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Woody revealed: the nebbish as control freak

Woody revealed: the nebbish as control freak

THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR when the marketing and PR mavens get to strut their stuff. The distant thunder of Harvey Weinstein’s heavy artillery can already be heard, mobilizing another assault on the Oscar. And his rivals are determined not to eat his dust.

As an exercise in aggressive “cool,” meanwhile, one has to admire the deftly orchestrated renovation of Woody Allen’s image that’s been launched in support of “Everyone Says I Love You.” Suddenly Woody, who is normally about as press-friendly as Kirk Kerkorian, is out there confiding his innermost thoughts to selected journalists, who’ve been carefully pre-screened to be Woody-friendly.

The most unctuous example is John Lahr’s lengthy interview in the Dec. 9 New Yorker, a piece that raises the bar for Woody worship. In Lahr’s article, Woody’s old girlfriends explain why he is irresistible, his agent portrays him as sacrificing great wealth in the name of art, and the suggestion is even advanced that society has persecuted Woody for his art in the same manner as it once punished Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton.

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The reason for this PR fusillade is that Woody Allen has made a very controversial movie – a sort of nonmusical musical – and he is understandably eager to support it. Added to this is Woody’s continued angst over how he is regarded by his public. Did his 1992 adventures with Mia Farrow and 26-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, with whom Woody now lives, trigger any lasting fallout? The initial furor over Woody’s personal life, of course, coincided with the release of “Husbands and Wives,” a movie that all but defied his audience to deal with Woody’s movies and not deal with Woody.

CLEARLY, WHILE WOODY’S journalistic worshipers have remained faithful, something seems to be going on out there with his public. The domestic grosses of his last five movies combined are roughly equal to the $40.1 million registered by “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Woody’s last hit, released a decade ago. While he continues to churn out movies at an astonishing rate – he has now made 27 – they seem to be getting more expensive even as their domestic returns seem to be diminishing.

Having said all this, I must confess that I greatly enjoyed “Everyone Says I Love You,” though my staff at Variety is sharply divided in their reaction. I also acknowledge that the architect of Woody’s image renovation, Leslee Dart, is a uniquely skilled and gracious practitioner of her craft.

At the same time, I believe that there is an array of contradictions in Woody’s behavior that I find irksome. We are repeatedly presented with the image of an inept, guilt-ridden nebbish of a human being stumbling through life, yet all the while exercising fierce control over a mind-bendingly efficient PR machine. Clearly Woody is a positive genius at “mass-marketing his anxieties,” to borrow Lahr’s phrase.

Woody seems intent on announcing to the world, “Here’s my work, it represents my personal voice and vision, judge it as you will.” And yet every time a new Woody movie opens in New York, only his most trusted sycophants get interviews and only his personal biographers have a first shot at the accompanying commentaries. Thus we find a whole new phenomenon, the nebbish as control freak.

THE NEW YORKER PIECE is precedent-setting in that it even affords Woody the chance to take a few swats at Mia Farrow (“I was never married to Mia, I never lived with Mia … “) and also to denounce those who’d accused him of “falling in love with my daughter” (“Soon-Yi was as old as Mia when Mia first married”).

It also quotes the notoriously close-mouthed Sam Cohn, Woody’s agent, as revealing Woody’s standard deal – $300,000 against 15% of the gross. (This deal has recently been sweetened given the fact that Woody’s last three movies have been financed by foreign investors).

The Woody Allen that emerges from the Lahr piece is predictably driven and frenetic. It takes him only a month to write a comedy, and he admits he can’t even take a walk around the block without devising a precise agenda as to what he will think about.

While the article quotes Diane Keaton as stating, “Girls have always liked him and had crushes on him …,” at no point does it question whether Woody himself isn’t getting too old to play the leading man in his movies – the character for whom girls keep falling. Even some of Woody’s most faithful reviewers have raised this specter – witness Richard Schickel in Time magazine.

The bottom line: At a time when Hollywood is obsessing over its giant “event” pictures, Woody Allen has again taken the opposite route, presenting us with a movie that is both contrarian and idiosyncratic.

He is a unique filmmaker: If you don’t believe it, ask him.

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