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The Complete Woody Allen: A Retrospective Pt. 1 (1966-1990)

by The Playlist Staff
May 19, 2011 8:17 AM
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“Broadway Danny Rose” (1984)
While Woody Allen is rightly regarded as a film legend, what most people often forget is that the writer/director is also one of the last remaining links to an early showbiz world that no longer exists. Allen started his career as a comedy writer for folks like Herb Shriner and Sid Caesar. This was a time when particular type of stand-up comedy was enormously popular and an era when showbiz promoters were often as colorful as the acts they represented. Enter "Broadway Danny Rose." Played by Allen himself, he is the hilarious archetype of every huckster, smooth-talking salesman selling an act that ever graced the streets of New York City. The black-and-white film is told in flashback as comedians sit around at a table at the famed Carnegie Deli and swap stories about Danny Rose, and we get to see the tallest of all the tales. It seems that Danny Rose has done the impossible and resurrected the career of a formerly washed up tenor, landing him a gig the Waldorf. But of course, getting there is the issue. Tasked with getting the singer's brassy girlfriend Tina (an inspired Mia Farrow) to the show, Danny quickly runs afoul of her mafioso boyfriend and the result is a classic on-the-run tale. But Allen uses the format to celebrate an era that is best remembered in the oral histories passed along from entertainer to entertainer. While he pokes fun at those showbiz days of yore the film is also imbued with a nostalgia for it as well. "Broadway Danny Rose" is a reminder that while the lights may have faded on the entertainers of the past, their stories will never be dulled. [B+]

“The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) -
Woody Allen made quite a few excellent movies with his ex-wife Mia Farrow in his middle period, but none were better than this one about a battered wife (Farrow) during the Great Depression. When she goes to the movie theater to escape her troubles, one of the characters in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Ted Baxter (Jeff Daniels), breaks the fourth wall and comes off the screen to declare his love for her. Hijinks ensue in which Hollywood bigwigs try to separate the world of fiction from reality. The film is one of Allen’s best, and he’s even said it’s his favorite that he’s made. Farrow is adorable as the leading lady, and it’s easy to forget that Daniels was quite a good actor back in his day. There’s also a lot going on in terms of theme: what does it mean to be fictional or to be real, and what’s so good about living in the real world? [A]

“Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986)
Borrowing the loose, holiday centered structure from his hero Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny And Alexander” (except with Thanksgiving instead of Christmas) Allen’s tale of the loving yet complicated relationship between three sisters is one of finest achievements of the 1980s (alongside “Purple Rose Of Cairo” and “Crimes And Misdemeanors”) and certainly one of the best films of his career. As you might guess from the title, the story centers on Hannah (Mia Farrow) and explores the lives of her siblings Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (a heartbreaking and wonderful turn by Dianne Wiest) who orbit her life. The former bounces from a relationship with intense Frederick (Max Von Sydow) to an affair with Hannah’s husband, while the latter struggles simply to find her place in life, dependent on her sisters' support of her various career ventures. Both tender and outrageously hilarious, Allen once again captures the foibles of follies of middle age life and love with a keenly observed eye for the minor frustrations that can build into resentment over time. But one of the biggest highlights of the film has little to do with the plot at all. Lee and Holly are both pursuing David (Sam Waterston) and one evening he takes them both on a driving tour of New York to talk about the architectural wonders of the city. Right up there with the opening of “Manhattan,” this sequence is one of Allen’s most poignant postcards to his native city, shot gorgeously by Carlo Di Palma. “For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I can't fathom my own heart,” says Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) and it serves as a perfect encapsulation of the film’s thematic core. And while that may seem typically existentially morose for Allen, it's also one of his most optimistic, positing that even miracles are possible even when your life seems inevitably fated for disaster. [A]

“Radio Days” (1987)
Wedged somewhat awkwardly between one of Woody’s outright masterpieces and his run of explicitly ‘experimental’ fare, "Radio Days" often gets lost in the shuffle of the filmmaker’s busy period during the tail-end of the 1980s. It’s a shame as, helped by the director’s relationship with Orion Pictures, the film’s one of his most sophisticated, least self-consciously contrived and ego-driven pictures; engaging in the stuff of romanticized autobiography (comparisons with Fellini’s "Amarcord" and Neil Simon’s "Brighton Beach Memoirs" abound) without tipping over into his customary brand of self-aggrandizing neurotica. True, there isn’t much here we haven’t seen before. It’s in part a panacea to dead technology and a dead time – in voice over, Woody laments the voices of old radio stars that grow “dimmer and dimmer” – and it mimics a lot of the concerns of "The Purple Rose of Cairo," whilst its heaving ensemble even makes room for superfluous cameos from Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton. But it’s an ode to eccentricity, an aping of the foibles of family life during the late 1930s and early 1940s, a work that straddles the divide between the bleaker impulses of his output (Dianne Wiest’s lonely spinster a case in point) and the epigrammatic niceties of his New Yorker humor pieces. [B+]

“September” (1987)
Marked by a fabulous performance by Elaine Stritch, who plays an awful, incorrigible, selfish and self-centered mother, Allen's "September" is well-known as a theater-play that’s been filmed and is marked by long takes and few cuts. An ambrosial picture about secrets and lies, unrequited love, and crushed hopes, the autumnal "September" is a somber, slightly Bergman-esque chamber drama about a family and friends and the deceits and romantic betrayals that occur during a late summer weekend getaway in upstate New York. The bitter and bittersweet drama stars Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Jack Warden, Denholm Elliott and Sam Waterston, where past family resentments bubble over between Farrow’s depressive character and her overbearing and thoughtless mother (Stritch), and characters pine for objects of affection they can never attain. While the picture is no "Autumn Sonata" (Bergman's 1979 late-era masterpiece, which the film vaguely resembles), "September" is perhaps a little small stakes at times, but it’s not without its powerfully emotional scenes, generally between Farrow, Weist and Stritch. Interestingly enough, the picture was shot twice, as early attempts with Sam Shepard, Maureen O’Sullivan and Christopher Walken failed to create sparks. [B]

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More: Feature, Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen

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  • Kitty C. | December 1, 2012 8:22 PMReply

    In Hannah and Her Sisters, Holly and her catering partner, played by Carrie Fisher, were competing for the attention of Sam Waterston's character, NOT Holly and Lee.

  • Emmett Booth | May 21, 2011 5:21 AMReply

    Imagine what the Woodman who made Sleeper would've done with Anchorman had it been his.

  • goldfarb | May 20, 2011 4:47 AMReply

    like many Allen has a special place in my heart/mind that most other filmamkers never will...and when I see each new film year after year my views are never confined to that film alone (for good or bad)...I always see each film as an additional piece of the larger Woddy Allen they tend to average out, the outright classics bringning up the lesser efforts...

  • Catherine Scott | May 20, 2011 1:47 AMReply

    About Jeff Daniels what we meant was not that he is no longer a good actor, but that, as you've pointed out, his good roles today are few and far between (even though he often does a good job in his films).

    What we probably should have said was that he was worthy as a leading man on top of being a good actor, since we don't see him taking many lead roles today; it's easy to forget that he was once leading man material.

  • In Defense of Jeff Daniels | May 19, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    "and it’s easy to forget that Daniels was quite a good actor back in his day."

    This statement truly offended me. Jeff Daniels has made many bad movies over the years, but is still a great actor. In the last decade he's had some really strong performances -"The Squid and the Whale" "The Lookout" "Goodnight and Good luck" come to mind, and show that he is still at the top of his game in the last 10 years, how dare you insinuate he was only good "back in his day."

    Not to mention he owned the 90's with his performances in "Dumb and Dumber" and "Gettysburg."

    Carry on.

  • The Playlist | May 19, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    The urge to grade them in relation is understandable and frankly, it's how we *generally* do them, but in this case we didn't for whatever reason.

    But it's kinda the way one should review films. Like if "Sucker Punch" gets a C-, but like "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" gets an F, one might say, "how do you give POTC4 an F* and Sucker Punch a C-???" and then answer is well 1) like all reviews, it's subjective and 2) we're not grading them in relation to the film, we're grading them on the film itself and how good, bad, successful or failing they are.

    *i made those grades up, i cannot recall what they were graded other than they're both ass. :)

  • Ryan | May 19, 2011 9:47 AMReply

    That's a good point, I wasn't thinking about how different critics were reviewing different movies. And someone who reviews Take the Money and Run shouldn't check with the person who reviews Manhattan to make sure their grades match up.

  • Christopher Bell | May 19, 2011 9:42 AMReply

    I'll have to agree with the grade for "Another Woman." Interesting premise but painfully dull and quite a slog. I like "September" better, but I really do feel like those straight up dramas (which includes "Interiors") feel rather hollow at times.

  • RE | May 19, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    Reducing Annie Hall's grade for any whiff of "misogyny" seen in 2011?

  • The Playlist | May 19, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    The grades are worth fighting over, yes, but remember, they're subjective. Yes, there's no way those early Woodies are A's over the aforementioned classics, but that's MY opinion. Also the person who graded say, Take the Money and run, didn't grade say, Annie Hall and if they were being done in relation to each other (as they sometimes/usually are) it would have been different.

  • Billyboy | May 19, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    Both Zelig and Another Woman are completely underrated.

    Zelig is not only one of the greatest parodies of all time, but a groundbreaking film in FX development and brilliant cinematography by Gordon Willis. People talk about the "brilliant FX work" in Forrest Gump when Hanks meets Kennedy. Guess what? Allen did that almost 15 years earlier and much more brilliantly than Forrest Dud.

    Another Woman might be his greatest straight drama. Gena Rowlands gives a superb performance completely ignored back then. Allen describes this film as one of his most personal.

    Except those two, good restrospective ,guys.

  • RE | May 19, 2011 9:21 AMReply

    I recall missing the earlier pictures, started in '77 with Annie Hall. After that I was so hooked on Allen I went to Interiors like my GF made me buy an artsy lamp, meanwhile holding out hope for the next year's Woody, looking forward to a comedy. It turned out to be Manhattan. To me Manhattan was in the same league as that year's Apocalypse Now. As a devout worshipper of the Woodman, in 1980 I sped to his next, Stardust Memories, expecting it to be Manhattan 2, instead hit it like going face-first into a brick wall at 80 mph. That movie was where the '70s ended.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 19, 2011 9:19 AMReply

    Correction: That Manhattan write-up is an English rose.

  • Erik | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    You know, it's funny - I'm one of the most devoted Woody fans out there, but I wouldn't rate anything he did before Love and Death higher than a C, and I think Interiors and especially Another Woman are great flicks. I would even put Another Woman in my top five of all Woody movies.

    Guess I'm the opposite of the fans depicted in Stardust Memories!

  • rotch | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    sorry, that Manhattan write up was really weak.

  • rotch | May 19, 2011 9:18 AMReply

    Great work, but that write up was really weak.

  • Ryan | May 19, 2011 9:04 AMReply

    There's no way Love and Death and Take the Money and Run are As if Manhattan and Annie Hall are A-. Annie Hall maybe, but Manhattan?! Crazy.

  • Hayden Maxwell | May 19, 2011 8:53 AMReply

    And let me champion Alice a little. The Alec Baldwin scene is beautiful.

  • Edward Davis | May 19, 2011 8:46 AMReply

    Whoa, generous grades, guys. Count me in for the "Interiors" dust-up. That's A-grade all the way.

  • Yer | May 19, 2011 8:42 AMReply

    Allen may make a film every year, but in many of those years the output has been mediocre. I'd rather have Malick's once a decade, but high quality output then Allen shoot until it sticks approach. That being said I saw "Midnight in Paris" two nights ago and it is fantastic, his best in years.

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