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BOOK MARK : Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Woody Allen

May 26, 1991|Eric Lax | Eric Lax is the author of "On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy." Woody Allen's films are more personal than political. His biographer tells of one venture across that line. An excerpt

"TV is a one-shot deal. It's also a small screen, so it's harder to be really effective," Woody Allen has said, explaining why he has chosen film as his most common vehicle of expression. "Somebody who is terrific on radio or television is like a Renaissance painter who worked on sand. You have to pick a medium that has some staying power.

"Stage is fun, but the most exciting way for me personally to accumulate a body of work with substance to it is through film. It has a chance to grow with time.

"Plus, I always thought TV has a tendency to hurt your drawing power in films, that exposure makes you kind of familiar, but people like Eddie Murphy disprove that.

"Still, if people can see one of my movies every year or year and a half, that's nice. They make a commitment to come and see you. On TV, you're in the house for free and they can switch the dials back and forth."

Despite his generally negative feelings about working in TV, Allen has long supported public television. In December, 1971, he donated his services as writer and director and was paid the minimum scale of $135 to act in a political satire of the Nixon Administration for the Public Broadcasting Service.

It was originally titled "The Woody Allen Comedy Special," but later changed to "The Politics of Woody Allen." The title, however, was immaterial: The program was never shown.

"The commercial networks offer you no freedom at all," Allen explained when he agreed to do the show. PBS offered freedom but ultimately withdrew it. Privately, PBS felt the program was potentially too offensive to the (Nixon) Administration at a time when the network was the subject of intense criticism from conservatives and its funding was under consideration.

Publicly, it said that the portrayal of presidential candidates--Richard M. Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, and George C. Wallace--would mean that equal time would have to be granted if the candidates asked for it.

The show was replaced by one featuring comedian Pat Paulsen, a bona fide candidate for President in the New Hampshire primary. No one asked for equal time.

Allen's intention was to make a "little funny documentary" about all the branches of the Administration. Films of this type demonstrate the importance of realism in comedy. Had Lyndon B. Johnson or John F. Kennedy still been President, he said, the show would have satirized them.

As it was, the show centered on a Henry A. Kissinger-like character named Harvey Wallinger, played by Allen.

"1968, an election year, and the United States is swept by turmoil at home and abroad," the narrator begins as newsreel footage of various 1968 scenes appears. "Men vie for the presidency, the highest elected office in the world with the exception of the Pope, although the President does not get to wear a red suit.

". . .The Democratic Party turns to Hubert Humphrey, a man of style and grace (Humphrey, dressed in academic robes, stumbles). While Humphrey publicly sides with the Johnson war policies, in private he has his own opinion. (Probably making the second part of a point, Humphrey instead appears to be making a commonly used finger gesture for indicating displeasure.) The Republicans choose a man of force and magnitude--of personal charisma and a profound grasp of major issues--but that man refuses the nomination and they settle for Richard Nixon."

On it went in this vein.

Of Wallinger, a politician says: "Nobody goes in to see the President without going through Harvey Wallinger. If you want something done, you've got to be in good with Harvey. If Mrs. Nixon wants to kiss her husband, she has to kiss Harvey first."

And regarding Wallinger's life as the capital's most eligible bachelor, Sister Mary Elizabeth Smith says, "He's an unbelievable swinger, a freak."

"Harvey Wallinger continues to do his job," the narrator concludes. "Some may criticize him, other may praise him, but everyone will forget him."

Had Allen agreed to cut the scenes of Sister Mary Elizabeth Smith, Humphrey's hand gesture and one where Wallinger discloses that "Dick is out of the country a lot and sometimes Pat calls up and asks me to come over, but I say no," the show would probably have been aired.

"It was an honest disagreement," he said during the controversy over the show's cancellation. "They honestly felt the material should be cut and I honestly felt that it shouldn't.

"Everybody who saw it thought it was in enormously bad taste. It was in bad taste, there was no question about it. It's hard to say anything about that Administration that wouldn't be in bad taste. And so they decided not to air it because they felt that if the United States saw the show, it would impair the morals of the country and turn the general population into a violent people.

"I thought it was an innocuous and perhaps an insulting show. Undoubtedly, it lacked great political depth and insight, but it was a sometimes amusing half-hour. Those people who were against the Administration would have loved it, and those who were for the Administration would have written me off as a crackpot. It was all so silly. It wasn't Jonathan Swift. If the show had gone on as scheduled, it would have passed unnoticed."

Which is why Allen makes films.

1991, by Eric Lax. Reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

BOOK REVIEW: "Woody Allen," by Eric Lax, is reviewed on Page 4 of today's Book Review section.

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