1980. Woody Allen has just had the biggest hit of his career with Manhattan — a love letter to the titular city, a romantic celebration of its timeless urban landscape set in a nostalgic-fantastic present, culminating in the gut-punch realization that what's past is irretrievably past. Manhattan's $39 million take made it Allen's biggest to that date. It also qualified as a comeback of sorts, restoring Allen's reputation in the minds of the moviegoing public (and the movie-financing private) after the Bergman-esque Interiors squandered whatever goodwill the writer-director-actor had stockpiled when Annie Hall won Best Picture in 1978.
His stock on the rise, Allen's next film is Stardust Memories, a dreamlike rumination on love, mortality, celebrity and art, starring Allen as a director crippled by his fear of death, whose faith in the power of his work to ensure immortality is weakened by his anxieties and insecurity. In one sequence, Allen's character imagines his own wake, in which his analyst explains the recently deceased suffered from "a depression common to many artists in middle age," which he's dubbed "Ozymandias Melancholia."
2012. Woody Allen has just had the biggest hit of his (late) career with Midnight in Paris, a love letter to the titular city, a romantic celebration of its timeless urban landscape set in a nostalgic-fantastic present, culminating in the gut-punch realization that what's past is irretrievably past. Midnight in Paris' $57 million gross makes it, numerically, Allen's biggest hit to date (adjusting for inflation, Manhattan would have made roughly $118.5 million today), making Paris an unqualified comeback — catnip for his base, his first film in 25 years to earn the dubious imprimatur of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a magnet for a new generation of fans.
His stock once again on the rise, Allen's next film is To Rome With Love (in theaters Friday), a dreamlike rumination on love, mortality, celebrity and art starring Allen as a director (of operas) crippled by his fear of death, whose faith in the power of his work to ensure immortality is weakened by his suspicion that nothing he's left behind will stand the test of time. In one sequence, an aging architect (played by Alec Baldwin) admits that he's suffering from a malaise he calls "Ozymandias Melancholia." His wife scoffs — she's never heard of it.
"It's just a phrase that I coined years ago, and I thought it was a good phrase, and so I wanted to use it again," Allen tells me, his slight, 76-year-old body sunk into a plush couch in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire on the morning after To Rome With Love premiered as the opening-night selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival. Next to him sit Rome co-stars Penelope Cruz and Ellen Page.
"It's a perfectly valid description of a particular phenomenon. It's that sad and depressed feeling you get when you realize that no matter how great and majestic and important something is at the time, in time it's going to pass. Just like the [Shelley] poem — eventually, time kills everything. It's just that rotting statue of Ozymandias, a once-great statue, and now a broken-down piece of marble in the desert. So you get a depressed feeling because it gives you a sense of the futility of life, that all that you're working for, and all the things that seem so meaningful, are nothing."
Another bit from Stardust Memories comes to mind. Allen's character tells a woman that when a man's basic needs are taken care of, "then your problems become how can I fall in love — or why can't I fall in love, more accurately — and why do I age and die, and what meaning can my life possibly have?"
And she says, "You know, for a guy who makes a lot of funny movies, you're kind of a depressive."
It's a popular misconception that Allen despises California. Reporting on Allen's trip west in a post headlined "L.A. Hater Woody Allen Sucks It Up to Attend Los Angeles Film Fest," Laist.com was typical of media outlets fixated on the "irony" of the event luring the man who, in 1977's Annie Hall, famously said of L.A., "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."
"I'm not anti–Los Angeles," Allen says today. "I couldn't live here because I don't like a place where I have to drive everyplace, and I don't like sunshine. But I love coming out here for a couple of days. I have a lot of friends here, and the town has, over the years, really come on very strong. When I first came out here years ago, you couldn't get a decent meal in Los Angeles. Now it's full of great restaurants, great museums; the opera's wonderful."
Allen is famously a creature of habit — he still types every screenplay on an antique typewriter, literally cutting and pasting with scissors and a stapler. But over the past decade, he's made it clear that his geographic loyalties are not set in stone.
The turning point came in 2005. Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite had won acting Oscars in the '90s, and the same decade saw the release of a couple of near-classics in Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown. Nevertheless, Allen arguably struggled to assert himself artistically in the years following his well-documented 1992 breakup with Mia Farrow — his girlfriend of 12 years, his most frequent star during that period and the mother of his only biological child.
After a string of four consecutive films flopped with critics and audiences in the early '00s, Allen traveled to London to make Match Point, a romantic drama/thriller starring Scarlet Johansson. Match Point may have been a kind of English transposition of Allen's own, far superior 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors, but many critics declared it a return to form, and the film's $23 million gross made Match Point Allen's most popular effort in nearly 20 years.
He subsequently made three films in England (Scoop, Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), one in Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which netted Cruz an Oscar) and then Midnight in Paris. Filming abroad allowed him to make his movies independent of Hollywood and its institutions, of which, Allen admits, "I don't have a great view."
As far as his personal taste in films, he mentions A Separation and Blue Valentine as recent favorites. "These are not Hollywood pictures. The pictures that come out of Hollywood are industry pictures, pictures that are made for a profit motive exclusively, and I don't have any interest in them."
But his Euro-phase is not really a matter of aesthetics. He's not following his muse so much as following the money.
"The European film industry never had a studio system, and so they're very happy being bankers," Allen says. "In America, these guys who are only fit to be bankers — and barely that, but they are fit to be bankers — say, 'Well, we're not just bankers. We want to talk to you about the casting and talk to you about the script.' Whereas in Europe they're happy to say, 'We're bankers, and you're a product. We know what you do, and we'll give you the money to make the film.' "
Allen's seventh film since the beginning of his European sojourn, Midnight in Paris spans several time periods and features a gallery of impersonations of larger-than-life figures such as Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; it's certainly more ambitious than, say, Scoop. But it's also, essentially, a one-joke enterprise — a Bill and Ted sequel for cultural studies majors, inviting a kind of cultural-historical trainspotting that flatters the viewer who can recognize a tossed-off line about Djuna Barnes' pushiness on the dance floor as a gay joke.
Woody Allen has been making a film a year for 40-plus years — why did this one become such a phenomenon?
"I have no idea," he says. "It was a happy accident that, for some reason, everybody embraced that picture tremendously. It had nothing to do with me. I made it the same way that I make any picture, and that one, people loved. And that was great. But it certainly has not resonated — the film studios, they didn't come to me after and say, 'Please make films with us. We'll give you whatever you want, or give you anything at all.' So it didn't resonate with me as a practical matter, and by the time it was successful, I wasn't thinking about it."
Midnight in Paris ultimately has its protagonist realize the folly of the very nostalgic thinking that the film, for the bulk of its running time, indulges. It's notable that the movie delivering a rebuke to the practice of fetishizing the past would become Allen's long-overdue late-career blockbuster, given the nostalgic thinking that has dogged him for decades. His critics (professional and otherwise) constantly measure his contemporary work against his "early, funny ones" — another phrase Allen coined in Stardust Memories.
Shortly after Stardust bombed with American critics and audiences, Allen quipped, "I do better in Milan than Moline." But it took him 22 years to make a movie in Italy. Why now?
"Well," Allen says simply, "Rome put up the money."
To Rome With Love opens on the image of a traffic circle at the center of the city — an international symbol of controlled chaos. The narrative interweaves four distinct stories. Cruz plays a prostitute who shows up unexpectedly at the hotel room of a country bumpkin. She ends up posing as his wife for a day of networking with Rome's business elite, while his actual wife is seduced by a movie star. Page plays a young woman who arrives in Rome and disrupts the domestic placidity of aspiring architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), while Baldwin's John, who may or may not be an older version of Jack, looks on and offers advice. Italian superstar Roberto Benigni plays a middle-class office drone/family man who wakes up one morning to find that, through no apparent fault of his own, he's the most famous man in Rome. And Allen, in his first on-screen role since 2006, plays a retired opera director who discovers that the father of his daughter's fiancée is a hell of a tenor — but only in the shower.
To Rome With Love is a mixed bag, almost by design. As the director cuts between these unrelated stories seemingly at random, the Roman streets emerge as the most concrete linking thread: They're a labyrinth for the highly archetypal characters to get lost in and come out the other side transformed. In Midnight, an impatient Owen Wilson had to wait until after after-dinner drinks to access the city's magical possibilities. In Rome, the strange, the unexplainable and the impossible all happen in broad daylight. The film has a waking-dream logic that remains ambiguous throughout — Allen himself is not necessarily sure which aspects of the film are memories and fantasies, or even in which character's head certain scenes are playing out. "We never fixed it," he says. "We never knew."
Chock-full of actors unknown to mainstream American audiences, acting in Italian (only the Page-Eisenberg-Baldwin thread is fully in English), Rome represents a higher degree of difficulty than anything Allen has done in a while. But while shooting big conceptually and technically, Allen retreads a lot of familiar territory. Cruz's inconvenient hooker plotline was funnier and more effective in Deconstructing Harry (which itself could be categorized as a revisiting of ... wait for it ... Stardust Memories). This wouldn't be a problem if Rome were consistently hilarious, but some of the humor is so stale that I occasionally wondered if the movie was supposed to be set in the present day. (A "boxers or briefs" joke? Really, Woody?)
Within this uneven stew, the Page-Eisenberg-Baldwin thread is truly the standout, giving Rome both its biggest laughs and its most substantive pangs of poignancy, and creating a solid bedrock for the rest of the film to bounce off of.
It's in Page's vignette that Allen really shows his gift for directing through inspired casting. Before she appears on-screen, Page's Monica is described by her best friend, Sally, as a man-magnet, "because of the sexual vibe she gives off." That "vibe" is not necessarily natural, and anyway, what's more significant is the way aspiring actress Monica gives it off. In one scene, she forces her bedroom bravado on Sally and her boyfriend, Jack, via a long, after-dinner monologue on her past exploits ("As great as the orgasms were with Victoria, they were a lot stronger with Jamal").
One of the meta-jokes of Rome is that the closest thing to unbridled passion occurs between the characters played by Page and Eisenberg — hardly the stereotypical bombshell and lothario. When Page (who is incredibly tiny in person, with a slip of a voice that barely registers) first read the part, she tells Allen, "I was a little taken aback by the fact that you wanted to cast me as the floozy, you know?"
"That I wanted to what?" Allen responds, as if not sure he heard his soft-spoken star correctly — did she just say "floozy"?
"That you wanted to cast me in this role," Page explains. "I just felt like it was very foreign to what I'm used to being seen as. So it was a wonderful opportunity, but I also felt very intimidated and insecure. And I remember we talked on the phone—"
"We did speak, but we didn't speak long," Allen interjects.
"We didn't speak long, and you were basically, like, 'Don't — why are you — don't talk about it. Like, it's actually OK.' "
"To me, you seemed perfect for it. I had no reservations whatsoever," Allen says. "I mean, you never sit down and talk about the characters. I don't really know the answers to those questions."
Cruz remembers when she first worked with Allen, on Vicky Cristina Barcelona. "I went up to him one morning with my book of notes on the character, and he looked at me like I was totally crazy," she says. "I even had some drawings that expressed the anguish and the suffering of the character, and he was laughing at me. But he always does it in a way that would never make me feel bad about it. That's the way he works."
"You cast great people, and you leave them alone," Allen says. "They do what they do, then you look good, you take credit for directing them. But the truth of the matter is, you give them almost no direction."
Fittingly for Allen's first film set in the Eternal City, Rome is kind of a mix-tape of his eternal themes. The segment in which Allen stars is all about the fear of death, the impulse to find life's validation in creative work and the folly of that impulse — in essence, Ozymandias Melancholia in practice. Benigni's segment, and the portion of the Cruz storyline in which the small-town wife is farcically wooed by a famous actor, deal with the false but powerful aura of fame. In both stories, the famous are treated as exempt from the rules that govern the rest of us. They could use this power to do anything. They mostly use it to get laid.
"The only good thing I've found about becoming well-known, famous, whatever you want to call it, is I was able to break down the myth of fame," Cruz says. "Truly realizing that it's the most impermanent and absurd and nonexistent thing. It's just an illusion."
Rome certainly depicts fame as illusory, but it also has a character declare with some finality that since "life can be cruel and unsatisfying" for rich and poor, famous and unknown, "being a celebrity is definitely better."
"It is better, in the end," Allen insists. "You do lose your private life, but there are also a lot of benefits you get. You get a little bit more of a free ride being famous, and you learn to live with the drawbacks. That should be the worst thing that ever happens to you, that the paparazzi are a pain in the ass."
Allen knows of what he speaks. His filmmaking career is bifurcated by the scandal that began in 1992, when his then-girlfriend Farrow discovered that Allen was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's college-age adopted daughter (with her ex-husband Andre Previn). The revelation of the affair led to a nasty, protracted battle, in the courts and in the press, over custody of the three children, one natural and two adopted, whom Allen and Farrow had been raising together.
Which brings us to the most constant of Allen's themes, explored in Rome in Page's segment, in which Eisenberg's character, for no particular (or at least defensible) reason, finds himself falling for tempestuous, unstable Monica, behind the back of his stable, gorgeous live-in girlfriend, and against the warnings of Baldwin's elder onlooker. That the heart wants what it wants when it wants it, in defiance of logic or advice, has long driven Allen's romantic stories — think of his character's desperate attempt to salvage his relationship with teenage Mariel Hemingway at the end of Manhattan, or the mad-scientist spoof in Stardust Memories, in which Allen conducts an experiment on his hot, crazy love interest and a plain, sane, sensible match, switching their personalities to put the stable woman in the body of the fox ... only to fall in love with the now-nuts plain Jane. Allen has returned to this theme with a fury in recent years, in films as tonally disparate as the sweaty, threesome-teasing travelogue Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the screwball Whatever Works, in which Woody surrogate Larry David marries a much younger hayseed played by Evan Rachel Wood.
"The heart wants what it wants" is more than a theme of Allen's films; it's also perhaps the filmmaker's best-known statement on his own life. Allen used the phrase in a no-holds-barred interview with Walter Isaacson, published in Time magazine in 1992, on the matter of Allen's relationship with his now-wife (Allen and Soon-Yi Previn married in 1997). The interview's final quote — "The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that" — could be Allen's epitaph, a thematic summary of both this most infamous aspect of Allen's personal life and many of his most lasting films.
Certainly, it propels his new film's most resonant plotline. In Rome, Eisenberg's character admits that his shift in affection lacks any rational explanation, while the Baldwin character seems to be judging the love triangle from the remove of age but not necessarily with accrued wisdom. At one point, Page's character turns to Baldwin and says, "You will never understand women." He fires back, "That's been proven."
That Allen is still making films about men grappling with the illogic of love, well into his 70s, particularly in light of his own life experience, gives the work the weight of tragedy. He's been using his art to ask these questions for 40 years, and he still hasn't figured it out.
"About the important things in life, you learn nothing," Allen acknowledges. "I know this, I'm older now. It's really true."
The character Allen plays in Rome is unhappily retired. "I miss work," he admits to his psychoanalyst wife, played by Judy Davis, who is unsympathetic to her husband's fear of spending his dotage drooling in front of a TV. If this is not direct autobiography, it's only because Allen — who has been widely quoted lamenting having aged out of romantic leads in his own movies — cannot imagine putting himself in that position.
"I don't know what I'd do if I retired," he says. "I don't fish."
He has a reputation for working every day — the day editing finishes on one film, so goes the legend, he types the first words of the next screenplay. He insists it's not as grueling a pace as it sounds.
"You finish a film and then, OK, it's finished. And then you sit home, and what do you do? The normal things. I go to the movies, take a walk, go to a basketball game. So what happens? A week passes, two weeks pass, and I'm not gonna do that the rest of my life, so I start to write something.
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"You know, it just evolves naturally," he adds. "You sit around the house, and you start to work on something after a few days or a few weeks, because otherwise it's boring."
For Allen, work is a given; it's just a question of finding the mechanism to keep doing it his way. "I'd certainly be interested in anyone that came to me with money to make a film, because that's always a scramble. But they would have to tolerate my idiosyncrasies, and that's where I always strike out. I don't let anybody read the script. So the film company would have to put the money in blindly; they couldn't say anything about casting; they couldn't see dailies; they'd have to put the money in a brown paper bag and then see the film when it's ready. And very, very few people are willing to do that."
His next film, set to star Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins and Louis C.K., will shoot mostly in San Francisco. "There are very few places in America that have charm," Allen explains. "San Francisco, it's pretty. It's got a European charm to it."
Maybe, but it doesn't have European money. Allen says he's financing this next film privately, through "people that got into a conversation with me and never got out without donating some money." In a word, as Allen says, breaking into an unforced grin for the first and last time in my presence, "Suckers."