“New York was his town, and it always would be.” -Woody Allen, Manhattan, 1979
These iconic lines from perhaps Woody Allen’s most iconic movie will never cease to be true for him. The phrase itself sums up his entire résumé, as he has chronicled every Upper East Side street, captured every angle of every landmark, every feel of every season and every eccentricity of every quirk ball. Just like Sex and the City did and Mad Men is doing now, Woody has showcased the city in such a specific, recognizable way on the screen that he has actually changed the way people see the city in real life: through the eyes of the young Allan Konigsburg.
Allan was a rambunctious little boy. He was constantly running around his Brooklyn home, much to the dismay of his strict Jewish mother and household of relatives, and he always had something to say. At school, he was never exactly what teachers call a “model student,” but his head was constantly swimming. At age five, he realized he would one day die.
At age 15, he got a job after school writing gag lines for newspaper columnists, which paid $25 per day, and by 17, he was making more money than his parents. His humor was being increasingly well-received by editors, but still battling the classroom, he adopted a new first name so classmates wouldn’t recognize his work. Woody had a decidedly comedic ring to it, so from then on he was Woody Allen.
Just who and what Woody Allen is, however, is difficult to pinpoint. He would be a filmmaker, but his 11 plays, four short stories, countless pieces in the New Yorker, 61 years of playing jazz clarinet and decades of stand-up performance make coupling him with a camera very omitting. He would be a husband, father and son, but as his sister said in a PBS documentary, he was birthed to the wrong parents, and with his history of ex-wives and adultery, it seems erroneous to tie his legacy to family. So, perhaps he’s just a man.
But Allan was not a man when he became Woody, and Woody has never given up the boyhood of Allan. He’s won Oscars, Golden Globes, even a Director’s Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award while he’s clearly still achieving, but he’s never grown up. What he really is, more or less, is Peter Pan in thick-rimmed glasses.
Watching a Woody Allen film is many things to many people, but it is never relaxing. There’s nothing soothing about the rapid-fire bickering (typically involving at least one category of New York accents). Tantrums aren’t beautifully drenched in dramatic melancholy; they’re usually neurotic breakdowns. And relationships—rather than blossoming over time—are awkward to watch as they stutter and spiral in every which way like tango dancers who have no idea what they’re doing.
So what is the enduring appeal? Undoubtedly there’s a hefty dose of schadenfreude involved. As painful as watching Woody can be, at least we’re not the ones going through it. But there’s also something boyishly charming about both the situations he gets himself into and the way he gets out of them. When something goes awry, like the film director who suddenly goes blind in Hollywood Ending (2002), Woody does not get deeply lost in caves of artistic agony. Rather, he turns up the volume of his incessant, neurotic mumbling (“I didn’t bump my head. I have a brain tumor, that’s the story here! The end is in sight! I see the wall!”) and becomes stubbornly inconsolable with no way to rationally talk him through his problem du jour. In pure emotional immaturity, he insists on being left alone with his suffering until some kind of miracle comes along.
And miracles do happen in the Neverland of Woody Allen—or at least magic does. (He’s an atheist.) Woody is one of the few people whose imagination actually gets better with age, and from his dead mother shouting down from the sky in front of all of New York City to the cars that are time machines to Paris in the 1920s, he isn’t afraid to call upon the fantastical to realize whatever surreal ideas he comes up with. Few of his films stay grounded in reality.
But his slapstick sense of humor does. He has people slipping on giant hydraulic banana peels in Sleeper (1973) and running around the kitchen from escaped lobsters in Annie Hall (1977). In his most recent film, To Rome With Love, some of the funniest scenes involve Fabio Armiliato singing in the shower and Alessandro Tiberi falling backward out of his chair. Just because something was funny when we were six doesn’t make it any less funny now, and Woody knows it.
Unlike some comedians though, he doesn’t use this repertoire of gimmicky pranks as a crutch. Woody is full of smart, pithy one-liners to counter every cheap trick, as, after all, he started his career on these punchlines. While cowering by the refrigerator from the lobsters, he shouts at Diane Keaton, “You speak shellfish, don’t you?” What he once inserted into newspaper ’graphs, he’s now saying through his characters; they’re what still link Woody and Allan.
So, too—and perhaps more than anything else—does romance. Despite all of his cynicism and anxieties, there is nothing that makes Woody tick more than love, and it’s as if every time he falls for someone is the first. Bar none, every film has at least one love interest and usually includes one or both of two types: a girl with innocence and youth, like Mariel Hemingway’s character in Manhattan (or his stepdaughter-wife Soon-Yi Previn in real life), or a prostitute bombshell of sorts. Like all boys, he can’t control his insatiable lust for the latter, but the former lends him the softness and docile femininity that he can adore, and which promises adoration in return. At the end of Manhattan when he’s sprinting down the block to try and win back Mariel, it’s a cliché that is so pure in its intent that—like jokes that never get old—it’s hard not to be swept away.
Childhood is timeless. Anyone who is old enough to see and appreciate Woody’s films has experienced youth and all of its agonies and pleasures, which is why his scenes and his stories capture the timelessness of the cities they’re in and the people they’re about; he captures them through a lens of childlike insanity, playfulness and wonder. At age 76, with 43 films to his directorial name, Woody Allen is still receiving Academy Award nominations (three for Midnight in Paris) and selling out theaters. (To Rome averaged over $75,000 per screen its opening weekend.) At an age when most people have retired, Woody’s at the peak of his career. Perhaps when he had his mortal epiphany as a 5-year-old, he figured that if he never grew up, his hilarious fantasy world would never have to end.
Around the corner from Woody’s home in Brooklyn, in what is now a grocery store, was a movie house, complete with red plush carpets and brass handrails and light fixtures. It’s where audiences went in post-World War II to escape reality and laugh or fall in love for a little while. Allan Konigburg was one of them, and he hasn’t strayed far since.