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"They say Woody Allen got something from the Marx Brothers. He didn't. He's an original. The best. The funniest."

-- Groucho Marx

A Woody Allen sampler

By John Orr

This isn't even close to complete. Just a few we especially like or otherwise think worthy of comment and your consideration.
Title links are to full reviews.
The DVD and VHS tape links are to

Watching Woody

Even otherwise intelligent people sometimes have trouble with Woody Allen, these days.

Liberal-minded folks who wouldn't have dreamt of convicting O.J. Simpson before the juries had their says believe everything Mia Farrow ever had to rant about Woody Allen and condemn him for his relationship with Soon Yi, sentencing themselves to never watching his films.

"He was a father figure to her!" screams a pal. "He took advantage of that relationship!"

Well, there are two major and many minor things wrong with that stance:

-- Mia Farrow was the great adopter of children and I pray that God blesses her for it. Woody Allen was her part-time squeeze who lived on the other side of Central Park. I don't believe he was ever, for as much as one second, a father figure to Soon Yi. Also, Soon Yi -- in the various film bits and news footage I have seen of her -- seems plenty bright. Nobody is taking advantage of that young woman.

-- But more to the point, those people need to remember something that has been a rule of the arts since there were people bright enough to think about them: The art and the artist are not the same thing. The ancient Greeks knew that; we ought to be keeping it in mind.

One review I saw of "Deconstructing Harry" is a case in point. The ill-informed reviewer said, in effect, that Woody Allen's sexual life was on view in the movie -- which it was not. Better informed writers were saying the movie was loosely based, in fact, on a certain famous novelist.

Other less-than-bright reviewers are fond of using the phrase "the Woody Allen role," such as "In 'Bullets Over Broadway,' John Cusack played the Woody Allen role."

Wrong, people.

Woody Allen is a writer, and he writes about subjects he finds interesting. He has toolbox full of techniques, personalities, social situations, jokes, descriptions with which he builds his stories and movies.

One of the characters we see in his movies quite often is the nebish -- Yiddish for "little nerd." An awkward, physically inept, socially ungraceful guy. Well, that's not Woody Allen. He may not be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he's always been something of an athlete, since his grade-school days, and is still in pretty good shape at the ripe old age of 64. He is not socially inept except when he wants to be and is in fact a possessor of a powerful and competent personality, which has driven the making of his many wonderful movies and ... gotten him the attention of a lot of extraordinatry women over the years.

Is there a nebish inside him somewhere? Eh, maybe, to some degree. Perhaps all authors have some portion of their characters inside them.

Aristotle said "comedy aims at representing men as worse ... than in actual life." So, maybe Allen sees that nebish in himself or in someone else, then expands on it for the sake of his art.

He saw a womanizing, morally bankrupt, emotionally detached novelist among his New York contemporaries, and made that character worse for the sake of the movie "Deconstructing Harry."

In the process, he earned some laughs, and he made some comments about segments of humanity. He enriched us in the process.

Woody Allen is not Virgil Starkwell ("Take the Money and Run"), Fielding Mellish ("Bananas", Allan ("Play It Again, Sam"), Boris Dimitrovich Grushenko ("Love and Death"), Alvy Singer ("Annie Hall"), David Shayne ("Bullets Over Broadway"), Lenny ("Mighty Aphrodite"), Ray Winkler ("Small-Time Crooks") or any of the other characters he has created, and even acted.

Woody Allen is a sharp-eyed observer of humans and their strengths and frailities, and he is a wonderful story teller and entertainer.

I've been a fan of Woody Allen for more than 40 years, starting with his TV appearances as a comedian. Over the decades he has made me laugh, he has touched my heart and mind, he has impressed me, and he has helped me learn how to be a human being.

Those who reject him because of Mia Farrow and Soon Yi are depriving themselves of those enrichments. Too bad for them.

Woody Allen, Soon Yi
"Take the Money and Run" -- Hilarious combination of slapstick and Woody's own brilliant humor. Virgil Starkwell is an incompetent crook. "I have a gub," he writes on the note he gives to the bank teller he tries to rob. With Louise Lasser, Janet Margolin. DVD Wide-screen VHS

"Bananas" -- More hilarity. Woody as Fielding Mellish, an office-products tester who becomes dictator of a South American banana republic. Howard Cosell is on hand to give the sports commentary as Woody and Louise Lasser have their wedding night. The theme song by Marvin Hamlisch is delightful and hilarious. Look for Danny De Vito and Sylvester Stallone. DVD VHS

"Play It Again, Sam" -- Woody's great stage play brought to the screen by director Herbert Ross. Woody is a film critic who idolizes Humphrey Bogart but who has recently been dumped by his wife (Susan Anspach). Diane Keaton is the wife of his best friend, and helps him in the best of ways. Jerry Lacy is on hand as Bogart. Has maybe the funniest three seconds in any of Woody's films, when he meets the first of the dates Keaton sets him up with. VHS

"Love and Death'' -- Woody plays at Ingmar Bergman. Woody as a Russian during a war with France. Diane Keaton talks him into trying to assassinate Napoleon. Many great jokes, including when, after a woman compliments him for being a great lover, he says "I practice a lot when I'm alone." DVD VHS

"Sleeper" -- One of Allen's funniest ever. He plays Miles Monroe, who goes into the hospital for a minor operation and wakes up 200 years in the future. Loaded with jokes that work at every level, from the dorkiest slapstick to art-intellectual gags. Diane Keaton is on hand to try to get him into the orgasmatron. DVD VHS

"The Front" -- One of the few films in which Woody Allen acted that he neither wrote nor directed. He plays a man who puts his name on screen plays written by blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era so studios will buy them. Lots of formerly blacklisted filmmakers take part, including the great Zero Mostel. Andrea Marcovicci plays his love interest. Definitely worth seeing. VHS

"Annie Hall " -- Arguably the first film that showed Allen's stunning brilliance in full form. It's hilarious, it's touching, it's human. Allen is Alvy Singer, a comedy writer who becomes a comedian. Diane Keaton, in the title role, made millions of women dress just like her and taught them all to say "La dee da, la dee da." We need the eggs. If you haven't seen this film, you are culturally illiterate and need to see it immediately. Look for Christopher Walken in maybe the first role that used his creepiness for humor. Great cast. DVD VHS

Manhattan "Manhattan" -- Maybe the greatest Woody Allen film ever. The writing (with his frequent collaborator Marshall Brickman), direction and even his acting are top-of-the-class. Music by George Gershwin. A writer's romance with the city and certain special women, including characters played by Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and the young Mariel Hemingway. A great relationships film. Allen's acting is his best ever, with the look on his face in the last scene tying the entire film together without a word. Brilliant. DVD VHS widescreen

"Stardust Memories" -- Starts with a filmmaker's dream of being stuck on a train with miserable, silent people, while he sees the train with the happy, partying people pulling away from him. Great, sad scene with Charlotte Rampling is the first I recall Woody the director using multiple takes of one bit of dialogue to make an impression (he did it to lesser effect in later films, too). About a filmmaker looking none-too-happily at his own career. DVD VHS

"Hannah and Her Sisters" -- Funny, human, touching, and a happy ending. What else could you ask for? A great cast, including Michael Caine, Dianne Wiest, Barbara Hershey, Max von Sydow, Carrie Fisher and many others, including Mia Farrow, whose best performances ever were in Woody Allen films. About relationships and finding out where and how we can be the happiest. Doesn't seem to be available on VHS tape or DVD at the moment, although I believe a DVD is soon to hit the market.

"Radio Days" -- I love this film, and have watched it many times, never failing to enjoy it. About the great era before TV when people loved their radios. Many great vignettes about what the shows were like, including Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast, plus amusing stories about people who made the radio shows, and those who listened to them. Funniest, best performance of Mia Farrow's career. Dianne Wiest is delightful and charming in it. Hilarious, wonderful. Doesn't seem to be available on tape or DVD.

Crimes & Misdemeanors"Crimes & Misdemeanors" -- At one level, another relationships film; at a deeper level, an impressive essay on our crimes, big and small, and how we live with them. What prices are we willing to pay to have the lives we want. I think this is the first Woody movie with a murder in it, and it is seriously approached. There are laughs in this film, but plenty of real stuff, too. Martin Landau, Angelica Huston, Woody Allen are the best parts of another strong cast. DVD

Mighty Aphrodite"Mighty Aphrodite" -- Woody Allen has often referred to Greek theater in his writings; here he brings a Greek chorus and mythological characters into the mix, telling the story of a young hooker with a heart of gold and the brain of a melon ball. An amazing cast, including Mira Sorvino, F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis and Woody. DVD. VHS

"Everyone Says I Love You" -- You've always had a desire to see Woody sing and dance in a big-screen musical, haven't you? Here's your chance. Most people don't like this movie, but I do. It's a big wonderful joke and a lot of fun. DVD VHS

"Sweet and Lowdown" -- Sean Penn is brilliant as 1930s guitarist Emmet Ray, second best jazz guitarist in the world, with a real insecurity complex about the best, Django Reinhardt. Samantha Morton is delightful and charming as a mute woman who loves Emmet Ray. Eye-candy cast includes Uma Thurman, Gretchen Mol and Anthony LaPaglia. Did I mention Sean Penn is brilliant? A good story, some laughs, some wonderful music and great performances. DVD VHS

Woody Allen"Small Time Crooks" -- A wonderful little film with Woody Allen as an inept crook and Tracey Ullman as his former stripper wife, who try to rob a bank and end up cookie millionaires instead. Then they meet the big-time crooks of the hoity-toity set. Excellent writing and Allen's usual great direction of a wonderful cast, including the great Elaine May.

Some deals at CD Now:
"Woody Allen Collection 1971-1980")
"Woody Allen Collection 1982-1987"
"Woody Allen Collection 1987-1992"