Woody's Roman Holiday

Woody Allen and co-stars talk movies, love, and death

Woody's Roman Holiday
Rome's lovers: Alessandro Tiberi, Roberto Della Casa, and Penélope Cruz

Woody Allen has just had the biggest hit of his career with Manhattan — a love letter to the titular city, a romantic celebration of its timeless urban landscape set in a nostalgic-fantastic present, culminating in the gut-punch realization that what's past is irretrievably past. Manhattan's $39 million take made it Allen's biggest to that date. It also qualified as a comeback of sorts, restoring Allen's reputation in the minds of the moviegoing public (and the movie-financing private) after the Bergman-esque Interiors squandered whatever goodwill the writer-director-actor had stockpiled when Annie Hall won Best Picture in 1978.

His stock on the rise, Allen's next film is Stardust Memories, a dreamlike rumination on love, mortality, celebrity and art, starring Allen as a director crippled by his fear of death, whose faith in the power of his work to ensure immortality is weakened by his anxieties and insecurity. In one sequence, Allen's character imagines his own wake, in which his analyst explains the recently deceased suffered from "a depression common to many artists in middle age," which he's dubbed "Ozymandias Melancholia."

2012. Woody Allen has just had the biggest hit of his (late) career with Midnight in Paris, a love letter to the titular city, a romantic celebration of its timeless urban landscape set in a nostalgic-fantastic present, culminating in the gut-punch realization that what's past is irretrievably past. Midnight in Paris' $57 million gross makes it, numerically, Allen's biggest hit to date (adjusting for inflation, Manhattan would have made roughly $118.5 million today), making Paris an unqualified comeback — catnip for his base, his first film in 25 years to earn the dubious imprimatur of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a magnet for a new generation of fans.

His stock once again on the rise, Allen's next film is To Rome With Love (in theaters Friday), a dreamlike rumination on love, mortality, celebrity and art starring Allen as a director (of operas) crippled by his fear of death, whose faith in the power of his work to ensure immortality is weakened by his suspicion that nothing he's left behind will stand the test of time. In one sequence, an aging architect (played by Alec Baldwin) admits that he's suffering from a malaise he calls "Ozymandias Melancholia." His wife scoffs — she's never heard of it.

"It's just a phrase that I coined years ago, and I thought it was a good phrase, and so I wanted to use it again," Allen tells me, his slight, 76-year-old body sunk into a plush couch in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire on the morning after To Rome With Love premiered as the opening-night selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival. Next to him sit Rome co-stars Penelope Cruz and Ellen Page.

"It's a perfectly valid description of a particular phenomenon. It's that sad and depressed feeling you get when you realize that no matter how great and majestic and important something is at the time, in time it's going to pass. Just like the [Shelley] poem — eventually, time kills everything. It's just that rotting statue of Ozymandias, a once-great statue, and now a broken-down piece of marble in the desert. So you get a depressed feeling because it gives you a sense of the futility of life, that all that you're working for, and all the things that seem so meaningful, are nothing."

Another bit from Stardust Memories comes to mind. Allen's character tells a woman that when a man's basic needs are taken care of, "then your problems become how can I fall in love — or why can't I fall in love, more accurately — and why do I age and die, and what meaning can my life possibly have?"

And she says, "You know, for a guy who makes a lot of funny movies, you're kind of a depressive."

It's a popular misconception that Allen despises California. Reporting on Allen's trip west in a post headlined "L.A. Hater Woody Allen Sucks It Up to Attend Los Angeles Film Fest," Laist.com was typical of media outlets fixated on the "irony" of the event luring the man who, in 1977's Annie Hall, famously said of L.A., "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."

"I'm not anti–Los Angeles," Allen says today. "I couldn't live here because I don't like a place where I have to drive everyplace, and I don't like sunshine. But I love coming out here for a couple of days. I have a lot of friends here, and the town has, over the years, really come on very strong. When I first came out here years ago, you couldn't get a decent meal in Los Angeles. Now it's full of great restaurants, great museums; the opera's wonderful."

Allen is famously a creature of habit — he still types every screenplay on an antique typewriter, literally cutting and pasting with scissors and a stapler. But over the past decade, he's made it clear that his geographic loyalties are not set in stone.

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