tip-off.

“I don’t have the concentration or the dedication that you really need to be a great artist. I’d rather be home watching the ballgame,” says Allen.

“What sometimes comes off as false modesty truly is modesty; the self-deprecating streak is very real,” said filmmaker Robert Weide, a lifelong Woody-phile who spent the past three years making the Woody Allen documentary.

“In his own mind,” said Weide recently, “he’s just this journeyman director who has the opportunity to make a film a year, and so he does. And yet he grades himself on the same curve as Bergman and Kirosawa, so he thinks he’s just some little pisher who has managed to get by with a percentage of the public.”

How did Weide win over Allen as the subject for a portrait when others had wooed him and lost?

In the past, Weide (rhymes with “tidy”) produced documentaries on The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce — comic heroes he happens to share with Allen — and surmises that Allen, whom he had come to know casually, was aware of their simpatico tastes.

In October 2008, Weide made the latest of several overtures to Allen, seeking his participation in the documentary.

Then, Weide recalled, “I got a call from his assistant, saying, ‘Woody wants to know, if he were to do this...,’ and as soon as I heard the word ‘if,’ I thought, ‘I’m in!”’

Born in 1959, Weide discovered Allen when he saw “Take the Money and Run” as a 10-year-old, “and just loved it. I was fortunate to grow up with his films after that. And ‘Annie Hall’ led to my obsession.”

During a varied career, Weide in 1999 teamed up with Larry David — a friend from his stand-up, pre-”Seinfeld” days — to direct the one-hour HBO “Curb Your Enthusiasm” special, which led to the “Curb” series, where Weide remained for its first five seasons.

David (who appeared in Allen’s 2009 comedy, “Whatever Works”) is among a number of on-camera interviewees rounded up by Weide for the documentary. Others include Mariel Hemingway, Diane Keaton, Louise Lasser, Sean Penn and Tony Roberts, as well as writing collaborators Marshall Brickman and Doug McGrath; Allen’s sister and producer, Letty Aronson; and longtime manager Jack Rollins.

Soon-Yi Previn, Woody’s wife of nearly 14 years, declined to take part, as did her adoptive mother, Mia Farrow, with whom Allen had a 12-year relationship while she was starring in several of his films.

But the documentary doesn’t shut its eyes to the domestic scandal that erupted two decades ago, nor does Allen, who marvels at the media circus that put him in the center ring.

“Apparently it was a good, juicy story,” he rationalizes with some understatement, “and it took a little edge off my natural blandness.”

Said Weide, “Because this is a film about Woody’s work, my own feeling about the scandal was, ‘Who cares?’ But I certainly didn’t want this to appear as any kind of a whitewash, and have people think that somehow he had guided me away from it.”

Quite the opposite. “Once he said yes to the project, he was totally open to me,” Weide said, “and never refused a request or refused to answer a question, and was never looking over my shoulder.”

But in creating his penetrating portrait, Weide still seems amazed at having had the chance to look over the shoulder of his hero. And he’ll get to do it again: He spoke proudly of being among the chosen few invited to a screening of Allen’s current film-in-progress.

“I went back and told that to my high-school self,” Weide said with a laugh.

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Online:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org.

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