'Woody Allen: A Documentary': A Legend's Rare Turn as Film Subject

The PBS feature that premieres this weekend hits the highlights of the director's career

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Woody Allen has what people in showbiz call a very distinctive look. This is a man whose inner turmoil is manifest not in the wrinkles of age but in extremely fretful eyebrows.

"When I look back on my life, I've been very lucky that I've lived out all these childhood dreams," he says in the conclusion of the forthcoming PBS American Masters documentary that chronicles his life. Allen goes on to enumerate his accomplishments in acting, directing, comedy, and jazz clarinet. "There was nothing in my life that I aspired toward that hasn't come through for me. But despite all these lucky breaks, why do I still feel that I got screwed somehow?"

Woody Allen: A Documentary, which premieres on Sunday and was directed by docu-comedy veteran Robert Weide, does not quite answer that question, but it does reinforce the broad narrative of Allen's mythology: He's a hopeless neurotic somewhere along the spectrum between intellectual and low-life, who could survive only in New York. If not particularly revelatory, the feature is as funny and endearing as its subject, whose films include the much-loved Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Midnight in Paris, as well as less-than-adored flops, of which there are more than a few.

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The documentary knows its audience well, providing a fond survey of Allen's career trajectory and peeks into his artistic process—the dresser drawer he stuffs with ideas, the typewriter he uses to write everything since his newspaper jokes as a gawky teen, the two-minute mute casting meetings, and so on. There is also a requisite shot of Allen strolling along a Manhattan street, as though he is unzipping the rows of passersby on either side. With each step, another head turns, unable to resist recognition of this skinny-limbed icon in black glasses and a hat.

"He always thinks of that hat that he wears as a disguise hat," Weide tells The Atlantic. "He puts that on his head so he can be anonymous walking down the street." It's yet another unsuccessful attempt at privacy for the man born Allen Stewart Konigsberg.

But that is Allen's essential paradox: He is famous for avoiding, even admonishing, celebrity. Allen's distaste for publicity chats, or any small talk for that matter, has kept him aloof from the press, and in turn, his admirers. After the overwhelming success of Manhattan in 1979, and its final line, "You have to have a little faith in people," Allen's next project failed to resonate with viewers and even seemed to mock them. The following year's Stardust Memories centers on a famous comedic filmmaker no longer interested in making funny movies, despite their popularity. In its critically illustrative scene, Allen emerges from his car—in aviator sunglasses!—at a beachside resort, where he is mobbed by a ridiculous-looking hodgepodge of characters offering inane praise and questions.

"Many people saw that film as me attacking my fans, and saying that the people out there who are enjoying my films are clawing and pawing, and silly looking," he says in an interview shown in Weide's documentary. "But that had nothing to do with the film at all." It was Allen's favorite movie at the time.

His aversion to the press was cemented in 1992, when his 12-year relationship with Mia Farrow ended disastrously upon her discovery of his affair with her 21 year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. The scandal was documented exhaustively in just about every major news outlet.

"Apparently it was a good, juicy story—a very juicy story—and it took a little edge off my natural blandness," he reasons in the film. Ultimately, though, Allen says he feels he was too unimportant to have merited such extensive coverage.

The documentary, which depicts Woody Allen in the form of story-tale legend—as American Masters features are wont to do—simultaneously affirms his icon status and highlights Allen's tension with it. "He doesn't think he's any big deal," Weide says. "The biggest hurdle for getting him to do this was that he didn't think he was an interesting enough subject."

Of course, the great triumph of the movie might be that it was authorized at all. In October 2008, Weide "wrote him a hell of a letter" including, among other arguments, that the time was right—after all, a lesser director could go ahead and throw together a film with other interviews and movie clips one of these days—-and the project would be endorsed by common acquaintances. Weide had worked for Charles Joffe, the producer who guided Allen since his stand-up days. Allen had given Weide an interview for his first documentary, about the Marx Brothers. And the two had other connections, like Larry David. So the reply was not the absolute "no," he had given Weide back in the '90s, when Allen "felt he was mid-career and didn't want any retrospective."

In 1997, Allen did agree to be the subject of a documentary called Wild Man Blues, which focused specifically on his New Orleans jazz band's European tour a year prior. The tour concludes with a final stop to visit his parents at home in New York. The reality is just as one might imagine from Allen's movies. His homecoming is unimpressive. He brings them medals and plaques he was given across Europe. His father says he should have been a druggist, suggesting, "Maybe you would do more business."

Since then, critic Richard Schickel made a documentary about Allen's career called Woody Allen: a Life in Film, released in 2002, featuring an interview with the man himself. "I play a guy who lives in New York," Allen said then. "Or who sounds like he lives in New York."

Weide's film also returns to Allen's roots, in Flatbush, Brooklyn. But his mother and father have since passed away—at the ages of 96 and 100, respectively—and without them the neighborhood seems like an old movie set without its stars. It's hard to get at the psychoanalytic core of Woody Allen without hearing from his mother.

Allen's characters follow a certain autobiographical thread, as is apparent in his recent films that cast other actors—among them, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, and soon, Jesse Eisenberg—in The Woody Allen Role, while he increasingly hides behind the camera. As much as he tends to deny the ways he writes himself into his movies—the documentary has Allen distancing himself from the custody-embattled adulterer he played in 1997's Deconstructing Harry because "I've never had a writer's block in my life"—the audience never buys these claims, always remaining giddy with laughter over a man's preoccupying fear that he will cease to exist.

"Some of it is mythology," says Weide, "and some of the things are very true: his inability with mechanical objects, or being flustered by which key to use to open a dead bolt on the door." Allen is notoriously awkward around people, claustrophobic, and resistant to elevators. Aside from film editing tools he has adopted to work on his movies, he remains a luddite. (Allen does have an iPhone, on which Weide reports someone has imported music, but it is only used for calls and to check the weather.) To reach Allen, Weide emailed his assistant, who would print out or read aloud the message and then type up his reply.

"All of that is true," Weide confirmed. He says that what primarily distinguishes the myth of Woody Allen from the man himself is confidence. The nervous fool we see on screen is just the persona Allen wants to show. And for that, it would seem he has a vivid sense of self, even if the rest of us do not actually know who that self is.