"I'm basically a low-culture person," says Woody Allen, telling a flock of assembled film critics that he's not the intellectual people think he is. It is the same point he has been making in interviews for years.
"I'm not saying I'm an insensitive Neanderthal," he explains. "But basically, I'm the guy who's watching the playoffs and drinking a Beck's. I'm not at the opera. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of people thinking I'm an intellectual."
The usually publicity-shy Allen has agreed to talk to reporters as part of a New York City press junket for Small Time Crooks, his 30th movie. The 64-year-old filmmaker has reasons to mistrust the media, which have recently called him things far worse than an intellectual. In 1992, he weathered accusations of child molestation during an acrimonious custody battle with Mia Farrow, and endured the tabloidization of his romance with Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi (now 28 and married to Allen). If he's uncomfortable facing this press inquisition, though, he doesn't show it.
The movie, which stars Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant and Elaine May, is a return to the jokey burlesque of Allen's 1969 directorial debut, Take the Money and Run, from which it borrows its theme: bungling thief fails to pull off the big heist of his dreams. In Small Time Crooks, the crime comedy takes a sharp turn, becoming a farce about nouveau riche vulgarity. Allen's character, Ray, an ex-con, and his wife, Frenchy (Ullman), strike it rich when the bakery they've opened as a front for a robbery becomes a successful corporation, thrusting the tacky couple into high society. Hosting a fancy dinner party, Frenchy serves what she calls "croo-dites." Ray tells Polish jokes. Wearing canary-yellow slacks and grumbling irritably at his wife, Ray could be Take the Money's Virgil Starkwell as a cranky golden-ager.
"There are very few characters I can play," Allen explains. "I can play myself. I'm not really an actor. One thing I can play is a lowlife. I can also play, like, a college teacher. But nothing in between."Small Time Crooks is about the efforts of a lower-class couple to acquire a patina of high culture, and that, in a sense, is what Woody Allen did in his own life. His Brooklyn childhood, he says, was a sort of cultural desert. "My parents never took me to the theater or to a museum," the former Allan Konigsberg recalls. "And there was no music at all. I educated myself.
Part of his motivation was girls. "In high school, there were certain women who would have no patience with you if you had not read certain books. But I was basically a street kid. I played ball. I looked studios -- the black glasses -- but that's not me.
"I graduated with a 72 average; I think 65 was the minimum. I got thrown out of college my first year."
Even his fabled admiration for Ingmar Bergman had its roots in adolescent sexual yearning. He saw his first Bergman film at 18 because he'd heard there was a naked lady in it.
If fans have mistaken a beer-drinking, Knicks-watching shlub for an intellectual, it's understandable: Allen's movies are studded with references to Kafka, Freud and Tolstoy, and his filmography includes homages to Berman and Fellini. But beneath it all, he insists, beats the heart of a comedy writer. During his nightclub days, audiences assumed, based on his bookish appearance, that he was an academic type, and the persona stuck. When he wrote jokes, he says, it seemed funny to drop names like "Kierkegaard."
"I learned to utilize the intellectual patois," he says. "It's just a skill. People think of me more seriously than I really am. I mean, I've done about 30 films, and about 27 have been just out-and-out comic films. I've done, like, three serious films in my life, and a few semi-serious films. Because this is really what I am after all the pretension falls away. This is what falls under my fingers easiest."
Allen recently signed a three-movie deal with DreamWorks, which is distributing Crooks. He'll do limited interviews and will talk to film students at seeral colleges, but he balks at tasteless publicity, and won't plug his movies on television.
"Why won't you do talk shows?" one reporter at the junket prods.
"Allen winces. "It's not nice for me to be the one to tell you how good my film is. You should say if you like it. For me to show a clip and have David Letterman or Jay Leno say that it's great -- I feel funny doing that. I feel shy to do that. It's a hard thing for me to do, to go on national television to promote my film."
Another junketeer takes it upon himself to offer career advice to Woody Allen, suggesting that he'd make a great talk-show guest. "You're very quick on your feet," suggests the young reporter, who was probably born decades after Woody started his career. "And you'd certainly be better than almost anybody out there."
"I've done talk shows many times, and I've hosted them," Allen replies patiently. "It's not a difficult thing to do, but I have a hard time...you know, when the film comes out, if the film is good, the audience will find its way."Small Time Crooks was filmed swiftly, its release following Allen's period jazz drama Sweet and Lowdown by less than a year. The experience of working with Ullman, Grant, and veteran comedienne Elaine May was so enjoyable it makes Allen feel a little guilty. "I'm familiar with a no-pain, no gain philosophy -- that if I'm not suffering and working hard and reshooting, that I'm not going to get anything out of it."
Allen says he doesn't intentionally alternate serious and comic films. "There is no strategy. It's a constant fight for survival. You want to have an idea that stimulates you. This kind of film," he reflects, "is easy for me. What's very hard for me is serious film. The relationships become more complicated.
"But a film like this -- I could do two of these films a year."
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.