Woody Allen: In Acting Only

Posted by Wade Sheeler March 26, 2013 5 Comments 9258 views

The Front plays on TCM Thursday, March 28th.

If you play “What if” games, as I do, of nonsensical alter-realities, you find yourself asking questions you can never really now the answer to, but still intrigue yourself to no end. What would music be like today if Buddy Holly didn’t die in that plane crash in 1959? What would John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, be like if it were made twenty years earlier, with the cast the director originally had planned on using, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart? And one more I waste my time asking myself, what would the filmography of Woody Allen, as a performer only, be like if he wasn’t the writer-director everyone knows him as. Once in a blue moon, throughout his career, Woody takes the role as actor only, in other people’s films.

What do you think of The Front & Woody Allen’s acting career? Tell us in the comments!

Many of these strange excursions are barely noticed or remembered. Here is the complete list, as far as I can tell, of Allen’s film appearances, where he was an actor only:

Picking Up the Pieces (2000)
Company Man (2000) (Cameo)
Antz (1998)
The Impostors (1998) (Cameo)
The Sunshine Boys (1996)
Scenes From A Mall (1991)
King Lear (1987) (Cameo)
The Front (1976)
Casino Royale (1967)

A strange, dynamic, hit or miss, curious filmography. Allen’s first film appearance was actually in a film he didn’t direct, but wrote, What’s New Pussycat? He was so unhappy with the way it was directed, and the power the studio and all other personnel involved had in taking liberties and dismantling his screenplay, that he vowed never again to let any of his work be directed by anyone but himself. (In 1969, another group of writers and director took his stage play Don’t Drink the Water and again, massacred it. One wonders how much money he accepted to break his own rule only 5 years later.) He did however, let Herbert Ross direct his screen adaptation of his play Play It Again, Sam in 1972, with him taking direction as an actor only, as well, and it’s probably the best non-Allen directed “Woody Allen” film based on his screenplay.

His performance in 1967’s Casino Royale was done more as an opportunity to cash in on his successful stage and stand-up persona, but was an embarrassment for everyone involved. A hallucinatory mish mosh, Casino Royale was a misguided attempt to parody James Bond within the context of a Bond work itself. The only Ian Fleming title not owned by the Cubby Broccoli Empire, Casino Royale was and is a pure psychedelic mess. Allen actually comes off better than anyone else, from Peter Sellers, David Niven and even Orson Welles. Besides Play It Again, Sam, Allen wouldn’t appear in another writer/director’s work for nearly 10 years.

But Allen took that leap of faith again in 1976. Granted, The Front was produced by his twenty year plus partners, Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, but the screenplay and direction were in the hands of others. The Front, in my estimation, is the best film Allen worked on as an actor only, and it not only stands the test of time, but still has great impact today, 30+ years later.

The director, Martin Ritt, was a filmmaking powerhouse, with such classics as Hud, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Sounder, and Norma Rae under his belt. But more importantly, he and writer Walter Bernstein were victims of the Hollywood Blacklist, an industry imposed blackballing of actors, directors, writers and technicians who the studios felt pressure to fire or not hire if they were “unsympathetic” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was enlisted to root out Communism wherever it hid. Telling their story, in an indirect and disarming way, was tantamount. Allen was moved to be a part of this project, but admitted his hesitation in a New York Times article, stating, “From the beginning I had enormous reservations about doing a film which I had not written and over which I would have no directorial control, (but) the reason I did The Front was that the subject was worthwhile. Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein lived through the blacklist and survived it with dignity, so I didn’t mind deferring to their judgment.”

Not only were the two filmmakers survivors of the blacklist, but several key players in the film were as well, including actors Herschel Bernardi and Zero Mostel. The character Mostel was to play, Hecky Brown, was modeled after a friend of his who, just like Mostel’s character, Philip Loeb, was fired from his television show due to his targeting by HUAC. He was so persecuted, that he committed suicide.

Mostel and Allen are the ones to watch in The Front. Critics consistently felt Ritt and Bernstein purposely went a different, and less potent direction, focusing the story on Allen’s deli cashier and the comic machinations that befall him for acting as a “front” to his writer friends who were being blacklisted, and presenting their work as his to TV producers. My personal feelings are, if it wasn’t for this (realistic but) comic invention, the film would end up a dry, preachy morality tale. A good example of this is Irwin Winkler’s Guilty by Suspicion starring Robert DeNiro, which painstakingly chronicles all the hardships and demons writer, actors and directors had to face fighting McCarthyism. The comedy that Allenand Mostel use to pull us in, makes the denouement all the more compelling. This is a serious role with definite comedic elements for Allen (he was still in his early, funnier comedies phase), and this performance was a good indicator for where he would be taking us as a writer/director down the road.

No spoilers here, but the tragedy that befalls Mostel, and the final line of the film uttered by Allen (a contemporary shocker in the vein of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”) gives the story the sock in the breadbasket the audience craves.

I don’t think modern audiences have a strong understanding of this dark period in our recent history, and The Front is a great starting point to understand the drastic measures Hollywood took, and the tragic consequences McCarthyism’s impact had on society. Even today, echoes of McCarthyism (the Patriot Act, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh) lurk not in the shadows, but right out in the open. A good documentary to give you the nuts and bolts of the period is Hollywood on Trial, and a terrific read is “Naming Names” by Victor Navasky.

From there, Allen’s involvement in other works range from the bizarre (a strange cameo in Godard’s King Lear, and an ill-fitting lead as a small town sheriff in a fantasy comedy about a missing hand Picking Up the Pieces) to strangely successful (his voice-over as the lead in Dream Work’s animated Antz which really plays as an animated Woody Allen film). There’s also his curious choice to play one of the two aging vaudevillians in a very weak TV version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. Then there’s the very bad, miscast Scenes from a Mall by Paul Mazursky where he plays, of all things, a superficial Angeleno opposite Bette Midler. (Stay away!)

All in all, a very checkered resume. Thank God it’s only in theory that we can look at the breadth of his thin career as thespian only. And however silly the exercise, the one high note (The Front) can actually be seen as a signpost for a move in his career trajectory away from the purely silly, to deeper, more meaningful material, which has been reflected in his work, to greater and lesser effect, ever since.

What do you think of The Front & Woody Allen’s acting career? Tell us in the comments!

About Wade Sheeler

TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. I still make mixed tapes if I like you enough.

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There are 5 Comments

  1. - March 26, 2013
      -   Reply

    I’ve never seen”Company Man.” For any who have, I’d love to hear your take on Woody’s cameo.

  2. Kerry Fristoe (@echidnabot)
    - March 26, 2013
      -   Reply

    I really like The Front and I agree that the message gets through precisely because it’s not presented as a message. I like Woody best in The Front, Play It Again, Sam, and Take The Money and Run. As an actor, Allen plays himself pretty well. I still like most of his early films up to Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, but an actor he is not.

  3. - March 30, 2013
      -   Reply

    The only film I’ve seen with Allen as an actor only is “Antz”. Yes, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I loved him in that movie!

  4. Gregory Charlebois
    - August 26, 2013
      -   Reply

    I absolutely loved his role in “The Imposters.” Which is still the funniest film I’ve ever seen.

  5. Pingback March News Bits 1: James Rebhorn, Wendy Girard, Scarlett Johansson, Liam Neeson, Marshall McLuhan and More » The Woody Allen Pages The Woody Allen Pages

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