Cinema’s most prolific eccentric turns 78 today. Woody Allen is one of American film’s most important filmmakers, from classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan to this year’s Blue Jasmine. His grasp of comedy, of dialogue, of formal control, all impress in even his most egregious misfires (Scoop). With more screenwriting Oscar nominations than anyone else, his ability to form a simultaneously funny and insightful script is practically unparalleled.
Allen was born in the Bronx in 1935, but raised in Brooklyn. He started out as a humour writer, eventually ending up on stage as a stand-up comedian. His neurotic delivery and mannerisms have basically become a trademark, despite infinite imitations (and impressions). His first screenplay was for 1965’s What’s New Pussycat?, but he decided to direct everything he wrote from then on. Annie Hall, in 1977, is often considered one of the best romantic comedies of all-time, with Diane Keaton as Allen’s love interest. I would argue that 1979’s black-and-white Manhattan is even better, with a visual beauty and appreciation for New York City, a subtle study in vanity and romanticism, and perhaps his funniest script.
Acting in many of his films as the lead, and putting out a movie every year, Allen quickly developed an easily recognizable persona. He is now one of the biggest characters in American cinema. More recently, he doesn’t appear in his films, preferring to focus his attention behind the camera. In 2008, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a return to form after a few slips, and won Penélope Cruz her first Academy Award. 2011’s Midnight in Paris is Allen’s highest-grossing film (without adjusting for inflation), and it won him his first screenplay Oscar since 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. This year’s Blue Jasmine further greatly impressed critics, with Cate Blanchett’s powerful performance and the sad but resonant story about her character’s fall from status and sanity.
Woody Allen remains, after dozens of movies and just as many years, one of our leading storytellers, and one must always be prepared for one of his films to surprise and delight you.