WHETHER it’s his 46th or 47th film Woody Allen, now 80, can’t quite remember. But who’s counting? With his latest feature, Café Society, he has made an unadulterated romance.
“I do a certain amount of romantic movies,” Allen explains. “It comes from my upbringing. I was brought up on Hollywood movies and they had indelible influence on me.”
Set during Hollywood’s golden years, Café Society stars Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby Dorfman, a nervy verbose Woody clone, who is not unlike the character Eisenberg played in Allen’s 2012 movie To Rome With Love. As with Bullets over Broadway, the New York director reminisces about a bygone world he adores.
“Hollywood in the ’30s was dominated by the studios and the carnage and backbiting and the love lives of the stars were very hot news to the public,” he says. “It was a dog-eat-dog industry and probably still is for all I know. I never go out to Hollywood.”
Initially in the film, Bobby, a Jewish New Yorker, moves to Los Angeles and through his movie producer uncle Phil (Steve Carell) meets the young and innocent Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and they fall in love.
When it turns out she prefers his rich married uncle, with whom she’d already been having an affair, Bobby moves back to New York to run his gangster brother’s nightclub and marries the sophisticated divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) and they settle down and have kids.
Years later when he runs into a vastly changed Vonnie, he realises she is still his soul mate.
It’s largely because of Allen’s two actresses that the film, widely considered his best since Midnight in Paris, works so well.
“Kristen was perfect for the part of Vonnie”, he says. “I needed somebody who could play an adorable little secretary from Nebraska with little white socks and little dresses who then transforms into a sophisticated beauty in cosmopolitan Manhattan.
“Kristen has a smaller dark beauty in the tradition of stars like Elizabeth Taylor, while Blake is more like Grace Kelly. She is tall and gorgeous and looks like an aristocrat who grew up riding horses and going yachting.”
Allen, born Allan Konigsberg, admits the most biographical characters in the film are Bobby’s parents, played by Jeannie Berlin and Richard Portnow. “They’re constantly bickering and berating each other and occasionally speaking Yiddish and that’s how I grew up.”
He also cast himself as the narrator. “Originally I wanted to have the structure of a novel, to tell the story of a family over a period of time. Like a novel you should have the voice of the author and since I was the author I did the narration.”
Even at 80 Allen doesn’t suffer from writer’s block and never has. “I’ve suffered from everything else but not that,” jokes the self-confessed hypochondriac.
“If you said to me now, ‘I will give you money to make a film in Serbia’, then I could go in the next room and write a film for Serbia, and I have never been to Serbia but I just feel I can do that. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because when I started I was a television writer, I was 16 and had to write a live show for every Saturday night. You couldn’t sit there and wait for your muse to come.”
Today Allen enjoys it as much as ever.
“To me writing is relaxing. I’m at home lying on my bed and I’m living in a fantasy world making up stories and characters. When you’ve finished, you want to go on to the next thing, but you have to stop and take a year off to make the movie.”
This he finds harder. Still it helps that he is able to hire some of Hollywood’s best actors. Even if he can’t pay them much they appreciate that he gives them a lot of freedom and doesn’t take up much of their time.
Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake have come on board for this year’s movie, an annual event Allen adheres to like the creature of habit that he is.
He still plays in his jazz band and is doing their weekly gig at Café Carlyle in New York from September 12 and says he is “astonished” by how youthful he feels.
“I’m still agile and nimble and mentally alert. I eat well and exercise. But a lot of it is down to luck and good genes. My father lived to slightly over 100 and my mother to almost 100.”
Then again, sounding more like one of his pessimistic characters, he adds, “I’m sure one day I’ll wake up in the morning and I’ll have a stroke or something. I might be one of those people in the wheelchair where you’ll say, ‘Remember him?’ Until that happens I’m going to continue to make films as long as people are foolish enough to put up the money.”
Filming abroad with foreign financing has long been on the cards. This was especially the case following the revelation of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow to whom he’s now been married for 18 years.
His reputation took another battering when he was accused of molesting his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, which he has long denied.
He turned to making films in Europe, where he has long enjoyed a huge fan base, especially in France. Initially, he made films in London with mixed results.
Match Point did well, while Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream were flops.
He then moved to Barcelona and made Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his third movie with Scarlett Johansson, which was a hit. Penelope Cruz also became a fan and came back for more in To Rome with Love.
Allen’s canny ability to attract talented, beautiful actresses to his movies has resulted in two best actress Oscars, for Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine.
Earlier in his career he’d made movies with his real life partners, 13 with Farrow and eight with Keaton, which he now concedes probably wasn’t a great idea.
“I’ve been most happy in recent years and this is an accident, as most people are happy when they’re younger,” he says.
“This is the third time I have been married. I first married when I was 20 years old and that was wrong. I married years later to a wonderful, wonderful woman [comedy actor Louise Lasser] whom I am still friendly with, but that was wrong.
“Now I am married to a much younger woman, who was the daughter of the woman I was seeing, and that was in the newspapers all over the world. That was a problem.”
Part of the success of their marriage is that Soon-Yi enjoys the lifestyle that comes with her husband’s fame and she gives back in droves by organising their lives with their two adopted daughters.
Allen appears devoted to his 45 year-old wife who as a child was abandoned her mother in the slums of Seoul.
“We have a big conflict in that my wife wants go to Seoul, to visit Asia, but I’ve kind of slithered out of that because it’s a long trip for me and I get crazy on the plane,” says Allen.
“I don’t have the attention span to sit on plane for so long. Eventually I’m going to have to go because she wants to go so badly and I want to make her happy.”
- Café Society opens next Friday