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Still a Working Stiff 

Never mind the buzz: To Woody Allen, Match Point is just a job well done

Thursday, Dec 15 2005
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Illustration by Mitch HandsoneNot quite 24 hours before I arrived at the Park Avenue office he has kept for the better part of his professional career, Woody Allen celebrated his 70th birthday. Well, maybe “celebrated” isn’t the right word. “I spent the day fighting off morbid resignation,” Allen says, sinking into one of the green-velour roller chairs scattered about his private screening room. It’s early December, just after Thanksgiving, and New York is already alive with the signs of the season: The first chill of winter hangs in the air, the tree in Rockefeller Center has been lit — and a new Woody Allen movie is set for release. Only this time, and for the first time in the 30 years since Love and Death, Allen didn’t shoot his latest picture on his home turf. Not one single frame of it. That Match Point, which opens in limited release on December 28, unfolds against London’s tony Belgravia district instead of Long Island’s tony Hamptons (as it did in the original script) may be, as Allen himself says, little more than a cosmetic change. But there is much else about the film that suggests an extreme makeover, the latest shift of course in a career that has thrived on renewal and reinvention. The story of an ambitious, working-class tennis instructor, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), raising himself up through the echelons of British high society, Match Point may be the youngest (and sexiest) picture Allen has ever conceived — of the four principal cast members, the oldest, Emily Mortimer, is a mere 34. There’s no role for Allen himself, nor even one he might have played (á la Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity or Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda). And both literally and figuratively speaking, we’re thousands of miles removed from the New York Jewish intellectual life that is the nexus of the director’s best-known films: The characters of Match Point are as WASPy as they come, comfortably inhabiting a world of upturned collars and sockless loafers, expansive country homes and nepotistic family businesses. And they’re unabashedly middlebrow: They talk on their cell phones at the opera, their film viewing tends more toward The Motorcycle Diaries than The Sorrow and the Pity and, in one of the movie’s most perversely funny sequences, a character rushes from the scene of a double murder to a performance of the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber musical — a grisly crime of a different sort. But what is most remarkable about Match Point is its vitality, how it bubbles over with life and filmmaking energy, arriving on the heels of several Allen films (Melinda and Melinda, Hollywood Ending and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion) notable chiefly for their lethargy. To paraphrase the late Pauline Kael writing about John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, if you didn’t know Allen had directed Match Point, you might think a fresh new talent had burst onto the scene.Since its out-of-competition premiere at Cannes in May — where many speculated that, had it been given a competing slot, it would have walked off with a major prize — buzz about Match Point has been building to a head, and it’s something that Allen, who once said, “The less I know about what people think of my work, the better off I am,” is hardly oblivious to. “Look, I make a lot of films,” he says. “Some come out fairly good. Some come out mediocre. Some come out poor. This one came out well. I could see it myself: When I finished the film, I felt, ‘Oh, this is a good film,’ and it doesn’t surprise me that people are responding to it. I must say that I got every break a film director could want making this film. When I needed Scarlett Johansson, she was available. When I needed a rainy day, I got a rainy day. When I needed sunshine for a week, I got it. It was like I couldn’t screw the film up no matter how hard I tried. It is indeed a better film than most of the films I’ve made before — just by coincidence, by happy luck.”As it happens, luck — happy or otherwise — is the driving concern of Match Point, a movie in which the fates and fortunes of the characters teeter precipitously over a moral chasm rather like the slow-motion tennis ball that drifts through the film’s first frames, bounces off the top of the net and, for a moment, hangs undecided in midair. An opening narration intones, “The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life,” and while some will no doubt construe those words as a statement of principle on Allen’s own behalf in the post-Mia years, the moral ambiguity of Match Point is the one thing that doesn’t feel new at all for the director — save for just how ambiguous it is. Like Zelig’s eponymous (and briefly fascistic) chameleon, Chris Wilton is a Highsmith-ian cipher who adopts bits and pieces of others’ personalities as he goes and, like Crimes and Misdemeanors’ Dr. Judah Rosenthal, he’s a man who will ultimately kill to protect his position in life. Yet if Zelig had second thoughts about Hitler, and Judah was wracked with guilt over ordering the death of his mistress, there’s barely a trace of compunction to be found in Wilton’s steely, blue-eyed gaze and sotto voce Irish lilt. Skilled as Wilton is on the tennis court, his true athletic prowess has been in the game of life, meeting the wicked serve of blind chance with the mean backhand of free will. Until, that is, he runs up against the smoldering aspiring actress Nola Rice (Johansson), who’s nearly as fast on her feet as he is.“I wanted to do something on the subject of luck being a force that people are afraid to acknowledge in their lives,” Allen tells me. “People like to boast and say, ‘I make my own luck.’ But the truth of the matter is we’re all at the mercy of luck much more than we realize, and we’ve got to cross our fingers that nothing happens — that when those X-rays come back. . . well, you’ve just got to stay lucky. To some degree, it’s in your control; you don’t have to smoke. But non-smokers die too. You want to feel you can control things to some degree, because if you can’t, life is scarier. So you give yourself the illusion that taking all these vitamins means something. You’re always searching for control, and in the end you’re at the mercy of the hoisted piano not falling on your head.” Woody Allen has had enough luck in his own career to make you wonder where all the bodies are buried. He has directed 35 feature films in 39 years, writing or co-writing all of them and acting in most. He has been nominated for 20 Academy Awards — 13 times as a writer, six times as a director and once (for Annie Hall) as an actor — and has directed 14 performers (including himself) in Oscar-nominated roles. The former nightclub comic has also enjoyed total creative control over his work virtually from the beginning, as well as a series of generous patrons — most notably former United Artists head and Orion Pictures co-founder Arthur Krim — who’ve been perfectly willing to let Allen take the money and run. Notoriously secretive about his scripts (even prohibiting his own actors from reading scenes in which they don’t appear), he shuns executive input into the casting process and refuses to screen dailies for anyone but himself. And if he’s only occasionally been good box office, he’s kept his budgets low, talked name actors into working for scale and brought an invaluable prestige factor to those who sponsor him. “It’s been part luck, part dogged insistence, manipulation and negotiation,” Allen says, freely admitting that his cherished autonomy has been harder to maintain in recent years — at least in America, where there are ever fewer Arthur Krims holding positions of influence in the industry. “It’s the reason I made this film in England,” he continues. “There were film companies [in the U.S.] that were perfectly willing to work with me — provided I would let them read the script, they could know who’s in the picture, they could see dailies. They didn’t want to be, in their words, ‘just bankers.’ And my feeling is: Just be a good banker and we’ll be thankful; you don’t have to be a script editor. “I figured out that I could have this situation more the way I wanted it if I got the money in Europe, because they don’t have a studio system. It’s a limited amount of money, of course — Match Point was a $15 million picture — and as long as I keep to that budget, they give me the money in a bag, they go away and I give them the picture.” Even then, Allen says, it’s plenty hard to make the movie you want. A famous tinkerer, he reshoots scenes constantly during production and has frequently reconvened his casts for additional reshoots during post. One entire project, September, was scrapped in rough-cut form and filmed over again from scratch; nearly one-third of Crimes and Misdemeanors met with a similar fate. Indeed, for Allen, nothing about a movie is set in stone until the prints have been shipped off to theaters. “Let’s say in Annie Hall, he’s supposed to live in a little house on a street in Brooklyn,” Allen says. “Then I’m scouting locations for another scene and all of us are standing there — Gordon Willis and myself and the art director — and we see a house that’s above a roller coaster. I go home immediately and change the scene. Then let’s say I’ve written a part for an older actress... name an older actress...” Elaine Stritch.“Oh, I don’t mean that old! Someone let’s say in her 30s or so, like Angelina Jolie, and then I find that she’s not available, but Scarlett Johansson is. Well, suddenly the character hasn’t been married once and she’s only 20 years old. So it evolves a lot before you do anything. When I start filming, I look at the dailies and I think, ‘This is terrible. This is not going to work. It’s drab. The scene is tedious.’ I reshoot the next day; I don’t wait. I like to know that when I’m finished with the film, I have everything in the can just the way I want it. Then I put the film together and screen it — that’s really like taking a cold shower! Then you see where you guessed wrong in a serious way. I sit with the editor and we make a lot of changes and we look at it again, and eventually we realize this is as good as we’re going to get with this material: It still lacks an important scene here; she never should have said this over here. So I call the actors and we get back together and I try to fix it. Sometimes the actors are in Africa doing a movie and I can’t get them and I have to figure out some other way.”Or not. “I felt I didn’t do as good a job as I should have on The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” Allen says when I ask him about the critical and commercial failure of his most recent films. “I felt that I did a very good job on Hollywood Ending and for some reason that picture wasn’t appreciated sufficiently; I felt it was a really wonderful comic idea and that I executed it just fine and it should have been very enjoyable. Of course, this is totally subjective and I’m probably the worst person in the world to make these judgments. You know, in the course of doing films, I like to do some just for fun, and I know going in that people are not going to get the same full meal out of them. They’re more like a dessert. What Match Point has going for it, which you can never really get in a comic film, is a certain impact that, since time immemorial, has always given you a deeper feeling than a comic piece. You can worship a comic piece and adore it, but the real impact comes from a dramatic hit.“Comedy, by its very nature, defuses. The situation is tense, and Bob Hope or Groucho Marx says a joke. And it’s pleasurable. Whereas drama confronts. Blanche DuBois comes into the room and it never gets defused. To me, it’s always been something I’ve aspired toward. Having said that, my next movie, Scoop, couldn’t be lighter. While I was doing Match Point I discovered that Scarlett Johansson is very funny and nobody is showing that. So I made a very light comedy. She’s a college newspaper journalist in London who gets on to a scoop about a series of murders; I’m a small-time kooked-out magician who’s playing in a vaudeville house there. She falls in love with Hugh Jackman who’s an aristocrat. While I was doing it, I thought, ‘Yes, this is fun and I’m having a good time. I’m getting to knock off these jokes and Scarlett’s being funny.’ But really my heart is in serious work and, since I am now getting older, I think I should devote myself to more serious work and do some serious films.” Photo by Clive Coote Is it possible for a filmmaker to have nine lives? Allen seems to be working on it. Such things aren’t unheard of in the arts — Picasso had his blue and rose periods before venturing into cubism, Jackson Pollock his flirtation with representational forms. Reincarnation is a rarer phenomenon in the movies, though, where risk and reward almost always run in inverse proportion. But Allen has never been one to traffic in past glories, having navigated his way from the slapstick shenanigans of Bananas and Sleeper to the seriocomic romanticism of Manhattan and Annie Hall to the muted chamber drama of Interiors and Another Woman and the brutal dissection of marriage (complete with careening handheld camera and violent jump cuts) that was Husbands and Wives — the masterpiece of the second half of his career. And now there is Match Point, which comes burnished in the supine glow of a London summer, but may be Allen’s darkest, most Darwinian portrait of human nature. (Earlier this week, the film scored four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture.) Collectively, and for all its failings, it is one of the most singular bodies of work in American movies, and one that has seen its creator remain a relevant cultural figure at a time when contemporaries like Neil Simon and Mel Brooks have long since run out of steam. “I worked with some great comedy writers in my life — those two, and also Larry Gelbart — and they aspired to do great comedies and they have done great comedies,” says Allen. “I was always more pretentious than they were. I wanted to be a dramatic writer. So I had someplace that I wanted to go that was difficult for me and challenging. I’ve also never minded failing. For some reason, that was not a sensitive thing with me. Now, I would rather succeed, of course! But I knew when I was making Shadows and Fog that there would not be a human being who would want to see it.” To be sure, Allen has had his ups and downs, personally and professionally, sometimes commanding a larger audience in the tabloids than in cinemas. Yet he’s continued to make a movie a year (whether he needs to or not, some have jested), and the feverish work pace has ultimately served him well. “Jean-Luc Godard told me, sitting in this room, ‘You make too many films,’” says Allen. “‘You shouldn’t make so many because that way they become more valuable.’ But I don’t think in those terms. I think more the way Bergman thought, like it’s blue-collar work. You come in, you make the film, you put it out and you go on to the next film. With Match Point, right now I’m doing promotion for it because I have an obligation to DreamWorks to do that. But to me it’s history. I did it two summers ago. It’s out and running in Europe, I’ve made another film since, I’m lining up my next film. I don’t really dwell on these things.” In other words, don’t look for Woody Allen to slow down anytime soon. Even when his films have failed to capture the public imagination, he himself never has and probably never will. And at a time when 70 is the new 40, it could be that he’s just getting his game on. “A guy who fixes sinks or installs television sets can’t wait for the weekend so he can get on his boat and do his things,” he says. “I don’t feel that way. If I was working at a regular job, I would come home on the weekend and write, because it’s fun for me. If no one would back my movies, I’d still be writing plays or books. What else would I do? I don’t enjoy the beach or the country. I like the city, and in the city there’s always time to work. And I don’t work as hard as people think. It appears that way, because most people spend a lot of time raising money for films. They finish a script and two years down the line they get it on. I’ve never had that problem — I pull it out of the typewriter and bring it over to the office and they start budgeting it 15 minutes later.” In person, Woody Allen looks like Woody Allen — black-frame glasses, white button-down oxford, baggy tan corduroys and weathered burgundy lace-ups. Yet something isn’t quite right, like a film that’s gone slightly out of sync. The manner is graver; the voice lower-pitched; the hands that, on screen, flail about in wildly expressive body language, rest quietly at his sides. It’s hard to put a finger on it at first, but gradually I realize that the man sitting before me — this poised, serious, thoughtful filmmaker — scarcely resembles Alvy Singer at all. According to Allen, it’s perhaps the biggest misconception people have about him. “The picture people have of me is the character that I play on the screen and I’m not that,” Allen says with utter conviction, echoing claims of mistaken identity he’s been making to interviewers for years. “They think that I’m a dysfunctional, New York Jewish neurotic intellectual. First of all, I have no religious connection whatsoever. I mean, I was born Jewish, but it’s the last thing on my mind. I’m atheistic. I have no interest in any religion in a practicing way, including Judaism — they’re all rackets. Secondly, I’m certainly not intellectual. I’m a middle-class person playing the part of a neurotic intellectual. People mistake that for who I am, but actually, I’m the guy who sits next to you at the ballgame or the movie house. I’m the guy who will be home tonight with a beer watching the Knicks on television. I’m not going to have my nose in my Kierkegaard.” To wit, the man who said “I’d rather be lucky than good” — the one who saw so deeply into life — was no highbrow philosopher, but rather the great New York Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez, who helped take the Bronx Bombers to five World Series, where his 6-0 record remains unsurpassed. A very lucky man indeed. But surely, I say, you’ve read Kierkegaard, and Freud and Marshall McLuhan... “But only because I had to to survive. I didn’t read them because it’s an instinct in me or because I liked it. I read those things because the girls I was dating wouldn’t go out with me if I hadn’t. It’s not something that comes natural to me or which I find very enjoyable. I’m also not really neurotic, except to the extent that everybody has a certain amount of quirks. I lead a very normal life. I function well. I’ve always been productive. I’ve had ongoing relationships professionally for many years. I have, at this stage of my life, a good marriage and good relationships with almost all the people who’ve ever been a part of my life — not all of them, but almost all. I travel. I play jazz. If you spent a week with me, you would not think that I was neurotic. You would think just the opposite probably: You would come to me with your problems and say, ‘You know, I’m at sixes and sevens about this, but you always seem to be decisive and calm about these things. You don’t get ruffled or angry about them. Help me out.’ And that’s more who I really am.”Perhaps it wouldn’t even take a week to see all that, but just a couple of hours, on the Upper East Side of New York, on a brisk December afternoon.

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Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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