Last week my better half and I went out for two first run movies. Descendants, which stars George Clooney, was satisfying and opened up the history of Hawaii and its European settlement in ways that many Americans who (like myself) know only about Pearl Harbor should find enlightening. But the real gem of the holiday week was seeing My Week with Marilyn. As a heterosexual male who has never figured out the appeal of platinum colored hair, I was not so keen on seeing a movie about Marilyn Monroe as I was to see Kenneth Branagh play the role of Sir Laurence Olivier. The film is about the making of a 1956 movie in which Olivier and Monroe were co-stars. Talk about discordant divergence. And yet the 2011 movie was thoroughly enjoyable both as a vehicle for the remarkable talent of Branagh and as a charming story of an unlikely encounter between celebrities from opposite sides of the Atlantic and opposite brows of the culture. Two vigorous thumbs up for My (not about me) Week with Marilyn.
Speaking of Hollywood, the Mrs. and I were also in range of cable television last week and so had access to a documentary on Woody Allen that aired on PBS. I understand that many film goers may have grown tired with Woody’s recent productions (not to mention his love life), though his using European cities as opposed to his beloved Manhattan seems to have energized the seventy-five year old. But what younger viewers don’t understand — myself included — is how remarkable his career has been. For my wife and I, Annie Hall and Manhattan were the beginning of a new era in American cinematography, analogous to what micro-breweries did for beer in the United States. But what I had not realized was how Woody had a different career for twenty years before working on films. He started as a joke writer, eventually working on the “Sid Caesar Show.” Working as a stand up comic came later and with much reluctance from Allen. And that happened largely at the cajoling of Woody’s handlers, Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe. One of the most memorable old clips from the documentary was from the Perry Como Show which featured Woody doing a song and dance number with leggy, busty dancers. Woody was dressed in top hat and tails and hamming it up with the best of variety show schmalzt. It was the kind of television that Woody would later ridicule over and over again in his film directing and writing.
Woody Allen’s career as a movie maker only came at the end of these other phases. No one would have ever predicted that he would wind up as a cinematographer and make (arguably) more movies than even Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini. It’s as if Jerry Seinfeld had gone from doing stand-up to his situation comedy and then decided he wanted to get in to the film business. And that does not even begin to describe Allen because Woody did not use Hollywood as a stepping stone to another form of entertainment — say an HBO series or two. Instead, Woody found the medium in which he would thrive and sometimes only survive. averaging one film per year for four decades (and still counting). But to think of American cinema without putting Woody Allen high on the list of American screenplay writers, directors, and actors is impossible.
Even so, I’d rather watch Kenneth Branagh on the big screen.