Moment Magazine


Is Woody Jewish?

It's easier to imagine Allen as an Episcopalian--who doesn't like Jews.

David Holzel

Woody Allen should have sued his psychiatrist. That's a typical reaction to the recent personal and professional antics of the filmmaker, who increasingly is giving his audience the willies. First he dated, then married, his longtime girlfriend's adopted daughter (and his sort-of stepdaughter), Soon-Yi Previn. Now the two have an adopted daughter of their own. And Allen cast British actor Kevin Branagh to impersonate the whining, stammering Woody in last year's Celebrity--instead of playing the character himself, as he always has.

     But if you thought Woody Allen saw a shrink for 30 years to solve his issues with women in particular and reality in general, that would be your first misconception. He wasn't in therapy, after all. Therapy aims to correct problems. Allen was in psychoanalysis. Sometimes as often as three days a week. It drove his self-absorbed work. But it certainly didn't mend his life.

     "Like Catholic confession, Allen's form of analysis let the penitent go free to sin again," John Baxter writes in Woody Allen--A Biography, published this month by Carroll & Graf. "Allen obviously found analysis stimulating, even exciting. There are few Allen films that don't contain an analysis scene."

     Woody's relationship with the analyst's couch is just one of a raft of misconceptions about Allen, says Baxter, who has also written biographies of film directors Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Federico Fellini. The confusion stems from the public's failure to distinguish between Allen the artist and his greatest creation, the character of Woody. Baxter told me in a recent interview that the two are nearly opposites.

     Far from being the artfully awkward nebbish we see in his 30-some films, Allen, whose latest movie, Sweet and Lowdown is scheduled to open December 3, is wealthy and ambitious, an astute businessman, and a skillful manipulator of his public image. He's even a winner at high-stakes poker. On-screen, he probably couldn't even shuffle a deck of cards without sending them showering down on the room. And perhaps one of the greatest differences between "Woody" and Allen has to do with Jewish identity: In the public mind, Woody has become the quintessential Jewish male; Allen, Baxter says, eschews just about everything Jewish.

     Perhaps the only thing Allen shares with his alter ego is Manhattan. According to the biographer, "Allen's devotion to Manhattan is something so strong that you can't efface it from his work."

     That's Manhattan--not New York, with its four other not-so-glamorous boroughs. Not the Bronx, where he was born 64 years ago this month. And certainly not Brooklyn, the incubator for so much Jewish talent around the middle of this century, where he grew up. "Brooklyn represents all the misery of his childhood and adolescence," Baxter says.

     In his 30-year film career, which followed highly successful stints as a TV writer and standup comedian, Allen went from the slapstick farce of his "earlier, funnier movies," such as Bananas, Sleeper, and Play It Again, Sam, to a succession of "comedies of urban manners," in the words of Time magazine's Richard Schickel. Despite gems like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen wasn't able to consistently combine his genius as a gagman with his aspirations to make serious films for a sophisticated audience.

     What was consistent was the character he played. Neurotic and timid, Woody was a perennial failure in a world he couldn't--or wouldn't--understand, Baxter says. Yet somehow he endured, and Allen quickly became the model all other American Jewish males were measured against.

     So many other Jewish characters have appeared both in cinema and on TV in the last decade--think Seinfeld, Northern Exposure's Joel Fleischman, Friends' Ross Geller, ER's Dr. Mark Greene--that the Woody stereotype has begun to fade. Still, with his pasty complexion, bulbous nose, and watery eyes obscured behind those disarming black horn-rims, he is arguably the most recognizable Jew on the planet.

     Actually, Baxter would like to argue this point. Neuroses don't make a man Jewish, he says. Neither does being an intellectual. Or having an overbearing mother. Allen's audiences here and abroad relate to Woody as a modern man afloat in a large city, not as a Jew. Baxter quotes a French cabdriver: "He's short. He's bald. He's ugly. He can't get laid. He's just like me."

      In fact, Baxter says, Allen himself has spent a lifetime running away from his Jewish roots. Jews who for years have performed the annual rite of rushing to see the latest Woody Allen movie, then throwing up their arms in frustration--"He's a self-hating Jew" "What is his problem with women?" "Why can't he make peace with himself?"--might be missing the point. According to Baxter, the Woody character is not a Jew at all.

     "You'd be hard pressed to find a Woody Allen movie where there is a well-realized Jewish character," he says. The exception might be Crimes and Misdemeanors, with its rabbi who is tragically going blind.

     "The Woody character casts scorn on Judaism at every turn," Baxter adds. He uses Hasidic Jews, in particular, as a sight gag. In Bananas a parade of them stroll through the gunfire of a Latin American revolution "bickering among themselves," Baxter writes. In Annie Hall Woody imagines himself in a black hat, beard and sidecurls receiving a disapproving stare from his gentile girlfriend's family matriarch, Grammy Hall. There are numerous references to Nazis in his films and in Manhattan Woody grimly jokes about his mother, "the castrating Zionist."

     "He uses these references as a means of distancing himself from these stereotypes," Baxter writes, "in the same way that his physical unattractiveness perversely turned him into a sex object."

     France, Italy, and Argentina have embraced Allen, despite the fact that his gag-filled dialogue looses a great deal in translation. Baxter, an Australian-born gentile, has viewed most of Allen's career from outside the United States. Now living in Paris, he says, "Europeans don't think of Allen as Jewish. They see him as archetypically American."

     "Allen's very much a Manhattan gentile comedian," Baxter continues, adding that his choice to live on the Upper East Side, among New York's gentile intelligentsia, is a telling reminder. And Woody is much like the persona of one of America's best-loved comedians, Baxter says. "It's very clear that he's modeled on Bob Hope."

     With his ski-slope nose and country club attitude, Hope seems an unlikely relative of Alvy Singer, Harry Block, and Danny Rose. But Hope was one of young Allen's idols--writing for Hope was one of Allen's early ambitions--and when you scratch the surface, the similarities become more apparent, Baxter believes. Like Allen, Hope's character never played the hero, never got the girl, and was, in Baxter's words, "the perennial stooge." Hope taught Allen that "it wasn't the comics who were funny, but the characters they played."

     Baxter says Allen "went out of his way to create Woody as the complete antithesis of his real self. They share very little, even the body is different." "The real Woody Allen is wealthy, successful with women, not an intellectual, likes simple pleasures, is not untidy in his dress," Baxter adds. "He doesn't speak in this stumbling, whiny way. This is a man who was chauffeured around Manhattan in a cream Rolls Royce. Try to imagine the Woody character doing that."

     The idea of Allen, and his Woody character, as quintessentially Jewish amuses the biographer. "Judaism is not a major element in his character. It may be something Jews read into Allen. It would be easier to imagine him as an Episcopalian who doesn't like Jews. That would be more consistent with his work."

     Living in the world's largest Jewish city, Baxter says, Allen has created an on-screen fantasy world that bears little resemblance to the real New York or anything Jewish. Yet none of this seems to have registered with Allen's fans, who still view the Woody character as Jewish through and through. For them, Woody is still Allan Felix from the film Play It Again, Sam--neurotic, shy, and a loner--a parody of a Jew. And of course, many Woody experts agree. "It's a specific kind of Jewishness. And they're all stereotypes," says Bob Mondello, a film critic for National Public Radio. "Angst-ridden, intellectual, well-read."

     In the 1940s and early 1950s, Woody Allen--or Allen Stewart Konigsberg, as he was then known--was probably the last person anyone would have picked to become the great American auteur. A "weedy" (in Baxter's words), painfully shy redhead, he was raised by a father who floated from job to job and a mother trying to make ends meet who was given to slapping her son. The Konigsbergs paid the usual lip service to Jewish observance--at his bar mitzvah party in 1948, Allen performed a blackface imitation of Al Jolson. But mainly the immigrant experience and the Great Depression had narrowed the family's ambitions to nothing more enriching than getting ahead.

     Allen spent his adolescence reading comic books and practicing magic tricks in his bedroom. When he did venture out from his family's Brooklyn apartment, it was to the movies. And when he finally escaped his stifling upbringing he knew he needed to go no farther than across the river to Manhattan. Not Jewish Manhattan, Baxter writes, "but the gentile New York embodied in the New Yorker."

     By the mid '50s, Allen had emerged as a television gag writer. Often with Larry Gelbart, who later created M*A*S*H, Allen provided scripts for Sid Caesar, Garry Moore, and Pat Boone. He also married Harlene Rosen from Brooklyn. After their divorce in 1961, Harlene became known as "the dread Mrs. Allen" in his comedy act.

     Comedy was booming in the early '60s. Guided and mothered by his managers, Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, and with an ambition stronger than his acute shyness and insecurities, Allen rode the nightclub circuit with increasing success. This Woody Allen persona was "a cynical, upwardly mobile Jewish intellectual," Baxter writes. Not the disheveled nebbish, but a Greenwich Village swinger. By 1964, he could command $10,000 a week.

     He had also found a new partner in sexy, unstable Louise Lasser, daughter of a WASPy upper-class Manhattan Jewish family. They married on Groundhog Day in 1966. The marriage lasted three years.

     By then, Allen was taking his writing to Broadway, to his beloved New Yorker, and to the movies. His rise from novice screenwriter to auteur was relatively quick. His first effort, the sex farce What's New, Pussycat? (1965), was hijacked by its megalomaniac star, Peter Sellers. Four years later, he was on surer footing as writer, director, and star of Take the Money and Run. With each new project, Allen grew as a filmmaker and director--Bananas, Play It Again, Sam (which he did not direct), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper, and Love and Death. These farces were Allen's "earlier, funnier works," as they became known after he used the phrase in Stardust Memories (1980) as a caustic riposte to his critics.

     Operating outside the Hollywood system on relatively small budgets, Allen thrived, largely on his own terms.

     "You can't compare Woody Allen with too many people. He's sui generis," Baxter says.

     When Annie Hall was released in 1977, it seemed Allen had moved from farce "to the grownups' table," as he remarked at the time. Although Allen denied it was autobiographical, the romantic comedy with the sophisticated dialogue seemed to be a retelling of his affair with Diane Keaton, who also played Annie.

     "With Annie Hall, he was on the cusp of an enormous popularity," says Bob Mondello. "It was his breakthrough. The earlier films appealed to an urban audience. This one could play at the mall."

     Ironically, Allen called Annie Hall "a personal failure." His plans for it had been ambitious, but the results were a confusing mess. Judicious editing saved the film.

    Annie Hall won four Academy Awards. But that Oscar night has become better known for Allen's not showing up, famously keeping his regular Monday night date playing jazz at Michael's Pub in Manhattan. The impression he gave was that there are more important things than Hollywood and awards. But the press was eight deep at the bar at Michael's, having been tipped off days before that Allen would not be attending the Oscars. "Allen, appearing to shun the limelight, had unerringly backed into it," Baxter writes.

     In his next film, Interiors (1978), Allen dropped the pretense of comedy altogether to tell the tragic story of a family on the verge of disintegration. For the first time, the Woody character did not appear. And for the first time, Allen's limitations were everywhere in evidence.

     "Interiors shows how ordinary he is as a thinker," Baxter says. "The literalness and portentousness of the dialogue. He did get better. Crimes and Misdemeanors [his 1989 film about a man who gets away with murder] shows a genuine understanding of human pain. But it was rare in his work."

     There followed the film Baxter calls Woody Allen's masterpiece, 1979's Manhattan, about a New York writer and his romances, including one with a teenage girl. "There's nothing better than Manhattan," the biographer says. "Manhattan is sublime. The sheer virtuosity of that film and the way he subsumes autobiography and his concerns without making them shrill and preachy. How funny it is. How sexy it is. How natural the movement of the camera is. It's the great film of the '70s. And it's his least Jewish."

     As far as Baxter is concerned, Woody Allen had done his best work. "Woody's greatest days were in the '60s and '70s," he says.

     The films that followed reiterated Allen's themes about sex, aging, and the fleeting nature of relationships and existence. They also mark the entrance of Mia Farrow into his life and work. They were together eleven years but never married. They never lived together either, maintaining separate apartments on opposite sides of Central Park. In addition to Farrow's natural and adopted children, the couple had a son together, Satchel, who was born in 1987.

     Allen had professed a dislike of children. But as his relationship with Farrow cooled in the late '80s, he was warming to at least two of her adopted daughters. He took great delight in young Dylan. And Soon-Yi, who had maintained an icy distance, grew closer to Allen in her late teens.

     In December 1991, Allen and Farrow became joint adoptive parents of Dylan and Farrow's young adopted son, Moses. The next month, Farrow discovered in Allen's apartment six Polaroids of a nude Soon-Yi in provocative poses.

     In the ensuing legal battle, Allen tried to gain custody of Satchel, Dylan, and Moses. Farrow accused Allen of molesting Dylan. Allen's Husbands and Wives, released at this time, took on an uncanny verisimilitude as the film's real-life stars destroyed their ties publicly. After an investigation, Allen was exonerated of the molestation charges. But he lost the custody battle, and the scandal hurt his career. For the first time, Woody Allen didn't seem like a sound investment.

     "People who had cast Allen in their own private movie," Baxter writes, "who dreamed about him, imitated him, retold his jokes--were offended by what they should have known from the start: that film stars are not the characters they portray."

     The outrage has diminished, which only makes Allen's other career problems more obvious, Baxter says. While the creative drive may endure, making films is not for the weak. It is exhausting work. And then there is money. Allen lost most of his creative team a few years ago due to a financial pinch in his production company, Sweetland. Getting adequate funding for films, even for relatively modest films such as Allen's, is increasingly difficult. "For a filmmaker, after your mid-60s, it's hard to get insurance coverage," Baxter says.

     And while Allen has aged, movie audiences are still primarily young.

     The fact that Kenneth Branagh played the Woody character in last year's Celebrity--right down to the trademark tics and stammers--is an indication that Allen realizes he is too old to appear as the impish loser of 30 years ago. "Allen can no longer do Woody," Baxter says. "You don't want to see him making love to a young woman."

     Increasingly, Allen seems like a relic of another time. Baxter points to Allen's new film, Sweet and Lowdown, starring the volatile Sean Penn as a wild and eccentric jazz guitar genius in the 1930s. Allen watchers believe it is based on a script he wrote some three decades ago that his film studio nixed--believing it was too serious a subject for an up-and-coming comic filmmaker.

     "The fact that Woody's next film is one of the first scripts he ever wrote is part of the problem," Baxter says. "It looks like he's winding up his career."

     For now, the man who became a swinger in the '60s and then kept on swinging seems to have found his nesting instinct. In 1998 Soon-Yi became the third Mrs. Allen. Last spring, the two adopted a daughter. Allen named her Bechet Dumaine, after jazz clarinetist Sidney Buchet and Jean Doumanian, Allen's longtime confidant and producer. "This whole thing is more psychodrama than parenthood," Baxter says.

     Allen even sold his bachelor pad on 5th Avenue near 74th Street, which he had occupied since 1969. He reportedly got $14 million for the duplex and is now looking to buy a five-story town house on East 92nd Street near Madison Avenue, according to the weekly New York Observer. "His offer of $17.7 million would put him just $4 million in the hole."

     Baxter thinks "he's going into retirement." NPR's Mondello disagrees: "I think he's decided he likes his niche. His films are remarkably consistent in the amount of money they make. I think he will always be able to get financing, because he makes them so cheaply. I think actors will always want to work with him. He is an astonishing filmmaker."

     Baxter is equally astonished by Woody Allen's body of work. But the art form allows for no survivors. "Film making is a self-defeating activity. You get worn down by it," he says. "No one has managed to beat this game. Allen did better than most."


© MOMENT 2001


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