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Woody Allen: lucky genius

(ran GB edition)

The successful writer-director says his life has been a series of fortunate accidents, though he's worked hard for what he has achieved.

A memory: Woody Allen on a press junket in 1994. He's pale, a little soft unrisen biscuit of a man, so tiny and frail and frightened he appears infantile even among the not-very-grown-up reporters. His voice is timid, muffled with phlegm (a cold). His grip is pasty and cold. Shaking hands with him is like having sex with a trout. His eyes remain unfocused. He looks as if he'd rather face unanesthetized circumcision than the upcoming innocuous half-hour ordeal of puffball questions and fawning mass adoration.

A more recent memory, from this month: Woody Allen, in his editing suite on Park Avenue. Can this be the same guy? Where do I get vitamins like these? Far from the squirt of flaccid dough he was then, the Woody of now is, if not quite a hardy buccaneer, at least vigorous. Hey, how about some tennis? Basketball, on a rented court in some church basement, followed off by jazz licks at Elaine's? Wanna arm-wrestle? How about a good thumb-pinning match? Whatever his Rx, it's paying dividends.

Perhaps it's that his new movie, Small Time Crooks, is an old-fashioned Woody-style comedy. Perhaps it helps furthermore that instead of the usual junket circus of baying hounds and hustlers and shoe-licking sycophants, this is a more refined experience: There are no others around, and he's on home ground. Whatever, and who could know? The fact is, this Woody, in an open-necked white shirt and brown corduroy trousers, seems just pretty damn solidly in control.

That means he is not who you want him to be. "I am not him," he says.

"Him" would be, you know, the guy.

The guy who more or less changed American comedy in the late '50s and early '60s. Before then, comics were patter merchants, smooth, clever, with internal hard drives full up to the megabyte level with shtick. They knew a minimum of 7-million jokes, had them cross-indexed by subject, theme and topicality, and could recall them in a nanosecond. So the rabbi says to the priest . . . now take my wife . . . we-elll. They were great comics, of course: Hope, Benny, Youngman, Burns pre-eminent among them. They all had narrow personas. Some had large cigars. Some could hoof it to a signature tune, others had a signature line. But they all came out of vaudeville to become Showbiz Inc. They were funny and fabulous and so artificial they could have been made from refined rhinestone.

Then came "him": corduroy suit, button-down shirts, dirty bucks, eyes blown up and made alien-intelligent by black frame glasses, a sense of irony, a sense that the city was the center of the culture, a contempt for the slickness of show biz, a sense of his own tragic failings, a fear of the physical. He knew the difference between Kierkegaard and Kant _ hell, he even knew how to spell Kierkegaard. He was anti-show biz, with a twisted view of the world's true absurdity and his small place in it, his soul inevitably pessimistic, bomb-haunted, sex-obsessed, his persona unarmed with patter or soft-shoe.

"That was never me," this Woody says of that Woody. This Woody points out that as a director, he's got a good deal of financial and artistic responsibility and a good deal of discipline. "To get that stuff on the screen, you've got to work hard. You've got to raise money and you've got to know what to do with it."

He recalls that when he was a boy, far from being the last picked in playground ballgames, he was the first. It's as if that other Woody, the one so many of us loved so long ago, no longer exists, and if it does at all, it is only as a construct. This man seems angst-free and inner-life-free, very smart and, sadly, not particularly funny. What is past is past: It exists only in memory, as something pulled off the hard drive for inquiring minds.

"I was never the guy reading Heidegger and taking notes in the margin. I was always more like a small-time crook than a professor."

He just played a professor on television.

"I was aware that I belonged to a new school of comedy," he says. "They called it "sick.' What is sick? They never knew what they meant. There weren't even any symptoms.

"I suppose it's tempting to think of us as alienated intellectuals, but in truth all of us _ myself, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart _ had big followings. We played big rooms. We were in show business. We played Vegas, the Copacabana, places like that."

It is pointed out that in a certain way, he alone is the survivor. At least he's the one who, all these years later, is still making people laugh.

"Mike Nichols has had a great career as a director. Elaine chose not to be as productive. Mort was uncompromising. He would take five years off to investigate the Kennedy assassination with Jim Garrison. I never took any chances. I was a disciplined worker who made the most of a less powerful talent. I considered my talent less profound than most of the others', and I was very lucky and took advantage of my opportunities."

Luck, as it turns out, is something of a theme, possibly even an obsession with Allen, born Allan Konigsberg in Brooklyn in 1935. It happens to be the subject, in some sense, of Small Time Crooks, which documents the unhappy rise and happy fall of a small crew of light-fingered losers on their way to oblivion. Allen plays Ray, head of the group, whose ambitions are modest. They include robbing a bank by renting the store next to it and tunneling in from underneath. Idiots to a man, they completely miss the bank, ending up instead in a women's wear shop. But meanwhile, to cover their scheme, they've insisted that Ray's wife (Tracey Ullman) use their shop to sell her home-baked cookies.

And they've got a hit; the lines for Sunshine Cookies go around the block. In six months they've franchised, and in a year they're all millionaires. The pure luck of it all!

One wonders whether there's a secret autobiographical meaning in all this.

"Possibly," he allows. "One's fate is out of one's control. People don't like to hear that. It's a terrifying proposition. But it can also work for you. I feel my career has been filled with luck from Day One. I had a gift for writing jokes. Pure luck. It's an accident of birth. I did work hard, but I had luck all the way. The film company I worked for (the late Orion) was enlightened, intelligent and sensitive. My filmmaking career had the quality of working on a grant. The critical reaction to me has been very kind. Basically they've been emphasizing my good points. They've been very encouraging."

But then came the time of "it."

"It." You know. We don't like to talk about these things baldly, us men, so we speak in highly symbolic terms, with "it" standing as the approved code word for the bad time, with Mia, the kids, Soon-Yi, all the scandal, the accusations, the . . . you know. "It."

"That had nothing to do with luck. A life has ups and downs. That was hard for me, but it was livable. I have a gift for compartmentalization, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. It can be hateful and hurtful. In this case _ by luck _ it was helpful. I kept working undiminished. And I realize now how I had been spared until that moment, and how much since then I've been spared. To this day _ I'm almost 65 _ I've never seen a dead body. I've been spared a lot of suffering. You can't go through life without unpleasantries."

But his life, as blissful as it's been or as stressful, has one other interesting permutation: It's been utterly unexpected.

"I never set out to be a comic or a filmmaker. It just happened. I grew up in the '40s and '50s, and I wanted to write for the theater. When I was a kid, the theater was big and movies were silly. The theater had Tennessee Williams and William Inge and Arthur Miller. I became a TV writer to write for the theater. Then I became a comic because I saw so many who broke the mold ahead of me and I thought I could take advantage of their spadework.

"I tried it and I got a lot of writing offers. I was still essentially a writer. I wrote a script called What's New, Pussycat? and just stood around as they mangled it. So then I said I'd only do it if I could direct it. And an outfit came around called Palomar Pictures, who believed in me. That's how I got into it. And at the same time, film came of age in the U.S. The director became important. And you could express yourself. Meanwhile, the theater was becoming something else, spectacle largely. The theater that I loved doesn't exist today."

He admits that he learned while he earned. His early career was a nice case of on-the-job training.

"I'm not a natural. I've had to work. I'm a writer. I had to work and learn. I've made an enormous effort to develop and to learn lighting and editing."

But he didn't have to learn funny. He knew funny. He was funny.

"More luck. I can write comedy for the ear to make people laugh when it's performed. I can also write comedy for the mind's ear, that can make people laugh when they read it. I do like telling a story. That's the difference. A writer who can just write jokes is just a joke writer. But you have to know how to use them in a bigger form. You want to use comedy to tell a story. It just can't be joke joke joke. And it's hard. Though I must say when I do a relationship story, sometimes the whole thing changes in the editing, because you see that someone isn't likable or some feeling doesn't make any sense. With a movie like Crooks, there's only one principle: Is it funny?"

This naturally brings up a sore point in Woody worship. It is said that there are two Woodys, the funny one (the earlier one) and the unfunny one (the newer one). That is, the pre-Manhattan Woody and the post-Manhattan Woody. So, Mr. Allen, I have one question: What the hell was going on? Why did you stop being funny for a while? What were you thinking?

"I betrayed my audience consciously after Manhattan. They had provided a tacit contract: If I did what I did, they would show up. But I decided not to go that direction. I took a lot of flak. But I've made _ oh, I'm not sure how many _ maybe 30 or so films, and some of my best ones came out of that decision and some of the more serious films have actually done better, like Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanors. I had to do it. I didn't betray them just to betray them. But you have to be willing to fail and take the consequences. I did, and had a good support system to get through it. Thank God the Europeans came to my aid."

Allen stands now as a monument, if to nothing else, to hard work. He's always working on something, and this is his 12th film in 11 years.

"I always have ideas. I write them all down. Then when I finish a project, I pull out my notes and I find an idea and I figure out a way to have it work. Someone said _ I may be misquoting _ that genius is 80 percent showing up."

It is pointed out that he is the one who said that.

"Yes," he says, "and I can never remember what the original number was. Was it 75 or 80 or 90?"

He is told that he may be misquoting himself. That would be a first.

"Well, anyway. A lot of genius is just showing up."