Woody Allen going strong at age 77

(This article appeared in the print edition of The Australian Jewish News in a somewhat different version on 5 September 2013, with the title “Oscar Winning Form for Woody Allen”, and online with the title “Woody’s Oscar-winning form”.)

Pop quiz.  Who are the most Oscar-nominated American film directors actively making movies today?  Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg each have seven directing nominations, with Spielberg winning twice and Scorsese once.

He is not nearly as flashy a director, but Woody Allen ties Spielberg and Scorsese.  His seven “Best Director” Oscar nominations include one win, for “Annie Hall”, in 1977.  Only William Wyler (12 nominations) and Billy Wilder (with eight) beat these three.  And of living/working film directors, only Clint Eastwood, Ang Lee, Milos Forman and Oliver Stone have two directing wins.  This is pretty elite company.

But Allen also holds more Academy Award nominations for “Best Original Screenplay” (15) and wins (three) than any other writer in history.  His writing Oscars (for “Midnight in Paris”, “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Annie Hall”) place him ahead of Billy Wilder and Paddy Chayefsky (both Jewish), as well as Quentin Tarantino and Charles Brackett, all of whom have received two screenplay Oscars.  Frederico Fellini sits a distant second in nominations with six, but no wins.

Mark it partly to longevity.  At age 77, Woody has directed an average of one film per year since his film career commenced in 1965 with “What’s New Pussycat?”

With next week’s Australian release of “Blue Jasmine”, Allen’s drama set in San Francisco and starring Cate Blanchett in the starring role, this tireless Jewish film-maker is back in the news.

And Blanchett’s role as “Jasmine”, a down on her luck former socialite forced to seek refuge with her working class sister (played by British actress Sally Hawkins), is one of the biggest acting triumphs this year.

Allen is already well-known for writing memorable film characters.  His actors have gained 15 Oscar nominations, with five wins:  Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”), Dianne Wiest (twice, for “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”), Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”) and Michael Caine (“Hannah and Her Sisters”).  Others Allen nominations include Mariel Hemingway (“Manhattan”), Sean Penn and Samantha Morton (both for “Sweet and Lowdown”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”), Martin Landau (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”), Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri (both for “Bullets Over Broadway”), Judy Davis (“Husbands and Wives”), and Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton – both for “Interiors”.

Of these 15 acting Oscar nominations, 12 have been for female characters. The pattern is clear:  despite Allen’s notorious personal history with former partner Mia Farrow – having an affair with and then marrying her adopted child, Soon-Yi Previn – he writes and directs great female screen roles.  Blanchett’s character continues this pattern, and gives her an early tipping for another Oscar nomination:  she already has five, including a win for playing Katherine Hepburn in Scorsese’s “The Aviator”.

“Blue Jasmine” also marks another milestone:  it is only Woody Allen’s second film set in the USA since “Melinda and Melinda” in 2004 (“Whatever Works” in 2009 was the other).  He effectively “moved” to Europe for a quartet of films shot in London:  “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, “Match Point”, “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream”.  He hopped to Spain for “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and to Paris for “Midnight in Paris” and finally to Rome for last year’s “To Rome with Love”.  The French, Italians and Spaniards love him.  In fact “To Rome with Love” was financed by Italians, with the only condition being that he shoot the film in Rome.  Two thirds of the total ticket sales from “Midnight in Paris” came from outside North America, particularly Europe.  Its popularity there boosted that film to become Allen’s top theatrical grosser, although with price inflation, the ticket sales were roughly equal to his classic New York films “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”.

The San Francisco setting of “Blue Jasmine” is unusual for life-long New York resident Allen. His first film as director – “Take the Money and Run”, in which he played a small-time and incompetent crook, was also shot there, with prison scenes actually filmed inside the nearby high security San Quentin.  Allen already knew that city well from his early days as a touring comic. Locals still remember the early 1960s when Allen was the opening act for Barbra Streisand at “the hungry i” nightclub.

Although Allen’s original stage play for “Play It Again, Sam” was located in New York City, the 1971 film version moved to San Francisco.   Although he did not direct the film (Herbert Ross did), Allen wrote and starred as a nerdy film critic haunted by a determined and tough Humphrey Bogart fantasy mentor.  Many notable San Francisco area landmarks appear in the film:  Allen’s character lives in North Beach, rides the cable car ride with actress Diane Keaton, and travels across the Bay to eat at a waterfront restaurant in Sausalito and holiday at Stinson Beach.

Woody Allen Diane Keaton SF cablecar(Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in “Play It Again, Sam”, riding a San Francisco cablecar)

In “Blue Jasmine”, Allen again uses San Francisco locations:  Jasmine’s sister lives on South Van Ness Avenue in a seedy section of the Mission District.  A number of scenes are shot near the Golden Gate Bridge, and the scenic water-side Marin County suburbs of Tiburon, Larkspur and Belvedere all feature prominently.

Will there be a Woody Allen film in 2014?  Yes.  His “untitled project” started production in the south of France in early July of this year, and stars Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver.  Will he still keep going into his ninth decade?  Wait and see.

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