They say you should never meet your heroes because they’ll always disappoint. Perhaps they should add: never write a book about them either.
Woody Allen has been my comic and philosophical hero since I first saw him struggling to romance Annie Hall. It must have been around 1984, on TV, when BBC 2 used to run those dedicated director’s seasons. I was hooked in an instant and taped them all.
Here was a Jewish man openly discussing his flaws and his desires, his dreams and his background. As a British Jew, we were told: “Don’t mix in.” My family were proud Jews, as was everyone around us, but we were also secret Jews.
The ethos was don’t show off, don’t flaunt it, don’t draw attention to it. Or as one comic summed up Jewish festivals and family gatherings: “We’re still here, they didn’t kill us yet, and before they try again, let’s eat.”
But suddenly there was Woody and his New York confidence. He was so Jewish, he could even date a non-Jewish girl like the gorgeous Annie (Diane Keaton) and use his weedy, over-thought, intellectual, persecuted, witty Jewishness as part of his attraction.
In England, Noel Coward was witty, Les Dawson was hilarious, Morecambe and Wise were gods. Jews weren’t supposed to be funny, and if they were, they weren’t doing it on telly, and certainly not in movies.
But here was Woody Allen, bringing a melancholy, survivor’s humour to the post-modern, post-Holocaust world. He made me want to stand in line to watch foreign movies; he made it OK to laugh about my Grandparents and the absurdities of fasting on Yom Kippur; he made me question everything about life and death; he made me want to live in the big city, to sleep with women (with non-Jewish women, noch) and listen to jazz.
For the past year, I’ve had my head buried in Woody Allen’s 50 movies and in his writings. I’ve pored over countless interviews with him and read biographies. Sure, Woody can make you laugh and cry and love life, but he can also get you down. His self-loathing, his self-deprecation, his gnawing self- doubt can be depressing. His view is that reality is horrible, harsh and unbearable, but it’s also the only place you can get good Chinese takeaway.
Writing my book, Woody Allen: Film by Film, I finally got to sit down with the man himself. With typical self-abasement, he told me he didn’t think he’d influenced anyone, compared to his heroes such as Fellini and Bergman or his contemporaries such as Scorsese. I countered that he’d certainly influenced my record collection, my taste in women, my outlook. And you know what? He reluctantly agreed. He didn’t think his cinema was influential (he obviously hasn’t had to sit through every twerpy little rom-com since Annie Hall) but he could admit that influencing human behaviour might be even more important than the jump cut or the tracking shot.
Of course I loved the freewheeling, fourth- wall-breaking, effortless convention-shattering of his comic cinematic universe, but more importantly, Woody Allen’s films made you look at life and the world differently, and they still do.
Scorsese’s films might have made you want to be a gangster and Godard made you want to smoke, but Woody made you want to be a man in the urban world, to look for meaning and to come out laughing. He made you want to be a good, modern, nervous Jew, basically. I felt emboldened by Woody’s (well, Alvy’s, Isaac’s, Miles’, Boris’, Mickey’s—whichever character) inadequacies and struggles, proud of his Jewishness as well as mine.
Now I’m a film critic, just like his Alan Felix in Play It Again, Sam—although, hopefully, I’m better at dating and chatting up women in art galleries. And despite what my father thinks, I’m proud to let everyone know I’m Jewish, that I like jazz, and that I look for meaning every day.
I hope I’m a bit happier than my hero, though. I haven’t felt much need for therapy—I have found comfort enough in the films of Woody Allen.
This piece appears in the Autumn 2015 edition of ‘Jewish Quarterly’. To subscribe, click here.
‘Woody Allen: Film By Film’ is published on 10 September, by Carlton Books.