Can a PBS documentary actually have a major impact on this year’s Oscar race?
That’s the question I asked writer-director-producer Robert Weide, whose two-part American Masters portrait of Woody Allen begins airing on PBS stations November 20-21. Of course this is perfect timing because Sony Pictures Classics is launching a major Oscar campaign on behalf of what has turned out to be Allen’s most successful film ever, Midnight In Paris, which so far has a domestic gross of $55 million, is critically acclaimed, and is on every pundit’s list of potential Oscar players this year.
Weide is an 11-time Emmy nominee and three-time winner for directing Curb Your Enthusiasm as well as various showbiz docus on W.C Fields, The Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce (a feature doc for which he also earned an Oscar nomination in 1998). He has tried for decades and finally got unprecedented access and cooperation from Allen and his associates and colleagues in the making of this remarkable documentary on all things Woody. But if you think this was all calculated to impact the Oscars, think again. For SPC, it is just a happy coincidence.
“Listen, when I approached Woody, he was still shooting [2009's] Whatever Works with Larry David, and then I was on the set with him for You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, thinking that that would be, sort of, the most current film at the time of the release,” Weide said. “But this guy is so damn prolific he made three movies in the time it took me to make the one documentary. I went to Cannes with him for the release of the film, and then he did Midnight In Paris, and it’s like, oh boy, I’m not going to have the most current film. So I went to Cannes with him for Midnight and shot from there, thinking we’d see him at Cannes with Owen Wilson and that’s how we’d bring it up to date. And then he really double-crossed me by having that film become his most successful film financially to date.”
Weide further updated the Midnight phenomenon by going back and interviewing one of its producers, Steven Tanenbaum, to talk about the film’s success. But Woody was non-plussed about the whole thing. “Woody couldn’t care less,” Weide said. You know, I said to him ‘You know this is great, I’m gonna go back and film Steve, I’m gonna get footage from Sony and said ‘this makes a nice happy ending for the film’ and he wrote back something like, ‘Happy ending? Who needs a happy ending for the film? So what? So this film has done better than the others. The next one could just as easily bomb. There are no happy endings’. There’s no making this guy happy,” said Weide.
There can be no doubt though it is a bit of a “happy ending” for Sony Pictures Classics who are getting all this free publicity during a key campaign period and have a show that reminds everyone of the prodigious talent and career of Woody who has now reached a new peak at age 75.
In the film Weide takes Allen back to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn, the now vanished movie theatre locations he went to as a kid, the set of an Allen film, his editing room, his home , the New York haunts where he plays clarinet weekly among other places. Plus there are numerous in-depth interviews with Woody and key players in his life including his sister/producer Letty Aronson, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Mariel Hemingway, Tony Roberts , Sean Penn, Scarlett Johansson, Gordon Willis, Martin Scorsese, Dick Cavett, Owen Wilson and critics like Leonard Maltin, FX Feeney and Richard Schickel. His wife, Soon-Yi is seen but not heard from and if you’re wondering if one of his major co-stars and loves Mia Farrow is here talking about Woody, she’s not. Of course they had one of the most bitter and publicized breakups and custody battles (quickly covered in the second part of the film) of all time once she learned Woody had taken up with one of her adopted daughters, Soon-Yi. Weide did ask her but was politely declined. In order to use her film clips though he needed her permission due to SAG regulations . She consented to let them be used. “She could have really hung me up there but she didn’t and I’m extremely grateful for that because I would have had a 12-year hole in my film,” he says.
One of the most fascinating and rare parts of this portrait is seeing Allen and the simple typewriter he has used to type every film script and even every joke since his career began as a writer and nightclub performer in the 50’s. He has never gone to a computer and never changed typewriters. Considering what an antique typewriters have become I asked Weide if he asked Allen where he even gets the ribbons to keep using it. He said he did ask but couldn’t use the rather long answer in the film. “He said there’s a place downtown and every now and then he’ll send someone over and just buy boxes of them. And I said ‘you’re famously inept when it comes to anything sort of mechanical, how do you even know how to change the ribbon?’ He says ‘I’ll throw a dinner party. And I’ll be sure to invite someone who I know knows how to change it…So right around dessert I’ll kinda sidle up to them and say, hey, when you were here before didn’t you change my typewriter ribbon? And they’ll say , yeah and I’ll say hey do you wanna come up and take a look again?’ And then he cons them into changing the ribbon,” Weide explained.
Despite all the rare personal insights into Allen and all the access into his apartment there is no sign of the three Oscars he won (two as director and co-writer of Annie Hall in 1978 and another writing Oscar in 1988 for Hannah and Her Sisters). Nor is there any sign of the 21 Academy certificates signifying all of his nominations (the last coming for 2005’s Match Point). “I doubt he even knows where they are, and I’m not kidding about that, ” Weide told me. “Because he gave all that stuff, all those toys to his parents and his parents are both gone now. Maybe his sister has them or something but no, you walk into his house and you would have no idea he’s in show business at all. There’s no movie posters on the wall, there’s no pictures of him with celebrities. It’s all very tasteful but it could be the apartment of a lawyer or doctor or something. There’s nothing that indictates that it’s Woody Allen. He doesn’t have distain for that stuff, he’s just not interested. So it’s not like ‘what are they giving me these Oscars for?’ It was kinda ‘Ahh, that’s nice’. And he gave them to his parents.”
The fact is Allen has never attended a single Oscar ceremony where he was nominated and has appeared on the show only once , post 9/11 when he was recruited to do a tribute to New York filmmaking on the 2002 Oscarcast. Should Midnight in Paris bring him more nominations as I expect , you can bet he won’t be at the Kodak to see if he wins. But Weide’s once-in-a-lifetime portrait of this icon will certainly remind viewers (and voters) why he still deserves to be in the Oscar hunt, whether he wants them or not.