Woody Allen: The quintessential nebbish turns 80, still working


Woody Allen’s life could well have been a movie, and not always a funny one. The film maker has brought a wry smile to millions of faces through the years – but also scowls over his private life. At 80 he is planning his first television series.

The films zoom in on the abnormal, the neurotic – and so perhaps on life as it is really lived. Woody Allen has raised many a wry smile and knowing nod, and even laughs-out-loud over a 50-year-career in cinema.

Allen, who turns 80 on Tuesday (December 1), is a cliche of the New York Jew come to life – slight of stature, erudite, intellectual, creative, and riddled with self-doubt and melancholy to the point of clinical depression.

Throughout his film career he has played much the same role, that of the endearing but hapless loser struggling to find a way through life – a kind of a Jewish Charlie Brown.

“Nebbish” was originally a Yiddish word that refers to a man who is totally ineffectual, and Allen’s film persona has become the paradigm.

Allan Stewart Konigsberg grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in Brooklyn where the main language spoken was Yiddish, along with a little German.

“My mother always said that I was a very cheerful kid until I was five years old, and then I turned gloomy,” he once said with characteristic irony.

As a young man, Allen’s life followed the path of the New York intellectual of his day, including sessions with a psychoanalyst. He suffered from both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, a combination that made it difficult to cope with everyday life.

But Allen found the remedy. Films provided diversion, “because it’s much more pleasant to be obsessed over how the hero gets out of his predicament than it is over how I get out of mine.”

At school he was already writing satirical contributions for newspapers, later for television and for star comedians like Bob Hope.

By 1965 at the age of 30, Allen was one of the best known comics in the United States, commanding thousands of dollars for his appearances.

Standing at the microphone in his black-rimmed spectacles, Allen exuded insecurity bordering on existential angst. His routine was less about one-liners than humour expressed through monologues.

“It’s funny because it’s true,” is a line that could serve as a motto for many New York comics who followed Allen. Jerry Seinfeld and Louis CK could be seen as Allen’s offspring.

And then there are the children. Allen and Mia Farrow, his partner for more than 10 years, adopted a boy and a girl. Allen is seen as the father of her son Satchel, born in 1987, although Farrow has suggested otherwise.

Farrow had also adopted a Korean orphan named Soon-Yi. The drama that ensued would have been hard to believe even in an Allen film: Allen fell in love with the girl – 35 years his junior – and the relationship with Farrow collapsed.

Farrow then accused Allen of sexually abusing her seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan. An inquiry found that Allen was never alone with the girl, and that her statements had a rehearsed quality to them.

But Allen’s reputation was in tatters once Soon-Yi moved in with him.

They married in 1997, he at the age of 61 and she 26. They later adopted two girls.

While Allen has said his falling for Soon-Yi was one of the best things to happen to him, others see the episode as embarrassing and marking the end of Allen’s golden era – the time in which he made cinematic legends like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours.

But Allen has always been adept at reinventing himself. He left for Europe, filming in Barcelona, London and Paris – in the French capital with Carla Bruni, the president’s wife.

Now at the age of 80, he told the daily Berliner Zeitung that he’s taken on too much again – in the shape of a television series for Amazon.

Allen calls it the bane of his existence – he has never done a series, either as actor or director. What’s more, he says he’s never seen a TV series and has no intention of ever doing so.

Speaking of existence, does someone reaching age 80 begin think about death?

“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” is a well known line from Allen from years past. He has clearly been thinking about the topic for a while.

And his attitude to immortality is also well documented: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”