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What's the Buzz on Woody?

Even with a DreamWorks deal, Woody Allen feels out of tune with pop culture. But he's made some concessions to promotion.

May 21, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

Make no mistake about it: Comedy has gotten a lot more lowbrow since the glory days of "Annie Hall." Tell your friends that Woody Allen is in town, making a rare appearance at UCLA to promote his new movie, "Small Time Crooks," and more than one quips, "Is he going there to sell the movie or just to check out the college chicks?"

Allen is no longer the unassailable comic icon he was in the '70s and '80s, when his neurotic urban angst made him, as one critic put it, a "Chaplin for the chattering classes." His private life was consumed by scandal in 1992, when ex-lover (and frequent co-star) Mia Farrow accused him of molesting her children shortly after Allen became romantically involved with Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's adopted daughter (and now Allen's wife). Once his most loyal supporters, critics began obsessively searching for clues to his private travails in his films, viewing them as propaganda-like apologies for his personal problems.

Allen's audience, modest even in the best of times, has dwindled to cult status in America, though his films still perform well overseas. His past four movies have averaged $7.4 million in domestic grosses. The worst showing was last year's "Sweet and Lowdown," which despite good reviews and Oscar-nominated performances by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, took in only $4.2 million in America.

Still, his hard-core fans remain as loyal as ever. He drew a packed house of UCLA students at the Wadsworth Theatre and walked on stage to a standing ovation. Among admirers, Allen was so at ease that he showed the audience the little silver pillbox he carries in his pants pocket that holds "an assortment of pharmaceuticals that would rival the Merck Co."

One on one, holding court in a penthouse suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel earlier in the day, he is equally charming, as anxiety-ridden and self-mocking as ever. Clad in the same sweater and corduroy pants ensemble he wears in his films, he's nursing a slight cold that prompted a hurried doctor's visit.

"Actually, Soon-Yi was the one that was feeling sick, but I thought, well, as long as he's here, he might as well look at me too," Allen says. "I'm not a hypochondriac, I'm an alarmist. If I have chapped lips, I think I might have a brain tumor. That's the difference--I have something, it's not like I don't have anything at all."

He jokes that his cold got worse after his beloved New York Knicks lost a big playoff game. "I had a cough before the game," he says. "Chronic nausea afterward."

Still, he's full of energy. When the doorbell rings, Allen sprints across the room, as light on his feet as he was evading the police in "Take the Money and Run," his first film, made in 1969.

Among his movie director peers, Allen's indefatigable productivity is the object of constant amazement. Allen, who'll be 65 in December, has maintained a Cal Ripken-like work schedule, writing and directing 32 films in the 31 years since "Take the Money and Run." DreamWorks, which is distributing his new film, recently signed Allen to a three-picture distribution deal.

He's also still a magnet for every actor imaginable. His past five films alone featured the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore, Edward Norton, Julia Roberts, Judy Davis, Goldie Hawn, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Kenneth Branagh, Melanie Griffith and Billy Crystal. "Small Time Crooks," his just-opened romantic comedy about a quarreling couple whose get-rich-quick schemes don't buy them happiness, teams Allen with the rarely seen-on-film Elaine May, as well as Tracey Ullman, Jon Lovitz and Hugh Grant.

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But does Woody Allen still matter? Can a filmmaker who makes fart-joke-free comedies, refuses to attend the Oscars, pays his actors a top salary of $50,000 and wouldn't be caught dead schmoozing with Sam Rubin on "The KTLA Morning News," still play in a comedy game that's become dominated by outrageous youth comedies like "American Pie" and "There's Something About Mary"? It says something about Allen's limited appeal that DreamWorks released the youth comedy "Road Trip" on the same day as "Small Time Crooks."

Allen's not eager to be part of today's how-low-can-you-go media culture. "I hope I'm not in sync because I've never been in sync," he says. "I think the culture is one that deserves a lot of criticism. I don't respect it. But I've always been an outsider. Look at my films. In 'Take the Money and Run,' I was a bank robber. In 'Bananas,' I was a leader of rebel forces. In 'Sleeper,' I was an alien. I've always felt like someone who didn't fit in, in both my films and my life."

In an era when everyone from Martin Scorsese to Steven Soderbergh has tried his or her hand at accessible, star-driven studio projects, it's hard to imagine an American filmmaker--OK, other than Jim Jarmusch--less willing to swap independence for a box-office payoff.

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