Woody Allen tiptoes back into the limelight WALKING SMALL

November 06, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

New York -- Quick, get this man a transfusion of chicken soup!

For the Woody Allen who bobs into a New York hotel room to discuss his new film, "Bullets Over Broadway," it seems as though one of those bullets has sailed over from Broadway and lodged in his heart. Is he in shock? Will soup do, or does he require oxygen or mouth-to-mouth? Wan and pale, he wears the frightened look of a man being wheeled into Shock Trauma. No loud noises please, nothing to drive him to cover. He seems -- why is this so sad? -- elderly, perhaps even a bit infirm. A hand he puts out to be shaken lacks even a hint of strength; it's as cold and soft as an unbaked biscuit.

Perhaps it's inevitable. The past few years have not been kind to him. Once alone atop an almost unbelievable pinnacle of critical and public esteem, Allen took a bad tumble in the treacherous and sensationally public battle with his ex-partner in life, Mia Farrow -- initially over the issue of his relationship with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, then transmuting into something even uglier, a child custody fight over his own child by Ms. Farrow, amid charges of child molestation.

At the same time, his artistic career was coming asunder. Released at the height of the scandal, his (very good) film "Husbands and Wives" proved a massive box office disappointment. It was one in a series of unpersuasive movies: "Shadows and Fog," "Alice," and "Manhattan Murder Mystery," to name three such.

The public had simply tired of Woody Allen.

Perhaps these woes have crushed him; but they certainly didn't extinguish him. Through it all, he worked. Now, a mere year or so later, he's back before the public with his best movie in years. He may never get to the pinnacle again, but he's trying to put the bad news behind him, one campaign facet of which is his willingness to be cuffed about by reporters -- which is why he's here with the eagerness of a man facing the gallows.

"Every 10 years," he says bravely, "I talk to the press. It's not so bad."

In that same sad spirit, he acknowledges the reason he collaborated with humorist Douglas McGrath for "Bullets Over Broadway," which is not unprecedented but unusual. The explanation is simple, and pathetic:

"I wanted to collaborate. I get lonely, I wanted a change. Every five years I collaborate."

Even his explanation of how he came to make "Bullets Over Broadway" is tinged with rue. To hear him tell it, it was McGrath's idea.

"I showed him a number of cards with ideas on them. He chose the one about the gangster who underwrites a Broadway play in the '20s so that his mistress can get a great role."

There's something so frumpy and damaged about Allen, you want to comfort him. There, there, you want to say, all the boo-boos will go away.

Yet still . . . it's Woody Allen, one of the great icons of film culture. Chinos, a sport coat that doesn't quite fit, an open-necked shirt showing an inch or two of wrinkled T-shirt -- all of it so far from cool it's another kind of cool. The square, black owl-frame glasses exaggerate the scale of his watery eyes and, while shot with waves of gray, his hair is still recognizeably reddishly autumnal in hue -- though a glimpse of skull atop the head suggests late autumn rather than early. The face, lightly festooned with freckles, is still almost preternaturally sensitive: After all, this gentleman almost single-handedly invented sensitivity as a masculine value not only in film culture but in the larger culture as well. And the voice: same thing; a kind of adenoidal tang to it, not quite a whine (though it becomes a whine easily enough), riddled with the same rhythms of doubt and anxiety. It's possibly one of the most famous voices in the world.

But he presents himself as almost unbearably humble, a mere beggar seeking alms, leaning forward as if to cup a reporter's words and bring them up to his ears. He answers in a whisper, without artifice or humor, drop-dead honest.

He'll never say a film is good, for example.

The best he can manage on behalf of "Bullets Over Broadway" sounds like a con man's pleasure in having gotten away with something.

"I no longer get a rush when I release a movie, but I'm thrilled when it is well-received. You think, 'God, I guessed right.' "

Even on the subject of talent, he's immensely modest. The subject is also the subject of "Bullets Over Broadway." It's about a playwright who discovers during the production of a play that a Mafioso bodyguard has a native instinct for dramaturgy and dialogue, while he himself is all attitude and platitude. Talent goes where it goes, seems to be the idea.

"To me, that's a very meaningful idea," says the 58-year-old Allen. "It's great to be born with talent, and that you worked hard to develop it. Being proud that your plays aren't produced is nothing to write home about. The only thing that matters is whether you can do the thing, whether its writing or acting."

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