Reconstructing Woody: Art, Love, and Life in the Films of Woody Allen (1998), Mary P. Nichols
Without Feathers (1990), Woody Allen
Perspectives on Woody Allen (Perspectives on Film) (1996), Renee R. Curry (Editor)
(1995), Richard A. Blake
When Woody Allen makes a film in black and white, rather than color, CV’s respect for him as an artist leads us to think that there were artistic reasons for doing so. The choice doesn’t seem to be related particularly to mood – Manhattan was a romantic film; Stardust Memories (like Celebrity) a dark, bitter comedy; Shadows and Fog a movie that couldn’t be anything but black and white.
In Celebrity, Allen anticipates possible criticism with a line about "pretentious filmmakers who shoot everything in black and white." Maybe a filmmaker, even as brilliant (in CV’s opinion, anyway) as Woody Allen, is as much influenced by what the producers could manage in the current budget as by any more profound considerations. Celebrity is a film with a huge cast, multiple locations, a complicated scenario. The black and white photography of Sven Nykvist is never something to sneeze at, but simply did not seem particularly important here.
Against the ongoing background themes of many of his films – sexual insecurity, elusive relationships, aging, success/failure – Allen here does his riff on celebrity, its costs and privileges, its (sometimes) brevity, power plays, excesses, and emptiness. After all, it is pointed out, Sonny von B�low was a celebrity simply because she was in a coma for seven years! In one scene a woman without pretension questions why hostages become celebrities: "What’s he famous for – being captured? It is no great feat to be captured!"
One cannot help but to speculate that Allen’s own celebrity, and the invasiveness that celebrity injected into his private life, was a motivating factor in the choice of subject here. Between the funny lines – and there are many – not only bitterness comes through, but a quality of bewilderment as well. The Monica Lewinsky allusion is there, citing, without naming, another victim of celebrity.
Allen does not appear in the film. The lead is played by Kenneth Branagh, but it would be a mistake to take Branagh for an Allen stand-in, despite the mimicked speech patterns. Woody Allen, the celebrity, is an enormously successful and self assured individual, whatever the pain of his neuroses. And he was careful to be sure we knew, in the documentary Wild Man Blues how stable and secure his current relationship is, despite the invasive paparazzi (also present in force in Celebrity).
Branagh’s character, on the other hand, a not-so-famous journalist, pursues whichever sex object/beauteous celebrity is at hand, pretty much screwing up one potential relationship after another and misplaying the celebrity advantage game repeatedly. His ex-wife, finely played by Judy Davis, ends up in a successful marriage, but, in a key line of the film, assures Branagh that when it comes to love, it is all sheer luck. In the end, Allen pushes the word "help" at us, ending the film with a plea, as he opened it.
But in between these serious (and ultimately inconclusive) emotional maneuverings are the explorations of celebrity, from its perks of private entrances to plastic surgeons offices, desirable seats at the hot openings of shows or restaurants, leaping long waiting lists to gain admission of a parent to a nursing home – or even an appointment with that plastic surgeon who is fully booked for months in advance. It becomes clear that there is a pecking order here, and perennial games of one-upmanship, too. The celebrity of talk shows gets its share of attention as well and provides grist for some of the best laughs. CV especially liked the ACLU lawyer waiting to appear on television and complaining: "Where’s my makeup man? I’m a lawyer – you expect me to go on without makeup?"
If the film ends up being less than fully satisfying, it is probably due to the finally unsympathetic Branagh character, who also becomes less interesting as the story wears on. Still, there is more incisive observation of contemporary values and mores, delivered with a lot of laughs, than most directors manage in their best offerings. We’ll take Woody, even in less than best form.