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PBS portrait paints Allen as persistent, stubborn, funny

The “American Masters’’ documentary on Woody Allen details his directing career from the early successes up through his recent film, “Midnight in Paris.’’ The “American Masters’’ documentary on Woody Allen details his directing career from the early successes up through his recent film, “Midnight in Paris.’’ (BRIAN HAMILL/MGM)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 18, 2011

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‘He’s Michael Bay all of a sudden,’’ Owen Wilson says at the end of PBS’s engaging new “American Masters’’ special on Woody Allen. Wilson compares Allen to the money-making action director because, surprisingly, Allen’s recent “Midnight in Paris’’ starring Wilson has become his highest grossing film ever. After decades blithely making small hit-or-miss films, unconcerned about audience reaction and grosses, Allen is back in vogue.

It’s a testament to Allen’s persistence. Now 75, he refuses to slow down or compromise, pumping out a movie a year, unwilling to alter scripts to give them mainstream market appeal. Successful or not at any given moment, he has always stuck to what he values, stories of love and death and life and art. And that stubbornness has led to some of his most lightly profound films (“Annie Hall,’’ “The Purple Rose of Cairo,’’ “Husbands and Wives’’) as well as his most disappointing ones (“Everyone Says I Love You,’’ “Manhattan Murder Mystery’’). Almost accidentally, “Midnight in Paris’’ connected.

“Woody Allen: A Documentary,’’ which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, delivers a strong sense of the director’s obsessive loyalty to his own vision. Allen, who appears frequently in this two-part installment of “American Masters,’’ was deeply unhappy with what his studio did with his first film script, “What’s New Pussycat.’’ From that point on, he demanded full control over his movies. And since his comic genius had been recognized early on, through both his writing for TV (“The Sid Caesar Show’’) and his standup work in New York, he got what he wanted and he never let go of it.

By the end of the documentary, which has been smoothly directed by Robert B. Weide, you have a strong sense of just how self-protected from all external influences he has been throughout his career. We see him in his bedroom, fingering through scraps of notebook paper on which he has scribbled ideas, plunking away at his old typewriter because he refuses to write on a computer. Many in his inner circle have urged him to make fewer pictures, to put more time and energy into each one, but he ignores them.

As many of those interviewed for the movie note, in regard to how Allen worked during the ugly public breakup with Mia Farrow, he is an expert at compartmentalizing. He keeps his emotional life separate from his professional life, to the point where he doesn’t even get to know his actors very well. From John Cusack and Sean Penn to Scarlett Johansson and Naomi Watts, they all describe a somewhat distant man, even while they praise him profusely. The exception is Mariel Hemingway, who says that Allen befriended her during the making of “Manhattan’’ and helped her find her character.

The most feeling comments in the documentary are from those who really do know Allen, including Diane Keaton, his sister Letty Aronson, and his second wife, Louise Lasser. Aronson recalls fondly that he was a “very devoted brother,’’ a fact that Lasser still finds touching. But “Woody Allen: A Documentary’’ veers away from his personal life, as most installments of “American Masters’’ do, moving instead almost film-by-film through his work. There is a short nod to the scandal, when Allen began his relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi, and Allen praises Farrow by saying, “It was a pleasure to work with her’’ and “I wrote roles for her and she never disappointed.’’ But the movie is more thorough when it comes to the movies and the way Allen forged an unlikely sensibility from the work of Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, and Ingmar Bergman.

There are tidbits along the way, including the fact that Michael Keaton, not Jeff Daniels, was the original star of “The Purple Rose of Cairo,’’ and that Annie Hall’s anti-Semitic grandmother was based on Keaton’s grandmother. Allen says that “Hannah and Her Sisters’’ is “more optimistic than I had intended.’’ There are also many insights into Allen’s evolution from spoofery to his more character-based comedies. “Until ‘Annie Hall,’ ’’ he says, “I was interested only in making the audience laugh.’’ And throughout, there is a steady flow of great clips, creations of a removed man who remains present in his art.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.