In these four decades, Allen has made an incredible journey unmatched in art or showbiz. He has been our greatest comedian and our greatest filmmaker (often simultaneously), a distinction he shares only with Chaplin. He is also, despite a signature style that is instantly recognizable, one of the most versatile artists America has ever produced. It's astonishing, even in the course of four decades, that Bananas and Match Point could spring from the same mind. His "mature" films, even when they are hilariously funny, are the work of an artist intent on growth. In anticipation of Whatever Works, it's a good time to look at what Woody Allen was up to forty years ago. 1969 was a key year for him, in which he found success in three different media, became a Broadway star, became a film director, was featured on the cover of Life, and took important steps toward evolving from a promising young comedian to the defining comic artist of his time.
In February of 1969, Play It Again, Sam opened on Broadway. It was Allen's second Broadway play -- Don't Drink the Water had been a moderate success in 1966 -- and it remains his only appearance as an actor on the legitimate stage. A romantic comedy modelled on The Seven Year Itch, Sam is most noteworthy for being the first collaboration between Allen and Diane Keaton, who would become his definitive leading lady in the Seventies, with magnificent performances in Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, and Manhattan. (Allen and Keaton would reunite, to wonderful effect, in 1993 in Manhattan Murder Mystery). Play It Again, Sam was a hit. Clive Barnes wrote, in his New York Times review, that Allen "comes within stroking distance of real success," making for "a slender but hilarious evening."
The play is so nearly so very good, that you wish Mr. Allen had aimed a little more accurately for a serious comedy of manners rather than just a situation farce. For not only are Mr. Allen's jokes audaciously brilliant...but he has a great sense of character...Mr. Allen has the heart of a comedian and the tongue of a comic, and it is no bad combination. He makes Play It Again, Sam into a cheerful virtuoso romp, and of course, he is joyous. But when you play it next time, Woody, how about transposing it into a slightly sadder key? It is only a suggestion -- not that you should need one for the next year or so.
Barnes' prediction was right on the money; Sam would run for thirteen months on Broadway, switching theatres twice. And of course, all in good time, Allen would transpose his comedy into a sadder key. Annie Hall and Manhattan were exactly the projects Barnes seemed to be calling for. Here are two clips from the film version of Play It Again, Sam, directed by Herbert Ross (from Allen's screenplay) in 1972. The film moved the action from New York to San Francisco, but retained the core of the original cast and most of the original text.
Also in 1969, Allen produced a television special for The Kraft Music Hall (usually identified as The Woody Allen Comedy Special). Here he is discussing the special on The Dick Cavett Show:
The highlight of The Woody Allen Comedy Special was an unlikely meeting of the minds, when Allen sat down to interview evangelist Billy Graham. (One is reminded of the famous encounter between Groucho Marx and a priest: The priest said, "Groucho, I want to think you for all the joy you've put into this world," and Groucho replied, "And I want to thank you for all the joy you've taken out of this world.")
The special also included this sketch, featuring Woody with a very young Candice Bergen. (This is the sketch referenced in the preceding Cavett Show clip, and it's true, they really do take off their clothes.)
And then there was the movie. Take the Money and Run was a pseudo-documentary -- a form Allen is often credited with originating, and which he later used to brilliant effect in one of his masterpieces, Zelig (1983). Take the Money follows the adventures of an inept criminal, Virgil Starkwell (Allen), as he dithers nervously from one attempted crime (or comedy scene) to another. The first Woody Allen movie offers, in embryonic form, much of what we will come to expect from him as a comedian, but only vaguely hints at what he will eventually achieve as a writer and director. In this, the most celebrated sequence, Woody tries to hold up a bank, and is foiled by his own penmanship.
What Woody Allen has accomplished in forty years -- really almost sixty years, if you start the clock when he entered show business (writing for Sid Caesar at age 16) -- is unmatched in the history of show business. He is now an artist with nothing left to prove, as far as his audience is concerned. But it's been clear for decades that he still feels he has a great deal to prove to himself. The view, forty films later, will come into focus on June 19.