The Books: Show and Tell, ‘Woody Allen: The Imperfectionist’, by John Lahr

On the essays shelf:

Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles, by John Lahr

John Lahr probably needs no introduction and his father certainly doesn’t. John Lahr’s father was Bert Lahr, most famous for his role as the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz. John Lahr has grown up to be The New Yorker‘s senior drama critic (he held that position from 1992 until the fall of 2012, when he stepped down to focus on profiles).

Show and Tell is made up of some of his most famous profiles. He has written many books, maybe the most famous being Prick Up Your Ears, about playwright Joe Orton (which was then turned into a movie, which Lahr produced). He also wrote a book about his father (it’s apparently amazing, I haven’t read it). Most interesting, though, are his long in-depth profiles of various actors, entertainers, and writers in the pages of The New Yorker. I look forward to his columns. I like his perspective, and the amount of research he has done. He wants to dig below the surface, and of course with some of these well-known celebrities, that is not easy to do. John Lahr has a great eye for the anecdote that will crack open the mystery of the personality. He thinks like an actor. (I’m all about actor anecdotes. Tell me stories of process, of rehearsals, of how you work … it’s all fascinating.) I value Lahr’s work because of those insights. He understands, growing up as he did with an actor-father, the amount of work it takes to have a career in that racket, and he also understands that talent is only part of the battle. What is it that makes someone unique, as an artist? There is no right way to follow that path. There is no template. Nobody invents the wheel, but we each have our own process. These New Yorker profiles are wonderful “process” pieces.

Even here, with Woody Allen. The Woody Allen piece was written as Allen was preparing to film Deconstructing Harry. The Soon Yi thing had broke, and he was persona non grata in polite society, and still featured on the tabloid pages almost daily. Lahr visits Allen in his apartment, and over the course of a couple of meetings, talked with Allen, not just about the controversy (although they get to that too), but about his work process, his idols, how he got started, how he worked. Allen is typically close-mouthed about his process, and famous for keeping strict control on the set (actors typically only have the pages of their own scenes, not the entire script, etc.). But he trusted Lahr, he was a great admirer of Lahr’s theatre reviews, so he was (perhaps) more open than he would be with, say, a reporter from People magazine.

In addition to chatting with Allen, Lahr talked to all of these actors who had worked with him over the years – Dianne Wiest, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and a ton of others. And here is where we get the glimpses of Allen’s process: who he was on set, how he directed, etc. The stories are well-known. The stories are also similar. He was not, say, an Elia Kazan, who worked very differently with Brando than he did with Barbara bel Geddes, or Karl Malden. Kazan tailored his directing style to the strengths/weaknesses of each actor, using that psychologically. That’s not Allen’s thing. His thing is: Cast well, and that is more than half of your job. He is a genius at casting. And when something isn’t working … there are times he is not sure how to fix it (people have lost their jobs in that case. Allen perhaps thinks: “Well, this person is clearly mis-cast. Not their fault. Have to find a better fit.”) Dianne Wiest, however, tells a brilliant story about her struggle in the first week of shooting Bullets Over Broadway (which, of course, ended up being one of her greatest triumphs as an actress. But she did not nail that right away. She thought he would fire her. She thought she deserved to be fired. She wasn’t “getting it”. Again: nothing personal.)

Lahr is interested in all of these elements of Allen’s fascinating and prolific career. Even in the midst of the Soon Yi shitstorm, he was planning his next project, moving on. He has a habit of working (thank God). He is not, say, Kubrick. Allen has done, on average, a movie a year since he started working. It is a phenomenal body of work. (Mitchell and I discuss Woody Allen here.)

Here is an excerpt about Woody Allen’s meticulous casting process, as well as his process on-set. This is just a small excerpt of a very long piece. I highly recommend seeking out the entire collection.

Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles, ‘Woody Allen: The Imperfectionist’, by John Lahr

The Woody Allen casting call is something of a legend in the business. It is held at his screening room, and Allen, who rarely sits during an audition, usually tries to head the actors off on the threshold of the screening room before they can take up a beachhead and sink into a chair. Even prior to meeting Allen, they are primed by [Juliet] Taylor with a litany of caveats: “You shouldn’t be offended,” “He does this with everything,” “This can be very brief.” Just how brief Allen demonstrates by going into his spiel: “We’re doing this around September. There are a number of uncast roles. Juliet Taylor thought you might be right for one of them. I just wanted to see you. Just to take a look at you physically so I don’t have to do this from photographs. We’ll let you know about this. Thank you.” By the clock, with pauses and a few cordial nods of the head, it’s maybe thirty seconds. When Taylor or Allen were considering English actors Sir Ian McKellan or Sir John Neville for parts in “Mighty Aphrodite”, Taylor had to take Allen aside. “You have to let him sit down,” she told him. “He’s a knight.” She adds, “Somebody else would come in who wasn’t a knight but was very prominent. Woody would say, ‘But they’re not a knight. Why do I have to let them?'” Goldie Hawn, for her first meeting, swept into the screening room and, because of her star status, was given the couch. “She was beautiful, she was full of energy, she was great, she lit up the room,” Allen says. “After the first ten seconds, I didn’t have to have any more of her, that was enough.” But not enough for Goldie. “I was just eating the air in the room, because he was saying nothing,” says Hawn, who launched into an extensive, buoyant account of her travels. Allen cut her off with a joke. “Could you leave the room, so I could talk?” he said.

Allen is always looking for what he calls “thrill capacity”. “Any artist – you see it very clearly in jazz musicians – comes out there, and what differentiates the great ones from the lesser ones is that they can thrill you with the turn of a phrase, a run, or the bending of a note. This is true of acting.” He goes on, “You never know what Diane Keaton’s going to do or what Dianne Wiest is going to do or what Marlon Brando’s going to do. The same with Judy Davis. If you do ten takes with her she’ll do it ten different ways.”

Allen preserves a kind of authorial detachment from the actors; he stands apart from them, watching, judging, mulling, and then, like a novelist scrapping and recasting a chapter, he has been known to dismiss an actor and reshoot the scene. “He doesn’t want to stand there and beg a performance out of you,” [Sidney] Pollack says. “So he watches, and if it isn’t working you’re fired.” (There have been a couple of dozen casualties over the years.) Allen also doesn’t talk much to the actors. This can be disconcerting and demoralizing for the ensemble. Barbara Hershey, whose “favorite thing is to put my head together with the director and create the character,” got no joy from Allen in “Hannah and Her Sisters.” “I never wanted to tell her anything,” Allen says of his laissez-faire approach. “I would tell her not to think about it. ‘Just get out there. Do what you feel in the moment. Fight for your survival. If you’re doing something wrong, I’ll tell you about it.'” The method saves Allen a lot of time and boredom. “That would be tedious to me,” he says. “To have actors come over, sit down, and to go over all that nonsense with them. You accept the part. When you read the script, I assume you have enough brains and common sense to know what you’re getting into.”

Many actors find the experience cold, but it is also freeing and – in Allen’s hands, anyway – effective. Hawn likens Allen’s directing style to good parenting. “We have a tendency with our own children to impose what we believe their life should be,” she says. “We put in front of them all the do’s and don’ts, shoulds and shouldn’ts. So we corral the spirit. Woody gives you the space to experiment with your creativity, to feel abandonment. Therefore, you start to discover what else you can do.”

“Woody throws you into the Mixmaster and turns on the switch,” Alam Alda, a veteran of three Allen films, says. “One of the things that happens is that actors are so without their usual props – without the usual acting tricks that they can rely on – that they reach out to each other on-screen in an extraordinary way. You see wonderful relating in his movies. People really look like they’re talking to each other. The other reason they look like they’re talking to each other is that they really are listening, because they don’t know what the other one’s gonna say. They know the gist of it, but he seems to deliberately write it in a formal, uncolloquial way and asks you to make it colloquial. Most of the time he’ll say, ‘That sounds too much like a joke. Mess it up a little bit so it doesn’t sound so much like a joke.'”

In “Everyone Says I Love You”, there is a scene where Alda and his family argue over breakfast about family matters, for which, Alda says, “he did more directing there than in the entire first movie I did with him.” Allen himself uses the scene to illustrate his “typical way of directing.” “It would be one master shot – everybody’d be in it,” he says. “I’d get the actors together and tell them, ‘These are the points that I need to make. I want to know that you’re going to Le Cirque tonight, that the mother feels that she’s championing the ex-con, and that the right-wing son is against her. I want that to come out.'” Allen goes on, “I just want the whole family to have breakfast and talk among themselves. So I say, ‘Step on each other’s lines. If you have a line that you want to be heard, fight to get it out. If you have exposition that’s important, get it in somehow.'”

Allen is not easy on his actors, or on himself. “He’s a sweet man, but he is not sweet when he’s working,” Wiest says. “Working with Woody is sweating blood, because he hears if you don’t hit the notes. He’s got great musicality. It’s about hitting the notes. It’s precision within the feeling. You’ve got to put the bead on the string, but before you even get to the string with Woody the bead has to be precisely round. It has to be great.” Wiest, who in “Bullets Over Broadway” was made to descend a staircase about thirty times, knows Allen’s look of displeasure – what she calls “a mild and gentlemanly disgust.” She explains, “His head is tilted to one side. The left side of his mouth is up, the right side is down. His eyes are downcast. It’s a thoughtful pose. But I know what’s coming. I know it’s not good for me.” After the first day of shooting, Allen phoned Wiest. “You know, it’s terrible. It’s terrible!” Allen told her. “I told you so!” Wiest remembers telling him. “I think you should get someone else.” He said, “No, I think it’s something to do with your voice. We’ll reshoot it.” Wiest, who has a high-pitched speaking voice, lowered it, and after the scene was reshot Allen said, “That’s it.” Wiest says, “That was it. That was the character. I’d be in the middle of a take and he’d go, ‘Voice! Voice!'”

“It’s just not good,” he told Diane Keaton in the first week of shooting “Manhattan Murder Mystery”. She explains, “He just will think of another way if it doesn’t work. But if you’re not cutting the mark, you’re gone. It’s not about friendship. It’s not about anything. It’s about the work.” Allen does not regard his judgments as ruthless; in fact, he sees his lack of ruthlessness as a weakness. “I’m the opposite of a perfectionist. I’m an imperfectionist,” he says. “I’m uncompromising with what I want to do with my work, but I’m not ruthless. I wish I was more ruthless. I feel that my work would be better if I could bring myself to express feelings of impatience or anger that I have but don’t like to burden other people with.” He goes on, “A more mature person would not go through that kind of mental anxiety. He would say, ‘I’m sorry, we agreed that the costumes would all have red feathers on them and I’m not shooting unless they have red.’ But I’ll say, ‘Well, all right, we’ll do it this way.'”

Not always. On “September”, Sam Shepard was granted permission to improvise a speech, and, according to Wiest, ended up talking about leaving Montana to go East to medical school. As Wiest and Allen were walking back to the dressing room, Allen turned to her. “Montana? Montana?” he said. “The word ‘Montana’ is gonna be in my movie?” It wasn’t.

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2 Responses to The Books: Show and Tell, ‘Woody Allen: The Imperfectionist’, by John Lahr

  1. mutecypher says:

    Montana = Wire Coat Hangers.

    No, just, no.

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