In the more than 40 years since he gave up touring as a standup comic to focus on his film career, Woody Allen has never missed his old life on the nightclub circuit. Until one night last month, as he sat in the audience at the Cafe Carlyle watching another legendary comic, Mort Sahl, work the room.
“Mort Sahl is the guy who inspired me to go on stage for the first time in my life, and when I saw him the other night, I had that feeling again of, ‘I can do this,’ ” Allen says a few days later over iced coffee in the Carlyle’s venerable bar, Bemelmans. After seeing Sahl at the Carlyle, Allen went home and YouTube’d some of the comedian’s vintage performances. “He was as great as I remembered,” says Allen. “So I thought, ‘Gee, it would be nice to get up there and do that again.’ ” Since then he’s been rifling through drawers, looking over some notes, and yes, thinking about putting together a routine. “It’s a lot of work,” Allen admits. “You have to put together an hour of laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh. You can’t dawdle. In a film script, if there’s a laugh here and there, but people interacting in a meaningful way, it’s good. But on stage, you come out and you’ve got to get a laugh, and then another and another.”
In the meantime, Allen is here to talk about “Blue Jasmine,” his 48th film as writer-director, which Sony Pictures Classics will release July 26.
But with Allen, it’s easy to get sidetracked, because six months shy of his 78th birthday, he’s busier than ever. When our interview ends, he’ll head across town for a rehearsal of “Bullets Over Broadway,” the Broadway-bound musical based on his Oscar-winning 1994 hit, then back to the Carlyle for an evening performance with his New Orleans jazz band. “I get a lot of mileage out of the fact that people have seen me in movies, so they overlook my tin ear and lack of rhythm,” he jokes.
The next morning, it’s off to France to start prepping his next film, an untitled romantic comedy set in the 1920s and starring Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver. He also recently shot a lead role opposite another actor-director, John Turturro, in “Fading Gigolo,” where he plays a pimp to Turturro’s aging male escort.
“Blue Jasmine” is one of those Allen films, like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point,” that turns nimbly and sometimes startlingly from light comedy to dark psychological melodrama. The title character, played by Cate Blanchett, is the recent widow of a Bernie Madoff-like Wall Street fraud (Alec Baldwin), whose crimes have left Jasmine without a penny to her name, forced to look for real work after a plush life as an Upper East Side society lady. Decamping to San Francisco, she takes refuge with her down-at-the-heels adopted sister (Sally Hawkins) and tries to start anew.
Allen, who rarely writes with specific actors in mind, admits he crafted the role of Jasmine expressly for Blanchett, with whom he’d been wanting to work ever since seeing her in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The actress is in top form as this unstable, self-absorbed woman, by turns loathsome and pitiable, whose increasingly desperate efforts to keep up appearances are like someone trying to mend bone china with scotch tape. “She’s one of the few actresses, I think, who could do this,” Allen says. “It’s like having an atomic weapon or something, to get an actress like that.”
The $18 million production, financed by equity investors, was filmed last summer in New York and San Francisco, marking Allen’s first Bay Area shoot since his second feature, “Take the Money and Run,” in 1969. That gets Allen reminiscing about his early standup days again, when he first came to Fog City to play at the late impresario Enrico Banducci’s North Beach nightclub the Hungry I, a venue also responsible for giving breaks to the likes of Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce, the Kingston Trio and Barbra Streisand (with whom Allen once opened).
Allen is also tantalized by the idea of shooting a full-fledged Hollywood movie in Los Angeles, the city to which his alter ego Alvy Singer famously proved allergic in “Annie Hall.”
“I have one or two ideas particularly for L.A., that would only work in L.A.,” the filmmaker says. “The only problem you have in L.A. is that the sun is relentless, and you have to figure out a way to make it attractive. But I don’t mind the time that I spend in L.A., as long as it’s limited. Compared to when I first went there many years ago, now they’ve got as many good restaurants as New York. But it’s the weekends that kill me. You know, I work during the week and it’s fine, we go to a nice place for dinner, you see friends. Then the weekend comes and there’s nothing to do. You’re stuck in Beverly Hills, you walk around, you make the sardonic remarks about the juxtaposition of the chateaus with the gothic houses and the thatched roofs, but there’s nothing to do. So you wind up going to a movie.”