In Conversation: Woody Allen

Photo: Dan Winters

Few would argue that Woody Allen is the filmmaker most identified with New York, a distinction that has less to do with the settings of his movies (though most were shot here) than with a sensibility that is urban and anxious and obsessive, and often (still) very funny. Born in the Bronx in 1935, he grew up in Flatbush and had his first joke published in the New York Daily Mirror at age 16. His movie career almost exactly spans the 40 years of this magazine’s history—from Take the Money and Run, released in 1969, to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his 39th movie, which came out this summer. When we met in early September, he was editing Whatever Works, a comedy starring Larry David that will be released next year—and that marks Allen’s return to New York after filming his last four movies abroad. (“I can only tell you it’s about a crabby character who lives in New York and has an experience with Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson,” he says, “a comic experience I’m hoping is funny. But for me to say it’s funny doesn’t mean anything.”) We spoke in his screening room on Park Avenue, huddled close on two rolling chairs because, he said, he is hard of hearing. He was soft-spoken and voluble, his voice rising slightly only when the conversation ventured, in asides, into the present political climate, a state of affairs that clearly exasperates him. But mostly we talked about the city—both the one where he lives and the one in his imagination.

New York: Let’s start with the opening of Manhattan, as ecstatic a valentine to New York as any four minutes in the history of movies. Over a series of iconic images of the city, the voice-over begins, “Chapter One: He adored New York City, he idolized it all out of proportion—no, make that, he romanticized it all out of proportion.” How much of that is you speaking, and how much is your character, Isaac?

Woody Allen: Well, you know, for some reason I’ve always had an irrational love for New York. There’s no reason that you would necessarily like it on paper. It’s very expensive. Very little of it works. I’ve made films in many cities—London, Barcelona—where the people are very polite and courteous. You think to yourself, Oh God, this is a pleasure. And New York is nothing like that. But the city is so full of chaos, and the chaos is, for many people, pleasurable. Recently, I was living in a sublet on Madison Avenue, and every night you would hear ambulances and sirens. It was truly a lullaby. And I remember years ago once sleeping out in the Hamptons—

NY: You owned a house in Southampton …

WA: Yes, this is true. Many years ago, when everyone I know had houses in the Hamptons, I thought maybe it was for me too. I bought a very, very beautiful house in Southampton, and I spent over a year fixing it up. I put in trees, I changed the roof; I mean, I did an incredible job. Then I went out there one night and I slept in it, and I never came back.

NY: At the time you made Manhattan, the portrait of New York in the movies was pretty bleak. Films like Death Wish made it seem like a violent cesspool. Were you deliberately trying to replace that impression with a more romantic one?

WA: Well, I was raised on those movies that gave you an image of Manhattan, and that was the image of Manhattan that I fell in love with. I grew up in Brooklyn, and I wasn’t privy to the parties and the people at the Stork Club with their ermines over their shoulders coming in at four in the morning and calling people on white telephones next to the bed. Where I lived, we ate on linoleum. So when I moved to Manhattan, I wanted the actual Manhattan to be like that. I wanted people to be able to go to the theater at 8:40 and then to a supper club, and to be able to walk home through Central Park. I didn’t want them to have to fear for their lives. So I pushed my idea of it, and people always used to say to me, “Oh, you look at New York through rose-colored glasses.” And that’s fine, but I got my idea of New York from Hollywood.

NY: But if you were making a movie about your real New York, what would that movie look like? How different would it be?

WA: Well, because I’ve been successful, I’ve made enough money so that I can live fairly decently in New York—first in a very pretty penthouse on Fifth Avenue, and now in a very pretty townhouse in the Seventies, between Park and Lex. I have a driver. I eat at the good restaurants. I live, in a certain sense, in a bit of a bubble in New York. I don’t live exactly realistically.

NY: In that same opening monologue to Manhattan, Isaac says, joking in part, that New York has become a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. Back in 1979, people would have understood what you meant. Now maybe a little less so, because New York isn’t in quite a state of decay. Have we lost something by losing the decay?

WA: We don’t miss the decay, but we do miss the middle class. It’s a shame that you can’t live on this isle of Manhattan unless you have money. When I first moved here from Brooklyn, I moved into a one-room apartment, but it was right off Park Avenue in the Sixties. And it was $125 a month. I don’t know how all these people who come to New York to seek fame and fortune do it. I guess they wind up living in Brooklyn and Hoboken.

NY: When you go to Brooklyn now, you must find it unimaginably different from the Brooklyn you grew up in.

WA: Yes, there are certain parts of Brooklyn that have become very, very desirable. My old neighborhood, as it turns out, became Hasidic. Which is, for me, the kiss of death.

NY: So many of the signature aspects of New York in your earlier movies—the independent bookstores, a grittier artists’ Soho, Checker cabs, revival houses … they’re all gone. Do you mourn that? Are you essentially nostalgic by nature?

WA: Yes, I mourn that, for sure. There are times where I’d finish a movie, like Everyone Says I Love You, and five places in the movie would be gone before it came out. Le Cirque would be gone. The bookstore on Madison Avenue would be gone. I couldn’t keep up with the rate of change, and the change was always the progression, really, of opulence. I especially mourn the movie houses, because when I grew up in Brooklyn, you only had to walk three blocks to go to a movie theater. They were ubiquitous.

NY: Do you still go to movies in theaters?

WA: I don’t, because I have this [gesturing to the screening room], and so it’s much easier for me to call up and say, “Can I get a print of The Women sent over here?” and I can just come in here with a couple of friends on a Saturday night and see it. But when I drive down the street and I see a marquee and now it says Duane Reade, it’s awful.

‘People still have existential anxiety. It just may not be expressed in Hebraic idiom.’

NY: Is there anything about the new New York that’s better?

WA: Uh, well, it’s safer. But, you know, I think change of this sort is almost always negative. Things degenerate.

NY: Always?

WA: Look, I thought movies got better. They’re not now—

NY: I read an interview recently where you named your favorite movies in different categories. I think the most recent film you had on any list is Airplane.

WA: Yeah, I have a soft spot for that film. There have been other funny movies since, but that is a funny one. But I grew up in what they called the Golden Age of Movies. Really, it was the golden age of movie stars. William Powell and Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. The stars had some kind of charismatic hold that later stars don’t have.

NY: And why is that?

WA: Because the screens were big and the world was not as small, and Hollywood was a distant place. They acted out myths. Now, it would be hard to find better actors than, you know, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, but the public sees them as guys in the neighborhood. The world’s gotten much more casual; it’s not as dressy as it was. But the movies themselves, when you think back to the so-called Golden Age, were junk for the most part. When we started to get into the late sixties or seventies, though, there was a little rush when cinema moved away from centering on the star and started to center more on the directors. And suddenly, we started to have good movies. Of course, we’ve taken a turn recently when the studios realized that it was to their advantage to spend $100 million and up on a movie because they could make $300 million, and what is the point of making a fine movie that makes $15 million, which was good enough years ago? They want to gamble for bigger stakes, and who can fault them, that’s the business they’re in. So the films have taken a big hit.

NY: Do you think audiences are less sophisticated?

WA: People are always talking about the dumbing down of the country. Now, it’s hard to believe that they could be dumber now than they were in my time. Theoretically that can’t be. But when you look around at Broadway theater and films, it’s hard to argue with the fact that we’re going through a period of coarsened public taste. And yet you don’t want to be caught saying that because then it seems like you’re one of those people saying, In my day, it was great. You know, it wasn’t that great in my day either. I’m sure if you went back to the 1800s and the 1500s and the Greeks, they would say garbage sells, too.

NY: Do you have a theory about why the culture keeps getting coarser?

WA: The country has, over the years, moved to the right. And it’s possible that accompanying that move to the right, you also get a lessening of taste. But I don’t know if what I’m saying is true, because I have shown some very good films—Bergman, Fellini—to kids from good schools like Yale. Bright kids. And they were not impressed. You know, it wasn’t as though I picked out some kid from the Midwest who’s a churchgoing barbarian. Those same kids that you see in the movie house doubled over with laughter over fraternity toilet jokes are very often kids from Columbia and Yale. We might also still be feeling the fallout from the sexual revolution, when everybody just ran amok talking dirty and doing things that were forbidden and it became the mark of drama and comedy to be simply outrageous. Not necessarily dramatically interesting or particularly comic, but just outrageous.

NY: Is there a recent film about New York by another director that you think especially nails the experience of living here?

WA: No.

NY: Let’s talk about 1968. You were still doing stand-up, and an amazingly fertile period for comedy was just winding down.

WA: Yes, it started in the late fifties. All of a sudden there were all those wonderful kind of Catskills-style comics—Jack E. Leonard, Phil Foster, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, and they were hilariously funny guys. And then—see, Lenny Bruce I found artificial. I found him one of those guys who—without being a genuine intellectual or a particularly thoughtful person—saw an avenue to exploit and exploited it. I mean, he was fine. I think he towered over me. But then strange flowers started emerging on the scene that were different from the other flowers. There was Nichols and May. Jonathan Winters. And Mort Sahl. And they made the world of small, chic nightclubs and being a comedian not only acceptable but kind of snobby or stylish. And people that had ambivalent feelings about being a comic before suddenly found you could discuss intellectual matters.

NY: As you did.

Change is almost always negative. Things degenerate.

WA: But I was not in that class. There was a whole group of us that were successful comics. Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, myself. But the three great geniuses of the period were Nichols and May, Jonathan Winters, and Mort Sahl. I still find Mort Sahl funny. I was with him the other day, in California, and he’s 81 and he’s teaching at Claremont College. And he said they have a course out there that they offered him to teach, on the Holocaust, and he didn’t take it. He said, “I wanted to see first how history judges the event.”

NY: The persona you developed in stand-up and later in the movies was of an anxious, neurotic Jew. Do you feel like the anxious, neurotic Jewish archetype still has the same cultural meaning now?

WA: I don’t know. I didn’t set out to do it. I just went up and made jokes, and people told me that I was an anxious, neurotic Jew. I didn’t sit down and think, This is a good side of the street to work.

NY: Do you think the New York Jew has gotten too assimilated?

WA: No, I’m a big one for assimilation of everybody. But the basic problems remain the same. People still have existential anxiety, relationship anxiety. It just may not be expressed in Hebraic idiom.

NY: Do you know anyone who still goes to an analyst?

WA: I do, though psychoanalysis has gone through a lot of changes.

NY: As the world’s most famous analysand, can you say whether you think analysis works?

WA: People always tease me. They say, look at you, you went for so much psychoanalysis and you’re so neurotic, you wind up marrying a girl so much younger than you. You don’t like to go through tunnels, you don’t like to stand near the drain in the shower. But I could also say to them, I’ve had a very productive life. I’ve worked very hard, I’ve never fallen prey to depression. I’m not sure I could have done all of that without being in psychoanalysis. People would say to me, oh, it’s just a crutch. And I would say, yes. It’s a crutch, and exactly what I need in this point in my life is a crutch.

NY: For a long time, you enjoyed largely favorable coverage in the New York media—until you first started seeing Soon-Yi. The press—particularly the tabloid press—hit you hard. And certainly over the years, this has become more of a tabloid town. Do the tabloids amuse you or trouble you?

WA: I’ve always believed that thoughtful people don’t really take the tabloids seriously. They’re basically a form of entertainment. I enjoy them as much as the next New Yorker.

NY: But do you think New York has gotten meaner?

WA: When you travel around the country, you see what a tough town New York is: rude, competitive, a town where good, logical ideas are ignored in favor of unworkable ones. And yet, all these other towns are so dead and boring compared to New York.

NY: If you could live forever in the New York of one of the past four decades, which decade would it be?

WA: I can’t go back earlier than that, right? Okay, ’cause I just want to add, parenthetically, the period leading up to World War II, that was really the time to be here. But, I guess, the seventies. There were a lot of good movies in the seventies, and politically we weren’t completely in the toilet.

NY: Were you in the city on September 11?

WA: Yes, I remember exactly where. Someone in my house—I lived on 92nd Street then—said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” and then we turned on a television set and then another one crashed, and we saw that. Two days later I was scheduled to go to Europe. A lot of people canceled going to Europe, there was a lot of fear. I wasn’t afraid, not because I’m anything but a major coward, but I was flying privately. I didn’t think that I could be hijacked. And because I went and I was a New Yorker, I became the spokesman for New York City and September 11. And I was on all the Sunday-morning news shows in France and England and Italy. I was suddenly on their versions of Face the Nation. And they were asking me, is this going to be the end of all humor? (They have a way of putting these things in European countries.) Is this the end of New York? And I said no, not at all. Not for a minute. I feel I was completely right. If you drop a person in New York City now and you drop them before September 11 and they didn’t know, they wouldn’t know the difference. I felt New York would metabolize it, and it would go on. New York would be the same vibrant city. And it is.

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In Conversation: Woody Allen