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Woody Allen On Life, Films And 'Whatever Works'

Academy Award-winning writer and director Woody Allen discusses his life and his films — and why audiences shouldn't confuse the two. His latest movie, Whatever Works, tells the story of a "genius" professor in New York who marries a much younger woman.

44:38

Other segments from the episode on June 15, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 15, 2009: Interview with Woody Allen; Commentary on books 1930s Depression era readers were turning to.

Transcript

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Woody Allen On Life, Films And 'Whatever Works'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest is Woody Allen. He has a new movie
that’s partly an old movie. Woody Allen wrote the screenplay for his new film,
“Whatever Works,” in the ‘70s. The leading role was written for Zero Mostel,
but Allen put the screenplay aside after Mostel died in 1977, the year “Annie
Hall” was released.

Last year, when Woody Allen was ready to start a new film, he faced the
possibility of an actor strike. He wanted to finish shooting a new movie before
the threatened strike, but that left him no time to write a new screenplay. So
he dusted off the one he wrote years ago for Zero Mostel and cast Larry David
in the leading role.

Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a former Columbia University professor who
came close to winning a Nobel Prize in quantum mechanics. He’s as misanthropic
as he is brilliant. He hates most adults, and he hates children, which is bad
news for the children who come to him for chess lessons.

In this scene, Boris is sitting in a cafe when he’s confronted by the mother of
one of his chess students.

(Soundbite of film, “Whatever Works”)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) You! I have been looking for you.
I want to talk to you.

Mr. LARRY DAVID (Actor): (As Boris Yellnikoff) Go ahead.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Did you pick up a chess board full of
pieces and hit my son with it at his lesson today?

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) That idiot’s your son? Do me a favor: Don’t send that
cretin to me anymore. I can’t teach an empty-headed zombie chess.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) I will have you know that he is a very
bright child.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) In your opinion. In your opinion, which is skewed because
he’s your unfortunate issue.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) So you threw a chess board at him?

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) I didn’t throw it at him. I picked up the board and
dumped the pieces on his head as an object lesson to shake him out of his
vegetable torpor.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) You wait until my husband gets back from
Florida.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) What’s he doing in Florida without you?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) He will punch you in the nose.

Mr. DAVID: (As Boris) Her husband’s in Fort Lauderdale. He’s probably hanging
out with your naked co-eds on spring break. He tells her it’s a business trip.
Your son’s an imbecile. Teach him Tiddlywinks, not chess.

GROSS: One day, Boris finds a teen-aged runaway named Melodie, played by Evan
Rachel Wood, sitting in front of his Manhattan home, begging for some food. He
reluctantly takes her in, she stays, and they eventually marry, in spite of the
approximately 40-year age difference between them and in spite of the fact that
Boris thinks she’s brainless.

At the start of the film, Boris states his philosophy of life, which is: Life
is short, so take what little pleasure you can get in this chamber of horrors.
It’s a philosophy expressed in several Woody Allen movies. Here’s Woody Allen
at the beginning of “Annie Hall.”

(Soundbite of film, “Annie Hall”)

Mr. WOODY ALLEN (Filmmaker): (As Alvy Singer) There’s an old joke. Two elderly
women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says boy, the food at
this place is really terrible. The other one says yeah, I know, and such small
portions.

Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life, full of loneliness and misery
and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

GROSS: That basic philosophy is restated in Woody Allen’s recent film, “Vicky
Cristina Barcelona.” Here’s Javier Bardem inviting two beautiful, American
tourists, Vicky and Cristina, to spend the weekend with him.

(Soundbite of film, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”)

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM (Actor): (As Juan Antonio Gonzalo) We’ll spend the weekend. I
mean, I’ll show you around the city, and we’ll eat well. We’ll drink good wine.
We’ll make love.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Who exactly is going to make
love?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) Hopefully the three of us.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Oh my God.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) I’ll get your bill.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Jesus, this guy. He doesn’t beat around
the bush. Look, senor, maybe in a different life.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Juan) Why not? Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of
pain, and this is a chance for something special.

GROSS: Woody Allen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ALLEN: Hi.

GROSS: You know, it’s interesting – hi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: At least three of your films kind of start with the same premise. I’m
wondering why has this question framed several of your movies, that life is
hard, life is full of pain, but life is short, so do what you can to get some
pleasure.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, this is hardly an original thought with me. I mean, down
through the ages, all the important writers and all the important philosophers
have, in one form or another, come to the conclusion, the obvious conclusion,
that you know, life is a terrible trial and very harsh and very full of
suffering, and so whatever you can do with the stipulation that you don’t hurt
anybody without, you know, ruining a life here or there or causing any damage,
there’s nothing wrong with it.

GROSS: So when we talk about making movies, does that give you pleasure? Like
what’s the ratio of pleasure and pain in making a film?

Mr. ALLEN: Well you know, it’s a different kind of pain. See, making a movie is
a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly,
you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and
third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you
know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if
I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my
movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a
character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or
something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with
reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they
distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very
painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that
happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people
don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This
is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in
the real world of human existence.

GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies
distracts you from?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that
anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and
death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and
holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that
you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on,
why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion
that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s
just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And
if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them,
but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves
creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by
following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the
pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home
and worry.

GROSS: So we’ve talked about how your characters try to find pleasure in a life
full of pain. My impression of you is that you’re the kind of person for whom
pleasure is hard to come by, in part because you’ve said you’re a
claustrophobic, agoraphobic. “Annie Hall” was originally going to be named
“Anne Hedonia,” which means an inability to experience pleasure. Is pleasure
hard to come by, even when your work can find it?

Mr. ALLEN: I do – there are a number of things that give me pleasure. But you
know, hanging over the pleasure is always the dark cloud of, you know, the
human predicament so that I can get pleasure when I’m playing with my children,
or I’m doing something with my wife or playing jazz.

I like to play music, and I do find it pleasurable, but these are transient
oases in a vast desert of unspeakable gloom, you know. But I do get pleasure
like everyone else. It’s pleasurable for me to go to a basketball game, or you
know, but always overriding it is the notion that it’s, you know, ephemeral,
very ephemeral.

GROSS: Now your new movie, “Whatever Works,” was written a long time ago by you
for Zero Mostel to star in. What year did you write it?

Mr. ALLEN: I don’t remember the exact year, but it must have been the ‘70s. I
mean, I wrote it years ago, threw it in the drawer, and then I took it out
because I needed a script quickly because there was going to be, possibly going
to be, an actor strike. And so I had to – I couldn’t work on a script. I had to
have a script quickly to do a picture before that potentially imminent strike
occurred.

So I took it out of my drawer, and I felt it was quite a good story, and
unfortunately, Zero had been unique, and it was very hard to think of anyone to
play that role, and over the years, decades, it occurred to us, Juliet Taylor
and myself, that…

GROSS: She’s your casting director.

Mr. ALLEN: Casting director, yeah – Larry David could probably do this in a
very, very funny way.

GROSS: The character that Larry David plays is a real misanthrope, and unlike
some of your other earlier characters, he’s not self-deprecating. He’s not
insecure. In fact, he thinks he’s a genius, a kind of superior being, And in
that respect, you’re almost, like, leaving out the likable part because what we
identify with in your earlier characters, and I mention the early characters
because that’s the period that you wrote the script, is that they had these
insecurities. They were self-deprecating. So I guess I’m wondering why you made
this character so condescending to other people, somebody who thinks he’s a
genius.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, this was supposed to be for Zero originally, and he was a big,
fat, blustering guy who thought that he had all the answers and thought that
everybody in life was inferior to him.

GROSS: You think Zero Mostel himself was that way?

Mr. ALLEN: No, no, not Zero himself…

GROSS: Oh, oh, okay.

Mr. ALLEN: …the character that Zero was playing. Actually, Zero was, you know,
quite the opposite of that. But you know, he was a big, blustering character
who had no patience with anybody. But of course when you look at the character,
the character is full of self-doubt and full of anxiety and can’t fend for
himself and can’t function in relationships.

He’s really no different, it’s just that his façade is, you know, if I had
written that years ago for myself, the character that I could play with my
limited range was self-deprecating, and the persona that I always felt
comfortable acting out was that kind of a intimidated, victim-style character.
But at the time, that was not the story. The story was written not for me but
for Zero, and so it was – it would be the difference between having someone
like Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields play a character and Charlie Chaplin play a
character. One is more persecuted and victim-like, and the other is – the other
two are much more insulting and condescending and superior.

GROSS: So why did you feel so at home playing the self-deprecating character
and felt like that was your comfort zone?

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah, I don’t know. I just – you’re just born into it, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Born into self-deprecation?

Mr. ALLEN: You know, I’m not an actor, and I don’t have a big range. I mean, I
could not play, you know, Shakespeare. I can’t – I can – there’s certain things
I feel comfortable doing, and I just, I can’t explain why. I just do. Yes, in
life I think I am self-deprecating, and you know, frightened of everything, and
you know, it’s an area that I feel comfortable making jokes about because I’m
always joking about my personal foibles.

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen. His new movie, “Whatever Works,” stars Larry
David. We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Woody Allen, and his new movie is
called “Whatever Works,” and it stars Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood.

In the movie, Larry David is in his 50s, and Evan Rachel Wood is still in her
teens when she shows up kind of homeless on his doorstep. And he decides, kind
of against his will, and against his better judgment, to take her in and give
her a few meals and then to let her live there, and then they get married.

So forgive me for asking this because this is a little personal, but this was
written before, like, long before you married Soon-Yi, but it means, let’s be
honest, that everyone’s going to be looking for clues in this movie about your
relationship with your wife.

Mr. ALLEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And again, let’s be honest. A lot of your fans were really kind of upset
when you married the woman who is the adoptive daughter of your long-time
lover. So I wonder if you thought about that kind of thing when you were making
the movie, that people would just be, like, looking for clues about the older-
man-younger-woman relationship and how that applies to you.

Mr. ALLEN: People do look for clues in my movies all the time…

GROSS: For who you really are.

Mr. ALLEN: …in all of my movies. They are constantly searching for clues in my
movies. And no matter how many times I’ve told them over the years that, you
know, I make these stories up, some of them I’ve made up with other writers.
I’ve worked with Doug McGrath, with Marshall Brickman, Mickey Rose, they make
up stories, you know, they make up half of the story with me. The people always
look for clues in my movies, and they think, based on my movies, that they know
me, and of course they don’t know me. And there are some things you could’ve
learned about me over the years but not much, really. You know, I was never who
anybody thought I was from when I started.

When I first started as a comic in Greenwich Village, people thought that I
was, at that time, some kind of a little beatnik and someone who, you know, was
a kind of mousy intellectual, and you know, none of these things were ever
true. You know, I never lived in the Village. I always lived in a very nice
neighborhood uptown in Manhattan.

I was never intellectual. I was never interested in intellectual things. You
know, when I explain to people I’m the guy that you see in his T-shirt with a
beer watching the baseball game at night at home on television, they find that
hard to square with the characters that I played in the movies. But in the
movies, I’m just acting.

So it doesn’t bother me, but it is something that I’ve tried to be honest about
over the years and explain to people, but they don’t feel comfortable hearing
it. They listen to it, and either they don’t believe me when I say it, or they
don’t want to believe me because it diminishes their enjoyment, or it’s
important that they have some kind of image of me that’s meaningful to them for
some reason. I don’t know why. But I’ve never been – you know, I was always a
very athletic little boy, always, you know, never a loner or a loser, always
the first one picked on any team.

GROSS: You were the first one picked on any team?

Mr. ALLEN: Always.

GROSS: See, I wouldn’t have believed that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: I know. I was always a very…

GROSS: Very counter to your image.

Mr. ALLEN: …very good athlete. I was interested even in playing professional
baseball. I was, you know, won track medals, you know. But nobody thinks of me
that way. They think of me as, you know, some kind of little bookworm - because
I have these big, black glasses, black-rimmed glasses - and they think of me as
a bookworm and give me more credit for intellect than I have. And you know, I
couldn’t make it through college. I couldn’t make it through my freshman year
of college, you know. And this was not because I was some, you know, artist or
intellectual above it. I couldn’t cut it. I mean, I wasn’t…

GROSS: You flunked out?

Mr. ALLEN: I couldn’t get the - I flunked out. I was thrown out of New York
University in my first year there…

GROSS: What did you fail?

Mr. ALLEN: …because I couldn’t get the marks.

GROSS: In what subjects?

Mr. ALLEN: I was a motion picture production major, but now I had to take
regular subjects, as well.

GROSS: Don’t tell me you failed motion picture classes.

Mr. ALLEN: English and Spanish and subjects like that. I failed those subjects.
And I didn’t do well in motion picture production, either.

GROSS: Was this because you were busy writing jokes for other people and not
studying, or…

Mr. ALLEN: No, no, I wasn’t too busy. I wasn’t too busy. I was uninterested. I
mean, I – you know, I played ball. I was, as I say, I was athletic. I played
cards. I liked to – I wasn’t interested in erudition and education. Those were
not things that – I was not brought up to be interested in that, and I wasn’t
interested. You know, I didn’t see it in my home. And so I just – this is long-
winded - but just to say that people have, you know, constantly looking for
clues to me in my work and seizing on things that are quite, quite
unrepresentative of who I really am.

GROSS: Woody Allen will be back in the second half of the show. His new movie,
“Whatever Works,” stars Larry David. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Woody Allen. His new film,
"Whatever Works," stars Larry David in a role Allen originally wrote for Zero
Mostel. Allen wrote the screenplay in the 70s. Back in the 70s, when Woody
Allen starred in several of his films, you couldn't help but wonder how closely
the screenplays resembled autobiography.

Can you describe the neighborhood you grew up in? A lot of people imagine you
growing up under the rollercoaster in Coney Island...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...like your character in "Annie Hall."

Mr. WOODY ALLEN (Academy Award-winning writer and director): Right. Right.
People think that. They, no I grew up in a very nice section of Brooklyn called
Flatbush. And when I grew up there it was a lovely, you know it was a lovely
section. I mean there were, there was ball field, and playgrounds. There were
many, many, many movie houses within you know walking distance of no matter
where you were dropped you’d be within walking distance of a couple of movie
houses. And the school that I went to was, you know, quite a nice school. And
you know, the blocks were tree-lined, and safe, and you could go out and play
ball all day long in the streets, and schoolyards, and it was a very nice
neighborhood. It was you know I was not deprived, and I didn't grow up poor.
You know...

GROSS: What was your parent's relationship like? And what did you make, what
did it make you think marriage was like?

Mr. ALLEN: Marriage for my parents was kind of like what it was in all the
other neighboring houses and friends houses. It was a long truce is what it
was. The, all the parents in the neighborhood, the men and women, they loved
each other. There were people who were from the Depression, and so money was a
big factor because nobody had any real money and everybody had to work. But
usually what would happen is the men and the women would, the guys would work
all day and they'd come home, and then on the weekends the guys would take
Bridge chairs out and play cards at a table and the women would keep with the
women.

There was no sense that a guy was coming home on the weekend so he could take
his wife and, you know, leave the son with the babysitter or the daughter with
a babysitter and check into a hotel and have a romantic weekend or do something
romantic. There wasn't that. The guys would be you know watching the ballgame
or - not watching so much, listening on the radio to the ballgames together.
They'd be playing Poker, or Gin Rummy, or Pinochle together. And that's how it
was even when there was a dinner or something, uncles and relatives would get
together, and as soon as the dinner was over the guys would be in the other
room around the card table and the women would be talking in their room about -
you know and you didn't get a sense, you didn’t come away with the sense of
romantic passion. There wasn't much interpersonal charm to it.

GROSS: I know that your movies aren't your life. But there's a scene in "Annie
Hall" that I - it's just like so funny and I feel like I know these people.
It's the dinner scene where you're at dinner with Diane Keeton, Annie Hall's
family and it’s a much more kind of formal, you know quiet polite, everybody
eating slowly kind of setting. And you compare that in your mind with the
family dinners you were used to or people like shoveling down the food and
hollering at each other and everybody's aggravated and talking about who has
diabetes. Was dinner like that at home?

Mr. ALLEN: Dinner was not really like that at home. No, because you know I ate
by myself at you know 5:30, and my mother ate at 6:30 after she had made dinner
for my sister and myself, and my father got home at a quarter to nine, and he
would have a - so no, that stuff was made up and exaggerated for comic
purposes.

GROSS: How come you ate alone?

Mr. ALLEN: I ate alone because I liked to eat alone, because I like, you know,
I liked the solitude. I liked to, you know, eat and read a comic book or
something and...

GROSS: Your parents let you do that without accusing you of being antisocial
and turning your back on the family?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: They were so happy that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: ...that I wanted to eat alone, you know… No, because my, we always
lived with aunts and uncles and things. And my mother would have a better time
eating with her sister. Or, if my father got home in time and she was waiting
for him, with him. But you know, what am I going to talk about with my mother?
I was 10 years old or nine or 11 and out in the streets all day playing
stickball and you know we had nothing to talk about.

GROSS: Now you started in comedy by writing jokes and you were writing for an
older generation. Were you writing jokes that you couldn't imagine telling
yourself, but that you were writing for the comics who would be telling them?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes. I couldn't imagine being in front of an audience. I wanted to
be a writer and I wanted to be again, alone in my room, not bothered by
anybody, not in front of an audience. And so I never saw myself performing.

GROSS: What was the pay like? Did they pay you per joke or per joke that they
used?

Mr. ALLEN: You know, the pay was a lot. I mean at the time you know when you
think that my father and mother both had to work their whole life. My father
drove a cab, and was a bartender, was a bookmaker, and was a, he ran poolroom.
My mother always worked for the flower market. And they had to combine their
salaries. And I started working - and you know, their combined salaries would
be you know maybe less than a hundred dollars a week combined. And I started
working and the, immediately I was making close to two hundred a week, just as
- I mean I was 17 years old and I was making that. And before long I was making
fifteen hundred dollars a week. And in those days, I mean this was the early
50s...

GROSS: That's a lot of money.

Mr. ALLEN: ...you know, the 50s, and it was more than my parents, put together,
would make in ages. So the show business salaries I always felt were way out of
whack with reality. Now, I haven't made a big protest over that over the years
you'll notice...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: ... but I always did feel that they were, you know, when you see
what a school teacher gets and what a some terrible comedian gets or some awful
singer gets, you know it's shocking.

GROSS: Did you say your father worked in a poolroom and he was a bookmaker?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes. He, my father had a lot of jobs. He was always scuffling to
make a living. He sold jewelry, he was a waiter, he was a bartender, he was a
cab driver, he ran a poolroom, he was a bookmaker for a while...

GROSS: You must've met a lot of colorful characters through him, unless you
were not welcome in that world.

Mr. ALLEN: I was young to have met the colorful characters. But he was always
bringing home stolen merchandise, and you know, that was fenced to him for no
money at all. So he'd always be coming home with you know a fur coat for my
mother, or a typewriter, or a tape recorder, or this, you know, and picked this
up for two dollars and this up for 20 dollars. And you know, there was a lot of
that over the years, a lot of stuff bought, I remember that, you know, fence
junk.

GROSS: Were you supposed to keep that a secret, that it was fenced?

Mr. ALLEN: It was never expressed that way. It was, you know, it was that he
came home with a bargain and...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ALLEN: ...you know that - and you say my god, where did you get that you
know electric typewriter for a dollar and quarter?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: It's brand new.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And you know, but you never knew that. And my father was an
inveterate numbers player. There was not a day in his life that he didn’t play
the numbers. And whenever he won, you know, it was money for everybody. I mean
he just spread it around, you know, like Jackie Gleeson and "The Honeymooners."
I mean he just, everybody, you know it was such a pleasure if he came home and
had hit his number. You know, my sister and I and my mother all knew we were
going to be rewarded with an extravagant bonus.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen. His new movie, "Whatever Works," stars Larry
David. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Woody Allen and his new movie is called "Whatever Works,"
and it stars Larry David. Several of your characters have had, to one degree or
another, a dose of hypochondria. And I'm thinking like, you’ve definitely
reached the age where people get real symptoms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And you know, as you get older, as we all know, there are certain
insults to the body. And I guess I'm wondering what it’s like for you to deal
with the body's aging process?

Mr. ALLEN: Well first off, let me say, you know you get insults to your body
all the time. I mean...

GROSS: True.

Mr. ALLEN: ... you're always walking on the abyss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: And I was never a hypochondriac. I never have imagined that I get a
sickness or a disease. My problem was being an alarmist. That is, if I get
chapped lips I think it's you know brain cancer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: You know, so...

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. ALLEN: ...it's that I immediately go to the worst permutation possible. And
as I've gotten older, I so far, haven't really gotten any terrible problems
that I know of. I want to qualify that. So I haven't really experienced much
breakdown. I've lost some hearing and I have a hearing aide that I use. I don't
have to use it all the time because I haven't lost that much, but I'm much more
fun to be with if I have it on. But I haven't started to seriously breakdown
yet, and I'm hoping that it either never happens to me, that science always
keeps one step ahead of me, or that I just die in my sleep one evening, and
then that I never experience some terrible breakdown of my body.

GROSS: Now just one more question. And again, this is kind of personal, but
it's really more about your movies I think. After you married Soon-Yi, I think
a lot of people went back and re-watched "Manhattan" or thought about
"Manhattan" because it’s the story of an older man and a younger woman -
middle-aged man and a teenager. And the ending of that movie was always

ambiguous to me. I can never really tell whether you thought that the character
you played, when he finally after telling the Mariel Hemingway character to
leave and go on a trip to Europe to study, and that, you know, she'd be better
off doing that and leaving him. And then at the end he kind of begs her to
stay. Like, was he doing in your mind the right thing? I mean like what did you
think of that character, the part you played?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: I had no idea. You know Marshall Brickman and I wrote that together
and we tried to figure out some kind of ending for the picture. We would've
been happy to write any ending on a picture that would've worked - that they
stayed together, that they didn't stay together, that you couldn't tell. To me
it didn't matter. I mean I had no - I had no special feelings about that. We
were looking at the beginning of the movie for some rich areas to get comic
scenes in. And one of the areas that we - we came up with a few. And one of the
areas was the older guy and the younger girl. And, but that had no relation to
my life at the time and it was nothing there that was any particular interest
to me or to him. It was just a good laugh gimmick and a good romantic gimmick,
so I really don't know, you know, what happens at the end. I mean I remember
the ending, but I don’t you know I never knew and we never cared. We knew we
could end it that way and have a effective dramatic punch to the audience, and
we moved on.

GROSS: When people love somebody's art they become very interested in the
artist and that leads them to be interested in the artist's personal life or
what they can find out about it. And it’s like some of your fans felt just
upset, and in some ways even betrayed maybe, because of your marriage to Soon-
Yi. And they started reevaluating well, do see his films differently now? Do
you think it's fair or wrong to have, to evaluate an artist's work by what, by
decisions they’ve made or what you think of decisions they’ve made in their
personal life or do you think that that's...

Mr. ALLEN: I think you can evaluate an artist any way you choose to. You're
free to evaluate an artist in any way that you want to based on anything that
makes you happy.

GROSS: And do you care what people think of your personal life? Or is that just
irrelevant to you?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, you know, if I say I don’t care, it sounds so cold and
callous. But let me put it this way. How could you go through life, you know,
taking direction from the outside world? I mean, what kind of life would you
have, you know, if you were – if you made your decisions based on, you know,
the outside world and not what your inner dictates told you? You would have a
very inauthentic life.

GROSS: So you told us you didn’t eat with your family. Do you eat - when you
were growing up, that you ate alone because you liked to be alone with your
comic book at dinner…

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah.

GROSS: …and your parents preferred the company of adults. Do you eat with your
children now?

Mr. ALLEN: I eat with the children, yeah. But, you know, because they like our
company, you know, and, you know, the generations are different. I’m much
closer to my children than my parents were to me. You know, I’m more of a
friend to my children. My wife is more of a friend to my children than my
parents were. You know, when I grew up, the parents were much removed in the
hierarchy of, you know, the social ladder, the family ladder. And so, you know,
my parents were one thing and I was something else, and we had nothing in
common to talk about.

But, you know, my kids and I and my wife, you know, talk about the same
subjects. And, you know, we’re all friends. So, it’s a different tenor to the
relationship. But that’s something that has evolved in general over the years.
Younger parents are, you know, are different with their children than the older
generation parents of now. I’m an older parent, but I’m still a parent in a
younger generation than the generation that I grew up in, obviously. So, you
know, which - I do eat with my children. And we like it.

GROSS: One more question. Of all the movies that you’ve seen, what movie have
you seen the most times?

Mr. ALLEN: What movie have I seen the most times?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ALLEN: I guess I’ve seen - I have to name three movies that I’ve seen many,
many, many times. I’ve seen “The Seventh Seal” many, many times. I’ve seen “The
Bicycle Thief,” many, many, many times. And I’ve seen “Shane,” many, many, many
times, because those are three of my favorites. Now I have other favorites that
I like equally, but I haven’t seen them quite as much as I’ve seen these.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ALLEN: Okay. Thank you.

GROSS: Woody Allen’s new movie, “Whatever Works” stars Larry David. Here’s
Woody Allen in a scene toward the end of his 1979 movie, “Manhattan” in which
he played a comedy writer. He’s alone in his apartment lying on the couch,
dictating notes into a cassette machine.

(Soundbite of movie, “Manhattan”)

Mr. ALLEN: (As Isaac Davis) An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan
who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for
themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying
problems about the universe. It’s - well, it has to be optimistic. All right,
why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Well, there are certain
things, I guess, that make it worthwhile. Like what? Okay. For me, oh, I would
say – what - Groucho Marx, to name one thing, and Willie Mays and the second
movement of the “Jupiter Symphony” and Louis Armstrong, recording of “Potato
Head Blues,” Swedish movies, naturally, “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert,
Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pairs by Cezanne, the
crabs at Sam Woo’s - Tracy’s face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Coming up: Maureen Corrigan investigates what people were reading during
the Depression, and considers how that compares of what books a popular during
this economic crisis. This is FRESH AIR.
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What The Great Depression Was Reading

TERRY GROSS, host:

We’ve heard a lot about how our current economic condition parallels that of
the Great Depression. Book critic Maureen Corrigan began wondering if the books
people were reading in the Great Depression had any correspondence to our
reading tastes today. She focused her investigation on one of the darkest years
of the Great Depression: 1933. And here’s what she found.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Publishers Weekly is the trade journal of the publishing
industry. Various incarnations of the magazine have been around since 1852, and
old issues are a marvel to skim through because they preserve the reading
worlds of yesterday in amber. Not only do they starkly demonstrate how fleeting
fame can be, but the old issues also provide plenty of opportunities for
contemporary readers to condescend to the past. It's unsettling, for instance,
to see in the Publishers Weekly issue of July 1933 an ad hawking Adolph
Hitler's “Mein Kampf,” translated as “My Battle,” as a stirring autobiography
in which you will find Hitler's own story of his meteoric rise from obscurity
to world-wide fame.

That same issue of the Publishers Weekly declares that the reading of books has
increased throughout the Depression, as shown by library circulation records.
At a quick glance, the popular books Americans were reading in the early 1930s
look a lot like the mass market offerings of 2009.

There's a furry precursor to the vampire mania of today lurking in an April
1933 bestseller called “The Werewolf of Paris,” and even a couple of canine
ancestors of “Marley and Me.” The dog starring as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's
spaniel Flush in the 1933 Broadway play, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” is
depicted in a September 2nd photo spread putting his paw to a contract for a
fictional memoir. That same month, Virginia Woolf cashed in on the Flush craze
by bringing out a biography of the pooch.

The ad promised that the forthcoming shaggy dog story was certain to be Mrs.
Woolf's most popular book. Clearly, the copywriter was not a fan of Woolf's
experiments in literary modernism. If you want to get a deeper sense, however,
of the literary fantasies our fellow Americans were reaching for to help them
cope with the economic melt-down of the 1930s, you've got to read between the
lines of these yellowed Publishers Weekly magazines.

Women, then as now, were turning to chick lit, with the crucial difference
being that many of the 1930s plots featured plucky young women whose family
fortunes had taken a nosedive. Faith Baldwin's novel “White Collar Girl” was
deemed a circulation ace in May of 1933. It told the story of charming Linda,
who was forced by her father’s failure, to leave college for a selling job in
her upstate New York home town. No doubt, male readers were the target audience
for the many economic primers of the time, such as “Counter-Attack,” written by
Maryland Senator Millard E. Tydings and touted as a bold, sound, feasible plan
to end the Depression.

But there were also a plethora of hard-luck male extreme adventure tales
published in the early 1930s, like “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Revolutionary War
potboiler, “Rabble in Arms,” and one of the biggest bestsellers of 1933,
“Anthony Adverse,” which weighed in at over 1,000 pages.

The allure of these novels seems pretty clear. Men who were struggling during
the Great Depression could take comfort in reading about the exploits of
stranded sailors, ragtag colonial soldiers and a dispossessed nobleman who has
to fight his way from Cuba to Africa to Europe and America to claim his
rightful inheritance. Some of the most desperate tales in the Depression-era
Publishers Weeklies are the ones only hinted at by ads and brief news items.
Brentanos and the publisher Horace Liveright filed for bankruptcy. The
“Everyman’s Library” reduced its prices from $.90 to $.70 a volume.

And three workers at Schulte’s, a rare bookstore on New York’s Fourth Avenue,
went out on strike wearing sandwich boards accusing the store of unfair
practice because the owner tried to cut wages. Then there’s this ad in the
Positions Wanted section of the July 22nd, 1933 issue: Man 25, three years
experience, old, new books, library. Do anything. Any salary.

I wonder how he made out.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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