One of Woody Allen’s most frustrating films. A convincing and detailed love story, derailed by a handful of bizarre missteps and a hopelessly outdated view of popular culture.

1. Kenneth Branagh’s performance, on first viewing, is nothing but an unapologetic impression of Woody, and is hugely distracting for that reason. Only in later viewings can one appreciate it for what it is, a VERY GOOD impression of Woody. He’s got it all down, the stammerings, the body language, the gestures. That he manages to get any human feeling across in the midst of this highly detailed stunt is an accomplishment all by itself.

There is another performance that comes to mind in this regard, Clint Eastwood does a feature-length impression of John Huston in White Hunter, Black Heart. Again, it fascinates partly because Eastwood is not known for his facility with impressions, and partly because he manages to pull it off. Eastwood, a movie star of the highest magnitude, only occasionally attempts to play an actual role, but he’s impressive in this and in another picture of the era, Heartbreak Ridge.

2. The film is lovingly shot and even more lovingly produced. Not many people will recall that, as the ’90s drew to a close, Woody Allen shocked New Yorkers by declaring that his budgets were going to be drastically reduced and that even things like free coffee for the crew would be eliminated. Celebrity was the first film in his new austerity program, but instead looks like one of the most lavishly produced films of his career, packed with name actors in bit parts, dozens of locations, sophisticated camerawork involving complicated lighting schemes.

INSIDER GOSSIP: the great Sven Nykvist, who shot 3 Allen movies prior to this one, once complained to me that he disliked working with Woody Allen because his camera setups were dull and unimaginative. He must have been happier with Celebrity, where the camera rarely stops moving and there is a lot of emphasis on foreground and background, faces moving in and out of frame and many complicated crowd scenes.

3. Among the actors who flit in and out of the movie are JK Simmons, Dylan Baker, Allison Janney, Adam Grenier, Sam Rockwell, Jeffrey Wright, Mark Addy and no fewer than 3 future Sopranos.

The cast is mostly wonderful and occasionally brilliant. Leonardo DiCaprio shows up halfway through the movie and practically burns a hole in the screen.

4. Well-observed, witty and erudite scenes of show-business lives occasionally butt straight up against broad, farcical physical comedy. The strangest of these scenes involves Bebe Neuwirth choking on a piece of banana.

5. As I say, there’s a decent love story somewhere in here. Removing all the references to our wicked culture of celebrity, we have Kenneth Branagh, who is turning middle aged and feels like he hasn’t lived yet. So he breaks up with his dowdy, repressed wife (Judy Davis, teetering on the edge of self-parody) and pursues a number of women. He has meaningless sex with a movie star, pursues and fails to catch a fashion model, lands a beautiful, smart, talented book editor, then throws that relationship away in order to get involved with a shallow, insipid young actress. Meanwhile, Judy Davis has a nervous breakdown, meets a TV producer, goes to work on his show, ends up becoming an on-air personality, gives up worrying about meaningful things, and becomes happy and fulfilled.

Right there is an interesting, heartfelt, well-written contemporary love story (well, perhaps not “contemporary;” Branagh, who’s almost exactly my age, has the attitudes of a man almost twice his age, and does not own a computer, allowing for a lame “only copy of my manuscript” plot point). Almost a remake of Manhattan in this regard, the luminous black-and-white photography making the connection even clearer.

6. The problem is, the love story is freighted with an “important,” “scathing” critique of our current culture of celebrity which, news flash, Woody Allen finds wanting.

This is the man who, in Annie Hall, equated Bob Dylan with Alice Cooper and the Maharishi, all in one scene. This is a man who, although born the same year as Elvis Presley, seems to listen only to music made before he was born, who rolled his eyes at punk rock (in 1986, on time for him) in Hannah and Her Sisters (SILLY PERSON: Don’t you just love songs about extraterrestrials? WOODY: Not when they’re sung by extraterrestrials!). His attitude seems closer to that of someone like Steve Allen, who always maintained that Elvis Presley was a no-talent hack dancing at the pleasure of his money-raking puppet-masters.

There is no accounting for taste. I don’t care for rap music, but I wouldn’t write a movie about it where I complained about it being a clattering racket made by foul-mouthed idiots. And the parts of Celebrity that deal with the general culture and steer clear of individual cases are brilliantly brought to life and work just fine. But when he tsks and sneers at Joey Buttafuoco and suggests that skinheads and the obese are not worth celebration, it makes the whole movie seem stale and remote, when in fact it is one of his most vibrant and lived-in pictures.

I wonder, who does he think will be going to see this movie? Does he think there is an audience out there who will say “Wow, I guess he’s right, now that I think of it, our culture DOES tear down the worthy and celebrate the worthless!” If such a person existed, why would they be going to see a black-and-white Woody Allen movie? No, in these moments he’s patting himself on the back and inviting us to sneer along with him.

Sure, there’s a lot of garbage in our culture. But the finer arts have always appealed to a more limited audience. And a lot of it will be forgotten and the good products of this exact same culture will live on, just like always, which will make those moments of Celebrity all the more baffling to future audiences.
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21 Responses to “Celebrity”
  1. r_sikoryak says:

    I’m always curious to see Woody’s movies, but as you know, K. doesn’t like him (as an actor, anyway).
    She will admit to enjoying (some) of his movies, but it’s a struggle.
    I doubt Branagh will win her over this time, even if I tell her, “But if we watch it twice, you’ll really enjoy it!”

    • Todd says:

      As Marge Simpson said once, “I’d enjoy his movies if he didn’t keep putting that nervous little guy in them.”

      For winning over the total Woody-phobic, I’d start with Bullets Over Broadway, or Match Point, which I’m sure will be out on DVD soon and looks, feels and is shot like no other Woody Allen movie.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    There must be movies where Judy Davis does not have a nervous breakdown or greater tragedy, but they escape me.

    I have been thinking lately how our (corporate) culture tears down the worthy and celebrates the unworthy, but I didn’t get it from Woody. Unless he whispered it to me as a child in the little store where I bought penny candy as a children where he also apparently shopped. Ah, nostalgia.

  3. urbaniak says:

    I’m reminded of “A King in New York,” one of Charlie Chaplin’s last films (from 1957) which is all about how vulgar and horrible late 50s popular culture is. It’s a dreadful movie and when you consider that it’s directed by one of the great movie geniuses of all time it somehow makes it even worse. Chaplin, once the 20th century everyman, comes off as an out-of-touch crank. What is it with these brilliant comedian/directors when the get old? They become the sort of snobs that their younger smart-alecky selves would make fun of!

  4. urbaniak says:

    And another thing: I saw “Celebrity” when it came out and I thought that Branagh’s meticulous imitation was just weird. He wasn’t “acting in the spirit” of Woody Allen, he was literally “acting Woody Allen.” It was, as you note, super distracting at the time. (I haven’t seen the film since.)

    In Simon Callow’s excellent biography of my hero Charles Laughton, he writes about how in the 1920s Laughton starred in a comedy in the West End written by a well-known London literary figure of the time. Laughton decided to play the character as a direct imitation of its famous author, which was hailed in the press as a bold and hilarious choice. (Everybody got the joke although the author himself apparently questioned the idea.) I wonder if Branagh read this book (very likely; it was published in England in the mid-80s) and was inspired by Charles Laughton’s famous (and very acclaimed) “stunt.

    • craigjclark says:

      An interesting theory, but Branagh’s not the only actor in a Woody Allen film who’s fallen into that trap — and he wasn’t the first. John Cusack (in Bullets Over Broadway) and Will Ferrell are two other stand-ins who ended up essentially doing feature-length Woody Allen impressions (but to lesser degrees). To my mind, the scene in Melinda and Melinda where Ferrell is derisively running down his rival the dentist’s beach house was right out of the Alvy Singer play book.

      • Todd says:

        This is true. And I would add Mia Farrow in Purple Rose and Jason Biggs in Anything Else. But all these actors manage to maintain their own personalities in the movie, and make the performance work in the context of the movie. Why it’s necesary to begin with is a mystery, except that maybe it’s that Woody is an icon and actors fall under a spell. Didn’t happen to Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown, or the guy in Match Point.

        • urbaniak says:

          Why it’s necesary to begin with is a mystery, except that maybe it’s that Woody is an icon and actors fall under a spell.

          Well, my armchair theory as to why is that Woody Allen writes a script but tells his actors to feel free to deliver their lines in their own words. To improvise off the dialogue so as to create that trademarked offhand, Woody Allen spontaneity. So an actor with the line “Do you want to go to the store?” will say “So, um, do you wanna, I don’t know, go to the store?”

          With those actors the “Woody Alllen thing” is there but it’s secondary, a residual effect. The thing that makes Kenneth Branagh’s performance so different is that his Allen mannerisms are primary, upfront. Which is not to say it isn’t also a fully realized character. But his “Allenness” in that movie is built from the ground up and on a radically different plane than those other actors, where it’s more of an environmental offshoot. At least that’s how it seemed when I saw it ’98. I should watch it again.

    • Todd says:

      Here is Woody Allen in conversation with Stig Bjorkman.

      SB: Whose idea was it that Kenneth Branagh should act and talk the way you usually do in your films?

      WA: This is more his interpretation of the part. There were times when we talked about it, and I said, “You certainly run the risk of people saying that you’re doing me.” But that didn’t seem to bother him. That was the way he saw the role, and that was how he wanted to interpret it. And that’s fine. I mean, I would not argue with an actor of his stature, if that’s the way he’s most comfortable acting the part. And it never bothered me. It wouldn’t have bothered me as long as he played it believably. I’ve felt that has been a criticism made by people who didn’t like the picture and who didn’t understand WHY they didn’t like the picture. They were searching for a reason why they didn’t like it. And they thought I should have played the part, instead of Kenneth trying to play me. But I would always answer that Kenneth is doing me better than I ever could have done me.

      End quote.

      Now then, “I would not argue with an actor of his stature,” it seems to me, is a wee bit disingenuous. Woody Allen is, after all, one of the greatest living directors, if he wanted to argue with an actor of Kenneth Branagh’s stature, I’m sure he could find it within himself to do so. But wait, let’s not forget, Woody Allen doesn’t argue with actors of ANY stature. If he doesn’t like someone’s performance, he just hires someone else and re-shoots the entire movie. He did it with both Michael Keaton and Sam Shepard, two actors who, if anything, have a bit more stature than Kenneth Branagh, if not his technical ability.

      I agree that the key to his performance is believability. He’s not just doing an impression, he really is acting the role AS Woody Allen. And it takes some getting used to, probably more so than most people are prepared to give a film that, on the surface, doesn’t seem worth the effort.

      • craigjclark says:

        Sam Shepherd was in the abortive first stab at September, wasn’t he? If I recall correctly, he and Christopher Walken were the only two cast members who didn’t do the reshoot and they weren’t replaced because Woody didn’t like their performances. It was because Walken was already busy on another project and Shepherd simply didn’t want to play the same part over again. I can’t blame him, actually. If there’s any film in the Woody Allen canon that’s claustrophobic and far too insular, it’s September.

        • Todd says:

          Chris Walken was in the movie first and was replaced by Sam Shepard. Shepard was then replaced by Sam Waterston. Woody didn’t like Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance and replaced her with Elaine Stritch. While he was at it, he replaced Charles Durning with Denholm Elliott (he says he felt Durning was miscast). He says that he didn’t ask Sam Shepard to do the re-shoots because he thought that he wouldn’t be interested, but it sounds to me like he’s being diplomatic. Sam Shepard, it seems, had a terrible time working on September and complained bitterly about it afterward, saying that Woody Allen doesn’t know the first things about acting and directing. I’ve heard this complaint from more than one actor who has worked with him, which makes it all the more mysterious how he gets such consistently good work from them.

          When I have my film class, September will be what I show when I want to demonstrate how to shoot a stage play. It’s a beautifully shot picture. My problem with it is that it’s another pale Bergman imitation, and feels quite pretentious and ponderous. But I certainly don’t blame him for trying.

  5. toliverchap says:

    Immortality of “culture”

    I’m not so sure that anything will be fully lost these days. This digital age where things can be cataloged and databased and stored mixed with the popularity of nostalgia seems to pretty certainly ensure a long life for all sorts of high and low art. And there is this recurring new audience some are sincere about the older stuff others are just following a fad but nonetheless people have access to more stuff the old stuff though it may be forgotten for a time will come back. It’s retro.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Immortality of “culture”

      Prince, it should be noted, just had his very first number 1 debut, thirty years into his career.