In October, Café Society, the latest release from writer/director/comic godhead Woody Allen, waltzes into theatres — the 47th feature Allen has directed over a career spanning 50 years. (Yes, we’re counting New York Stories.) He’s had box-office successes and outright bombs, Oscar-winning masterpieces and critically panned duds. But regardless of his movies’ receptions (and the reoccurring rumours about his personal life), he’s managed to pump out a film a year with impressive regularity. Some key elements have stayed the same — once a jazz clarinet slinks onto the soundtrack, audiences know exactly who they’re dealing with. But as as artist, Allen has evolved considerably over the years.
From funny-Woody to serious-Woody, American Borscht-Belt jokester to Euro-funded auteur, he’s moved between comedies, chamber dramas and character studies while still maintaining his signature style. With his endlessly quotable dialogue as a guide, we chart the half-century that Allen has spent challenging, delighting, wooing, and cracking up audiences through some of his funniest, most insightful lines. They aren’t always his best-known zingers, but consider them signposts to a long and varied career.
1. “He’s always very depressed. I think that if he’d been a successful criminal, he would have felt better. You know, he never made the ’10 most wanted’ list. It’s very unfair voting; it’s who you know.” -Take the Money and Run (1969)
Drawing on his background as a stand-up comic and a joke-machine for late-night personalities like Sid Caesar and Ed Sullivan, Allen’s early career in Hollywood was built on bits like this. The comedian’s ability to marry mismatching ideas to expose the absurdity of life would become his trademark, and this mockumentary about a bumbling burglar fired off bouts of inspired ridiculousness like gatling-gun rounds. To many fans, Allen was never better than in these early-period comedies, when he was content with nothing more than harvesting laughs, and lots of them.
2. Allan: What are you doing Saturday night?
Woman: Committing suicide.
Allan: What about Friday night? –Play It Again, Sam (1972)
Allen’s running obsession with love, death, and the link between the two started early with this adaptation of the stage play he penned in 1969 (and which Broadway vet Herbert Ross directed for the screen three years later). This exchange between his character and a morose woman he meets at an art gallery encapsulates the ironic tragedy of the typical Allenesque figure: the sorts of women he wants want nothing themselves, especially not him. Life and love are both losing games in Allen’s worldview – you’ve got to give them up eventually, but the question is how many rounds you last before going down, and what you do before you concede to the defeat.
3.”When it comes to sex, there are certain things that should always be left unknown, and with my luck, they probably will be.” –Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask)(1972)
Self-deprecation formed a cornerstone of Allen’s comedic sensibility from the start, and he helped bring the Catskills born-and-bred nebbish-humor further into the mainstream. The archetypal Jewish intellectual attained sex symbol status during the Seventies, but even as his cultural cachet rose, Allen remained simultaneously fixated on and terrified of women. (In a 1975New York Times piece, Allen mused, “Love is the answer. But while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions.”) Jokes like the sucking-the-poison-out-of-snakebite bit in Bananas (1972) had already proven he could do wonders with a dirty joke and a risqué sight gag. But his extended, sketch-comedic take on sex therapist David Reuben’s bestseller did more than show Allen could eke laughs from pretty much anywhere; it established him as one of his generation’s most hilarious, highly unlikely carnal-knowledge comics.
4.”Oh, he was probably a member of the National Rifle Association. It was a group that helped criminals get guns so they could shoot citizens. It was a public service.” –Sleeper (1973)
Allen’s always had a political streak in him, and in his earlier years, it manifested as a healthy sort of young-mannish dissatisfaction with the government. This sci-fi–inflected social satire sent him eons into the future to gain a little perspective on the present, taking easy potshots at the likes of Howard Cosell and offering tougher commentary on the fading idealism in the years following the Summer of Love. But Allen’s greatest critical weapon has always been a well-placed barb, and in the simple punch line above, he sums up the infuriating paradox of the NRA. Regrettably, this joke earns bonus points for staying relevant through to the present. It would be a while until he’d fully broach what could justly be called “serious territory,” but at this juncture, Allen was eager to prove to the public he had a little more on his mind than just the battle of the sexes.
5. “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.” -Love and Death (1975)
Allen’s relationship with God, the universe and everything has been fraught and in constant evolution over his career, beginning with a sort of good-natured exasperation and advancing from there. (He irreverently joked in an early stand-up routine about cheating on his metaphysics final in college by “looking into the soul of the boy next to me.”) Set during the Napoleonic era, this take on historical dramas and bullet-stopping Russian novels found the comedian wrestling with weightier concerns than usual, the foremost being humanity’s deadbeat dad upstairs. Whatever higher power he believed in was either uninterested, absent, or kind of a dick. And his knack for creating a seamless blend of high art, lowbrow humor and philosophical musings really begins here — a sensibility that would serve him well over the next four decades.
6. “You should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.” –Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall isn’t widely regarded as the high-water mark of Allen’s career just because it created the most satisfying synthesis of Allen’s menschy sensibility and leading lady Diane Keaton’s women’s-lib progressivism (that suit!), or even because it earned Allen his first (and only) Best Picture Oscar. In his own resolutely pessimistic way, Allen found some measure of self-actualisation with this doomed romance and gave his filmography a much-needed dose of hope. Love is a bastard, the film says, but falling head-over-heels and getting pummelled by the eventual breakup is still infinitely preferable to being alone. The film remains Allen’s most perfect and fully-realised statement of purpose, bottling the affecting mix of melancholy and sweetness that endeared him to audiences into 90 minutes that viewers can revisit again and again, like old photos of an ex-lover.
7. “I’m 42, and she’s 17. I’m older than her father, can you believe that? I’m dating a girl wherein I can beat up her father.” –Manhattan (1979)
In a 1979 interview on French TV, Allen declared that Manhattan was nothing less than a commentary on “what’s happening to the American culture.” Splitting the difference between the bittersweet irony of Annie Hall and the bleakness of 1978’s existential straight-drama Interiors, the filmcemented the fact that Allen was now an artist engaging with bigger ideas and thornier moral dilemmas — some of which, as the quote above makes clear, have aged exceedingly poorly in light of the recent revelations of sexual misconduct. Regardless, Manhattan remains a common pick for all-time greatest among fans; credit that to Allen’s swooning affection for the Big Apple, which he renders here in gorgeously grainy black-and-white. The infatuation with New York persisted over his long career, but the romance between the director and the city he was never purer.
8. “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” –Stardust Memories, (1980)
Allen’s impulse to make what posterity might deem “high art” is understandable though after the relative flop of Interiors (Eric Lax’s biography quotes Allen as confiding to his editor, “We pulled this one out by the short hairs, didn’t we?”), the majority of viewers wanted Allen to get back in his wheelhouse and make with the funny. Manhattan proved that he could still do that while scratching his arthouse itch, though judging from his next film, Allen still had a chip on his shoulder. The Sullivan’s Travels-styled quote from his 8 1/2-syle follow-up to that perennial favourite finds Allen poking fun at himself and his sudden career swerving. But the movie also doubles as an acid-dipped valentine to his fans — a shot fired back at those who simply wanted him make Bananas Part 7 and leave the intellectual pretensions to the Europeans.
9. “Sex alleviates tension. Love causes it.” –A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)
Here is the central interplay linking all of Allen’s films: the friction between what the brain tells a person to want (love) and the body’s disobedient response (desire, sex, curling up into a little ball and pretending everything is fine). Most importantly, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy marked the beginning of the Mia Farrow era, when the former Ms. Frank Sinatra would become as his personal and professional muse.
10. “I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”-Zelig (1983)
It’s an absurdist comedy of errors about a ineffectual man who can change his appearance to suit his surroundings. But any comic could pull that off; what Zelig really does is remind viewers what a genius Allen is when it comes to the art of comic filmmaking. Working with black-and-white archival footage into which he imposed himself via bluescreen, he gave his shots a worn look by employing era-appropriate vintage lenses and even manually scratching and otherwise antiquing his filmstrips. The result dropped Allen’s chameleon-like hero into the proximity of historical figures (everyone from Hearst to Hitler) in the most seamless manner possible — it’s a feature-length sight gag blessed with both pathos and a comedic pulse. The result remains both his most formally ambitious undertaking and a career high point.
11. “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.” –The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Characters in Allen’s movies have a bad habit of falling in love with the version of the person that they want, rather than the real one that exists. You could say the same thing about what may be his most romantic movie made about the movies — a world in which the white-telephone world of 1930s films buts up against the harsh reality happening outside that era’s theatres. In the grander scheme of his career trajectory, Purple‘s rose-tinted comfort has made it one of the most beloved productions, even as he threatened to become the sort of niche talent that simple made movies for his hardcore fans and no one else. This was the type of movie that found him doubling down on making his types of comedies and no one else’s.
12. “I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.” –Hannah and Her Sisters(1986)
It’s the closest Allen’s ever come to a state of Zen fulfilment. Playing the movie’s hypochondriac TV writer in this drama of interlocking lives, he realises that submitting to the arbitrary meaninglessness of life can certainly make his time on Earth a little less painful. (In a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone, Allen joked, “Someone once asked me if my dream was to live on in the hearts of people, and I said I would prefer to live on in my apartment.”) But perhaps most importantly, Hannah and Her Sisters provided him with a much-needed hit, and the seven Academy Award nominations (three of which, it clinched) didn’t hurt either. After several stylistic experiments, trifles and low-stakes character studies, this was the sort of big-statement film that brimmed with smart dialogue, incredible performances (especially from its female cast members) and existential chin-stroking that folks had been waiting for since Manhattan.
13. “What a world. It could be so wonderful if it wasn’t for certain people.” –Radio Days (1987)
After the surprise success of Hannah in the previous year, this throwback to vintage Allen (imagine the Annie Hall Brooklyn flashbacks buffed up to feature length) saw him scaling back a bit and retreating into a certain corner of his comfort zone. But the combo of sentimental nostalgia, Borscht Belt-style humour and good-old-fashioned misanthropy feels like an attempt to fuse a lot of his different career strands into one movie. In his four-star review, Roger Ebert said it was “so ambitious and so audacious that it almost defies description.”
14. “In reality, we rationalise, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living.” –Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Arguably the apex of serious-Allen, this conclusion not only works as a covert commentary on Allen’s unsavoury offscreen relationships but it encapsulates the spirit of his cinematic-moralist period perfectly. Crimes and Misdemeanors finds a man learning to forgive himself for literally getting away with murder; watched through modern eyes, it plays like a chilling confession of wrongdoing. It was a critical darling yet too dour and highbrow to be a hit with audiences, but the three Oscar nominations and cavalcade of positive notices weren’t a shabby consolation prize.
15. “I bought her this handkerchief … and I didn’t even know her size.” –Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Romance can be a messy business in Allen’s world, and outside the four walls of the theatre, Allen’s love life wasn’t any simpler; Mia Farrow was slated for the lead in Manhattan Murder Mystery, but her contentious breakup with Allen in the wake of his relationship with adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn drove her to unceremoniously leave the production. (The director tapping his former paramour Diane Keaton to fill the role.) As Farrow and Allen fought a nasty custody battle over their three children, Allen filtered his personal baggage into his previous picture Husbands and Wives (1992). With Manhattan Murder Mystery, however, Allen deliberately avoided comparisons to his personal life by changing the Marcia character from a 21-year-old novelist to a profile befitting an 41-year-old Anjelica Huston. The shadow of his personal life, however, was only going to loom larger over his work from now on.
16. “I think you’re the opposite of paranoid. You go around with the insane delusion that people like you.” –Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Allen had locked into a groove during the mid-Nineties, with the Oscar-gold-plated success of Bullets Over Broadway in 1994 and Mighty Aphrodite in 1995. But even as the public embraced him, Allen’s messy private life had gotten him in hot water with plenty of stars. Clearly, there was nothing to do but foreground this off-screen drama — hence this scorched-earth comedy, in which Allen cast himself as a novelist who incurs the wrath of friends and lovers by jacking their lives for his books. The polarising director has never been afraid of controversy, and with what many felt was both a retort to his critics and a possible behind-the-scenes peek into his personal life, he confronted his head-on.
17. “You can learn to push the guilt under the rug and go on. Otherwise, it overwhelms you.” –Match Point (2005)
Largely a matter of following the funding, Woody’s films in the new millennium began to increasingly move away from his bespoke version of the Big Apple and over to European locales. This British-based morality play quickly earned comparisons to Crimes and Misdemeanors, but more importantly it bolstered his reputation after some suspected he had run out of steam following a long spate of lack-lustre films. Awash with positive reviews and mustering a healthy gross (due in no small part to a standout performance from new muse Scarlett Johansson), Allen surged back to relevance with this ace.
18. “No, 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.” –Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Whether in sensuous Spain, exquisite Italy, or inimitable France, Allen’s European pictures would began to indulge more in material pleasures, and no movie reflected it more than this sweltering, doomed romance between three dizzyingly gorgeous people. Revolving around an American attempting to shed her bourgeois inhibitions and enjoy a libertine lifestyle as an expatriate abroad, the film works just fine as an allegory for Allen figuring out how to have fun again. And it’s a miracle the camera didn’t melt while shooting the scenes of passion between Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz. Rightly earning Cruz the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, this film remains one of the more positively reviewed entries in Allen’s latest phase. And what’s more, it was a hit.
19. “Nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present … the name for this denial is golden age thinking: the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” –Midnight in Paris (2011)
That the film’s villain, the Michael Sheen-played twit mentioned above, speaks this line is key. Allen’s filmography would suggest he disagrees wholeheartedly; as he’s aged and gotten farther from what’s popularly deemed his glory days, his resolute commitment to living in the past had taken on a faintly pathetic air. But the massive crossover success of this Lost Generation fan fiction, in which Owen Wilson pals around with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Marion Cotillard’s Gallic beauty, struck a chord with audiences. Suddenly, Allen had his highest payday of all time with a $151 million global take as well as almost unilaterally glowing reviews; it played like a time-capsule of classic Woody and earned him a valuable swell of goodwill. Apparently the past was not done with him either.
20. “I used to know the words. Now they’re all a jumble.” –Blue Jasmine (2013)
Death has always been on Allen’s mind, but with this Cate Blanchett tour-de-force showcase, he confronted the effects of ageing and deteriorating body more directly than ever before. Portraying a woman strolling past the verge of a nervous breakdown, Blanchett did some of the finest work of her career and snagged a Best Actress statuette. And for Allen, her virtuoso turn showed that he was still an expert director of actors, and in a larger sense, that he still had near-masterpiece quality work in him after all these years. It’s obviously not a swan song, but it’s still a knowing statement from an artist with a lot of life left in him.