Jokes, jazz, psychoanalysis, sex, magic, Manhattan: scholars, critics, and commentators have scrutinized the obsessions and influences of Woody Allen's films, but his relationship to wealth remains largely unplumbed. Even the recently published A Companion to Woody Allen (Wiley Blackwell, 2013) overlooks this topic. Yet with "Blue Jasmine," the director places money, class, and status front and center, capturing the polarized class sensibilities of two adopted sisters: grocery store clerk Ginger and the entitled Jasmine, who pivots from socialite to suicidal after her Ponzi-scheming spouse
in prison, leaving her destitute and humiliated.
Jasmine joins a long line of protagonists in Allen's films who search for contentment amidst dreams of wealth and who cross classes.
Indeed, in a career that spans almost five decades, Woody Allen's oeuvre has evinced an ethos that eschewed greed, materialism, ostentatious display, as well as unearned and undeserved ease. The ultra-rich had no taste, know-it-alls deserved to be brought down a peg, while the self-effacing, meaning-seeking, long-suffering individuals of modest means served as moral anchors.
a four-year interlude, from 1996 until 2000, Allen moderated his equal opportunity skewering of affectation, arrogance, and ignorance on both the left and the right. Softening his lens on the entitled rich, Allen went from critic to apologist. In doing so, he anticipated then refracted Americans' fascination with New York, cash, and conspicuous consumption during the phase of triumphalist capitalism that in some ways ended with the 2008 crash. The turn demonstrates how one of the greatest film makers and astute cultural commentators of our time was transformed by an era aptly characterized in Matt Taibbi's appraisal of Goldman Sachs: "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." When Allen returned to his former form, this time with more mastery and insight, Americans in the post-Cold War, post-economic bubble era followed in greater numbers than ever before.
A walk through Allen's films reveals the extent to which money, or the lack thereof, has played a recurring, often central, role, determining plot, character, and setting, from the beginning. In his directorial debut, the mockumentary "Take the Money and Run," Virgil Starkwell steals pens, snatches purses, hustles pool, counterfeits money, and robs everything from banks and gumball machines to veal and breading. "Under constant economic pressure," he is an all-around failure subject to extortion who spends his life in and out of jails too unlucky to even make the "Ten Most Wanted" list because, as he laments, "It's who you know." In the end Virgil receives an eight hundred year sentence in federal prison. Asked if he regrets a life of crime, Virgil responds: "I think that crime definitely pays and that, you know, it's a great job. The hours are good. You're your own boss, and you travel a lot. You get to meet interesting people. I just think it's a good job in general." While appreciating the perquisites of a man of independence and means, he lacked the privilege and knowledge needed to amass money; he just took it and ran until he ran completely out of luck.
In a quartet of films spoofing Cold War inanities, Allen even-handedly parodied the dominant economic ideologies of the modern age: Marxism and capitalism. "Don't Drink The Water" (a 1966 play made into a film in 1969 and a T.V. movie in 1994) takes place in an unnamed Soviet bloc country "deep in Communism's fanatic totalitarian underbelly." Despite his family's advantages, Axel Magee, feckless son of the U.S. ambassador is, like Virgil Starkwell, "a born failure." A Harvard alumnus who caved to parental pressure and abandoned an art major, he is placed in charge of the embassy when an international incident occurs during his father's absence. His capitulation to careerism becomes apparent when, upon hearing the first shots, he simply shrugs, "They're probably just shooting one of their poets." A family of ugly American types from New Jersey on vacation behind the Iron Curtain, the Hollanders, sparked the commotion by photographing an unauthorized area, and take refuge in the embassy. Devoid of culture and manners, the Hollander patriarch is a caterer (who once sculpted a bride and groom out of chopped liver) and self-proclaimed "dignified human being with a hernia." Democrats and Republicans fare no better. In "Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story," a 25-minute film PBS dared not broadcast for fear of losing funding, Nixon's cabinet, notably Henry Kissinger (with a Ph.D. in needlepoint from Harvard who set a record for graduating 96th out of a class of 95), and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey are taken to task for self-serving ineptitude.
In "Bananas" (1971) Allen moved from a family of bland, middle class consumers and conservative power players in order to lampoon fiery politicians and activists. It opens with Howard Cosell (Allen is a life-long sports aficionado) broadcasting a play-by-play narration of an assassination and coup in the Republic of San Marcos, a fictional Latin American country populated by a citizenry outfitted with black horn-rimmed glasses. The authoritarian dictator, General Vargas, "protects" his people from Communism while in Manhattan a CUNY co-ed named Nancy participates in demonstrations against this illegal usurpation of power. Nancy is a caricature of young, liberal do-gooders: she belongs to a women's group; dreams of working with lepers and "pygmies" in Africa; and takes her date, Fielding Mellish, to a picket line where they get hosed by police. Also held up for mockery are J. Edgar Hoover, the policy of wire-tapping, and the CIA, which, "not taking any chances" sends money to both sides of the conflict. "Sleeper" (1973) lambasts another group of rebels, this time in a futuristic totalitarian United States. In Allen's updating of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as slapstick comedy, Miles Monroe is recruited to infiltrate the police state. Aided by a poet, Luna Schlosser, he completes his assignment but is more interested in romance than politics of any stripe.
"Sleeper" ends with the declaration that Miles believes in only two things, "sex and death," themes explored in "Love and Death" (1975), which follows Boris Grushenko as yet another apolitical pacifist (a self-professed "militant coward"), discoursing on aggression, existentialism, and the Grim Reaper while he woos then marries fellow peasant Sonja (Diane Keaton) in Napoleonic era Russia; the humble pair outwits the military and clerical elite all the while debating philosophy. In the year that the city unveiled its "I Love New York" campaign, Allen premiered an even more effective branding effort, "Annie Hall" (1977), which saw the two actors pair up again, this time as more affluent New Yorkers in a pre-Gossip Girl city known more for marginalized predilections: "Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers?" Allen even makes light
of his own cultural origins and circle of friends. Upon meeting the woman who would become his first wife, he reels: "You, you, you're like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y'know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself." The forces of turmoil are not lords and dictators but old money and the nouveau riches. In a relationship with WASP Annie Hall, Alvie Singer's idea of a good date is yet another viewing of "The Sorrow and the Pity." Like Voltaire's Candide, Alvie has an ever-active internal hubris monitor and cannot resist confronting, or at least criticizing pretension. Standing in the movie theater line he pulls out Marshal McLuhan to correct a Columbia University professor pontificating about The Medium Is The Message, derides Bob Dylan, rock concerts, pretty-boy actors trying to impress women, and the "fake insights" found in radical Dissent and conservative Commentary (which he recommends combining into "Dissentary" ), and concludes that intellectuals "prove you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea of what's going on." When Annie parties with Paul Simon at The Pierre, tea-totaler Alvie scoffs then sneezes into the tray holding thousands of dollars worth of cocaine.
A visit to Annie's family in Chippewa Falls reveals that the old American stock has spoiled into an antisocial stew: a bitter anti-semitic grandmother; an acerbic, chain-smoking mother; and droll Duane, the psychopathic brother who fantasizes about driving his car into on-coming traffic. Meanwhile, Alvie's former business partner, Rob, has emigrated to Hollywood where he beds sixteen year-old twins (the kind of fantasy held by many of Allen's male characters) and mints millions with his inane shows. Alvie becomes apoplectic over Max's use of canned laughs and, suffering from "chronic California nausea," bemoans the inauthentic, vacuous-drenched, pot-smoking, cocaine blowing ether that is traffic-clogged Los Angeles: "They don't throw their garbage away, they make it into T.V. shows." Alvie grapples with the fear that the only guarantee of happiness lies in ignorance and superficiality. Confirmation of this arrives when he stops a couple on the street and, asking how they account for their contentment, receives the reply: "Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say."
Lack of substance taken to its logical endpoint forms the subject of "Zelig," a 1983 mockumentary about a man who, deprived of unconditional love and support, lacks a solid sense of self. Allen gestures toward his standup routines (where he is mugged and the police side with the muggers), by making Leonard the son of parents who, living in a flat above a bowling alley, side with the anti-semitic bullies who bully him. Trapped in a constant state of fear and validation-seeking, Zelig makes himself as unobtrusive and unobjectionable as possible, going so far as to physically transform into the people he encounters. In the bubbly-soaked 1920s world of gin, glitz, and excess--as the narrator states: "America, enjoying a decade of unequaled prosperity, has gone wild"--the human chameleon Zelig attends a party at the Long Island estate of socialite philanthropists Mr. and Mrs. Henry Porter Sutton, becoming an aristocrat and then a coarse-speaking Democrat. Soon, he turns up everywhere, an omnipresent imposter posing as Babe Ruth at a New York Yankees training camp, a tough-looking gangster in a speakeasy, an African American playing trumpet in a club, slumming with Eugene O'Neill in bohemian Greenwich Village, singing opera Pagliacchi-like at the Met, psycho-analyzing alongside Freud in Vienna, and cursing in Mandarin in Chinatown. He becomes French, Asian, Native American, Scottish, obese, and Nazi. Doctors offer competing diagnoses on the origins of his condition: glandular; neurological; poor alignment of the vertebrae; Mexican food. Various 70s-era New York and Chicago intellectuals weigh in during "interviews," delivering equally self-aggrandizing and myopic theories. Zelig eventually falls prey to his sister and her carnival producer husband who put him on exhibition as a freak for "a population glutted with distractions." Newfound riches, however, soon beget marital discord; boredom, jealousy, and a murder-suicide ensue.
Dr. Fletcher, daughter of a Main Line Philadelphia stockbroker, comes to the rescue and earns renown for the "White Room Sessions" that unearth the disease's etiology and cure Zelig. Universally feted for her feat, Dr. Fletcher finds that "fame and recognition are empty rewards and do not live up to the adolescent fantasies that prompted her ambition." She forsakes her fiancée, an up-and-coming attorney, and becomes betrothed to her former patient. The hidden tentacles of celebrity then ensnare Zelig. In a twist straight out of a soap opera, showgirl Leta Fox steps forward to claim that, not only is she married to Zelig, she bore his baby. Other women allege affairs and love children, rendering Zelig awash in lawsuits for adultery, bigamy, and "performing unnecessary dental extractions."
Beleaguered and weak-willed, seeking "anonymity" and "immersion in the mass" Zelig finds refuge in the Führer cult of Nazi Germany. It was in the 1970s, after almost three decades of silence, that historical scholarship and popular culture began to explore the Third Reich's greatest crimes. Almost all of Allen's films include at least one reference to the Holocaust, heated debate about how the tragedy could have occurred, and how individuals, aware of the horror, can continue living. Here, Allen offers a psychological interpretation, laying blame not on bullies or ideologues but on victims. Instead of finding coping mechanisms, they relinquish their sovereignty to the strongest. In the end, only the love and courage of humble Dr. Fletcher saves Zelig.
Authenticity, integrity, and loyalty in a world beset by avarice, arrogance, and betrayal are also themes explored in "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984), which opens with a table full of white male comics at Carnegie Deli reminiscing about the recently deceased show business manager, Danny Rose. He gently nurtured and represented clients that other managers rejected, including a nostalgia-themed cruise singer crooner, a dope-addicted Puerto Rican ventriloquist, a one-legged tap dancer, and a woman who plays glasses--the "Jasha Heifetz" of glass-playing, as Rose promoted her. His father had advised him: in business "be friendly, but not personal." However, being in personnel management, Danny applied his uncle Sydney's credo instead: "Acceptance, forgiveness, and love." Once they start raking in the big bucks, his clients repaid him by jumping ship, guilt-free, to high-profile agents. At one point, Danny became infatuated with a mob moll named Tina with ethics diametrically opposed to his own. Her previous beau had been "a juice man for the mob," collecting on loans, until his own number came up and he was shot in the eyes. When she visited Danny's apartment (which includes a framed photo of Judy Garland, a star befelled by unethical agents), Tina's judgment is Trump-like in its celerity and severity: "You're living like a loser." Tina feels no remorse and argues that, given life's brevity, winners are those who see what they want and go for it, beating out other guys as necessary.
Just as Danny Rose was a man whose scruples did not keep pace with contemporary mores, in another quartet of movies, Allen investigated similarly downtrodden individuals whose antiquated sensibilities leave them ill-equipped to succeed in the present. They each slip the surly bonds of modernity and materiality in order to find a place more hospitable to their values. Married to a deadbeat, debt-ridden, dice-rolling, penny-pitching, bed-hopping husband who drinks, hits her, and, worst of all, refuses to accompany her to the movies, Cecelia daydreams in Depression era New Jersey about living the kind of life she sees in films: clever banter and aperitifs with men and women dressed to the nines astride a Steinway in a Park Avenue penthouse. Ease, Cecelia believes, reflects perfection.
After getting fired for absent-mindedly dropping a plate, she drowns her sorrows in a marathon viewing of "The Purple Rose of Cairo" where the dashing Tom Baxter embodies all that her husband is not: an adventurer, explorer, archeologist, and (of course) poet who frequents swanky night clubs like the Copacabana. The film in which Baxter stars portrays the corrosive effect of money on romance. After Cece's fifth viewing, Baxter breaks the fourth wall and begins talking directly to her; after all, he has seen her in the audience all day long. He swoops her off her feet, takes her dancing, and buys her champagne, but, alas, their mutual escapism gets them nowhere. The champagne has alcohol, unlike the ginger ale he drinks on set. His money is fake movie currency and they cannot pay their restaurant bill. He gets in a car but it does not start automatically. He kisses perfectly but wonders: "Where's the fadeout?" He goes to a church but knows nothing about God. His hair does not get messed and his body does not bleed. And, in the most telling sign of dysfunction for an Allen protagonist, instead of reacting with glee, he recoils with distaste when propositioned by a prostitute. When Cece's husband fights dirty and beats him, she experiences a moment of truth: Tom is too honest and fair, sheltered and naive. "That's why you'll never survive off the screen," she sighs. Cordiality and decency turn out not to be prime traits for status and success.
In the meantime, the actors on celluloid screens across the country also want to escape. They meet to plot forming a union. The maître'd in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" decides he does not have to seat people anymore and starts doing what he always wanted to do, tap-dancing, prompting producers to worry that Communism is afoot. Tom brings Cece into the screen so she can experience the life she always wanted to lead. After living the fantasy, with all its limerence and splendor realized, Cece chooses to return to her Technicolor world with the actor who plays Tom Baxter instead (who subsequently dumps her), chastened with the knowledge that simple fantasies are best kept at the service of imagination while messy reality, although impoverished and painful, contains the only real hope for happiness.
During the Reagan era of "Dynasty," "Entertainment Tonight," and Robin Leach's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" (with its tagline, "champagne wishes and caviar dreams"), "Radio Days" (1987) also juxtaposed "two completely different worlds." In Rockaway, Brooklyn of the 1940s, a couple and their son Joe shack up with relatives to ride out the hard times, visit Radio City Music Hall ("like entering heaven"), and listen to broadcasts of shows like "Breakfast with Irene and Roger," which offered elegant repartee about Broadway personalities and plays as a respite from daily monotony. When Joe's mother notes, "There are those who drink champagne at nightclubs and us who listen to them drink champagne on the radio," Joe's father retorts, "What, you think they're happier than us?" However, a visit to the Stalin-worshipping Communist next door (who resemble the neighbors from "Purple Rose of Cairo") pierces his complacency.
The father returns a convert, dismissing Jewish prayers for atonement as a fog-inducing opiate. "The only sin is the exploitation of workers by the bosses," he declares. "The problem is not between man and some imaginary super-being. It's between man and the owners of 90% of the world's wealth." In the end, he becomes reconciled to his lot and admits to his son--who once stole money from the "Jews for Palestine" collection plate to buy a secret decoder ring--that he works as a taxi driver. Far from being ashamed, Joe is intrigued. Yet again, Allen allows resignation and reconciliation to prevail over revolution as the mother insists, "We're poor, but happy."
In "Bullets over Broadway," weak-willed playwright David Shayne is poor but unhappy, debates with (yet another) Communist neighbor, Flender, and toggles back and forth between the make-believe world of the theater and the hardcore realities of business dealings with the mafia. David struggles to stay true to his art while earning a living and reaping the benefits of success. He shares a toast--"To an ideal world with no compromise"--with the show's manipulative lead, Helen Sinclair, while his Broadway producer, Julian Marx, cautions such soft-headed scruples: "That's the real world out there, and it's a lot tougher place than you think."
Flender, likewise offers his own brand of personal Realpolitik, which would play well both on Wall Street and in Greenwich Village: "You are racked with guilt...Guilt is petit-bourgeois crap. An artist creates his own moral universe...you gotta do what you gotta do." Soon, David begins compromising left and right. He keeps on the talent-challenged girlfriend of a mob boss in a key role in order to finance his production, cheats on his wife with the show's star, and takes credit for line changes made by hit man Cheech who, it turns out, has the greater writing gift because his ear is closer to the ground, rendering more credible dialogue. Unlike the gangsters in "Broadway Danny Rose," who are depicted as goons, here Allen portrays them as brutal but blessedly honest businessmen.
David suffers from middle-of-the-night crises of consciousness, screaming out the window "I'm a whore. I'm a prostitute," as he laments, "I sold out!" While in awe of Flender, who brags that he has never had a play produced because, as a genius, "both common people and intellectuals" find his work "completely incoherent," David lusts after acclaim. "Do I want success that badly? Yes." In the end, it turns out, Cheech is the true artist, bumping off Olive for bad acting that threatened to ruin his play, which he refers to as "a thing of beauty": “Nobody is going to ruin my words, nobody." While the alleged artist may compromise, pander, and philander, David ultimately chooses a muddied morality over a pure art: affairs are okay, but murder is not.
Scorn for sell-outs is more full blown in "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986), which opens in a modest Upper West Side apartment--actually the home of old-time Hollywood royalty, Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia Farrow's mother--the kind that used to reflect comfortable good taste with family photos in cheap frames and books, before the dot.com and real estate booms precipitated an avalanche of multi-million dollar bonus-bearing investment bankers and hedge fund managers, which blew open housing prices. Despite the onset of the Age of Greed, Allen's female characters covered up in modest clothes, took Sociology and Psychology classes at Columbia, and browsed in book and record stores. The most ostentatious display of wealth is the tux and evening gown-clad crowd listening to Bobby Short's rendition of Cole Porter classics at Bemelmans Bar. Dressed in Annie Hall-meets-Talbot's styled outfits and clutching Summer Situations by Ann Birstein about a trio of idealistic and intellectually striving sisters, Hannah is a successful and generous Broadway actress who helps out the less-accomplished Madonna-meets-middle-age dressed Holly and earthy Lee, casual in jeans and flowing curly locks.
Lee embarks on an affair with Hannah's husband, financial analyst Eliot, who woos her not with Trout Almondine at Lutèce but, in true middlebrow style, with metaphors by e.e. cummings. Knowledge-hungry Lee is escaping a claustrophobic relationship with tortured artist Frederick who has mentored her in art, poetry, and music. He drips with disdain for Eliot, calling him a "glorified accountant," and thunders against a rock star who buys paintings based on size. Cynical and disgusted by modern life, Frederick prefers to sell his art to people "who appreciate it" and spends his evenings homebound, eating sandwiches and thundering with contempt over boob tube idiocies: "You see the whole culture: Nazis, deodorant salesman, wrestlers, beauty contestants...Can you imagine the level of mind of a person who watches wrestling?" Frederick saves his severest scorn for ideologues: "The worst are the fundamentalists!"
For Allen, moderation in dress, income level, taste, and ideas is essential; those who cross the line abjure responsibility, lack critical coping skills, and devalue aesthetics. Frederick, the scornful purist, ends up alone, while an affair rejuvenates mediocre Eliot, who ends up happy with his own wife. Hannah's hypochondriac ex-husband, Mickey, who, overworked and bitter about Max, his former business partner cum sitcom-producing sellout, spends the movie researching religions while awaiting results of an MRI and possibly pending death by brain tumor. Mickey finds salvation in a matinee performance of the Marx Brothers movie "Duck Soup" with the discovery that, despite pain and suffering, "It's not all a drag," and settles into a malignancy-free contentedness that had previously eluded him.
Similarly, in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989) a murderer finds a way to live comfortably with a dark secret, buoyed not by old films but by the trappings of affluence. When cultured ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal tries to break off a two-year affair with low-brow stewardess, Dolores, she threatens exposure. Judah reluctantly enlists his mobster brother to "fix" the situation. Allen deploys vision as a metaphor for morality. After revisiting a scene from his childhood where relatives debated unpunished Nazis, Judah comes to see that "might makes right," reality readily accommodates evil, and he will not be found out or held responsible for the murder. Conversely, the kindly rabbi, Ben, begins to go blind; religious teachings about sin and punishment do not hold sway. In a side story, the rabbi's brother-in-law, whose rigid sense of principles finds embodiment in his name, Cliff Stern, woos Hailey. At work on a low-budget documentary about Louis Levy, a Holocaust survivor and philosopher, Cliff earns extra dough by making a documentary about his successful brother-in-law, Lester, who has limos, bimbos, Emmys, and sleaze in spades. As with many of Allen's humble protagonists, including Alvie Singer, Lester can't help but perforate hubris, hypocrisy, and ignorance: he splices scenes of Lester pontificating with outtakes of Mussolini's rants and is summarily fired.
The final scene depicts Judah and Lester at the Ritz for a wedding celebration. Judah relates his murder as a fictional story that ends with a reprieve: just as the killer is about to confess, he wakes up to a bright, shiny day, surrounded by loving family. He keeps quiet and yet prospers: " His world is completely back to normal, back to his protected world of wealth and privilege." When Lester insists such an ending could only happen in a movie, Judah literally dances away with his beautiful wife. Unlike petty criminal Virgil Starkwell who is held mightily accountable, the crimes and misdemeanors of the rich, Allen argues, too often go unpunished.
In this film, Allen
betrayed a penchant for romanticism: while the real rich fill Lester with disgust, the fake rich in old movies fire his imagination. At matinees with his niece, Lester gleefully watches a world replete with "tuxedos and evening gowns and everything" and wonders, wouldn't it be "wonderful to live like this." This idealism blinds him to the plain fact that Hailey too might like such a life, and she ends up falling for Lester. "In the real world"--a line repeated throughout the film--popular yet superficial directors get the good girls while sincere, hard-working artists get rejection, and poor paramours get killed.
In Allen's real world, his imagination and indeed his values, underwent a transformation. While his films in the early1990s still showcase injustices that prompt lamentation, in later years, losers get left in the dust while the entitlement of winners soars. In "Alice" (1990) an Edna St. Vincent Millay-reading pampered wife set up with a nanny, nurse, and masseuse, fields pitches for a $9,000 fin-de- siècle eel trap until she discovers the philandering of her stockbroker husband. She moves to India to work with Mother Theresa before returning, replenished spiritually, to a simpler life with her two children. Then, seven days before filming wrapped up on "Husbands and Wives" (1992), Mia Farrow discovered Allen's real-life affair with her twenty-one-year old stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn. The film reads like Allen's internal debate about his life. Trapped in a passionless marriage with a passive aggressive do-gooder, Barnard writing professor Gabe debates engaging in an affair with his student, twenty-year old Rain (named after Rilke), daughter of an investment banker. Far from the "kamikaze women," "crazies," and "nut cases" that he is accustomed to dating, Rain is mature, confident, wise, and nonplussed by his achievements, offering solid critiques of his novel-in-progress. Gabe insists he has never seduced a student and that co-eds "don't want an old man." At her twenty-first birthday party the two share a kiss, but ultimately Gabe demurs from an affair (though he does divorce his wife).
In real life of course, Allen did not demur. Just as Rain said about an ill-fated affair, "My heart does not know from logic," Allen responded to critics "the heart wants what it wants." Instead of moving to Calcutta, Farrow, after over a dozen years, three children, and thirteen films with the writer and director, filed child abuse claims in court. Allen was found innocent but lost custody of his children. He eventually married Soon-Yi who, at a young age had been abandoned on the streets of South Korea by her prostitute mother. Farrow would later tell an Observer reporter that money proved the overriding inducement: "In a way I can see from her perspective — a very limited perspective — that she's improved her situation. She's got the penthouse, and the seat at Elaine's, or — whatever I had, she has. For a little orphan kid from Korea ... Perhaps she's not to be blamed."
The impact of this scandal on Allen's life appeared in his treatment of women in several subsequent films. In "Mighty Aphrodite" high-end prostitute and minor porn star, Linda Ash takes center stage, recounting graphic descriptions of liaisons. She is treated far more respectfully than the female characters in the misogyny fest that is "Deconstructing Harry" (1997). In this update of "Stardust Memories" (1980) Allen pokes fun at himself but he also lays bare contempt: Muriel Hemingway, a sweet, innocent, uncomplicated muse in "Manhattan" now appears as a bipolar shrew. Judi Davis, cold in "Alice" and harping in "Husbands and Wives" is hysterical and "unstable" as she points a gun at Harry. Demi Moore's character becomes Orthodox and sex-averse after giving birth to their child.
The affair and ensuing scandal seemed to fuel not only the dark portrayal of women, it also tilted the scales of Allen's attitudes toward wealth. Previously a paragon of equanimity, Allen began to tone down even more the guilt of face-saving, money-grubbing scoundrels and to transform humble protagonists from mainstream critics to coopted wannabes. This moral excursion is exemplified with the glorification of affluence in "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996). During the 1970s, when the city was literally being trashed, Allen offered "Manhattan," a love letter to his beloved island. Then, amidst an inflating real estate and banking bubble, he did the same for his cherished Silk Stocking District of the Upper East Side. As he noted in an interview: "I wanted to make a movie to share with other people the very warm and positive feelings I have for my neighborhood. I look around and I see rich kids going to these private schools and their chauffeurs take them, and I see husbands and wives come down at night, and he's got a tux on and she's got a gown, and they go out - it's a wonderful, romantic neighborhood." As Marion Meade reveals in a recent biography, those feelings have long roots, tracing back to a visit as a small boy. Strolling the leafy streets, seeing English nannies pushing their charges in trams, Brooklyn-born Allan Stewart Konigsberg felt a spiritual kinship, remembering that there was "something wonderful about the way the streets feel here." Talking with a reporter in 1996, Allen dispensed his previous aesthetic of moderation and distaste for hubris, to cast his lot with the one-percenters: "These people have money, and it's nothing to be ashamed of."
The film marked a dramatic turning point in Allen's attitude toward wealth and should be seen as the start of an almost decade-long fascination with the new Gilded Age. This movie opens with a narrator's announcement: that they are not the typical people found in musical comedy because, "We got dough." And, unlike so many of Allen's previous protagonists who fantasized about Upper East Side prosperity, Bob and Steffi actually reside in a Park Avenue brick stone where trick-or-treaters deliver Tony-caliber performances. The couple shops at Yves St. Laurent, dine at Le Cirque, invest in thoroughbred horses, and host chic soirées to raise money for the Whitney Museum, Lenox Hill Hospital, and the New York Philharmonic, recruiting Itzhak Perlman to play the background music. Their children bask in the benefits of their zip code: enrolled in the Nightingale-Bamford School, hanging out at EAT with heirs to great fortunes, prestigious internships at the Metropolitan Museum, weekends in Southampton, and European vacations.
While Bob grew up poor, but made it big as a lawyer and "knows what it is to work like a dog," his wife is a 1990s era version of CUNY co-ed Nancy from "Bananas": a do-good, pampered, and irredeemably clueless liberal who "came from money and luxury" and is "hard at work being soft on crime." Devoid of common sense, she assembles a group of artists and writers to petition for the parole of incarcerated criminal Charles Ferry, pleading for a more humane penitentiary system before a room of blue collar cops: "What we need are open prisons: space, space where the damaged human spirit can heal. I say, give them an opportunity to participate in decorating their own cells, with their own personal decorators. A better cuisine: European menus." Skyler (dubbed by her sister a "romantic twit") becomes infatuated with the newly liberated Ferry. Steffi had championed him for months but only as a "social symbol" not "as an actual person" or potential in-law. Teen-aged DJ also has yet to learn that financial portfolios matter more than feelings as she falls for a poet gondolier in the Grand Canal. Her father duly warns her: "Let me tell you what rhymes with gondolier: no Lira." Unlike leftist characters in his previous films, Allen here seemed to want to delegitimize liberal do-gooders, to have them suffer the consequences of their benevolence by actually having their supposedly innocent beneficiaries attempt to become part of their families.
Bob and Steffi's son Scott embraces the 1994 Contract with America critiques of the left. He scoffs at the "outmoded liberal fantasy world" where the only thing worse than having a "liberal democrat" father is having a mother who is a "guilty liberal democrat." National Review previously appeared in "Bananas" on a convenience store shelf next to porn magazines and rolled up to kill a spider "the size of a Buick" in "Annie Hall." Now Scott imbibes his convictions about welfare, school prayer, and the death penalty from its pages. In the end, order and harmony are restored as an X-ray reveals that a blocked artery to his heart caused Scott's conservatism. His liberalism restored, the family jets off to the Ritz in Paris for a Marx Brothers-themed Christmas Eve ball. They meet up with Steffi's ex-husband, an author of books consigned to the ninety-nine cent paperback bin, fresh from a briefly successful scam seducing an art historian in Venice.
The title "Everyone Says I Love You" derives from a song in the Marx Brothers 1932 hit "Horse Feathers" and the lighthearted eccentricities of the elite main characters seem straight out of a George Cukor screwball comedy. While the zany antics of four brothers, and the silly situations of the good-natured from the well-heeled set, reified a world turned upside down by the Great Depression in the 1930s, Allen's reiteration instantiates inequality as deindustrialization, globalization, and End of History justifications for deregulation during the 1980s and 1990s overturned the American Dream. If "Saturday Night Fever" symbolizes the disco decade and "Wall Street" captures the era of greed, "Everyone Says I Love You" stands in for the indiscreet charm of the bourgeosie during capitalism's phase of high triumphalism in the Nasdaq Nineties.
Allen had gone from being an outsider to an insider
in more ways than one. The trajectory of
tracks with the assimilation of Jewish American immigrants. Allen's humor departed from the ethnicity-eliding tradition of George Kaufman's urbanity, Marx Brothers hijinks, and Milton Berle's slapstick, as he openly kvetched about overbearing mothers and money and reeled with self-loathing. This shtick worked until the apotheosis of Manhattan in the late twentieth century when Allen reveled in the over-the-top fortune bestowed upon the city's financial elite. As Alan Greenspan turned the nation's liquidity from a steady stream to a spewing spigot with low interest rates and debt-financing, and the reserves of American banks swelled with deposits from Russia and former Soviet bloc countries looking for safe havens, the mayor of the world's financial capital teamed up with Chief Police Commissioner Braddock to clean up the city's streets. Disney moved into Times Square, providing a tipping point in favor of law and order and reconfiguring midtown's makeup. During the 1990s and early 2000s, John J. Raskob's bullish cry "Everybody Ought to Be Rich" from 1929 seemingly echoed through the chambers of Wall Street with investors again convinced the exchange had reached a new plateau.
With millions of Americans transfixed by irrational exuberance, success seemed everywhere.
Stand-up comics like Jerry Seinfeld,
Rosie O'Donnell, and Ray Romano parlayed humor into wealth-generating syndicated shows. NBC strode the airwaves as a Goliath with the "Today" show and Must See T.V. The Zone Diet slimmed waistlines while bling-strewn hip-hop moguls fattened their bank accounts. IPO stakeholders and home-owners sat back and watched their assets multiply exponentially.
"Celebrity" (1998) gleefully follows the age's tabloid values where everyone is on the make. As a failed novelist turned celebrity journalist falls into the high-rolling, hotel room-trashing, cocaine snorting, orgy-engaging world of a movie star, his crestfallen ex-wife picks herself up by landing a job as a restaurant hostess at Bijou. She sheds the last vestiges of her "uptight, proper family" and becomes a television celebrity (i.e. "a woman I hated"), exchanging despair for dollars, sadness for satisfaction, and anguish for acclaim. Cured by becoming famous, she marries a rich producer. Although Allen nods to talent over association (her celebrity-chasing husband comes up empty-handed), he now celebrated those who found a way to rake in the big bucks.
Over the next several years, Allen made a series of small-time films about average folks who cook up schemes to get rich quick that harken back to his earlier ethos. In "Small Time Crooks" (2000), Ray fails in his attempt to rob a bank, but his wife hits it big with her cookie business. In order to fit in with the upper class, they consult with a manners and style coach, break up, then reconnect after losing it all. In the wise-crack and fedora-filled "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" (2001), a brilliant insurance investigator and his nemesis, a female efficiency expert with designs on outsourcing the office, are hypnotized by a magician-thief who lures them into stealing jewels from various mansions until they discover the ploy, arrest the bad guy, and fall in love.
In "Hollywood Ending" (2002) director Val Waxman is relegated to making commercials. Despite his preference for crafting works of art instead of commercial hits and his hypochondria--at various times he believes he has Black Plague, Hoof and Mouth Disease, Elm Blight, and an allergy to oxygen--Val wants entree back into the mainstream big leagues and is offered a blockbuster film. A string of bad luck follows, beginning with Val's bout with blindness just as filming begins. His son changes his name to "Scumbag X" (Allen's biological son, too, changed his name), and the movie flops (to the tune of $60 million) in domestic box office receipts. In a case of art imitating life, the movie is received with acclaim in France. In the end, Val and his ex-wife ride in a chauffeured town car en route to Paris to shoot another film. While American critics claimed "Hollywood Ending" offered a metaphor for the director's efforts to regain his artistic vision, another explanation might be that it offered an opportunity, just as "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993) did--with scenes shot at such standards as the Twenty-One Club and Cafe des Artistes --for Allen to eat at the city's iconic, wallet-busting restaurants. Similarly, "Anything Else" (2003) provided a vehicle for left-over gags (e.g. "She is crazy. The Pentagon should use her hormones for chemical warfare").
"Melinda and Melinda" (2004) saw Allen wrestling more seriously with the controlling influence of money and ambition, and it offered a respite from Allen's post-Mia misogyny and hope to those who had grown up with his films grateful for the representation of smart, articulate women. The movie opens at a table in a French restaurant where two playwrights put their spin on a tale about an underfed, elegant, slightly tortured woman who turns up at the home of old friends. In the tragic tale, Melinda's life followed a declension narrative from the Upper East Side to St Louis and then to an Illinois state women's prison for shooting her husband. Holding out for classic roles, Lee, the husband of Melinda's friend Laurel, never hits it big. Instead of fetchingly principled, his decision appears selfish and self-defeating. Laurel has much more savvy when it comes to the realities of the marketplace, which her husband resents, as he tells her: "You didn't marry a 'name.'" Unable to support himself, he criticizes Laurel's "Park Avenue princess" ways: "She's always shopping and lunching. She grew up shopping and lunching." Laurel eventually leaves Lee for a warm, wise, and moderately successful composer. The comedic tale sides with Bergdorf's and Bentleys over Bergman and Bartok with Susan as an independent filmmaker, pining for a place in the Hamptons ("Everybody who's anybody has one"), who eventually leaves her sweet, unemployed husband for a billionaire.
Although Allen works for the "pure art" and has said that he made more money in real estate transactions than he typically does on his films, the blockbuster and remake model for movie-making in America, leaves little room for his projects. Consequently, real life financial challenges prompted Allen to begin filming abroad, doing for major European cities what he did for New York: showcasing the art, architecture, and culture as luminous urban backdrops to stories about romance.
In the first of three films set in London, wealth-seeking perfidy assumed a deadly guise. Of the more than forty films that he has made, Woody Allen has deemed "Match Point" his favorite. The 2005 movie, although interpreted by many as yet another Allen meditation on crime and punishment, love and lust, is at its moral center an exposition of class betrayal. Asked about his thoughts when filming the project, Allen responded: "This is what was on my mind: the enormous unfairness of the world, the enormous injustice of the world, the sense that every day people get away with the worst kinds of crimes."
The protagonist, Chris Wilton, a twenty-something retired tennis pro giving lessons in a posh London club and looking to better himself by reading Russian classics, befriends a client from the manor house set. Just as tennis "was a way out of a poor existence," tony Tom Hewett provides entry into the good life. Chris courts Tom's milquetoast sister, Chloe, fitting in with her family because of his own physical beauty and appreciation of cultural beauty (opera and modern art). Besides relative penury only his undiluted admiration of rich men like Tom's father--"Coming where I come from," Chris confides--sets him apart from the entitled Hewett clan (gratitude and sincerity are class markers). He marries Chloe and is set up with a high-paying, low intensity job at her father's firm, complete with car and driver.
Upon obtaining financial comfort he finds himself surprisingly bored and starts an affair with Tom's ex-fiancée, Nola Rice, an aspiring, down on her luck American actress. After she becomes pregnant and threatens to reveal everything, Chris decides that he prefers the dullness of posh living to penniless passion. With the precision and calm of an expert serve, the blue blood-aspiring, blue collar turncoat shoots Nola dead and eludes detection on a fluke. The lesson is clear: in tennis sometimes the ball tips over the net, resulting in a game-winning point, just as in life a bit of luck can make enough difference to win it all.
"Match Point" was the best movie Woody Allen made in years and ended a seven-year stretch of money-losing productions. The film has been compared to "Crimes and Misdemeanors" because they share Raskolnikov-inspired main characters who kill their mistresses. Yet a crucial difference stands out. In the 1989 movie, it is not Judah Rosenthal with his three-acre Connecticut estate who carries out the murder of his over-the-hill mistress, but his low-class, mafiosa-tied brother Jack; Judah may have proverbial blood on his hands but they did not pull the trigger and are not calloused. And, unlike cool hand Chris, Judah wrestles with the crime mightily.
Scarlett Johansson played Chris's murdered mistress, but in the one-note mystery "Scoop" (2006) she assumes the role of a naive American journalism student and the tables are turned. Ten years after "Everyone Says I Love You," Allen fully returned to his pre-1996 class sympathies as the midwestern nobody unmasks an aristocratic murderer. Compassion for the non-jet set class gets full treatment in "Cassandra's Dream" (2007), Allen's updating of "Death of a Salesman" that sets out to demonstrate the extent to which money has come to define, and indeed corrupt, human identity and dynamics. The story follows the dreams and dilemmas of two sons, Terry and Ian, of a modest restaurant owner. While Willy Loman's brother Ben struck it rich mining diamonds in Africa and gibes from beyond the grave, Uncle Howard's millions derive from clinics he established in Hollywood, Switzerland, and, soon, China. The two sons imbibe this get-rich quick mentality. Like Biff and Happy, Terry and Ian have not yet found their way, and they are adrift on a raft of spending. Auto mechanic Terry tools around town in a sports car borrowed from the garage where he works, then loses 90,000 pounds gambling, while Ian burns through cash impressing a girlfriend and wants seed money for investment in a surefire/sketchy sounding hotel business deal in Los Angeles. The pair proposition Uncle Howard during lunch at Claridge's and receive a Faustian bargain as a counter-offer: they will receive 90,000 pounds each in return for knocking off a former business associate, a key witness in a court case investigating Uncle Howard's shady business dealings. He schools the pair on capitalist ethics: "You don't build what I build by always playing by the book. Now you'll find that out." Mafia rules, which Allen romanticized in the past, now appear as a wicked solvent, dissolving bonds of trust, love, and morality.
The brothers commit the crime but are divided in their reactions. Whereas Terry develops insomnia and panic attacks as he worries about God's wrath and hungers for absolution, Ian rationalizes that violence as a natural fact of human existence in "a cruel world"; confession will bring neither resolution nor respite. In order to save his skin, Ian feels compelled to murder his brother. As Terry fights back, he inadvertently kills Ian, then commits suicide. Unlike Ian or Match Point's Chris, Terry could not abide by murder as a ticket to the good life.
After a comedy then a drama, Allen's dramatic comedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008) indelibly reinscribed his pre-economic boom convictions about how best to live an authentic life. As the free-spirited, adventure-seeking Cristina, Scarlett Johansson plays the embodiment of yet another good-natured romantic, while her friend Vicky is the opposite. Despite working on a master's thesis about Catalan identity, she has yet to figure out who she is. Although Vicky studies the architecture of Gaudi and painting (or, more accurately, anti-painting) of Miró who scorned bourgeois mores, in her own life Vicky is deeply wedded to middle class security and stability and is engaged to a conventional Wall Street type named Doug. Practical, she is nevertheless bored by his preoccupation with buying and outfitting a home in Greenwich, Connecticut, complete with tennis court, oriental rugs, and surround sound wiring. While in Barcelona, the two women meet painter Juan Antonio who propositions them both. Cristina jumps at this opportunity, even remaining when his suicidal ex, Maria Elena, shows up. The brilliant, beautiful, damaged woman is back as an object of passion and admiration rather than despair and bile as in Allen's misogyny of the 1990s.
Vicky is mildly appalled by Juan Antonio's free-form lifestyle, but is increasingly drawn to his life, devoted as it is to passion and beauty. She discovers that, although a bohemian, he avoids the extremes of poverty and ostentation, surrounds himself with art, and is conscientious and comfortable in his skin and choices. She meets his father, a poet who refuses to publish a word as revenge against an undeserving public that has not "learned to love." She is encouraged to pursue the relationship by her host, Judy, who is what Vicky likely will be in twenty years: trapped in a marriage to a likeable, successful man yet keening to feel alive. Vicky consummates the relationship with Juan Antonia but then cannot deal with his gun-toting ex and resumes her life, curiosity sated, with Doug. Her admiration for art, aversion to consumerism, and willingness to experience as well as her conservative decision to return to Doug marks her as a heroine.
Allen followed the financial and critical success of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" with "Whatever Works" (2009), which, like "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999) about a musician in the Great Depression, was based on a screenplay written more than three decades ago. Then came "Midnight in Paris" (2011), Allen's most lucrative film yet, earning over
$150 million in worldwide box office
receipts. Like many of Allen's previous protagonists, Gil Pender is a writer who vacillates between undiluted art and crass commerce. Unlike those predecessors, Gil is one of Allen's most fully realized characters. He has discovered how to have it both ways: he is an in-demand screenwriter at work on the great American novel in his spare time. On a family vacation in the city of lights, he longs to chuck it all for an attic and a pen.
While Republicans in "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Melinda and Melinda" are treated with intrigue, Allen here resumes a no-holds barred attitude. Gil castigates the right-wing views of her father as "demented." Luckily, Gil draws down a high enough salary, which his fiancée, Inez, spends readily, to earn the father's begrudging respect. Inez passes the vacation shopping for chairs that cost 18,000 euros with her mother and fawning over the pomposities of her friend Paul (whom Gil refers to as a "pseudo-intellectual"). Gil, trying to complete a novel about workers in a nostalgia shop, strolls the streets at night. Propositioned by a prostitute, he replies that he likes them all and is "attracted to cheap sex." While Allen clutches to the deluded conviction that sex with a hooker constitutes a free exchange of money and pleasure, he at least, and at last, does not have Gil partake. Instead, he gets into an antique Peugot that serves as a portal to the 1920s when modernist writers lived their art. The last Allen characters to visit that decade were the insecure Zelig (1983) and weak Max Kleinman, the man "with the strength of one small boy--with polio" from "Shadows and Fog" (1992). This time, Gil more than holds his own with Jazz Age luminaries, hanging out with Hemingway, dancing with Djuna Barnes, even giving Buñuel the idea for what became "The Exterminating Angel."
When Picasso's mistress, Adriana, expresses nostalgia for the Belle Epoque, they get into a horse and buggy that transports them to La Cage Aux Folles. There they find people nostalgic for the Renaissance. Gil realizes that the present lacks full satisfaction because that is the nature of life, not the times. While Adriana decides to remain in the 1890s, Gil chooses not to live in the ether land of fantasy. He breaks it off with his fiancée then meets an unassuming salesgirl at a flea market. Gil is a moderate who appreciates living in an age mediated by the benefits of penicillin and Novocain and is grounded enough to work steadily. He does not choose between zero sum options--selling out for cash or garret living. Gil's appeal (and what helped to propel the film's ticket sales and critical acclaim) is his sure-footed ability to find his true north despite the circumference of consumerism and blinding gales of greed. With Gil, Allen created a hero for an era marked by the imperial hubris of bankrupting wars, fiscal and monetary policies that have created income inequality that surpass those found in 1929, and failed ideologies of the left and the right. An unassuming life filled with an appreciation for art and the courage to seek out love offers the most promising chance for a flourishing life.
Allen is not an activist or utopian whose movies and characters want to change the world. He left his Brooklyn working class roots early on, making it big as a joke writer then standup comedian early in his career, and, with a reported net worth of $65 million, his films reflect the creative class world of upper crust Manhattan that has been his milieu for almost half a century. As a result, his characters have the luxury of time, free from toiling away to make ends meet, to ponder romance and the nature of existence. Except for a brief hiatus in the 1990s, they take this responsibility seriously and offer a modest manifesto that would make both Kierkegaard and Veblen proud: in a universe devoid of God and meaning, Allen's protagonists wish people would "act decently." What makes Allen such a compelling social critic is that he critiques all forms of pretension, intellectual authority as well as anti-intellectualism, as he charts a course toward a good life (which, for Allen involves love, sex, Marx Brothers movies, discussing death, and playing the clarinet). This passage requires a certain amount of education and wherewithal as well as a free play of ideas. But the truth that human warmth, connection, and imagination trumps the accumulation of wealth pulls us all.