Is he merely a freak show? Or do we have a more complex relationship with him? Is this personal? Is he our freak show? What are we really saying when we say Woody?
He is, along with Jackie O., his long-time Upper East Side neighbor, hands down the most famous New Yorker of our era. It's a long era, too: the last third of the twentieth century.
He's a celebrity's celebrity (one reason why his relatively low-budget movies are always loaded with expensive stars who are willing to work cheap: He's larger than they are). For the better part of twenty years -- the seventies and eighties -- the celebrity system in the city revolved around Woody. Celebrities had dinner at Elaine's because of Woody. Celebrities had lunch at the Russian Tea Room because of Woody. Celebrities sat courtside at Knicks games because of Woody. (He was not just a celebrity but a tourist attraction.) If you were a real New York celebrity, as opposed to an out-of-town one, you even tried to behave like Woody -- you walked the streets, hiding out in plain sight.
It would be a mistake to try to separate Woody from his fame, to argue that there is a real Woody as opposed to the celebrated Woody. But he has never, unlike most stars, who merely become their fame, lost his core meaning (even if we cannot now decide what that core meaning is). He was never just an actor, just a movie star -- never just famous (there was always an anti-fame to his fame).
He became, in the late sixties, the next (and possibly final) incarnation of the New York Jewish intellectual. Or the New York Jewish intellectual became in his hands the joke (or at least the overly self-conscious thing) that it was surely destined to be (his short story "The Whore of Mensa" may be the last word on the subject). Being a New York Jew (or even just a self-hating or anti-Wasp) was all tied up with Woody Allen. He was, with a little critical interpretation, the head rabbi in the world's largest Jewish city.
He became, too, and still is, scandal notwithstanding, the good American for the rest of the world -- where he is nearly as iconic as he is in New York. He is the non-gun-toting (his are possibly the only movies by a significant contemporary American director in which guns almost never appear -- and, when they do, only as comedic devices), nonviolent, nondriving, non-fast-food-eating, nonthreatening alternative American. Indeed, his complicated, even adverse, relationship with the rest of the country has come, for New Yorkers, to define the rest of the country (likewise, he defined New York for everybody else).
And then there are the movies -- the art. You can argue his ranking. Chaplin, surely. Picasso? Sinatra? The originality, the indefatigability, the uncanny sense of self-promotion, the converting of art into sensibility, put him, it seems to me, into the most rarefied circle. And certainly he's been, in his way, as belligerent (often passively so) and as entitled as Chaplin, Picasso, and Sinatra.
Beyond the art, there's the career. He may be the only American movie director in the modern age to have achieved absolute independence -- he's definitely the only director who hasn't ever had a megahit to achieve such independence (he knew the fine art of being a snob who could stay on budget).
He managed to create an island for himself. A lifestyle and artistic autonomous zone. He could do anything -- and his eccentric behavior has been some of popular culture's longest-running shtick.
The idea that, with impunity, he could run off with his girlfriend's daughter (his own children's sister), or expect to stay friends with someone he's accused of fraud and taken to court, may just be among the natural misperceptions that happen when you live in your own exclusive world. It's this arrogance or, really, out-of-touchness, this particular sociopathology, that helps create the freak show.
But in the end, I don't think it's the imbroglio of his personal life or the baroque and foolish elements of his business life that have most colored our view of Woody. Nor do I think it's that he's become -- and this is the popular critique -- an aging self-parody. (Do we actually care anymore about Jewish intellectuals? About the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side? About therapists? About heterosexual neuroses?)
The real subtext, I think, is failure (it would have been one thing to run off with your near-stepdaughter and to sue your business partner if you're a big moneymaker, but it's altogether another level of hubris when you're a media charity case).
He's resisting failure.
If you're a failure, you're not supposed to exist anymore, at least not publicly. You're supposed to disappear -- and go quietly. (At least become a character actor -- do cameo roles.) His insistence on his right to continue to work, his right to be Woody Allen, borders on delusion. We, the jury pool, understand that, per the law of the entertainment-media-social world, if Woody Allen can't make big money, then there can't be a Woody Allen.
Hitlessness is an insupportable state. It's a twilight existence.
This, it seemed, was what the Times was saying when, during his courtroom battle with his friend and producer Jean Doumanian and her boyfriend and financial backer, Jacqui Safra, it ran a front-page story about how nobody goes to Woody's movies -- not just now, but for years. Pathetic was the point. Woody is a commercial joke. (One way to read the story was that Woody was not successful enough or Woody enough to be on the front page of the Times anymore -- it was a farewell story.)
"A grand total of eight people showed up yesterday for the matinee of Woody Allen's latest movie, Hollywood Ending, one month out of the box and now playing in exactly one theater in Manhattan, a $4.95-a-ticket discount house in Times Square," the story mockingly began. (I saw the movie on a Saturday night a few weeks before in a pretty full theater at ten bucks a pop -- but who's counting?) The story then went on to catalogue in some excruciating detail the commercial pathos of the Woody oeuvre, with a chart on the apparently woeful domestic ticket sales of all his films during the past ten years (in fact, with an average domestic business of $9 million per film, with something similar for foreign, and adding in all other subsidiary sales, you could well have a modestly profitable enterprise).
Now, for the Times to turn against Woody was in itself noteworthy. It is hard to think of a career that has been more cherished by the Times. In some sense, the Times has not just chronicled Woody's career but curated it. (The chairman and publisher's brother-in-law, Eric Lax, is Woody's longtime biographer.) There may never have been a more perfect balance of subject and media -- the life of a Woody Allen character was for many years the romanticized version of a Timesman's life.
But this was, it seemed, the new, national, hip, Botox Times speaking: Woody is just way too parochial and over with for the new New York Times.
Of course, the Times story was, in its way, a perfectly democratic treatment. After all, there are no other writers or artists or filmmakers who get to be -- or get to stay -- celebrities without hits. The Times doesn't have other noncommercial favorites. If you aren't bankable, you're out of the game. Grow up.
His movies, I think, embarrass people -- especially media people. They embarrass us not necessarily because they are bad (some surely are, but better to see them as good conversation, fading and flowing, year in and year out) but because a Woody movie isn't what movies are anymore (and there are so many of them). It's as though nobody has told Woody. He hasn't gotten the word: Movies are some other kind of sensory and cultural product than what he makes. Beyond the presence of big stars, his movies are, anyone can see, marginal, independent, quirky, slight stuff. So small as to be insignificant -- in a big-media world.
Hollywood Ending is a perfectly intelligent, funny, satisfying film -- I'd argue that if you could see half a dozen movies like this every year, the entertainment culture would be qualitatively improved, the entertainment IQ would rise. Oddly, it's provoked not just scorn but something near wrath. The Times, in a frothing-at-the-mouth review by Elvis Mitchell, found it "stale . . . gruesome . . . acrid . . . sweaty . . . flailing . . . unbearable." (Since you haven't seen it, you'll have to trust me that this is not just unwarranted but bizarre.)
Woody has become some kind of infuriating presence. The old relative. The smelly (acrid and sweaty) old uncle. He won't go away.
And then, hardly helping matters, there was his ridiculous court thing.
Nothing could be stranger. It made no sense (producers cheat -- duh). There wasn't even enough at stake to justify the legal and public-relations and psychic costs (the settlement he reached was no doubt a fraction of the $12 million he was asking for). Notably, civil trials almost never get to court as quickly as this one (they almost never get to court at all). This trial, however, materialized in movie time -- it proceeded directly from complaint to the courtroom. It was a show trial.
Which may be the point. The courtroom was some kind of public forum about the value, the very existence, of Woody's movies -- and for the Woodman himself. He was making an argument, however impolite and impolitic and implausible, for his commercial viability.
He wasn't about to be cross-collateralized out of existence.
Woody sits in his $17 million townhouse (he is a wealthy man, but as much, ironically and painfully, from New York real estate as from his own movies), computerless, typing letters to friends about his vast and utter desperation, about the essential failure of his work and career, about the impossibility of doing serious work, about the burdens of having to do commercially embarrassing fluff (although his idea of a commercially frothy movie is the eccentric and none-too-commercial Small Time Crooks).
His stubbornness is what's novel -- and odd. After all, nobody is really stubborn anymore. The thing is to be adaptable. Contrite. Plastic. The marketplace rules -- go with it! (And surely, Woody does have a hit in him. Everyone knows what his comeback requires -- just a little tell-all. And yet this most confessional of artists won't submit to the forced confession. He refuses to follow the grand American talk-show tradition of explaining himself.)
He resists reinvention. He is what he is. Even though he is surrounded by P.R. people, he continues to seem so unpackaged -- so unrepresented.