Ellen Gray: Woody Allen looks back on his life on 'Masters'

Posted: November 18, 2011

* AMERICAN MASTERS. WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY. 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday, WHYY 12.

WARNING: Watching "Woody Allen: A Documentary" - a two-part "American Masters" that premieres Sunday - is likely to only lead to more time on the couch.

And, no, not the one in the psychoanalyst's office.

I found it impossible to watch Allen and others discussing his life's work without wanting to immediately rewatch a number of his movies, if only to figure out why he thinks he screwed up some of the ones I remember liking best.

And there are a number of them. Allen will be 76 on Dec. 1 and in terms of production, he continues to be to film what Joyce Carol Oates is to literature.

Maybe you don't get that much work done by making the talk-show rounds constantly, so while filmmaker Robert Weide has included old TV clips of Allen talking to Dick Cavett, chances are you haven't heard much lately from Allen himself, whose biggest box-office hit so far, "Midnight in Paris," was released this year.

It was no surprise, certainly, that the press-shy Allen wasn't present for a PBS press conference this past summer to discuss his "American Masters" treatment - instead, reporters got the reminscences of "Manhattan's" Mariel Hemingway and "Mighty Aphrodite's" Mira Sorvino - but he seems to have been pretty comfortable with Weide, who takes him through his career chronologically.

If you're just interested in gossip, skip to Monday night's installment, where his breakup with Mia Farrow and subsequent marriage to Farrow's adopted daughter gets dealt with. Just don't expect to really learn anything.

Farrow, whom Allen and others discuss in glowing terms as an actress, isn't among the talking heads, but there are plenty of women to speak up for the director, from his fond younger sister, producer Letty Aronson, to exes like Louise Lasser (his second wife) and Diane Keaton.

His parents, so much a part of his early comedy, may have been exaggerated for effect, but Aronson's not inclined to dispute her brother's take on them.

They "weren't pro-Woody going in to show business. They wanted him to be a pharmacist. He was the wrong person born to those parents, that's all I can say," she says.

The man born Allen Stewart Konigsberg himself recalls his mother saying he was a cheerful child till about age 5, the point at which, he theorizes, he figured out he wouldn't live forever.

Maybe he'd have felt better if he'd known then that his father would live to be 100, his mother 96?

Maybe not.

In any case, it seems to have meant something to Allen to be included in the pantheon of "American Masters."

"When I pitched it to Woody, I pitched it as a possible 'American Masters' program, and that appealed to him," Weide told reporters. So later, "when we were dealing with issues about getting financing and knowing that PBS is strapped and everybody is having financial problems, and I told him it might be worth considering other places to go that could maybe write a check and do this.

"At that point he said, 'No. No. If we can do this for 'American Masters,' OK, but don't be shopping it around.' "


Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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