–Woody Allen has been in six cities in the last three weeks. He is tired and lonely and anxious to go home. But before this can happen, he has to run the London media gauntlet.
He must attend receptions for the press where there are free drinks and a bunch of fresh bananas on each table and talk to ladies who write for the women’s page. He must do radio interviews, appear on TV talk shows and deal with an earnest crewcut Japanese reporter who speaks no English but has a pretty girl interpreter along who insists on snapping pictures of the two together for her scrapbook (the reporter beaming; Woody staring.)
If he lives through it all, Woody Allen gets to fly back to New York City and start work on his next film and all of it gradually will come to be no more than a blurred memory of tape recorder microphones being waved at him and people scribbling away in notebooks every time he opens his mouth to speak.
Should he, however, die in the process, well … at least it’ll be publicity for Bananas, the commodity being marketed.
“Woody Allen,” a radio interviewer says into his microphone, “You’re a film director, a musician, a scriptwriter, an actor, and a comedian … which of these roles do you prefer?”
“Yes,” Woody says succinctly.
“Yes which?”, the interviewer asks, eyeing his precious tape time rolling away.
“Yes, all of them. Whichever one I’m not doing.”
“I, ah see. And how do you get your ideas?”
“They come to me all at once,” Woody says, completely deadpan, like a highly intelligent mouse talking to the cat in a Disney cartoon. “I see the opening credits unfold and then the first scene … and then the rest of it.”
“You mean you see all of it at once?”
“How long does that take?”
“In the case of Bananas, eighty-two minutes.”
“All of it at once?” the interviewer asks, incredulous.
“Yes,” Woody says.
“You’re not sending me up, are you?”
“No,” Woody says seriously, “Not at all.”
* * *
In his green carpeted suite at the Dorchester Hotel, Woody Allen is sitting quietly on a large couch awaiting the next interviewer. His press lady is on the phone trying to find him a late night flight back to New York. Charlie Joffee, Woody’s friend and business partner and the executive producer of Bananas is prowling around, chewing on one of the Bolivar Habana cigars he wears in the corner of his mouth, looking out windows.
Woody is wearing his basic outfit for the week, worn bellbottom jeans with a dark blue patch on the ass, a quiet plaid sports jacket, and black and white saddle shoes. His red hair is long in the back, it whirls out over his collar from around a central bald spot. With his freckles and horn rimmed glasses, he looks like he could be an entering freshman at some great midwestern university. He’s 35.
“I hope all this sells the picture,” Charlie grumbles from around his cigar.
“It won’t, Charlie, it won’t,” Woody says quietly, “It won’t make any difference at all.”
“Three weeks we’re having this argument,” Charlie tells the room, in an aggravated voice. He sighs. “Three weeks. And I’m starting to think maybe he’s right.”
“You’re often portrayed as a loser in your films, Woody … Are you?”
“I was. Now, I’m a winner.”
“It’s a strange story,” Woody says, shifting into total fiction, “I was originally the son of a Presbyterian minister. Then I became an atheist. It might seem strange but two years ago I found religion again … Judaism.”
“How did that come about?”
“Well, it’s a difficult story to tell, I ran into some Jews … and they seemed happy … so I took on a Hebrew name, Yitzhak.”
“And how do you spell that exactly?”
* * *
Woody Allen was born in Brooklyn, where he listened to his mother and practiced his clarinet. He went to Midwood High School and NYU for a while. He quit school to write gags for people like Jack Paar. Then began working as a comedian in small New York nightclubs like the Blue Angel.
“If you remember,” Woody says, “there was that whole rush of comedians in the Sixties. Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl. Bill Cosby and I were on the tail end of it. Just like a lot of folk musicians, we got our start in small clubs that just don’t exist anymore, which is maybe why there aren’t that many young comedians any more either.”
Woody wrote a film script entitled, “What’s New, Pussycat?” Charles Feldman, a producer, liked the title and bought it. Warren Beatty was supposed to play the role of the playboy who is irresistible to women. Instead Peter O’Toole wound up doing it.
“I don’t like that movie at all,” Woody says, “It was not a good experience for me. Six months in Paris waiting around for Charlie Feldman to decide where to send us next. I think he really wanted Rock Hudson for the lead.”
“But Peter O’Toole is such a good actor,” someone says, “He has such amazing eyes.”
“They put drops in them before each shot,” Woody says, “And then they shine a baby spot in them from on top of the camera. Sam Speigel had him fix his nose for Lawrence of Arabia. Never trust a man who’s had his nose fixed.”
“Seriously, Mr. Allen, how do you get your ideas?”
“I have a Negro gentleman in my apartment. In my closet. And whenever I need an idea, he gives me one.”
“And do you pay him?”
“Well, I sing the blues for him now and then.”
“And that’s sufficient?”
“He seems happy.”
“So you … you keep a colored man in your closet to give you ideas … who you don’t pay … is there no organization in the United States to protect him?”
“None at all. Every American has one.”
* * *
What’s New, Pussycat? was followed by What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Which began its life as a Japanese spy thriller and ended up as an adventure into Broadway Jewish surrealism with dialogue dubbed by Woody and friends and music by the Lovin’ Spoonful. “All we did,” Woody says, “was put five people in a room and keep them there improvising as the film ran. It was a nuisance but OK. We still haven’t seen any money from it though.”
“We got a lawsuit comin’ up on it,” Charlie says, “Everything we do seems to end up in court.”
All afternoon, Woody has been asking about a jazz club on Oxford Street where a musicians’ benefit is to be held. Woody is an absolute freak on Dixieland, “The real stuff, not what the Dukes of Dixieland play but King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton. George Lewis is without a doubt the greatest clarinet player that ever lived. Black, illiterate, untaught, the man was just a genius …”
But there’s a screening Woody is supposed to attend and he has to eat dinner somewhere and as Charlie and the press lady gather their things to go, Woody is a little confused.
“You’re gonna practice your clarinet, right?”, Charlie says.
“Right,” Woody nods, “Should I eat now or later?”
Back and forth. Woody’s worn out. But he wants to go dig some music. Maybe they can catch dinner after the screening. But Charlie’s got to pick up his wife.
“Pick me up quarter to eight,” Woody says finally, “And if I eat before, I eat, right?”
“What is Bananas about, Woody?”
“The film is about the lack of substance in my movie.”
“You mean in America?”
“No, there’s lots of substance in America. The theme is that the film is empty. The lack of substance puts you to sleep. It’s an hour and a half nap.”
“Why have you made it then?”
“To confuse my enemies who, are legion.”
“And what do they want?”
“To make me think like them.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“And you think?”
“In letters, usually.”
* * *
The next day, Woody is sitting on the arm of the very large sofa again waiting for the next interviewer. “I didn’t get to the jazz club last night,” Woody says, “The screening ran too long.” As he sits, he rolls a two shilling piece over his fingers, like a small-time hood in a Hollywood musical. Over and over the coin tumbles, from finger to finger, with never a miss.
“I taught myself to do it,” Woody explains, peering out from behind his glasses, “As a party trick. Actually, there’s nothing worse for impressing a girl.”
“Are you in analysis?”
“Yes, I have been for the past 13 years.”
“And what has the analyst done for you?”
“He’s agreed with me, that I need treatment. He also feels the fee is correct …”
“How about your parents?”
“My mother speaks to me once every two years and asks me when I’m going to open a drug store. My father is on my payroll.”
“Were they always like this?”
“Yes, but younger.”
“And you’re an only child?”
“I am an only child, I have one sister.”
“And she’s not connected in your life?”
“Not in any way. She’s just someone I know as a person my mother gave birth to some years ago.”
* * *
Woody is fully booked for the next year. He is going to star in the film version of his Broadway play, “Play It Again, Sam.” “They didn’t want me in it until Bananas started doing well. I wouldn’t want to direct. I’m doing it to get more people in to see my films.”
After that, he goes out to the coast to direct the screenplay he’s written based on Dr. David Reuben’s, “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask.”
“It’s gonna be a funny film about sex. Truly. What people would call dirty.” Woody keeps busy. He does occasional pieces for the New Yorker and has written a play which is going to open at the American Place Theater in New York.
“I won’t write for Broadway again. It forces you into a cycle of writing amusements, light comedies, that a certain kind of people like to see. I won’t write a film like Bananas again either.
“They say it’s a political film but I don’t really believe much in politics, Groucho has told me that the Marx Brothers films were never consciously anti-establishment or political. It’s always got to be a funny movie first.
“It’s possible that violence will be needed to bring about a change. I’m not convinced otherwise. I don’t understand a government that can firebomb villages in Indo-China but not poppy fields in Turkey.”
“Have you patterned yourself after any people in show business, like the Marx Brothers?”
“No. My idols are Frank Sinatra and Fatty Arbuckle.”
“Really, ah, I was wondering by asking that question what makes you put a large colored lady in a witness box and have her identify herself as J. Edgar Hoover?”
“What else do you do with a large colored lady? There are so many of them in the States.”
* * *
It’s Friday afternoon and Woody is walking in Hyde Park, unrecognized. He’s sitting on benches and standing in bus queues, for a photographer.
“I’m a purist.” Woody says, eyeing a bee that is hovering near his head, “I don’t drink or smoke cigarettes. I never get high or take acid. The thought of putting anything foreign in my system offends me.
“When I was in ‘Play It Again Sam,’ I didn’t work on Moratorium Day, for my own reasons. Kids came to me and said, ‘That’s great, man.’ It seems so easy now, to salt things with relevant themes.
“The kids are exploitable. They’ve made a lot of millionaires in the last ten years, what with drugs and records and clothes. Music is just too easy. I like it, but their excuse for not reading, for not thinking … and then they hang it on McLuhan’s global electric thing …
“I went to see Woodstock … which cost five dollars. The kid in front of me kept saying, ‘Beautiful, Beautiful’ as though he were trying to convince himself. John Sebastian sings a song about kids and everyone applauds. A guy spells out fuck and everyone shouts. There’s no discrimination or real art involved in it at all.”
Five lanes of traffic whiz along Park Lane, the street Woody needs to cross to get back to his suite.
“The truth is,” he said, “There have never been very many remarkable people around at any one time. Most are always leaning on the guy next to them, asking him what to do.”
He stood on the curb, a very slight man with red hair, and waited a long, long time for a pause in the flow of cars. Finally it came and he scooted across the avenue back to his hotel.
“Mr. Allen, let me ask you a question I have always wanted to ask someone in your line, did anything funny happen to you on the way over here?”
“A comedian is often asked that question. Nothing funny has ever happened to me on my way to the theater. My life is not a series of amusing incidents.”