A chronological guide to the filmmaker's career highs and lows

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

Woody Allen: From ”Alice” to ”Zelig”

Sheer Peeping Tomism — that’s the big reason people have been lining up to rent Woody Allen movies. Admittedly, it’s great sport combing through the Allen oeuvre for rim-shot parallels between life and art. But Woody’s work still resonates in ways that have nothing to do with tabloid revelations. He’s a true film artist who has obsessively plumbed the same subjects — infidelity, betrayal, the price of loving the most inappropriate person — through slapstick farces, confessional romances, bleak tragedies, nostalgic period pieces, and spare dramas. Here’s a chronological guide to his career highs and lows on video:

*WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? Redubbed, a Japanese spy thriller turns into a scramble for the world’s best egg-salad recipe. About half the voice-over cracks (some spoken by Allen’s then wife, Louise Lasser) are priceless, as are rechristened names like Suki Yaki and her sister Terry — but it wears thin over 79 minutes (Woody wanted a one-hour version). B

*TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN A mockumentary portrait of a failed bank robber. Classic bits, such as a teller struggling to read a scrawled stickup note (”I have a…gub?”) and a heist staged as the making of a movie about a heist, will carry you through the dead spots. B+

*BANANAS In this Duck Soup salute (working title: El Weirdo), Allen joins a South American revolution to impress his girlfriend. A few anguished-relationship scenes are played almost seriously; then Howard Cosell steps in for blow-by-blow bedside commentary on Allen and Lasser’s lovemaking. Don’t-miss cameo: Sly Stallone as a subway thug. A-

*PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM In the first of Woody’s six films with girlfriend Diane Keaton, the ghost of Bogie talks a nebbish movie critic out of stealing away his best friend’s wife, á la Casablanca. Directed by Herbert Ross, it’s conventional and sitcom-y, but Woody’s uproarious, pathologically nervous dating behavior perks things up. Holy casting call: Woody wanted Dustin Hoffman for the lead in his original stage production. A-

*EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) Tasteless misfires abound, but the tasteless bull’s-eyes make up for them: Gene Wilder in love with a sheep; a giant escaped breast; Woody as a reluctant sperm. U.S. prints delete a scene featuring Woody as a spider who fears he will be devoured by mate Lasser. B

*SLEEPER Delightful, slapstick sci-fi send-up about a hospital patient unfrozen after 200 years, with sight gags in the best silent-comedy style. Signature line: Woody declares he believes only in ”sex and death — two things that come once in a lifetime.” A-

*LOVE AND DEATH A truly hilarious goof on Tolstoy and Bergman, full of mock-intellectual babblings that Allen would unfortunately play straight in later movies. He and Keaton are visibly infatuated with each other, and the mood is infectious as they conspire to assassinate Napoleon. A-

*ANNIE HALL The Best Picture and Best Director Oscar winner (it also won Keaton a Best Actress award), this remains a heartbreaking chronicle of doomed, la-di-da bicoastal romance. Cameo alerts: Jeff Goldblum on the phone at an L.A. party (”I forgot my mantra”), Sigourney Weaver in a trench coat as Allen’s date outside a movie theater. Funniest found punch line: Tony Roberts says, ”Max, there’s no crime (in L.A.), there’s no mugging.” A+

*INTERIORS An absurdly stilted, self-conscious stab at Bergmanesque tragedy: There’s no soundtrack music, and the dialogue is riddled with arch symbolism. But two key performances — Geraldine Page as an aesthete matriarch abandoned by her husband, and Maureen Stapleton as the brassy, outgoing woman he takes up with — make it work much better than it should. B-

*MANHATTAN This urban valentine, Woody’s last to date with Keaton (not counting her cameo in Radio Days), is also a stinging portrait of a terminally distracting city that dooms its residents to furtive, unfulfilled relationships. Biggest post-Woody-and-Mia punch line: Woody says of sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway), ”As long as the cops don’t burst in, I think we’re gonna break a couple of records.” A+

*STARDUST MEMORIES Anyone who knows Fellini’s 8.5 well enough to catch all the echoes in this half-baked homage will be dismayed at how trivial Allen’s concerns seem. He plays a filmmaker besieged by freakish fans at a seminar, voicing a torrent of mid-life anxieties that mostly sound like spoiled, cranky whining. Cameo alert: Sharon Stone can be spotted kissing a railway-car window. C+

*A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY The dawn of the Mia Decade: Another Bergman retread (Smiles of a Summer Night), about three unhappy turn-of-the-century couples who philander one weekend. Although it’s beautifully shot, it’s trifling and leaden. Sure sign Woody’s stalled: He brings back Tony Roberts for a stale reprise of their old banter. C

*ZELIG A technically dazzling fable, done in counterfeit newsreel style, about a flapper-era public figure who could literally, physically become all things to all people. Chilly and brilliant. Supremely Freudian gesture: Mia plays Woody’s analyst; by curing him, she makes him cease to exist. A-

*BROADWAY DANNY ROSE A sweet anecdote, relayed over Carnegie Deli sandwiches, concerning a schmo manager of bad nightclub acts and his escapade with a lounge singer’s mob-connected mistress. Mia makes an utterly authentic moll, honking Jerseyspeak in a big blond wig and dark shades, but the peak is a helium-factory shootout. B+

*THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO What if a Depression-era movie character (Jeff Daniels) came down off the screen and romanced a battered wife (Mia)? The inspired complications create a wrenching parable about the pull fiction has on people, and the sorrows of living for escape. A-

*HANNAH AND HER SISTERS The juiciest pick for post-scandal clucking: Look, there’s Mia’s real-life mom, Maureen O’Sullivan (she called Woody evil!), playing the mom of Mia’s earth-mother character in scenes shot at Mia’s apartment; and there’s Michael Caine, looking Allenesque in dark- framed glasses, playing a man who seduces his wife’s younger sibling (Barbara Hershey)! But the movie will outlive these and many other eerie echoes. Funny, touching, novelistic in scope, and exquisitely choreographed — watch the camera glide with people across rooms, like a partner in a dance — it’s the richest family saga this side of the Godfather movies. A+

*RADIO DAYS An affectionate, rambling reverie, tracking one Queens, N.Y., family’s love affair with a forgotten wartime pop subculture of comedians, chanteuses, newscasters, and golden-throated announcers. Two-for-one muse alert: Mia and Diane Keaton both play singers. B

*SEPTEMBER His worst. Shot in a sepia haze that’s almost unwatchably dim on video, this lumpy amalgam of undigested swipes — a bit of Bergman’s Autumn Sonata here, some doomed-Chekhov-clan allusions there — links together a group of summer renters, each in love with, but rebuffed by, another. Perversely setbound and artificial, it’s keyed to Mia’s queasy enactment of a clinical depressive’s slide. D+

*ANOTHER WOMAN A doggedly serious, shamefully derivative (of Bergman’s — yes, him again — Wild Strawberries) wrap-up to Allen’s trio of laughless, boiled-sterile dramas. It wants to illuminate a dry, pinched person (Gena Rowlands as a forbidding intellectual in mid-life crisis), but it’s dry and pinched itself. Gossip tidbit: Mia, playing a suicidal psychiatric patient named Hope, was pregnant at the time with Satchel, her child by Allen. C+

*NEW YORK STORIES Allen contributed the third of three segments, ”Oedipus Wrecks,” in which a magician accidentally transforms a suffocating Jewish mom (Mae Questel) into a huge, sky-filling entity. The whole city listens as she scolds her mortified, would-be-gentile son from on high. Only soars when Mama’s on screen. B

*CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS While a doctor (Martin Landau) plans to have his mistress (Anjelica Huston) murdered, thereby suppressing a shady business deal, a writer (Woody) loses his girlfriend (Mia) to a shallow TV producer (Alan Alda). Great performances grace this trenchant tapestry of ’80s economic and political corruption trickling down into relationships. Paternal-Woody watershed: He starts the final scene with a fond close-up of two kids. A

*ALICE Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits transplanted to the Upper East Side: A woman (Mia) suspects her husband (William Hurt) is unfaithful, tries a series of fantastical potions, has an affair, and moves out. A keen visual feel for the sumptuous haunts and too-perfect apartments of wealthy New Yorkers helps to enliven standard Allen elements. B-

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy
  • Movie
  • 88 minutes