Sunday, September 15, 2013
Chaplin and Woody Allen: Very Similar
Nobody expects big box office from Woody Allen. Maybe nobody really wants it. Actors simply die to be handpicked by him to play minor roles in which they invariably don't know what they are doing or what the movie is about. (Or even if their contributions will make it into the final cut.) Woody is an authentic New York City treasure and like New York itself, he may be financially unappealing, but he's got that "certain something" only New York has.
Liz Smith, New York Post, Feb. 20, 1991 (qtd. in Spignesi xi)
Woody Allen has been one of America's most steadfast film directors, releasing roughly a movie a year since 1969. New Yorkers, in particular, have long supported the Brooklyn-born Allen, many of whose films serve as cinematic poems of their city. Given this, it was surprising for the New York Times, on 5 June 2002, to run a disparaging front-page story titled "Curse of the Jaded Audience: Woody Allen, in Art and Life." It began as follows:
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.
Because of technical problems, the screening was canceled. (Newman and Kilgannon A1)
The article, which detailed Allen's legal problems with his long-time producer Jane Doumanian and his difficulty pleasing modern audiences, included the domestic ticket sales figures for all of the twelve movies Allen had directed over the previous ten years. They ranged from a low of $2.7 million for Shadows and Fog in 1992 to a high of $17.5 million for Small Time Crooks in 2000. Allen's most recent release, Hollywood Ending (2002), had earned a paltry $4.7 million. Any way you calculated the figures--the mean and median were both $8.6 million-they did not look encouraging. In fact, the total box office take of Woody Allen's twelve theatrical releases from 1992 to 2002 was only $103.7--the typical earnings for a single successful film. Released the same summer as Hollywood Ending, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), another low-budget, independent filmmakers' release, raked in over $100 million in its first few weeks, making more than a full decade's worth of Allen's films.
The day after the damning New York Times article appeared, the newspaper ran a letter to the editor from Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, who leapt to the beleaguered director's defense. "What offended me most...," Ebert wrote, "was the chart showing the box office performance of Mr. Allen's recent movies. Surely you don't equate box office with quality" (A30). Ebert pointed out that a majority of Allen's recent films won favorable ratings at www.rottentomatoes.com, a website that chronicles North American movie critics. In addition, as a group, the movies cited by the Times garnered fourteen Academy Award nominations and won two Oscars. "Few directors do as well," Ebert concluded (A30).
Rightly so, but the damage was already done. Woody Allen, the one-time boy wonder of the movie industry, apparently had lost his cachet. It was not always the case. Robert Evans, in his popular autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994), describes a conversation with Warren Beatty and his roommate and friend Charlie Feldman in the early 1960s centering on the rising young comic, Woody Allen. As Evans writes, "Charlie was telling Warren and me how brilliant this new kid, Woody Allen, was. 'The kid's a genius [Feldman gushed]. We went to Danny's hideaway for a steak last night. I laughed so hard I couldn't eat" (101). Forty years later, Allen's status as the funny, neurotic Jewish intellectual with a quirky insight into romantic relationships was in question. No longer dubbed "the genius" and no longer hilarious and attractive to the youth audience that makes up the bulk of moviegoers, Allen had fallen so much out of favor that Picking Up the Pieces (2000), a black comedy directed by Alfonso Arau in which Allen played a kosher butcher with an unfaithful wife, went straight to Cinemax, despite the fact that it also starred Sharon Stone and Friends' David Schwimmer. Allen-directed Anything Else, released in September 2003, made only $3,212,310 and Melinda and Melinda in 2005, only slightly more, $3,826,280 ("Woody").
However, just as Allen seemed to have sunk to the status of box-office poison, something unexpected happened: he had a hit. Released in December 2005, Match Point starred Scarlett Johansson, a young, beautiful, blond starlet dubbed as the next Marilyn Monroe, and earned $23,151, 529 domestically and $78,265,575 worldwide ("Match Point"). While not a blockbuster by anyone's standards, it nevertheless became one of the most commercially successful films of Allen's career and garnered almost universally favorable reviews. Movie theaters, not accustomed to having huge crowds for a Woody Allen film, had to turn away patrons on opening weekend. Scoop (2006), Allen's follow-up effort, also starring Johannson, did not measure up critically or popularly, although it did manage a respectable, albeit limited opening, coming in thirteenth for the week and earning $3,046, 924 on 538 screens ("Miami Vice" E2).
Like Roger Ebert, Woody Allen does not judge a film by the size of its audience. Peter J. Bailey, reflecting what has been characterized as the director's patronizing attitude towards his audience, writes, "Allen's interviews proliferate with genial disavowal of accountability to his audience, with affirmations of his greater commitment to craft than to effect" (267). Allen himself once remarked, "The best film I ever did, really, was Stardust Memories. It was my least popular film. That may automatically mean it was my best film. It was the closest that I came to achieving what I set out to achieve" (qtd. in Shales 90). A highly personal and idiosyncratic filmmaker, Allen writes, directs, and stars in material that he finds challenging and does not strive to win over the moviegoing masses, asserting that "[t]he vision of the audience is never as deep as the vision of the artist involved. They are always willing to settle for less than you want for yourself" (qtd. in Lax 370). Nevertheless, it is instructive to consider why the multitalented Allen, although he prefers to please his audiences rather than not, struggles to attract viewers in what should be the prime of his career. Simply labeling him "unpopular" would be imprecise and unproductive. At the same time, exploring the reasons for Allen's box-office performance over the past twenty-five years sheds light on the strategies practiced by one of American film's most notable auteurs and changing trends in the entertainment market.
In order to understand Woody Allen's relationship with moviegoers, it is helpful to compare Allen to a comic auteur of an earlier era, Charlie Chaplin, whose life and career bear many resemblances. Like Chaplin, Woody Allen specializes in romantic comedies that he writes, directs, and stars in. The two actors developed distinctive on-screen personas: Chaplin's as the little tramp and Allen's as the neurotic, fumbling, Jewish intellectual. Both were underdogs, losers audiences could relate to, and when they won, viewers felt hope for themselves. Both Chaplin and Allen lacked substantial formal education but achieved fame very early in their careers and became workaholics who demanded complete control over their films. In their personal lives, both were married multiple times, or involved in numerous high-profile romances, and created scandals due to taboo relationships with underage females and, in the case of Chaplin, with leftist politics.
However, here the comparisons end, for the two filmmakers approached their work differently in two vastly contrasting eras. Chaplin, the visual artist, relied on ad libs and multiple takes until he achieved the direction and effect that he wanted. He worked slowly and deliberately, producing but a handful of comic gems, each one eagerly awaited by his audience. Allen, on the other hand, who is first and foremost a writer, concentrates on the script and is most adept at wordplay and ideas. He works quickly and efficiently, having established himself as one of America's most prolific filmmakers with a movie release a year. Ironically, Chaplin was a silent, visual comedian forced to adapt to talkies while Allen is primarily a verbal stylist, working in a medium that has become increasingly image-dominant and given over to action and special effects as a way of increasing global sales. Although the British-born Chaplin was ostracized from Hollywood (and America) in 1952 and spent the rest of his life in Switzerland happily married to Oona O'Neill, he returned for a hero's welcome in 1972 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented him with a special Oscar for his achievements. As his life drew to a close, audiences worldwide embraced him. However, what of Allen, now in his 70s and presumably the final stages in his career?
At the onset, it is important to note that Woody Allen's films, even those most critically successful and featuring bankable box-office stars such as Diane Keaton, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, John Malkovich, Jodie Foster, Hugh Grant, Charlize Theron, and Will Ferrell have never been big blockbusters. Although Annie Hail won an Academy Award for best picture, for example, it earned only $38,251,425 upon its release in 1977, the same year that Star Wars broke box office records. Allen's biggest moneymakers, Manhattan (1979) and Hannah and her Sisters (1986) earned $39,946,780 and $40,048,041 respectively, respectable but not staggering. Nevertheless, early in his career, even if Allen was not churning out blockbusters, he seemed, according to Sam B. Girgus,
particularly suited to his times.... In
a time of democratic upheaval that
touched all aspects of life from the
sexual and social to the cultural and
political, Allen's looks and offbeat
style seemed to speak for and represent
the involvement of "everyman" in
the transformations of life-styles and
values. His persona as a "loser," the
classic underdog, "schlemiel" figure,
was perfect for a period of participatory
democracy and confusing change, but
also allowed for a process of distancing
from developments and events that
contained frightening potential within
them. One could look at and listen to
Woody Allen and identify with him,
while also feeling somewhat estranged
with him. (3)
Girgus also alludes to Allen's timely ability to treat racial and cultural differences in a nonthreatening way during a period of ethnic turmoil and controversy in America (3). Today, Allen no longer holds the distinction of spokesperson for the changing values of nation. Although Eric Lax says that an Allen film "reflects the dilemmas of its maker's age group" (370), not even baby boomers, now in their fifties and sixties, attend his movies with regularity, in part because they attend fewer movies in general. Thus, at a point in Allen's career when he should be poised to take the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award or a special Oscar for his contributions to the industry, the American movie audience, especially young people, who make up its majority, are not embracing him.
On the surface it would seem that Woody Allen's difficulties attracting an audience were triggered by his personal life, namely his sexual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted Korean daughter of his longtime lover and former leading lady, Mia Farrow. Following his 1992 breakup with Farrow, her accusations of his molesting their younger children Dylan and Satchel, and a high-profile court case, Allen appeared in both the tabloids and legitimate journalism as a scoundrel who wronged and deeply wounded the beatific Farrow and her family. However, the public respects survivors and those who persevere are generally forgiven. Just as Chaplin recovered from scandal and dalliances with underage women, so too, perhaps, has Allen: he was acquitted of the child molestation charges, and he and Soon-Yi, who were married in Venice in 1997, now have two young daughters. Their pictures appear regularly in People magazine and other popular publications as the typical domestic couple, a view reinforced by Barbara Kopple's 1998 documentary Wild Man Blues. In essence, Allen, like Chaplin, seems publicly rehabilitated.
Given this, one must direct attention away from Allen's personal life to concentrate more squarely on his approach to moviemaking and his creative output. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Allen attracted the most media attention and a favorable press, he appeared in sync with a generation that was seeking relevance and spearheading a sexual revolution. His movies addressed, with unusual frankness, how life and relationships work and what goes through people's heads. His themes of sex, death, crime, family history, fame, and psychoanalysis were indicative of a time when people were publicly searching for understanding and meaning. Allen's moviemaking techniques also were cutting edge for the time: actors addressing the audience directly or stepping into flashbacks, elimination of the fourth wall, melding live-action with animation, and telling a story out of sequence, from memory. At the core of his best known films was Woody Allen himself, never handsome but possibly cute, somehow likable and vulnerable even when he was being despicable. However, Allen's style of moviemaking is not clicking in the same way with audiences today, for reasons that reflect the volatile state of the movie industry and Allen's role in it. Note, for example, several explanations.
First, Woody Allen directed his first film, Take the Money and Run, in 1969, when he was just twenty-four years old and his name was already synonymous with hip intellectualism due to his stories, articles, plays, and witty television interviews. By achieving success this early in life, he has been in the limelight for decades; thus, while the young audience today recognizes him, especially because his classic and current films show up regularly on television cable channels, on DVD, and in university film classes, it associates him an older generation that is less innovative and cutting-edge.
Second, while Woody Allen has proven his willingness to take risks and try new things--philosophically, psychologically, and technically moving far beyond his early farces that youth audiences found funny and entertaining--he nevertheless has found a formula that he is comfortable with and is best known for his systematic output of romantic comedies. By his own admission, he is an actor with limited range. He can play only one character--a neurotic, bumbling misfit with big black-rimmed glasses--who is either a criminal or an intellectual and goes by names such as Virgil Starkwell, Alvy Singer, Isaac Davis, Mickey Sachs, Ray, or Val Waxman. Allen reprises this same character with slight permutations in film after film, and even typecasts his supporting characters in supporting characters in subsequent films. Thus, audiences feel they have seen the same thing before. This sense of deja vu is reinforced by the musical scores that Allen chooses. Rejecting rock or other contemporary sounds, he prefers jazz and the big band music of the 1930s and '40s, which give his films an old-time, nostalgic quality. Stephen J. Spignesi cites 1950, when Allen was fifteen, as "the musical cutoff year" for [his] taste in popular music," reiterating biographer Eric Lax's assertion that Allen "has no use for almost any popular music after 1950" (Spignesi 5).
Third, the classic Woody Allen character, originated in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, is a throwback to an earlier era. In on-screen romantic relationships, the Allen character lacks confidence but yet always has to have the upper hand: he is often older, smarter, or more worldly, and plays the role of mentor. In Annie Hall, for example, Annie's identity is based on the fact that she is not very smart or very talented; when her perception of herself begins to change, the relationship is doomed. Similarly, in Manhattan, Ike knows that when Tracy returns from study abroad in England that she'll be less naive and more worldly and that he won't have a chance of winning her back. Even in his later fare, including his more recent release Scoop, Allen is associated with this paternalistic sort of role, whether played by him or other male characters that he has created, and thus does not appear progressive.
Fourth, Woody Allen's movies reflect sensibilities of another time. Recent comedies--such as Small Time Crooks, in which ex-cons rent a store as a front while they try to tunnel underground to rob a bank; The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which contains gags based on the repeated triggering of a hypnotic trance; Hollywood Ending, in which a movie director suffering from psychosomatic blindness tries to direct a movie without anyone catching on; and Scoop, in which a prominent newspaper writer appears from the dead to help a young journalism student uncover a mass murderer--reflect plots that seem contrived and old-hat. Today's media-savvy audiences have already heard the stories and can guess the endings. Allen's themes, too, seem out of sync, as "psychoanalysis" and "therapy" are not the buzzwords that they once were. Further, Allen's films, which always presupposed an intelligent, college-educated audience familiar with literature, history, politics, and current events, have trouble finding an audience in a career-driven, image-obsessed time when intellectualism, ideas, and verbal wit are less valued. If Mike Myers and Kevin Smith are the Woody Allens of subsequent eras, one sees that fast-paced dumb jokes, raunchy humor, and sight gags designed to shock take precedence over word play, literary and historical allusions, and parody. As twenty-four year old Abel Feldhamer, quoted in the previously mentioned New York Times article, observed of Allen, "His sense of humor is sort of frozen in the '70's. He appeals to an older crowd" (qtd. in Newman and Kilgannon A22).
Fifth, as Woody Allen entered his late 50s and 60s and physically aged, he became less credible as the male lead in a romantic comedy. For a romantic comedy to work the audience has to understand the characters' attractions for one another, and contemporary audiences have difficulty seeing a Helen Hunt, Tracey Ullman, or Tea Leoni forgoing other attractive lovers to be with what they perceive as a skinny, whiny, bespectacled older man. Hence, Woody Allen may have lost his ability to be believable as a romantic male lead.
Sixth, as a filmmaker, Woody Allen has produced like clockwork: a film a year. His reliability is evidenced in the working titles of his films: Fall 2004 project, Fall 2005 project, Fall 2006 project. Even during his most turbulent personal times, Allen never let his work schedule be compromised, saying that he compartmentalizes the various aspects of his life. Perhaps this reliability has worked against him in an event-driven media era. The openings of Woody Allen's films are predictable, not special. In the same way that he begins each film with simple white credits on a black background (preferring to spend his small budget on other features of the film), he rejects flashy, high-concept, high-budget projects that require lengthy negotiation for funding and long planning and shooting schedules. One who produces films at Allen's prodigious rate and break-neck speed is bound to incur a certain amount of sameness with regard to storylines, characters, actors, and settings. For example, the second Allen-directed Scarlett Johansson vehicle in a year created less audience excitement.
Seventh, Woody Allen has not concerned himself with promotion and marketing at a time when perhaps he needs to do so. Unlike other directors, he rarely grants interviews, goes on talk shows, or does publicity tours, in part because he is too busy churning out his next move. He prefers not to leave New York, although he did venture to the UK to make Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra's Dream (2007), and Spain for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Hollywood Ending opened the same weekend as Spiderman, perhaps a nod to counter-programming but also a virtual guarantee that the movie would not get much opening-weekend publicity. Scoop appeared in the midst of Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) hoopla. In an event-driven movie industry, Woody Allen's releases in recent years have been systematic and business-as-usual rather than special and attention-getting, even when he casts A-list stars.
Despite these observations, Allen remains a viable force in American moviemaking in the twenty-first century by virtue of his longevity and calculated filmmaking strategies and routines, and he continues to surprise, keeping him on the audience's cinematic radar. At the March 2002 Academy Award presentations, Allen--the quintessential New York director who had never before attended the Los Angeles ceremony-introduced the Academy's post-September 11 tribute to New York a stunning montage of clips of the city in film, commencing with Allen's own opening of Manhattan with George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" wailing in the background. In addition to heading to Hollywood for the Oscars, the reclusive Allen was a presenter in France at the Cannes Film Festival, both high-profile events that generate media attention and bolster professional stature. Allen also agreed to an extensive television interview that aired repeatedly in May 2002 in conjunction with a retrospective of eighteen of his films on Turner Classic Movies. In Woody Allen: A Life in Film, a ninety-minute documentary on his career, Allen talked at length of his approach to filmmaking and reinforced his status as one of the great auteurs of the American cinema. However, this event most likely attracted the baby-boomer-and-older demographic who have long comprised Allen's core audience and are more likely to subscribe to Turner Classic Movies than the Millennial Generation that filmmakers need to attract in order to bolster their box-office receipts.
More important than Allen's efforts to connect with his audience through public relations gestures is his overall management of his career, which goes against the grain of modern Hollywood. Stig Bjork man, who conducted extensive interviews with Allen, reports that Allen's
position in the film world is unique.
He has a contract with his producers
which guarantees him complete
freedom to write and direct one film
a year--at least. The contract means
unlimited control on Woody's side
over choice of subject, script, actors and
team members, final cut and so on. The
only condition is that he keep within
the economic boundaries fixed for the
By 2005, when the Motion Picture Association of America reported that the average Hollywood movie cost $96.2 million to produce ("World Box"), Allen's movies average a modest $15 million (Westbrook). Spending what most directors spent twenty years ago, Allen makes his films cheaply and efficiently, rarely going over time or budget or investing large sums in special effects. His actors, anxious to work with one of film's prestige filmmakers, who has a good track record for directing Academy-Award nominated performances, do so in between more lucrative projects and for a fraction of their usual salaries, thus keeping Allen's costs down even for movies with A-list ensemble casts. If one does the math, it becomes apparent that Allen's strategy is to keep his production (and promotion) costs low and his productivity high, aiming for at least a small profit on each annual release. An occasional hit, such as Match Point, more than compensates for the films that do poorly at the box office. For example, Match Point, made in 2005 for $15 million, earned $78 million worldwide ("Match Point"). This compensates for losses for Anything Else, which cost $18 and earned $13 million worldwide ("Anything"), and the more expensive Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which cost $33 million and earned $18 million worldwide ("Curse"). Other recent releases, such as Small Time Crooks, made modest profits ("Small Time"). Over the long haul, Allen's movies collectively turn a profit, albeit a small one, indicative of a director who is not led by audience expectations but is afforded total freedom to create. Another reason for Allen's small profits is that his movies, generally more verbal than visual, are not as easily transformed into moneymakers in a foreign market more geared to action.
Both Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen withstood the effects of scandals and diminished appreciation of their films in their later years, but Chaplin, in the end, won multigenerational praise and was heralded as a cinematic ground-breaker, and a comic genius. Will Woody Allen, who is now in his 70s and has directed nearly forty films, be as lucky? Although his individual films fail to attract blockbuster audiences, the body of his work has taken on iconic stature, making his influence on American mass media unmistakable. His early romantic comedies--such as Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)--explore classic Allen themes, the difficulty of relationships, sexual taboos, the plasticity of Hollywood, and the cult of celebrity, and reveal the nuances of daily life under a microscope, expressing the precarious nature of human attraction and the rare possibility that a relationship will ever work out. Their influence can be seen on a myriad of television shows, especially Seinfeld, and movies, When Harry Met Sally (1989) being the ultimate homage (Spignesi 343-349). Even the previously mentioned My Big Fat Greek Wedding depends on the juxtaposition of a large, boisterous ethnic family and a small, staid WASP one for laughs, the same thing Woody Allen did effectively in Annie Hall twenty-five years earlier. As Woody Allen's biographer Eric Lax observes of his influence, "[Allen] has clearly increased the vocabulary of romantic comedy. He has made the nerdy, off-beat antihero into a leading man. He has perfected the use of long master shots in which a whole scene is filmed without cutting from one take to another. He has turned narration and voice-over into character, and speaking to the audience natural. And he has had a tremendous influence on his audience, to the point that they identify with him and his sensibilities" (414).
However, in order for the modern audience to embrace Woody Allen in the twenty-first century, perhaps he needs to step out of the limelight as a leading man, write characters that are not more variations of the classic Woody Allen persona, take the time to develop projects that are not simply reliable and routine but well worth the wait, and adopt the Hollywood practice of vigorous promotion. Allen did not appear in Match Point, his most financially successful venture in twenty years, a feature that was advertised primarily as a Scarlett Johansson vehicle, not a Woody Allen production. Although he did act in Scoop, he has not appeared in another film since. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, starring Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, and Penelope Cruz, earned a tidy profit, and Midnight in Paris (2011), nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, became his most moneymaking film of late.
One could argue that there is really no reason for Woody Allen, who has turned a career profit and produced an interesting body of work, to do anything to increase his audience. However, there is hope yet for his popularity. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post wrote in a film review of a "Woody Allen figure, a New York nebbish, the loner who wasn't in the cool set and had an uncertain way about him" (C1). Of whom was he speaking? It was Peter Parker-Spiderman--the biggest box-office draw of the summer of 2002, who just happened to be like Woody Allen.