Woody Allen

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hollywood ending written and directed by Woody Allen, produced by Letty Aronson, with Allen, Téa Leoni, Treat Williams, Mark Rydell and Debra Messing. A DreamWorks Pictures release. 112 minutes. Opens Friday (May 3). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 80. woody allen is a tiny man with a slight build, and I feel like a lumbering fullback sitting beside him in a swank Windsor Arms Hotel suite. I have an almost protective feeling toward the man, which comes as a complete surprise considering all we know of his checkered personal history.

His intimate life has held the media spotlight for more than a decade, pushing him into retreat from media scrutiny. But now the 66-year-old Allen is opening up about his life as a filmmaker. It’s rare for him to be generous with his public presence.

His latest movie, Hollywood Ending (the 33rd film he’s directed), opens Friday (see review, this page). In it, Allen plays a washed-up director who gets the chance to direct his ex-wife’s (Téa Leoni) movie. The problem is, he’s so stressed out that he goes psychosomatically blind during the shooting, but continues to direct the movie anyway.

It’s vintage Allen — not one of his best, but strong, a trademark May-September love story full of visual gags and self-deprecating one-liners.

He’s notorious for dismissing his work, which makes you want to grab him by his compact shoulders and shake him. This is the man who made Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah And Her Sisters, Crimes And Misdemeanors and Husbands And Wives. But according to him, most of those classics and his other films are flawed.

“I’m very critical of my own movies,” says Allen candidly. “I can make a negative case against most of them. But Hollywood Ending is one of the ones I’ve brought off. I had a concept, made the picture and executed the concept.

“I did that with Husbands and Wives, The Purple Rose Of Cairo and maybe three or four more, but that’s it for over 30 movies.”

Lately, he’s been criticized for casting much younger actors as his love interests, and it can be unnerving. In Hollywood Ending, Debra Messing (Grace on TV’s Will & Grace) plays Allen’s ditzy partner. She’s the prototypical Allen girlfriend, not just hanging off his arm but sexually interested in him — think Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You.

But at the same time, he writes complicated, neurotic and funny women — usually his wives, or ex-wives — who are fed up with his neurotic self-absorption. These parts are gifts to women actors in Hollywood Ending it’s Téa Leoni who gets to take a bit out of him as his strong-minded ex-mate.

Allen wanted to work with her after he saw Flirting With Disaster years ago. At the time, her pregnancy made it impossible.

“But I was able to use her here, and she sails right through the part,” he says.

“I’ve been very lucky over the years to work with such great women. Someone suggested to me that I write better for women, and I explained that many times I wrote a script where the role was better for the man, but I ended up playing the part,” says Allen smiling.

“Maybe if Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson had my part you’d have seen it differently. But I’m playing against Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, Helen Hunt — first-rate actresses who are also such great comedians.

“And there are only two things I can do decently as an actor. I can play low-lifes and intellectuals, but my range doesn’t extend beyond those two. I’m not such a low-life as I play in the movies, and I’m not an intellectual, but I can physically get away with playing a cheesy character or an intellectual.

“The one or two times I ventured forth just a tiny bit to try something else, I could see I was heading for a catastrophe, so I stopped right away.”

In real life, Allen is nothing like his nebbishy cinematic alter ego. He’s physically contained, moves slowly and deliberately and feels no need to fidget, pace or throw his hands up in the air like his movie counterpart.

It’s this unstirring quality, of course — his ability to focus — that allows him to sit down and write every day. I wonder if he’s ever been stumped or experienced writer’s block.

“The most extreme example of stop-and-start I ever had during writing was with The Purple Rose Of Cairo. When I wrote the moment where the character (Jeff Daniels) from the movie comes off the screen,” notes Allen. “I wrote about 50 pages of it and then realized it had nowhere to go. He just comes off the screen, it’s a nice conceit, and that’s it.

“I put the thing in a drawer and left it. Then seven months later it occurred to me the real actor playing that character would show up and they’d both be in love with Mia Farrow. And then I had the story, but it took a long time.”

Even Allen isn’t immune to the writer’s tendency to plow ahead even if he knows he’s not getting it quite right.

“Sometimes I’ve got a movie with no ending and I feel I’m somehow going to get one — the first 80 pages are too good to waste. I imagine I’ll find an ending when I’m shooting, and sometimes I do. But many times I don’t, and it goes unnoticed.

“Of course, sometimes it is noticed, and that’s fatal. I’m dead.”ingridr@nowtoronto.com

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