Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Celebrity (1998)

Then Watched in screen one in the Cornerhouse in Manchester.

Now Like Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity is seen by some as the moment when the rot set in, when Woody Allen stopped being as good as he used to be. It still retains a solid splat inducing 39% at Rotten Tomatoes. I wasn’t a fan on first viewing but this time around I found it as interesting and entertaining as any of the films in this period and certainly more accessible than some of his work from the late eighties.

It’s very prescient about were the nature of celebrity was heading, the intensity with which some notables are pursued in the internet age having not yet calcified. As one of the characters notes, “You can tell a lot about society by the people it venerates”. But it also illustrates that everyone idolises someone; when Ken Branagh’s writer Lee is invited to a dinner party he’s still in awe of other writers and book editors who don’t quite understand his adulation.

The film captures Leonardo Di Caprio just as he was about to make a concerted effort to ditch his teen idol status and he seems to be portraying an exaggerated version of the public’s perception of him. Adding to the authenticity, his entourage consists of the kinds of actors you might expect would be in his entourage – Gretchen Mol is his girlfriend and the hangers on are a young Sam Rockwell and Adrian Grenier who five years later would himself fill the Di Caprio-type role in the tv series Entourage.

The film employs one of Woody’s standard “novelistic” structures of two thematically related stories running alongside one another as seen in Husbands and Wives and later Melinda and Melinda. Here he compares the fall of Lee with the rise of is ex-wife Robin (Judy Davies) to illustrate the randomness of success and how even the most headstrong amongst can see the world crash about around our feet. What goes up, must come down.

Within that, the stories have a very sketch like structure, most of the various sequences reasonably self-contained. The impression (aided by the lustrous black and white photography) is of a series of memories, the characters constantly reflecting backwards on where they’ve been. As the editing bounces between the two stories only rarely is there much cause and effect but there is symmetry, the attitudes reversing between Lee and Robin from the first screen scene to the last.

The other disconcerting aspect of the film is Ken’s performance, in which he’s essentially impersonating Woody. In this New York Daily News interview, it’s revealed that like John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, the director asked Ken to drop the impression and just act. Unlike Cusack, Branagh just carried on anyway:
”I wrote Kenneth Branagh a letter when I sent him the "Celebrity" script. I said to him, "This part is not me. If I was younger, I would definitely not play it. When I was writing the thing, before I thought of you, I had someone like Alec Baldwin in mind. I think he would have been great doing it, but he was not available - and I want to be completely upfront about this. But this is definitely no way me. It requires a younger and more attractive person than me. Even when I was younger, I wasn't attractive enough to play this part. I need someone who's got more flair."

“And, of course, Kenneth is a great actor and I thought it would be a breeze for him. And then as he was doing it, I would go over to him and say "You know, it seems to me that you're doing me. A lot." And he'd say, "I hear what you're saying, don't worry." And then guys on the crew would tell me that he was doing me. And I just sort of threw in the towel and felt, that's how he sees this character. This is how he sees him, and this is a great Shakespearean actor. What's the smartest thing to do here? Do I try to force him into a different mold, or do I go with his take on the character?”
I imagine the conversation was very much like the audition scene in his In The Bleak Midwinter between Branagh’s own avatar Michael Maloney and an actor who’s doing an impression of Olivier’s Richard III:
Ken: Well, I like, I know, like um … yeah … hmm.
Woody: Ken, I like what you’re doing, it’s very good. But could we just try losing the accent, the gesticulating, the unfinished sentences and try the scene again?
Ken: Well, I like, I know, like um … yeah … hmm.
Woody: Brilliant! Much better! Thanks very much.
Ken: Oh that felt great, I really felt like it freed me up.
But what Branagh’s doing isn’t simply an impression or a Mark Kermode-style parody. Every movement, the intonation of his voice, the ticks, yes the gesticulation, is like Woody. The level of observation is startling, it’s disconcerting in a similar way to the animated ant Z in Antz, but somehow it works. As Woody says in that interview, “I was amazed! He's a great mimic.”

This is the last film he shot with Sven Nykvist and there’s a return to the far more controlled camera work of Crimes and Misdemeanours. My favourite sequence artistically is late on when Lee, having made a commitment to Famke Jansson’s character meets his earlier crush Winona Ryder in a crowded bar. The pair sit opposite one another at a table and the camera pans through 180 degrees focusing on their two faces and somehow, amid the conversation chaos, despite the usual mono soundtrack, we’re able to focus on their staccato dialogue as Lee realises that his emotional life has just become frightfully complicated.

No comments:

Post a Comment