Something funny happened in New York last week. The new Woody Allen film--Sweet and Lowdown--came out and scarcely anyone noticed. In Woody's heyday, the release of his latest movie was a big deal in New York. With his psychoanalytical understanding of sex and relationships, his preoccupation with art and mortality and his passion for jazz, he embodied the values of the city's educated elite. He was their artist-in-residence, their cultural ambassador to the rest of the world. What the hell happened?
Three words: Soon-Yi Previn.
Or is that two?
With each new movie Woody dashes off--Sweet and Lowdown is his 32nd--it's becoming increasingly clear that the scandal which erupted in his personal life seven years ago has crippled him as an artist. The revelations about his behavior exposed his lovable, nebbish persona as a sham and he hasn't been able to re-invent the Woody Allen character in his films to reflect this development, at least not to his own satisfaction.
You can sense him struggling with this issue in Sweet and Lowdown. The central character, played by Sean Penn, is the most unappealing proxy for himself he's ever come up with. He's a kleptomaniac and a pimp and his idea of fun is to head out to the dump and shoot rats. Yet he's also--wouldn't you know it--a brilliant artist, the best American jazz guitarist of the 1930s. The message of the film is that it's possible to be both a great artist and a lousy human being.
As a maxim this is fairly uncontroversial but it doesn't apply to that particular lousy human being, Woody Allen. Take Sweet and Lowdown. It's a diverting allegory about the relationship between an artist's work and his life--but is it great art? Not compared to Manhattan or Annie Hall, it isn't. Indeed, the conclusion of Sweet and Lowdown--that an artist is compelled to mess up his private life since it's only through personal suffering that he can achieve greatness--seems to be the exact opposite of the truth in Woody's case. He hasn't been able to do anything good since he screwed up his life.
Why should this be? It must be because part of what motivates Woody Allen as an artist--perhaps the most important part--is his desire to be liked. At heart, he's still a stand-up comic yearning for the audience's approval. Why else would he cast himself--as himself--in all his films? The tension in his movies, what makes the best ones so entertaining, stems from the conflict between his longing for acceptance and his weird compulsion to expose himself, warts and all. In nearly all his films, this is always the Woody Allen character's comic flaw: he wants to be loved and yet he insists on telling his leading lady just how unlovable he is.
The problem is that, in seducing Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, a teenage girl who'd regarded him as a father figure for over ten years, he went too far. That alone, even if you put the allegations of sexual abuse against his 7-year-old adopted son Dylan to one side, was enough to bring the dance to an abrupt halt. His sexual interest in young girls was a guilty secret he never should have revealed. The suspense went out of the drama. After that, he was just straightforwardly unlovable.
In some of the movies he's made since the scandal, such as Everybody Says I Love You, he goes through the motions as if nothing's happened: he's in denial. In that film, released in 1996, the Woody Allen character--played by the 60-year-old Woody Allen--seduces Julia Roberts, who was 28 at the time. Didn't it occur to him that there was something slightly creepy about this in the light of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn? Evidently not, since the most overtly sexualized character in the film is played by Drew Barrymore, the Woody Allen character's ex-wife's daughter. She's a new addition to Allen's oeuvre: a Soon-Yi Previn proxy.
In others, such as Deconstructing Harry (1997), the Woody Allen character--again played by Woody Allen--is truculent and unrepentant, as if he's announcing to his audience that he knows they've rejected him and he just doesn't care. The film, like the central character, is peculiarly flat and charmless and the jokes, when they come, leave a sour taste in the mouth. It's as if, now that Woody knows he's never going to win our acceptance, he's lost his mojo; the engine of creation has run out of gas.
Sweet and Lowdown is a more appealing film than both of these, if only because Woody himself appears in it very fleetingly. It also has the virtue of addressing his fall from grace more directly than any of his other movies since the scandal broke. Tellingly, it contains a Mia Farrow character, played by Samantha Morton, who unconditionally loves the Woody character. (She's a mute, which speaks volumes about Woody's feelings about the allegations she made against him.) Sweet and Lowdown is the first time Woody has acknowledged that he regrets the way he behaved towards Farrow, though it will be a long time before she--or we--forgive him.
It wasn't just Mia Farrow and her extended, sitcom family he let down when he ran off with Soon-Yi Previn in 1992. It was his fans as well. As an adolescent, I adored Woody Allen because he demonstrated that you didn't need to be tough and macho to be sexually attractive to women. He wasn't a role model, exactly, but he was a source of comfort. He made it possible to be unmanly and yet still be a man.
Now that Woody Allen's exposed himself as a pervert, I'm not so sure I chose the right path. Perhaps my old headmaster was right and I should have spent more time playing rugby. The poster child for unconventional masculinity has set the cause of male liberation back by 20 years.