NEW YORK -- It looked like a shrink's office. The sun was filtering through the curtains and the air conditioner hummed reassuringly, and, after a subtle moment of jockeying for position, I got the couch and Woody Allen took the big overstuffed, black leather chair.
We were in Woody's office, on Fifty-seventh Street, just a little to the left of the Russian Tea Room. I had just come from a screening of Allen's new film, "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," and I was in the strange position of talking to him before I had sorted out my own thoughts about the movie. Even though I was on the couch, I began with the kind of question an analyst might use.
Your movie seems to be saying that women are more resilient than men. That we can count on them for support and encouragement.
Woody nodded. "I've always felt more sanguine about women than about men," he said."They're more mature, less bellicose, more gentle. They're closer to what life's supposed to be about. They bring up kids. Men are stiffer, don't cry, die of heart attacks. Women are just more into nature; They know what sex should be. They never dissociate sex and love. A guy will pick up a girl, telling himself all he's looking for is a fling for the weekend, but what he's really always after is the woman of his dreams, someone to spend the rest of his life with. Women are looking for the same thing in a man, only they're honest enough to admit it."
Woody's new movie is about just such insights, filtered through a gentle pastoral scene occupied by three couples who circle one another's egos for a weekend. The movie, lushly photographed in ripe greens and yellows and browns, takes place somewhere in upstate New York, sometime around 1906. The couples are Woody Allen, as a stockbroker and self-described crackpot inventor, and Mary Steenburgen, as his sweet and secretive wife; Jose Ferrer, as a behavioral scientist and self described genius, and Mia Farrow, as his Sweet and secretive fiancee; and Tony Roberts as a doctor and self described satyr, and Julie Hagerty as his sweet and oversexed nurse.
During the course of the weekend, all three of the men suffer the pangs of unrequited lust. Roberts falls in love with Farrow, Allen kicks himself for not having seduced Farrow when he had the chance, and Ferrer, who is to marry Farrow the next day, tries to seduce Hagerty. Meanwhile, Allen discovers that Steenburgen has had an affair with Roberts, and Roberts' wife turns to the nurse for advice and comfort.
This spare plot summary makes "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" sound like a steamy melodrama, but, in fact, the tone of the movie is gentle, whimsical and forgiving, and it is strangely appropriate that Woody Allen furiously pedals through some of the key scenes on a bicycle. It also is somehow easy to accept his claim to have invented a sphere that foresees the future, eavesdrops on the past and reminds us of all our lost opportunities.
"I started with the notion of making one of those beautiful summer films," Woody said, crossing his arms against the chill of the air conditioner. He looked like your standard-issue Woody Allen, with his black horn-rimmed glasses and khaki pants, his work shoes and oxford cloth shirt, grown slightly frayed at the collar. But he also looked somehow different: He seemed thinner and more composed and his hair was combed.
"I wanted to portray the country the way I want it to be with golden vistas, and flowers, animals, moon, stars, all in 1906, a perfect setting to deal with problems of love and romance. I saw it as a chance to get in some of my philosophy, that there's more to life than meets the eye, that an intellectual rationalist is also an animal who lusts after women and is not above drawing blood in the throes of passion. He can explain the cosmos, and his friend the doctor can play God and watch people die, but all of these men are . . . wistful. Wistful, because they haven't met the right woman yet."
I nodded. You love the country? I said.
Allen recoiled. "No! I hate the country! This Fourth of July weekend, when everybody else had gone out to the country, I stayed in Manhattan. I worked, I went to see "Poltergeist" at Eighty-sixth and Third Avenue and I walked around the empty streets. The country is great as it appears in one's fantasies, in Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," with all the little forest spirits, but when I go to the country to shoot a movie, we have to have a nurse for snakebites and poison ivy. They have gnats and mosquitoes. It's awful."
But when you were making this movie in upstate New York, I said, you had to put up with the country?
"Not at all. I drove back to New York every night and stayed in my own bed. Oh, I can take a little of the country. Sometimes I reluctantly visit Mia Farrow in her country home in Connecticut, but I always come back the same day. I would never think of staying overnight."
In other words, I said, your penthouse view of Central Park is about as sylvan as you like to get?
"I like the view just from the window, through glass. I like it best in the winter. I'm not crazy about the green of leaves. At the beginning of our film, when we shot the montage of the leaves and the ponds and the little deer running past, I was hiding behind the camera."
When you were a kid, you never went to the beach?
"I got sun poisoning. It was terrible. I preferred staying home in Brooklyn and playing baseball in the streets. I was a very good athlete, good at baseball, football, from growing up in the streets, but I didn't get to like nature that way. I think we all miss the point that when Shakespeare was talking about summer, he was writing from a land where summer was a lot more like spring is here. He didn't know about dust and ticks. I personally prefer gray, overcast days to sunny ones. That s one reason I don't like it in Los Angeles. I really can't stand the climate."
As I quote Woody Allen saying these things, he has a tendency, I suppose to sound like the Woody Allen persona that has become familiar in his movies, his books, even a comic strip based on a scruffy little horn-rimmed intellectual. But he was saying them sincerely, not for comic effect, and I realized that he'd slipped a crucial autobiographical fact past me: He was good at sports!
Really? I said. Really good at sports?
"Very good at sports," he said.
Thats certainly not my image of Woody Allen, I said. I think of you as a nearsighted little kid who was always dropping the ball. A lot of people would get that idea from my movies," he said, "but actually I was very good at sports. You shouldn't confuse me with the characters I play."
But I do, I said. After I saw your last movie, "Stardust Memories," I found myself leaving the theater and saying to myself that this was the first time l didn't like Woody Allen.
"Well, then one of us made a mistake," he said. "Actually, a lot of people had your reaction. In all fairness to the movie, some critics did like it, but most people probably would have agreed with you. Everybody assumed that what l was doing was showing myself. In fact, I was showing a fictional character who was not a wonderful person, who had money and fame and yet was unhappy and hated his fans. Everything seemed to irritate him. Nothing in his life gave him any happiness. And perhaps what I was trying to say in that movie was that at the end of life, it may not be fame that we remember with pleasure, not money, but just a few moments of happiness set aside from the emptiness of life (when, in the case of that movie, the character spent some time listening to Louis Armstrong) and was delivered from his misery, and was happy."
I almost wanted to sigh.
"I've always had this theory about films," he said, "that they're more mythological than the stage, that we have almost this need to believe that the people on the screen are like the people they play. I've played a lot of characters that aren't me. 'Woody Allen,' whatever that means, isn't necessarily me. Some guy will walk up to me at Michael's Pub, where I play jazz, and ask me why I'm doing it, since I don't need the money. He has some idea of me that misses the possibility that "I like to play jazz."
Allen was drifting into such an introspective, thoughtful tone that I paused a second and asked, do you believe in God?
He was silent for a moment.
In this new movie, I said, you have an extraordinary closing scene which seems to suggest an afterlife, another plane of existence. . .
"Yeah," he said. "Well, I don't think we know the answer to the question of whether there's a God or not. I think organized religions are silly. I think Sartre, who was an atheist, had more religion than a lot of clergymen who are essentially just practicing a lifestyle and a business. But I don't feel we know all the answers. In this movie, I have the scientific rationalist turn into a spirit of light. I remember once talking with Billy Graham, on a TV special I did, and I asked him, What if you're wrong about God and the afterlife and everything? What if you die and there's nothing there? And he replied that he still would have led a better life by thinking the way he did. And I thought to myself, he's right about that, if he's telling the truth. Of course, he's politically and commercially involved in religion, but . . . if he does really believe that, he'll lead a richer life."
He sighed. "I'd love to be a genuinely religious person, not coerced, but freely religious. But it's like Ingmar Bergman told me: Thought gets in the way."
Is there anything in your life that passes for prayer?
"No. I try to make the right choices, that's as far as I go. I always have the fear that if I were to be tested, I would not come through. If I had been in the concentration camps, if I'd been in the French Resistance, would I have just caved in to everything to save myself pain? I fear that l would have. l fear I'm a coward."
The movie persona of Woody Allen has a lot of coward involved in it, I said.
"Yes, it does. And I got some of that from Bob Hope. He is my favorite comedian -- not the Bob Hope of the last fifteen years, but the movie Bob Hope, the star of movies like "My Favorite Brunette," which I saw for fourteen cents in Brooklyn when l was growing up. He was so funny. And he played such a great coward."
I interviewed him once, I said, and when I asked him what he thought about the fact that Woody Allen admired him, he seemed pleased, but he also seemed to be still in competition . . . as if the two of you were still going up for the same jobs.
"Yeah. He gives me ninety percent acceptance. He'll say things like, Woody Allen is a wonderful kid, and a near genius. Instead of that automatic, meaningless use of the word genius that everybody in show business throws away all the time, he makes it a point to add the 'near' to the genius."
There seemed to be just a ghost of insecurity there, and, if it was only a ghost, that was progress for Woody Allen, whose years in psychoanalysis have become part of his legend.
He is, in a sense, the ideal if flawed Manhattan man, successful, brilliant, rich, neurotic, sincere, and always searching like the man in his anecdote for the perfect woman that he can live with happily for the rest of his life. The problem with women, even perfect ones, however, is that there is nothing that quite complicates a life like the addition of another whole life to it. In other words: Can a man who hates the country and appreciates Central Park best when it is seen through glass, in the winter, easily adjust to the daily messiness of a relationship? I put it to him this way:
Are you getting along any better with children these days?
"You mean Mia"s kids?"
Mia Farrow, the love in Woody's life, has seven children altogether.
"Well, I've always gotten along OK with kids. They're not one of my hangups. You should probably also take into account the fact that Mia and I have been seeing each other for the past two years, but we do not live together. So I haven't been put to the absolute test of becoming the father of seven children overnight.
"She lives with them. She loves them immensely and is a very good mother. I participate with them. I've always been good with kids. Being a good athlete, I can play games with them, basketball, things like that. I did magic tricks when I was a kid, and I can still do some of them. I have an endless amount of patience."
He sort of grinned. "You've got to realize," he said, "that a relationship is always better if you don't actually have to live with the other person."
"Oh, of course. That means you can be in a constant state of courtship. Mia loves the kids beyond anything, and she takes care of them, and then, in the evenings, we'll meet, and it's like a date, and some days well stay together but I almost always come home to my house at night. It's ever so much easier to get along with somebody if you aren't always having to go to bed with them, when you're tuckered out, and get up with them, when you're still sleepy. I can't see why people won't let sex be a daytime activity."
Is that what your next movie is going to be about?
"No. Or rather, I don't exactly know what my next movie is going to be about. I discover the themes in my movies while I'm filming and editing them. This one is almost finished, and it will come out at Christmastime. It will be in black and white, and it doesn't have a title yet. You know, I don't hide my titles. When I know the title to one of my movies, I'll say it. Like 'Love and Death' for example. But with 'Annie Hall' and 'Manhattan,' and now this one, I honestly didn't know what to call them until the last minute."
So whats the working title? Woody Allen's Christmas Picture?
Woody grinned. Actually," he said, the working title is Woody Allen's Fall Picture."
Is there any symbolism in that?
"Not that I know of."
And you really would prefer to walk around the empty streets of Manhattan and go to see "Poltergeist" than spend the weekend in the country?
"It seems perfectly normal to me."