For over 50 years, Woody Allen brought his quirks, and ours as well, to the big screen, making us laugh but also reflect on existence, sex and religion. Few directors worldwide have had a long, stylistically excellent and consistent career; among them, we cannot fail to mention Woody Allen.
In fact, the New York director of Jewish origin has made more than fifty feature films over the years; during that time, he has reached the highest peaks of a filmmaker’s career and maintained a high stylistic level at the expense of some rather blatant and coarse slips.
Woody’s mastery and effectiveness in writing have led him to work alongside the best actors and actresses on the American and European scene, among whom we can mention Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson. It is for all these reasons in this article; we have a closer look at the history of the one and only Woody Allen.
Who is Woody Allen?
Woody Allen was born on 1 December 1935 in New York as Allan Stewart Konigsberg. While his parents, Martin and Nettie, are American Jews, his grandparents are originally from Eastern Europe.
Allen played the clarinet until the age of 12; even though he was very young, he already showed a talent out of the ordinary. At the age of 15, he started to write funny stories and gags.
When he was sixteen, Woody decided to have a stage name, aka Woody Allen. He also started to sell his sketches to earn some money. Woody enrolled at New York University and City College, but he did not like the university very much and concentrated on writing comedy sketches, which began to be bought by some broadcasters. At the same time, he earned a living by performing stand-up comedy in some local nightclubs.
At the age of 19, Allen joined the NBC Writer’s Development Program, and after that, he was hired at The NBC Comedy Hour in L.A. In the early 1960s, he managed to sell lyrics containing jokes and gags to Sid Caesar’s ‘Show of Shows’. At that time, he was a stand-up comedian and playwright, and he even was a guest on many television programmes, most notably The Tonight Show.
The First Steps
In 1965, Woody took his first steps in Hollywood as an actor and screenwriter with Clive Donner’s film What’s New Pussycat. In the following year, Woody tried his luck as a director with the film What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, in which he overdubbed a whole new dialogue to an old Japanese film. However, it was in 1969 that he made his true directorial debut, Take the Money and Run.
Rather than an actual plot, Allen’s early work relies on a comedy made up of sketches tacked together with parodic and, at times, surreal taste. Allen always played the leading role in his early films— which were already brilliant.
Allen’s initial work was influenced by his work as a comedian; this was clear in films like Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), and Love and Death (1975).
In 1977 came one of Woody’s early masterpieces, Annie Hall (1977). In this film, Woody’s writing became more mature, intimate and complex, and he established himself as a first-class auteur. The film also won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Woody.
Two years later, in 1979, Allen made his second masterpiece Manhattan, a love letter to his beloved New York that benefited from splendid black-and-white photography and memorable sequences. The film was a hit with the critics and the audiences, receiving two Academy Awards nominations.
The 1980s-1990s: Building a Household Name!
The 1980s were a turning point in Allen’s career; he started mixing philosophical undertones with his stories. Going beyond the comedies he became well-known for, Allen manifested his uniqueness with more dark and series films inspired by European cinema, particularly the work of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini.
The European cinema influence was clear in films like Stardust Memories (1980), which was inspired by Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8½ (1963). Also, Allen’s film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) was based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).
The decade of the 1980s definitively consecrated Woody Allen’s reputation as a household name thanks to numerous important works such as Zelig (1983), a film that renewed the tradition of film satire, Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987), Another Woman (1988), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
The success of these last two works reaffirmed Allen’s inclination to make films in the dramatic genre while still maintaining, regardless of the tone adopted, his intentions to delve into the complexity and contradictions of the human soul.
Then came the 1990s; Allen’s films at the time didn’t have the intimacy and autobiography themes that were expressed in his later films; he rather played on cinematic genres and stylistic varieties that drew on much cinema of the past.
Some of the best of Allen’s films from the 1990s include Shadows and Fog (1991), Husbands and Wives (1992), which earned two Academy Awards nominations, and Bullets over Broadway (1994), for which Allen received an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
There are also the Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Celebrity (1998) that came out in the late 1990s, and it was clear that Allen poured out many of his obsessions and neuroses in these films.
The New Millennium
Despite his no longer young age, during the new millennium, Woody Allen continued to maintain an astonishing production rhythm, with an average of one film per year. He alternated between comedies and dramas with greater frequency, even though he more frequently began to limit himself to the role of director, sometimes using actors who could become his alter-ego.
The new millennium featured many remarkable and surprising Allen films. Some of his significant films from the 2000s include Anything Else (2003) and Match Point (2005), which turned out to be one of Allen’s most memorable films from the decade.
There is also Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013), Wonder Wheel (2017), A Rainy Day in New York (2019), and Rifkin’s Festival (2020).
In 2022, it was reported that Allen might retire after his following project Coup de Chance; however, we hope this is only a rumour that will go away because cinema needs a lot more of Woody Allen’s masterpieces!
With such an impressive career, there is no wonder that Allen has received numerous nominations, honours, and awards. In fact, he holds the record for the Best Original Screenplay award at the Oscars, which he won already three times out of 16 nominations. He himself has been nominated for the Oscar’s Best Director award seven times, and he won one.
An unparalleled director and performer, Woody Allen, through his vast film output, has always been quite the unique filmmaker. Among the many special elements of Allen’s work is how he always staged a man completely opposite to the stereotypical Hollywood hero.
With a sharp and never-predictable irony, Allen always succeeds in talking about all of us, about our dilemmas and our bewilderment in the face of a society that takes more and more space away from interiority.
Allen usually uses a wide range of cinematic techniques, split screen, animated drawings, flashback, voice-over, interior monologue, visions, etc. Woody Allen’s films are always thought-provoking because he likes to tackle the universal themes of the meaning of life, sex, love, alienation, ethics, and hope to name a few. Pleasure, pain, comedy, tragedy, religion and art are often part of his stories, some better known than others, but most of them embody these ingredients.
Woody Allen Most Memorable Films
Trying to determine what are the best Woody Allen films is hard! The brilliant filmmaker has done so many great films creating a glorious repertoire. Next, we remember some of Woody Allen’s many cinematic gems.
Annie Hall (1977)
This one needs no introduction; Annie Hall is the masterpiece that made Allen known to a worldwide audience. The film is the perfect example of Woody Allen’s romantic comedies, which places at the centre of the plot all those elements that have made him one of the most inspired contemporary American directors.
Allen made the film built on the personality of his partner at the time, Diane Keaton and Allen played the role of Alvy Singer, a complex comedian who tells his love story with Annie Hall.
In this film, the love story between Alvy and Annie, played by Diane Keaton, is told through the use of flashbacks and flashforwards, the fusion of realism and surrealism of the situations, and the alternation between linear and faux-documentary narration.
What emerges is one of the greatest masterpieces of the world’s romantic comedy, in which the life of a couple, shown from beginning to end, takes on real, tangible, emotional and even slightly bittersweet tones.
With the release of Annie Hall in cinemas, Woody Allen inaugurated a new chapter in his history. The film was a great success with audiences and was the winner of four Oscars, including Best Picture, to Allen for Best Director and Screenplay, and to Keaton for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
In what can be described as his golden age, Woody Allen dedicated this wonderful film to his adored New York. In this black-and-white masterpiece, so immortalised precisely because these were the colours of the New York of his childhood, Woody Allen writes and directs one of the most brilliant and elegant comedies in film history and one of the best expressions of his cinema.
The city is the main protagonist, providing a natural backdrop for the love affairs of another Allen version. This time he plays Isaac Davis, a television writer, struggling with a triangle between his ex-wife, a very young girl and an icy, know-it-all journalist.
In addition to the stupendous composition of the screenplay, what stroke the audience the most about the film is the cinematography by Gordon Willis, which has bestowed a poetry and aesthetic beauty that was never achieved in a Woody Allen film before. Potentially, any frame extrapolated from this film would deserve a space in an art exhibition.
Set to the music of George Gershwin, Manhattan is an ode to the love of a city, a bourgeois world and the American media, in which Allen draws heavily from his everyday life and personal events. A film in which visual lightness and emotional depth balance and interpenetrate in a blend of close-ups of the protagonists’ faces and long shots of the New York skyline.
Zelig follows the strange life of Leonard Zelig (played by Woody Allen himself) between the 1920s and 1930s, a man of many faces who changes his appearance to be accepted by the community and the people around him. In black and white, edited and staged like a real (but entirely fictional) documentary, the director used period machinery to reproduce the sequences.
Allen’s co-star was Mia Farrow, the director’s new life and artistic partner, who played Dr Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher. She is the psychiatrist who first begins to study the strange phenomenon that affects Zelig, then tries to protect him from those who want to exploit him, and finally falls in love with him and marries him.
In the film, Allen sketched the psychosis of the modern man without personality and with a thousand faces who, to please himself, cancels himself in the masses, and camouflages himself to survive. Zelig is one of Woody Allen’s most original films.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Hannah and Her Sisters, in 1986, technically marked the pinnacle of Woody Allen’s career. The film was an absolute hit; it received critical acclaim; it was a huge box-office success, with more nominations and three Oscars won, while the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film tells, over the course of a year, the story of Hannah, played by Mia Farrow, at the heart of her decade-long association with Woody Allen, and her two sisters and the ups and downs of their love affairs made up of continuous changes of direction both on their part and that of their respective husbands or partners.
Hannah and Her Sisters is an irresistible, bittersweet choral war with an incredible cast and a script. In this film, balanced between comedy and drama, there is much about the human soul and the life of a couple, which, according to Allen, is not absolute and unconditional, but a spur-of-the-moment and full of obstacles.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
In the closing years of the 1980s, Woody Allen directed another one of his greatest masterpieces. Crimes and Misdemeanors follows two intersecting parallel stories: one, starring Woody Allen himself, directed towards comedy and social criticism; the other, starring an incredible Martin Landau, directed towards pure drama and noir.
Inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the balance and union of these two stories, and thus of the comic and dramatic components, is unparalleled in any of Allen’s films. They are perfectly balanced in every respect. It is a film in which Woody Allen encapsulated everything that made him one of the most appreciated directors of his time.
Match Point (2005)
Match Point is a full-blown drama about a real-life social climber who manages to marry the daughter of a wealthy financier. But his mad love for his brother-in-law’s American fiancée threatens to get in the way of his dream of wealth and social revenge.
Woody Allen stayed behind the camera this time and didn’t act in the films. However, his script for this film had a very solid narrative structure, a philosophical neo-noir about good and evil, necessity and virtue, and love and possession.
In this modern noir with dark and anxiogenic tones, Woody Allen emphasises the centrality of luck and chance in choices and life, a component that will, in fact, determine the choices and life of Chris himself.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Here comes Woody Allen’s biggest box-office success, where the city of Paris is the star of the show. In Midnight in Paris, Gil (Owen Wilson) goes back in time to the 19920s in Paris and meets the faces of that lost generation he loved so much: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Bunuel, Stein, Picasso, and Ray.
In addition to the splendid historical reconstruction, what is so special is the romantic, light and melancholic tone of the film. In the film, Allen tried to show how an artist experiences a sense of continuous unfulfillment and alienation, a condition so hard and powerful that it leads the protagonist to dream of times, faces and thoughts different from those he experiences every day.
The film’s beautiful screenplay has earned Allen his fourth Oscar out of sixteen nominations in the category. The story smoothly succeeded in combining the union of present and past, the yearning for self-realisation through art, between the poetry of a life lived freely and prose linked to bourgeois social rules based on appearance and material possession.
Much has been said about Woody Allen; that he is a hypochondriac, that he always needs to be part of the cast of his films, and that his love affairs are invariably controversial. However, regardless of all this, Woody Allen remains one of the best filmmakers ever! With such a fruitful body of work, Allen is rightfully acknowledged as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema, as well as one of the leading intellectuals of contemporary times.