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The Top 10 Woody Allen Films (That He Doesn’t Appear In)

By Martin Keady · July 27, 2015

Leonard Cohen once said that a great artist meets all your needs, and it’s true.  Shakespeare wrote comedies, histories, tragedies and even unusual, unclassifiable “romances” or late plays; Picasso produced Cubist paintings as well as simple, almost child-like sculptures; and the Beatles transformed themselves from the original boy band singing, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, to mature, even world-weary artists describing “The Long and Winding Road” of life itself.

In the case of Woody Allen, another truly great artist, his artistic completeness is even more extraordinary, because he has produced a series of films that do not feature the one thing that most non-Woody Allen fans find most objectionable about his work – Woody himself. 

There are many reasons why non-Woody Allen fans loathe Woody: the weedy, nervy Woody “schtick”, whereby a multi-millionaire who has dated some of cinema’s greatest beauties plays an unlovable loser; the preoccupation with a privileged white American elite, most of whose problems pale into insignificance when compared to other, poorer people’s problems; and above all, the accusations of child abuse made against him by Mia Farrow, which were ultimately dismissed by a judge. 

For those Woody-loathers, here are the Top 10 Woody Allen Films That Woody Himself Doesn’t Appear in.

10. WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? (1966)

From tiny acorns, giant oaks grow, but it would have taken a visionary to foresee that Woody Allen’s near-50-year career as a director would be launched by this bizarre comedy in which he took an obscure Japanese spy film and redubbed it with original dialogue about the search for the world’s best egg-salad recipe. Even more bizarrely, it culminates in a striptease by a Playboy Playmate, simply because, as Woody explains in voiceover, he had promised to put her in the film somewhere.

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? is an essentially slight, if amusing, movie, betraying its origins as a TV sketch.  What is most important about it is that it convinced Woody that he had to take complete artistic control of his movies, given that his original version was expanded for cinematic release to include footage of another Japanese spy film as well as completely unrelated musical numbers by the then-hot American band, The Lovin’ Spoonful.  Woody had already seen his script for What’s New Pussycat? (1965) butchered and neutered (as he regarded it), but when a film that he both wrote and directed was altered without his approval, he resolved that it would never happen to him again.  And to date, it hasn’t, which makes him almost unique among major American film-makers.

9. INTERIORS (1978)

For the next decade or so, Woody wrote, directed and starred in his so-called “early funny” movies, from Take the Money and Run (1969) to Love and Death (1975), which remain beloved by many Woody fans, especially those who dislike his later, more overtly “serious” work, a phenomenon that would be the subject of one of his later masterpieces about cinema itself, Stardust Memories (1980). 

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why Woody made the transition from clown (a comic film-maker who starred in his own movies, essentially playing himself) to auteur (a genuinely great dramatic film-maker who often did not appear in his own films).  Perhaps it was appearing in Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976), in which he played the titular front for a blacklisted writer during the McCarthy-era Hollywood witch-hunts, or, more likely, the triumph of Annie Hall, a superb comedy that is not just a comedy but also a profoundly moving meditation on life, love and the movies.  Whatever the reason, by 1978 Woody was ready to make his first “straight” drama, Interiors.

After the critical and commercial success of Annie Hall, Interiors was initially judged harshly as an homage to Ingmar Bergman that could have been vastly improved by the inclusion of a few of Woody’s trademark jokes.  Nearly 40 years on, however, it is possible to regard it as a vital transitional piece, between the “early funnies” that culminated in Annie Hall and the mature mixtures of comedy and drama that became Woody’s signature, starting with Manhattan, which he made immediately after Interiors.  Furthermore, in its tale of three sisters struggling to emerge from the shadows cast by their parents’ troubled marriage, it uncannily prefigures the brilliant Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). 

 

8. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)

The Purple Rose of Cairo is probably the finest of Woody’s finest “movies about movies” (among the others are the aforementioned Stardust Memories), and, non-Woody fans would contend, it is all the better for his not appearing in it.  In fact, his on-screen absence is deliberate, as the film is set in the “golden age of the movies” – the 1930s – in which a short, balding Jewish man such as Woody would almost certainly not have appeared on screen in Hollywood movies.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is also the classic example of how a great film-maker takes a good idea – an ordinary moviegoer falls in love with a character in a film, who promptly steps out of the screen to meet her – and makes it a great idea by working it and working it until it turns to gold.  Even as the moviegoer and the movie character fall in love, the studio that made the film pursues the actor who played the movie character to make him end their relationship, so that the film can continue to be transmitted with its main star in place.  The actor achieves this by persuading the moviegoer that she has really fallen in love with him, the man who played the character.  Then, when the dejected and rejected movie character returns to the screen, the actor promptly dumps the moviegoer, who is left alone with nothing but her love of cinema to sustain her.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is a magical film about the magic of the movies, and it even shows how that “magic” can be of the darkest or blackest kind, ruining our lives even as it promises to redeem them. 

 

7. RADIO DAYS (1987)

Woody narrates Radio Days, his wistful series of reminiscences about another golden age, that of radio (which, like the movies, was before World War Two).  As with The Purple Rose of Cairo, his physical absence from the film is entirely appropriate, as it is essentially a child’s view of the absurd and often awful world of adults. 

There are numerous treasures in Radio Days, as Woody recalls both the radio tales of his youth and stories about his own extended family.  There are the burglars who answer a ringing phone during a break-in and end up competing in a live radio quiz, and the ridiculous arguments between the Woody character’s parents (culminating in a screaming match about whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is the bigger ocean). But the most extraordinary “radio tale”, one based on a real-life incident from Woody’s own childhood, is that of a young girl who becomes trapped down a deep well.  As the attempts to rescue her are relayed live on radio, Woody’s family and indeed the whole American nation become completely gripped by this “real-life” drama.  Tragically, however, the girl is found dead, shattering the hopes and dreams of all the listeners.  It is classic Woody, powerfully subverting his audience’s expectations and not settling for the easy or happy ending. However, there is a beautiful coda, in which the Woody character’s dad hugs his son, holding him tight even as he mourns the dead girl; he realises that even though his son drives him mad at times, he still loves him dearly.

 

6. ANOTHER WOMAN (1988)

In Another Woman, Woody utilised the huge talents of Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’s wife and muse, to provide an unusual perspective on one of his typical tales about the search for meaning among the middle-aged.  In this film, rather than a man bemoaning his fate, it is a woman, and not even the supposed heroine of the film, (played by Rowlands), but another, younger woman (played by Woody’s own partner and muse at the time, Mia Farrow), who is undergoing therapy in a building with such poor soundproofing that her supposedly private confessions can be heard via the lift shaft.

Both Rowlands and Farrow are superb in Another Woman, which is a reminder that for all the accusations of misogyny and sexism levelled against Allen (not least by Farrow herself after their brutal break-up in the early 1990s), few, if any, major American film-makers have created as many great roles for women.  That development would have surprised the original audiences of Woody’s “early funny” movies, in which women were usually just the objects of Woody’s love or lust, but from Annie Hall onwards he has created virtually an entire canon of great female parts, many of which have resulted in the actresses playing them being nominated for Oscars, BAFTAs and other awards.

 

5. ALICE (1990)

Alice is one of Woody’s best “women’s pictures” (to use an old-fashioned Hollywood term for films starring, and aimed at, women), in which Mia Farrow plays the titular Manhattan socialite who gradually rediscovers her true, less selfish self after a series of encounters with a mysterious Chinese herbalist, whose “herbs” grant her magical powers, such as invisibility.

It is fascinating that although Woody is often accused of being completely self-obsessed (with good reason, it must be admitted), many of his greatest films were directly inspired by his relationships with two brilliant and beautiful women: first, Diane Keaton, who starred in Annie Hall, Interiors and Manhattan, among others; and then Mia Farrow, who was the inspiration for and star of masterpieces such as Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989).  It was as if in writing roles worthy of those wonderful women, with whom he had shared his life both on and off screen, Woody accessed the “feminine” half of himself, enabling him to create complete and nuanced female characters who are often far more truthful and authentic than the men who surround them.  Again, such a development would have been considered almost inconceivable by those who saw Woody’s early movies. 

 

4. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)

By this stage of his career, Woody was alternating between movies in which he himself appeared and those in which he stayed behind the camera and instead used other actors to play the “Woody” character.  John Cusack excels as David Shayne, a supposedly idealistic young playwright who eventually sells his soul for a chance to make it on Broadway, by agreeing to include a gangster’s moll in his cast in return for the gangster financing his show. 

Nevertheless, for all Cusack’s excellence as the lead, the movie is stolen several times over by actors in supposedly supporting roles: by Diane Wiest, one of Woody’s muses from Hannah and Her Sisters onwards, who plays a Bette Davis-esque leading lady with whom Cusack’s playwright falls in love; by Chazz Palminteri, as the moll’s bodyguard who unexpectedly turns out to be a brilliant script doctor; and by Jim Broadbent as an over-eating thespian.  Again, just as it would have been considered almost inconceivable at the start of his movie career that Woody would end up writing great women’s roles, so it would have been considered unthinkable that he, the brilliant writer-director-actor who largely made “one-man movies”, would end up as the creator of cinematic ensembles.  That he achieved both these unlikely achievements is a testament to his greatness, and great versatility, as a film-maker.

 

3. ANTZ (1998)

(Directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, Written by Paul Weitz

Chris Weitz and Todd Alcott)

I freely admit that the inclusion of Antz on this list is a bit of a cheat, as Woody does appear in it, but only as a voice artist, playing “Z”, one of the millions of ants who occupy a typical ant’s nest but who longs for a better life elsewhere (in “Insectopia”, which is really a garbage dump). 

If Paul Rudd is Ant-Man in Marvel’s latest movie offering, then in Antz Woody was Ant-Mensch, a complete schlemiel who inadvertently ends up saving the whole colony when he uncovers the dastardly plot of a rogue ant general (equally memorably voiced by Gene Hackman), and winning the “girl” (or most beautiful female ant) in the process.

Antz brilliantly exploits Woody’s eternally kvetching and self-obsessing on-screen persona but by miniaturising him and removing his physical presence altogether it overcame the greatest obstacle that Woody faced late in his movie career: how to convince viewers that he, an old man, could play a romantic lead.  In Antz, unlike in so many of his own early-21st century movies, Woody gets to play a convincing lover, precisely because he is inhabiting the body of a tiny insect rather than his own increasingly unattractive frame.

 

2. SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999)

Sweet and Lowdown is one of the most under-rated Woody Allen movies, and also one of the best.  Sean Penn plays Emmet Ray, “the world’s second greatest jazz guitarist” (after Django Reinhardt), who is capable of making beautiful music but is utterly incapable of making a commitment, even to the mute girl (played by Samantha Morton) with whom he falls in love.

Sweet and Lowdown features one of the very best performances by one of the very best screen actors of modern times, Sean Penn, who seems to revel in playing the type of “hellraiser” that he himself was reputed to be early in his career.  However, despite the fact that it is Penn who plays the “Woody” character rather than Woody himself, Sweet and Lowdown is distinctly autobiographical.  For Emmet’s relationship with, and feelings of inferiority to, Django Reinhardt, read Woody’s own relationship with, and feelings of inferiority to, his own cinematic heroes, in particular Bergman and Fellini.  Yet in films such as Sweet and Lowdown, Woody achieves the effortless blending of comedy and drama that his own heroes would have loved to achieve.

 

1. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

Woody has achieved a spectacular late-career flowering that seemed utterly unthinkable when he was mired in his noughties nadir, as epitomised by lamentable efforts such as Match Point (2005) and in particular Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), in which he achieved the unique artistic achievement of making the world’s most interesting subject – lesbianism – utterly boring.  But with works such as Blue Jasmine (2013) and in particular Midnight In Paris he reminded everyone – both his admirers and even his detractors – exactly why he was so adored in the first place.

One of the reasons why Midnight In Paris is so good is that Woody finds the perfect proxy for himself in Owen Wilson, who plays a disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of creating great art, and who becomes so lost in his fantasies that he is transported back to Paris in the twenties, where he encounters his all-time heroes, including Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Picasso.  Wilson is often an annoying screen presence (particularly in his “two-handers” with Vince Vaughn, such as The Internship), but in Midnight In Paris he is utterly charming.  It was as if Woody himself finally realised that he could no longer play the romantic lead in his own movies and had to hand over the on-screen reins to a younger, more dynamic and more vibrant presence.  Wilson is all that, and more.

Even more importantly, Midnight In Paris, like The Purple Rose of Cairo nearly thirty years before, takes a good, even ingenious idea – what would it be like to be transported back in history to our favourite period? – and works it and works it, until it is transformed by cinematic alchemy into movie gold.  On his “time travels”, Wilson’s writer discovers that even in supposedly “golden” ages, such as Paris in the twenties, people were already looking back to an even more golden time, such as the “Belle Epoque” at the end of the 19th century.  The search for happiness in a different time to our own, even if it were somehow theoretically possible, is ultimately revealed to be a fool’s errand. 

As Woody/Wilson himself comes to realise, when he is back in a present he used to loathe but now loves because it is the only time he can really inhabit, the only solution to life’s problems is art.  As Wilson says at the end of the film, in what is probably Woody’s purest expression of his own philosophy, “Art is the antidote to the emptiness of existence.”  Certainly, the finest examples of Woody’s art, such as Midnight In Paris, are powerful antidotes to the emptiest of existences.

 

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

My wife loathes Woody Allen as much as I love him, and yet even she adores films such as Midnight In Paris and Antz.  It was the realisation that even non-Woody fans loved some of his films (particularly those in which he himself does not appear) that led me to compile this list, but it has also led me to another realisation about the art of Woody Allen.  For all that he is seemingly a singular talent – an actor who can only play himself, and a writer-director forever making the same film about the same kinds of people – he is also remarkably varied, even Protean.  He has written great films for female leads and ensemble casts, and ranged across time and space from 20s Paris to modern-day ant colonies, proving that there really is a Woody Allen film for everyone, even those who loathe Woody himself.