In the unlikely event that Woody Allen sprang from his bed yesterday morning to read the British reviews of his new film, Midnight in Paris, he might have blinked. "Woody's timely return to form" was the headline in The Independent, where Anthony Quinn called it "a surprising event, the surprise being that [Allen]'s still capable of grace, lightness and wit".
You can almost see the relief rising from the critics. In the past decade, they've grown weary of shaking their heads at the dross released by their former hero: Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda, Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream... But every time they've pronounced his career officially dead, Allen has produced some galvanic spasm of life, and made them hope again for his "return to form".
Well, look what just happened. Midnight in Paris not only won raves but it's also taken over $100m worldwide, making it Allen's most financial successful film ever. At the age of 75, Woody Allen, the most prolific, most enragingly hit-and-miss American director alive, is back in the game.
He's always been an oddball in the US movie industry. His films, even the flops, have remained arty, literate and thoughtful. He has remained an independent American director when the concept has all but ceased to exist. Allen is a true auteur, in the tradition of the directors he most admires: Bergman, Truffaut, Antonioni. And while he reveres European cinema, he admires European financial pragmatism too.
When, in 2005, the US studios began to ask if they might see his scripts or know whom he was casting, Allen's reaction was instantaneous. "I wasn't used to working that way, so I went to Europe," he later recalled. "There's no studio system, so they don't care about any of that stuff. They're bankers. And they're happy to be bankers."
Transplanting himself from Manhattan into the ancient cultures of Western Europe not only invigorated his spirit. It was a physical manifestation of a theme that runs through several of his works: the migration of a restless soul into another era, a new context.
In Play It Again Sam, the hero is a neurotic dreamer who summons the manly Humphrey Bogart to his aid. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, set in the Depression, Mia Farrow is whisked away by the hero of the titular film. In the new film, a Californian visiting Paris is taken to the bohemian 1920s and meets Hemingway and Dali.
"I've made perfectly decent films," Allen said once, "but not 8 , not The Seventh Seal, The 400 Blows or L'Avventura – ones that to me really proclaim cinema as art. If I was the teacher, I'd give myself a B."
Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn, he lived in Manhattan's Lower East Side. His facility with humour brought early rewards: writing for Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar, Candid Camera and The New Yorker. As a stand-up comic he was something new: an uncertain intellectual babbling about the neurosis of being a New York Jew.
A contrapuntal tone of seriousness was sounded by the time of his masterpiece Annie Hall. That was perhaps the first-ever romcom in which the only obstacle to the couple's happiness was the neurotic preoccupations of the hero. It was also the first sighting of a cosmic despair which is as close as Woody Allen has come to dealing with the big serious issues of his French, Italian and Scandinavian masters.
Though he always came across in his films as an unlikely ladies' man, his career has been punctuated by romantic scandal. His courting of 17-year-old Stacey Nelkin when he was 44 (a romance mirrored in the film Manhattan) raised eyebrows. As did his decision – after a 12-year relationship with the actress Mia Farrow – to take up with and then marry her adopted daughter with André Previn, Soon-Yi Previn. In June this year, Woody Allen dismissed the brouhaha, saying: "What was the scandal? I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now."
With his long-deferred "return to form" a bankable $100m fact, what will he do now? Probably go back to Manhattan. "I would love to make a film in New York," he said this week. "It's a fabulous city to work in, because there are a million things to do here and a million stories to tell."
After a decade of restless travelling, this unlikely Odysseus can return in triumph to his his first love, his Ithaca.
Life in brief
Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg, 1 December 1935, Brooklyn, New York.
Family Married to Harlene Rosen 1954-59 and Louise Lasser 1966-69. In 1997 he married Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen's long-time partner, Mia Farrow. He has one child with Farrow and two adopted children with Previn.
Education Went to Hebrew school, Public School 99 and Midwood High School. Studied film at New York University.
Career Started as a comedy writer for television. His first scripted film was What's New Pussycat? (1965) and his first as a director was What's Up, Tiger-Lily? (1966). Has directed, written and starred in more than 50 films including Annie Hall.
He says "I've been telling people for my entire life that there's not a huge similarity between me on screen and me in real life, but for some reason they don't want to know that."
They say "He's a legend." Owen Wilson, star of Midnight in Paris.Reuse content