“The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.” — “Crimes and Misdemeanors”
That one-liner, delivered by a film character named Cliff Stern to describe a maddening lack of sexual activity in his life, is one of thousands penned by the man some consider Hollywood’s greatest living writer and director. Now, after four full decades spent peppering an average of a script a year with similar quotable quotes, Woody Allen is once again making noise in yet another awards season with his latest effort, “Match Point.”
“It’s a required part of your film history to know who Woody is,” said 21-year-old Scarlett Johansson, who stars in the film. “His movies are so wonderful, and not just funny but so insightful about human behavior.”
“Point,” hailed by more than a few critics as the 70-year-old Allen’s best movie in a decade, unites Johansson with a young cast that includes Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (“Bend It Like Beckham”), Emily Mortimer (“The 51st State”), and Matthew Goode (“Chasing Liberty”). Set amid British upper-class society, the film tells the story of sexy, unpredictable Nola (Johansson) and the treachery and complications that unfold when she gets involved with a social-climbing former tennis pro (Rhys-Meyers).
“I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics.” — “Manhattan”
Allen has often explored the pain and limitations that can accompany exclusive relationships, and he returns to the theme for “Point,” as Rhys-Meyers’ Chris accepts the benefits of a wedded union to Mortimer’s Chloe (companionship, safety, friendship, the wealth of the bride’s family), yet yearns for the spontaneity (and physicality) of a hook-up with Nola.
“I found the mid-20s very, very difficult,” Rhys-Meyers confessed, tacitly acknowledging Allen’s abilities to empathize with the agonies of people 50 years his junior. “You’re growing up in front of people, and that can be very difficult and awkward. If you want to be the best at something, you’ve really got to put the time into it, and you can’t have a wild lifestyle and a solid ambitious career at the same time. I’d love to be able to, but I just can’t do both.”
“I wonder if a memory is something you have, or something you’ve lost.” — “Another Woman”
Casual observers recognize Allen for all the things that, paradoxically, appear to limit his influence — his oft-caricatured neurotic personality, his tabloid exploits or the notion that he’s either 1) too humorous to be taken seriously or 2) too serious to write a comedic blockbuster along the lines of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (even though the film feels like a more graphic version of something he could have written in the 1970s). But when he has indulged his more dramatic side, in films like “Interiors” or “September,” Allen has created characters, dialogue and intense emotional dynamics that forsake the funny bone and instead engage the brain and heart.
“Woody is this release where you can just relax, and enjoy a piece of art that isn’t coming at you too quickly, but is keeping you entertained and keeping you intellectually stimulated,” insisted Rhys-Meyers, referring to the dark themes of remorse, soullessness and murder within “Match Point.” “It’s a very difficult thing to get an 18- or 19-year-old kid with his girlfriend, going out on a date, to not go see ’Narnia’ and go see ’Match Point,’ instead. It’s a difficult sell, but it’s worth it in the long run because there is a resonance with this film.”
“You can’t learn to be real. It’s like learning to be a midget.” — “The Purple Rose of Cairo”
Allen has directed hundreds of actors over the years, crafting Oscar-winning roles for stars ranging from Michael Caine to Mira Sorvino, and he continues to line up the hottest Hollywood stars with little more than a phone call. (Johansson joined a long list of actors who’ve accepted Allen films without reading the script). His ability to lure names like Sean Penn, Will Ferrell and Leonardo DiCaprio is almost as amazing, in fact, as the effectiveness of the largely hands-off directorial method he employs, all in the name of making his films as real as possible.
“It’s difficult, especially when you have a scene that’s really highly elevated, and you’re arguing with somebody and the way it’s written on the page doesn’t always come out as [a believable kind of] back-and-forth,” remembered Johansson who, like her fellow actors, took Allen’s lines and made them their own. “We had to tweak [the dialogue] a bit, and move around occasionally — the spacing wouldn’t be right because Woody shoots everything in kind of one go. You’ve got four pages of dialogue, and one set-up.”
To the surprise of many actors and actresses he works with, Allen doesn’t mind if they make his lines their own. Typically, the only time they hear from the notoriously insecure legend is when they’re doing something wrong — and then, he’ll simply take them aside.
“I did a scene really badly,” Rhys-Meyers remembered, blushing. “I gave completely the wrong energy; I was too aggressive, because I was feeling aggressive. It was wrong for the scene.
“I felt chided, like a little boy,” the star laughed. “He pulled me aside and said, ’It’s not right; it just simply isn’t right. You’ve got to think of a better, more subtle way of creating the energy.’ I was given a second opportunity. That’s the nice thing about working on a Woody film. Being producer, writer, director, he has time to go back and re-shoot something, which is very, very comforting.”
“Sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat … college.” — “Annie Hall”
His screenplays reference youth, death, sex, chastity, obscure philosophers and overblown pop-culture celebrities, alike. Ultimately, Allen’s greatest films are those that expertly balance laugh-out-loud humor with lump-in-your-throat drama — holding up a mirror to a real world that contains equal amounts of both. Some critics (and even some of his ardent fans) wonder to whom, exactly, his films are supposed to appeal. But the answer is simple: They’re meant to appeal to anyone who is genuinely, consciously alive.
“I feel like saying, ’Hey!’ ” Scarlett Johansson admitted of her desire to grab people who haven’t seen Allen’s movies and shake some sense into them. ” ’You would love “Husbands and Wives,” or “Annie Hall,” so you should rent them. It makes for a good movie night!’ ”
“[Allen’s work] is really timeless,” Rhys-Meyers concluded. “It doesn’t change just because it’s the 21st century, or the 20th century. Human nature has been that way for thousands of years.”
“How does this film compare to, say, ’King Kong?’ ” Johansson concluded. “I really don’t know. It’s not like anything else.”
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