A new documentary 20 years in the planning touches on American-Jewish film director Woody Allen’s life as never before. Caron Kemp watches as his family and friends talk about his difficult childhood – and hears him discuss the scandal that tarnished his reputation.
For someone whose trademark is as much their neuroses as their inimitable talent, Woody Allen’s life story reads like a constant tug of war between the highs of success and the lows of anxiety.
A much celebrated screenwriter, actor, comedian and director, Allen – born Allan Konigsberg in Brooklyn, New York in December 1935 – has been in the limelight for more than half a century.
And with no plans to slow down any time soon – despite being in his 70s – his incredible, and sometimes quirky life is laid bare in a two-part BBC documentary about the American-Jewish writer, director and actor.
Apparently it took close friend and filmmaker Robert B Weide some 20 years to persuade Allen to talk candidly about a difficult childhood with parents who did not get along, his early fame as a stand-up comedian, and his first forays into filmmaking.
And according to narrator Alan Yentob, “If you’re Jewish, love movies and New York you’re in for a treat”.
For the die-hard Allen fan it is certainly a treat – if not somewhat indulgent – as he and his family, friends and colleagues walk step by step through almost every hit and miss of this unparalleled body of work which, as one friend comments, transformed him from a full time nerd into a movie legend.
It is a far cry from the life Yiddish-speaking parents Nettie and Martin – both from immigrant families originating from Austria and Russia respectively – had planned for their son.
“My parents were not pro Woody going into showbusiness,” comments sister Letty Aronson. “They wanted him to be a pharmacist. He was the wrong person born to those parents that’s all I can say.”
And as he weaves the tapestry of his upbringing through the tales of his career success it is evident that his formative years were somewhat tense.
“The hardest part of my childhood was being young,” he muses. “Had I been older I would have dealt with it better.”
But it wasn’t just his parents’ dismissal of his chosen career path and their own difficult relationship which affected Allen. Donning his infamous dark glasses, the self-confessed cripplingly shy hypochondriac is very aware of when his attitude to life changed.
“My mother always used to say I was a happy, sweet kid from the start and then sometime around five I became grumpier and sour,” he recalls.
“I can only think when I became aware of my mortality I didn’t like that idea. What do you mean this ends?
“Once I realised that I thought deal me out, I don’t want to play in this game and I was never the same after that.”
Hunched and morose almost throughout, Allen – who has won numerous awards, including four Oscars, nine BAFTAs, and two Golden Globes – still exudes that inherent sadness and despite his successes remains unassuming.
“The issues of what life is about and why we are here and why it’s so painful and relationships between the human being and his existence and human loneliness never get resolved so it’s of constant interest to me and I can see if I look back at my work some of those themes creep in all the time,” he admits.
“I am cursed with the clown’s approach to it so I always have to approach it in a comic way. I wish I had been born a gifted and great tragedian but I wasn’t.”
Maintaining never to have had writer’s block and with more than 40 scripts to his name so far, multi-award-winning Allen – who aged 16 was earning more than his parents – is nevertheless cynical of his own talent.
“It’s not rocket science, this is not quantum physics. If you’re the writer of the story you know what you want the audience to see. It’s just story telling. There is no big deal to it.”
Family and friends including Diane Keaton, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Larry David and John Cusack also speak out to pay tribute to Allen’s achievements.
The documentary also delves into his personal life with Allen talking candidly about his relationship with actress Mia Farrow, his subsequent relationship with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, and the bitter custody battle which then ensued.
Trying at times, this frank portrayal is certainly a unique insight into one of the most obsessive and enduring directors of all time.
Woody Allen: A Documentary is on BBC One on Tuesday, 23 July, 10.35pm and continues on Wednesday, 24 July.