Actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright Woody Allen redefined film comedy during the 1970s, bringing a new measure of sophistication and personal complexity to the form. Drawing universal insight from the traditions of Yiddish humor, Allen established himself both as a comic Everyman and one of American filmmaking's true auteurs, writing and directing features which broke with established narrative conventions and infused the screen-comedy form with unprecedented substance and depth.
Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn, NY, on December 1, 1935, he adopted his stage name at the age of 17, and in 1953 enrolled in New York University's film program, quickly failing the course "Motion Picture Production" and soon dropping out of school to begin writing for comedian David Alber for the sum of 20 dollars a week. Two years later, Allen graduated to writing for television, working on the staff of the legendary Your Show of Shows, as well as penning material for Pat Boone. During his five-year tenure in television, his efforts won him an Emmy nomination, but like Mel Brooks, Allen found his writing career stifling, and he eventually decided to try his hand as a standup performer. After slowly gaining a reputation on the New York-club circuit, he became a frequent talk show guest and in 1964 issued his self-titled debut comedy LP.
In 1965, Allen made his film debut, writing and starring in the Clive Donner farce What's New, Pussycat?; he also continued his standup career, but his interest in live performance was clearly waning. With 1966's What's Up, Tiger Lily?, a puckish re-tooling of a Japanese spy thriller complete with his own story line and dubbed English dialogue, he made his directorial debut. After appearing in the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, his rise to fame continued when his play Don't Drink the Water was produced on Broadway. In 1969 Allen directed two short films for a CBS television special: Cupid's Shaft, a satire of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, and an adaptation of Pygmalion. However, Allen's career as a filmmaker fully took flight with the gangster send-up Take the Money and Run (1969), in which he starred, co-wrote, and directed. His status as an auteur was further solidified with 1971's Bananas and the following year's episodic Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Allen next appeared in Herbert Ross's 1972 feature Play It Again, Sam, followed by his own return to the director's chair for 1973's futuristic comedy Sleeper. While remaining as outlandish as his previous work, 1975's period comedy Love and Death signaled Allen's desire for respect as a serious filmmaker.
Allen's breakthrough was 1977's Best Picture-winning Annie Hall; bittersweet and deeply personal, it established a new kind of comedy -- soul-searching and sophisticated, even the film's nonlinear narrative was experimental. A major commercial hit as well as a critical success, Annie Hall announced a new era of intelligence and complexity in American comedies, but Allen himself subsequently turned away from humor completely with 1978's Interiors, a brooding drama inspired by the films of his hero Ingmar Bergman. While earning a pair of Oscar nominations, the feature received wildly mixed reviews.
With 1979's Manhattan, however, Allen's comic impulses and his desire for respect met halfway, and the results were remarkable; an autobiographical ode to his beloved New York City set against the music of George Gershwin, the film, luminously shot in black-and-white, was widely hailed as a masterpiece, and remains one of his definitive works. Its follow-up, 1980's Stardust Memories, recalled Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 in its depiction of a filmmaker torn between his audience's desire for comedy and his own aspirations toward more fulfilling work. Bergman was again the inspiration behind 1982's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, the first of Allen's films to star new paramour Mia Farrow; his fascination with his own celebrity continued with 1983's Zelig, a technical tour de force combining new material with vintage newsreel footage.
After 1984's modest character comedy Broadway Danny Rose, Allen mounted The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), a tribute to Buster Keaton's landmark Sherlock, Jr. The next year's brilliant Hannah and Her Sisters won favorable comparisons to Chekhov, and earned Allen his second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The following year, he released Radio Days, his most sweetly comic effort in years; however, he subsequently entered into another Bergman-like phase, directing two back-to-back 1988 dramas -- September and Another Woman -- which failed to find favor with audiences or critics. The penetrating Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), on the other hand, ended the decade on a high note, scoring three Academy Award nominations.
In the 1990s, Allen settled comfortably into the role he'd begun assuming during the previous decade; working with limited budgets, he made exactly the films he wanted to make regardless of current trends, with a steady and dependable cult audience to keep his career successfully afloat. Both 1990's Alice and 1992's Shadows and Fog were negligible at best, but he returned to form with Husbands and Wives, a seriocomic, cinéma vérité look at a crumbling marriage. The reality of the film soon became apparent when he and Farrow suffered a very public breakup in the wake of revelations that Allen had begun dating Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (whom he later married).
In the wake of his personal turmoil, Allen returned to filmmaking, enlisting Diane Keaton for 1993's Manhattan Murder Mystery. In 1994, he returned to critics' good graces with the period comedy Bullets Over Broadway, which garnered an impressive seven Oscar nominations, while 1995's Mighty Aphrodite scored two more Academy nods. In 1996, Allen directed his first-ever musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You, which found some favor with audiences and generally positive reviews from critics. However, Deconstructing Harry followed in 1997 to vehemently mixed reviews, as did 1998's Celebrity, leading many critics to wonder if Allen was entering another phase in his long and varied career.
Almost in direct response to these sentiments, Allen released a string of lighthearted films, beginning with the critically acclaimed Sweet and Lowdown in 1999. A mock-docudrama look at a Django Reinhardt-like jazz musician, the film snagged Oscar nominations for Sean Penn and his co-star Samantha Morton. After Lowdown, Allen entered into a multi-picture deal with DreamWorks Pictures -- his most significant alliance with a studio since his fruitful collaboration with Orion throughout the 1980s. 2000's Small Time Crooks, a modestly scaled comedy evoking Born Yesterday and Big Deal on Madonna Street, was the first of these pictures, enjoying a healthy run at the box office and decent reviews.
Allen's next pair of films, Anything Else and Melinda and Melinda, continued his trend of mixed-reviewed comedies, but in 2005, he changed the setting of his work to Britain and delivered what many considered his best film in years with the dark drama Match Point. Starring Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the picture netted a Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, Allen's first in nearly a decade. Perhaps hoping she might be his lucky charm, the filmmaker cast Johansson again in the following year's so-so mystery-comedy Scoop, and continued to explore the dark corners of the other side of the Atlantic with the star-studded Cassandra's Dream in 2007. A string of uneven follow-ups ensued, many of which extended Allen's newfound interest in filming outside of the U.S. - such as the earthy, Spain-set romantic comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and the lighthearted Midnight in Paris (2011), a fantasy with a time travel twist that recalled Allen's classic short story The Kugelmass Episode. Midnight was rapturously received by the critics, bringing the writer-director some of his finest reviews since Sweet and Lowdown and becoming his biggest box office hit ever. On top of all that popular success, the movie earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and Allen garnered his 15th nod for writing as well as his seventh for Best Director. He also captured nominations for directing from the DGA and the Golden Globes, and writing nominations from the WGA as well as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. When all was said and done, Allen won the Oscar for Best Writing and the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. But Allen was soon onto his next project, an ensemble comedy called To Rome with Love. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi