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Woody Allen pokes into inspiration for 'Alice'

NEW YORK -- Woody Allen found the first ticklings of inspiration for "Alice" (opening Tuesday in Chicago at the Fine Arts) by getting a sty in his eye. One of those annoying little bumps by the tear ducts. That was why he went to the acupuncturist. And then the incident began to grow in his imagination, flowering and folding in upon itself, and finally it became a story about Mia Farrow as a rich New York trophy wife who is compelled to evaluate every aspect of her life after a strange old man in Chinatown gives her special herbs for her tea.

"When you get a sty, they're very annoying," Allen was explaining to me the other afternoon. We were sitting in a corner of his living room on Fifth Avenue, and the winter sun was hanging low over Central Park. He sounded like someone for whom the very memory of a sty was painful.

"They're not fatal, but you have to have them lanced, and it's a very unpleasant thing, and when you get one, you tend to get a wave of them. I tried everything, and then someone told me that she was seeing this tremendous acupuncturist downtown, at this dingy little place. He was giving her herbs every week in little bags, and I noticed she'd to into the kitchen sometimes and pour these things together and drink them before going out to dinner, and I figured, gee, this guy's making a fortune!

"A friend of mine went down there, and said all these rich women come in to see this man, they think it's for their skin, their hair, and their youth, and I was completely skeptical about it. I thought it was a total fraud. And she said, `Why don't you try and have him cure your sties? You've been going to a Western doctor now for years, and you still keep getting them. Give this guy a chance.'

"I said, `I'll bet you anything that there's no chance in the world that this guy can ever cure my sties. I think this guy's a total fraud.' But I said I would see him just to prove he was a fraud. So he came over to this apartment, and he read my pulse to diagnose me, which was just nonsense, I thought, and told me to stop eating shellfish, and then he said, `The way I think you can get rid of them is with a cat's whisker.' "

Woody looked up at the ceiling, as if appealing to reason and sanity. "He kept saying, `Whisker of cat, whisker of cat! I take care of this with whisker of cat!' I was totally skeptical. The next week the guy came back with his niece, and a little silver box, and in it were these little cat's whiskers. She held my arms down, and he got over me, and he started manipulating a cat's whisker in the tear duct, and I'm thinking if this works, it's going to be the miracle of all time."

But of course we are inhabitants of the New Age, and so we know how the story ended. The agnostic Woody was completely and miraculously cured, and has not had a sty in his eye ever since. Right?

"It didn't work at all. It was a totally meaningless thing, and when I told my eye doctor about it, he said, `Jeez, don't let this guy poke cat's whiskers in your tear ducts because it's not going to help you any, and it could create a problem.' The guy was totally fraudulent, but it stayed with me because it was such a funny story. The guy was here, my friends were here, and they were laughing hysterically, but to the best of my knowledge he still runs an incredibly thriving business in a dive in Chinatown, and rich women still go up the rickety stairs to see him."

And he is probably as famous as the doctor that Woody Allen always sees.

Woody laughed. "I don't think he needs it."

In a lot of your movies, I said, you like to write in wise people who are supposed to have the answers. Shrinks or rabbis or priests or philosophers. Even magicians.

"It doesn't hurt. Everybody, including me, is always searching for something, but nobody ever helps you - that's the problem."

He thought for a moment about the meaning of the Chinese acupuncturist and magician.

"One could make the case," he said, "that in a certain sense what he does isn't that different from a psychoanalytic experience. You wish your analyst could perform magic, but he can't, so in a very slow tedious way you start to find out about yourself, and this takes years, if it happens at all, and finally you change your life. In the movie, she goes and she gets a very fast, much more colorful version of it, but she's really doing the same thing, working with her creative impulses, her dreams, past memories of relationships. I didn't intend it that way when I wrote the movie, but now I can see that possibility."

And in "Alice," which is a whimsical comedy with an undercurrent as dark as dread, after the mysterious magician does help the Mia Farrow character, her life is never the same again. The film opens with a virtuoso scene at breakneck pace, establishing Alice, as the rich and pampered wife of an incredibly wealthy investment professional - a cool, detached man (played by William Hurt) who deflects all arguments with vague reassurances and slippery compliments. They live in a hermetic womb of creature comfort, with a cook who buys only free range chickens and a nanny who attends to the children so efficiently that the parents barely need to talk to the little darlings.

One day, after 16 years of marriage, like a thunderbolt, the notion of an affair strikes Alice. Dropping her kids off at private school, she drops a book on the stair. A dark, handsome stranger (Joe Mantegna) returns it to her, and soon she can think of no one else. She's so worked up, she develops back pains, and so she has the limousine drive her down to Chinatown, where the fabled Dr. Yang (Keye Luke) occupies a shadowy office filled with strange props, like a revolving pinwheel which hypnotizes her.

He thinks her problem is not her back, but her marriage. He supplies Alice with various herbs and potions, which liberate her so completely that for the rest of the movie she's on an inspection tour of her own life, re-evaluating her husband, her mother, her sister, her purpose for living. At times she even flies above the spires of Manhattan, held safely by the ghost of a former lover - or is that a dream, inspired by the herbs Dr. Yang asked her to burn in a teacup?

The world of "Alice" is the world of wealthy New York, of men who make money and women who spend it with skill and grace. It is a New York of elegant brownstones, exclusive high-rises, private schools, expensive shops, and little private parks with quaint benches lining the paths. The end credits thank Cartier, Ben Kahn, Valentino and the New York Zoological Society. The musical score is lush with Erroll Garner, Paul Weston and those romantic big band arrangements Jackie Gleason was famous for. This is a New York that exists only in ads in Architectural Digest and Town and Country, and in this movie.

"It's the rich New York," Allen said. "If you have as much money as these people did, you can live pretty well. If you live on upper Fifth Avenue, or Park Avenue, and you shop on Madison, and you have all the charge accounts, and you have a car and a driver, and nannies, and maids, and you live in a building that's heavily door-manned, and you know the city well enough so that you eat at Le Cirque and the Russian Tea Room, and you know certain parts of the park that are beautiful and quite safe - you can live a perfectly fine life. But if you're not in that fortunate group, then you have to take public transportation, and you've got to be in neighborhoods that aren't safe, and your hours are not your own, so you've got to travel in traffic, and in the park where it's not so safe . . . and it's not so good. What's killing the city is that it has no middle class."

That other New York, of the people who have to take public transportation, is nowhere on display in "Alice," at least not until the very end, when Alice seeks spiritual inspiration in a most unlikely quarter. At the beginning, she is a woman so elevated above the daily inconveniences of life that she hardly has responsibilities even to her children - except to bear them, of course, as a gesture to her husband. You have to listen carefully to even catch her speaking to the children, who are ignored most of the time and are backdrops the rest of the time.

"That's a phenomenon that I have observed," Allen said. "Not with Mia, because she's the opposite, but I've seen it when I used to go pick up my kid from school. I'd see nannies doing everything. I'm not blaming the parents necessarily, because probably a number of them are working, but it is an amazing thing how people delegate that responsibility."

Allen himself first became a parent in his 50s - he and Farrow adopted one child and conceived another - and these days he gets up at 5 o'clock so he can be across the park to her apartment by 6 to spend time with the kids before they go to school and to work. And in the afternoon, after his clarinet practice, he's there for dinner and storytime. "They are the absolutely central fact of my life," he said, shaking his head wonderingly, this man who never saw himself as a father.

But Alice, I said, only goes to the school to pick up her kids because she wants to run into this guy she has a crush on. Otherwise she wouldn't even be there.

"Yeah. You see that frequently at the schools. The nannies do it all. I'll take the kids to school, and it will be a dreary, cold winter morning, and it will be some nannies, and a half a dozen mothers, and I would be surrounded by all these floor-length mink coats. They're from around the corner on Fifth Avenue, with no makeup on, with their hair in curlers, wearing whatever house clothes they threw on, with their floor-length mink coats thrown on top, to take the kid to school. It looks like a little mink farm."

Although many of Allen's movies use Judaism as either a background or a comic foil, the religion of choice in "Alice" is Catholicism. The character was brought up as a Catholic, went through a "religious phase," and now considers herself culturally Catholic but non-practicing. This arouses the considerable amusement of Dr. Yang, who makes a couple of jokes at her expense, but it also inspires a fantasy scene in which Alice revisits her childhood home and finds a priest and a confessional installed in the front yard.

"Mia has had a very Catholic background," Allen said, "and I drew on some of it for the screenplay. She was going to be a nun for a long time. Mother Teresa has been a major icon in her life. She was raised Catholic, and it was always interesting to me to hear about it. I've always been interested in the aesthetics of Catholicism. It's such a lovely religion to an outsider from an aethestic point of view. Remember, I was contemplating becoming Catholic in `Hannah and Her Sisters,' because it's so filled with beauty and ritual. I got that all from Mia. When she was a little girl, she used to pray with her arms outstretched so it would be more uncomfortable.

"I remember when I was very young, I went on a trip to a monastery outside of Washington. It was very quiet and peaceful. There were very few people there. Just the thought that the monks would wake up in the morning, and they would tread those paths, and they were not afraid of dying, and they didn't want anything - I loved that. It was a stoic life. They had no great desires. They just tread, and sat, and thought, and prayed. I guess there were ones like Mendel who wanted to fool around with pea pods. . . . It is seductive, there is no question. But on the surface, I don't believe in any of this."

You've often said, when life is over, it's over.

"It certainly seems that way."

And yet you're afraid to sleep in a graveyard, or spend the night in a haunted castle. Why should your life be over for good, when all of these other lucky people get to be ghosts and hang around to frighten you?

"You just can't know for sure. So, while I'm totally skeptical, and I believe that of course you can walk under a ladder, and there's nothing more to life than what you see, there's always that element of doubt. When I go to Mia's house in Connecticut, it's not that I'm afraid that two guys are gonna pull up like Dick and Perry in `In Cold Blood.' It's more that I'm gonna see two eyes at the window, or I'm going to be walking along the shore and a hand is going to come up out of the lake. Or if I'm home alone, and the city is very black, and it's a big house, 11 rooms, and you hear a little noise, and you get a slightly creepy feeling. It isn't that a mugger is in the house. That's not frightening. That you can deal with. If it's a mugger, you can scream, pick up the phone, pick up the fireplace poker. It's that there might be . . . something else."

And because there might be something else, we should lead good lives.

"Well, we should not waste time. That's what I was always told as a child: Don't waste time. And so I have this movie coming out, and I'm shooting another one right now, and I'm working on the screenplay for the next one, and I would enjoy nothing more than writing and directing a really good detective movie, because I'd enjoy that more than anything, but I never will - because I would be afraid of wasting my time."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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