Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Woody Allen: An Everymensch Steps to the Front

These are not easy times for Woody Allen. This month’s release of a four-part TV documentary, Allen v. Farrow, casts his behavior toward his then-seven-year-old adoptive daughter Dylan in the worst possible light. The series was made by the much-honored documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who have both earned a reputation for getting ugly things right. I’m hardly a Mia Farrow enthusiast, and some of her son Ronan Farrow’s journalistic crusades strike me as grandstanding. But the story of Allen’s troubling behavior toward Dylan—which he continues to hotly deny—leaves little question that Woody Allen’s once brilliant filmmaking career is essentially over.

 For someone who loves Annie Hall, delights in the goofy pleasures of the early Allen canon (Sleeper, Bananas, Take the Money and Run), and respects the moral complexities of later films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s sad indeed to see a professional reputation destroyed by personal bad behavior.  Allen’s case is hardly unique, though: plenty of great artistic talents were heinous individuals. What complicates Allen’s situation, though, is that he can’t easily be divorced from his work. When we look at a brilliant Gauguin painting, we don’t need to focus on the fact that during his romantic Tahitian sojourn Gauguin apparently spread syphilis throughout the islands. But to watch a Woody Allen film is to watch Allen himself, in the fairly unchanging role of a lovable nebbish, one who’s shrewd but not wise, who frequently screws up but is still able to retain our sympathy. In other words, an everymensch.

 Those thoughts crossed my mind as I watched Allen’s performance in the rare Allen film he did not write or direct. The Front is a 1979 movie that takes us back to 1953, that unfortunate time when—thanks to the dark machinations of some power players in Washington DC—lives were destroyed because of past beliefs and associations. During what we now call the McCarthy Era, Hollywood was especially hard hit. Actors, directors, and particularly screenwriters were banned from pursuing their craft, or lived in fear that they’d be denounced in front of a congressional committee. Two and a half decades later, the late Walter Bernstein wrote The Front, and Martin Ritt directed it. Both had been blacklisted back in the day, as had featured actor Zero Mostel and several of the others taking part. And the script contains such grim true-to-life incidents as a beloved but suddenly unemployable performer hounded into suicide.

 In the midst of this disastrous situation, Allen plays a ne’er-do-well cashier (and sometimes bookie) who’s a longtime pal of a blacklisted TV writer. For a 10% cut, he agrees to put his name on his friend’s brilliant new pilot. Suddenly, he’s the hottest scribe in the industry, especially after two more blacklist victims beg him to front for them as well. All this attention means he’s expected to show up at meetings and generally air his genius. It’s a fascinating role for Allen: as a man living (and profiting hugely from) a lie, he’s trying to wiggle his way through a moral dilemma without giving up too much of his newfound creature comforts, which include a politically idealistic TV-exec girlfriend.

  Woody Allen in The Front gets to call upon a lot of his trademark Woody-isms: the thick glasses, the hapless air, the stammer. He’s not the real Allen (he says at one point he can hardly write even a grocery list) but he sure looks and sounds like the Allen we know and love. Or do we really know him? Regarding who he really is, will we ever be sure?


No comments:

Post a Comment