Woody Allen, who famously quipped that "80 percent of success is just showing up," has lived that line, turning out an amazing (albeit some more amazing than others) 40-plus movies over the last four-plus decades.
Still, for all his cinematic output, the Woodman is a virtual recluse by the standards of Hollywood, a world he disdains (the only cultural advantage to Los Angeles is “making a right turn on a red light,” according to Allen).
Sure, there was Barbara Kopple's fascinating 1997 documentary, "Wild Man Blues," which showed Allen at full neurotic tilt, fussing over hotel room shower drain placement while touring Europe with his New Orleans-style jazz band. But, until now, there hasn't been anything comparable chronicling Allen at work doing what he sometimes does best: making movies.
Which is why we're bananas over the prospect of the two-part PBS “American Masters” documentary about Allen, set to begin Sunday. Even if the 3 ½-hour look at Allen’s life and work is long overdue, give director Robert Weide 100 percent credit for showing up at a great time.
Allen is still riding as high as a man with anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure – and the original title for "Annie Hall," incidentally) can off "Midnight in Paris," his funniest movie in years and by some measures his most successful film.
It’s unclear why Allen finally permitted an extensive look at him on the set (Weide followed him for 1 ½ years). But we're guessing the man who said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work – I want to achieve it through not dying" might be thinking about his place in movie history.
Allen, after all, turns 76 next month, and he's coming up on the 20th anniversary of the scandal that threatened his career as the most independent of filmmakers: his affair with Soon-Yi Previn, daughter of his then-girlfriend Mia Farrow. Few would have predicted then that Allen would still be with Previn, nearly 35 years his junior – and that he’d still be making a movie a year.
Farrow is just about the only key Allen figure missing from the documentary, which includes interviews with collaborators like his ex-wife Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts.
Weide got to trail the perhaps overly prolific Allen in London during the making of last year's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," which falls into the growing "not bad" category of the director's oeuvre – better than, say, "Melinda, Melinda," but not in the same league (or city) as, say, "Annie Hall."
"Annie Hall," perhaps Allen’s most acclaimed work, ends with him telling an old joke about a man whose brother thinks he's a chicken – but he doesn’t turn in his clucking sibling because “I need the eggs.” Allen used the joke as commentary on relationships, but it also applies to his movie making. He still needs the eggs – and so do his fans. Thanks to Weide and PBS, we’re in for a look at how they’re hatched. Check out a preview below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.