A brief excerpt from my review in the upcoming Feb. 27th issue of The American Conservative:
None of Woody Allen’s three dozen movies has made much over 40 million dollars at the box office, and the last one to do that well was “Hannah and Her Sisters” two decades ago.
Yet Woody’s reputation among film critics and Academy Award voters remains curiously exalted. His screenplay nomination for his new film “Match Point” gives him 20 directing and screenwriting Oscar nods, putting him one past Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Double Indemnity” and other movies more memorable than anything Woody has done) to make him, theoretically, best auteur ever.
In reality, Woody is more like the Pete Rose of the movies — not quite gifted enough to swing for the fences, but, due to a prodigious work ethic (“Eighty percent of success is showing up,” he claims), has still amassed a remarkable number of singles and the occasional double.
Lately, though, Woody has generated mostly strikeouts like last spring’s “Melinda and Melinda,” in which the only entertainment derived from the self-parody of casting big Will Ferrell as the Woody Allen Character.
The analogy of Peter Rose to Woody Allen is actually fairly close in terms of the shape of their careers over time, as measured in hitting performance and box office performance. (Their personalities seem completely different, but that’s only when you compare Pete Rose to the “Woody Allen” you know in the movies.) Comparing a writer-director to a baseball player may seem very odd, but Woody’s habit of pounding out one movie per year makes his box office statistics surprisingly comparable to a baseball player’s annual statistics.
Pete came up to the majors in 1963 at the age of 22 and was at his offensive peak from roughly his 6th through 14th seasons (1968-1976) and then entered a long decline phase that ran out through his 24th season in 1986. His best hitting seasons were his sixth and seventh (1968 and 1969)
Rose took longer to become an outstanding hitter than almost all the other superstars in baseball history, not surpassing 150% of the league’s average until he was 27. But he stayed a first rate hitter for an extraordinarily long time, not dropping below 115% of the league average until he was 39.
Woody directed his first movie (“What’s Up Tiger Lilly?”) in 1966 and then reached his commercial peak with his 7th film, “Annie Hall,” which made $38 million (probably about $100 million at today’s ticket prices). He reached $40 million with his 9th film, “Manhattan,” in 1979, and then began a very long decline phase. Beginning with “Annie Hall,” he’s written and directed slightly more than one movie per year for three decades, which is an almost unheard of page these days. For example, Steven Spielberg, who is extremely efficient, has directed about one film every year and a half over the same time period, and he doesn’t write scripts.
If the movie business was as objectively measured as is baseball, Wood probably would have had to retire from the auteur role about a decade ago because his recent film’s financial returns have generally, as far as I can estimate, been consistently negative. My guess is that he’s been carried by rich investors who want to be able to boast that they financed a Woody Allen movie. In return, Woody is very careful not to go over budget, so his investors know their loss will be limited. He’s also very disciplined about sticking to his pre-ordained shooting schedule, which allows him to recruit Hollywood superstars who have a couple of weeks open on their schedule.
However, “Match Point,” which marks a stylistic departure from the increasingly indistinguishable Woody Allen films of yore, will be his biggest box office product since 2000, and maybe, when it’s through, since 1989 (but not in inflation adjusted terms).
Both Pete and Woody suffered from notorious scandals about 15 years ago, although baseball’s standards are stricter than the movie industry’s for punishing scandals.