People think my movies are exact copies of my private life, but they're totally made up," insists Woody Allen. Okay, maybe not totally. Speaking from a swank Manhattan hotel, the writer-director-actor who celebrates his sixty-first birthday today admits that his new comedy, Mighty Aphrodite, was inspired by his real-life adopted daughter Dylan. (Mia Farrow accused Allen of sexually abusing Dylan in 1992, but the charges were dismissed.)
In Mighty Aphrodite, Allen plays Lenny Weinrib, a Manhattan sports writer who, at the urging of his wife (Helena Bonham Carter), agrees to adopt a child. Though initially reluctant, Lenny immediately falls for the baby. "Now that did happen to me--that's an autobiographical feeling," says Allen. "When I was with Mia, I thought it wasn't a good idea for her to adopt again. But the second I saw [Dylan], I became completely enamored. I was looking at her and thinking she was so charming and so bright and so wonderful that she must have good genes."
It is this very same thought that propels the fictional Lenny on a search for his baby son's biological mother. Imagine Lenny's surprise when the bio-mom, played by newcomer Mira Sorvino, turns out to be a hooker. Allen says finding an actress to play the part of the prostitute was difficult.
I was casting for about eight weeks and met a lot of women," says Allen. "Some of them were hard, cheap types, but that didn't work. Then Mira came in. She sounded vulgar, yet vulnerable. You cared about her. It's very easy for that kind of character to be unlikable or harsh, but Mira is not that kind of person: she's bright and highly educated. I was also lucky with Mia in Broadway Danny Rose. She was playing a cheap gangster's girlfriend and, of course, she's nothing like that. She's kind of elegant and refined. These actresses are not those people, so when they play them, they give the characters a dimension that's never in the writing."
Of course, the only dimension that Woody Allen seems able to give the characters he plays is, well, Woody Allen. But then, the man who has won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Oscars (for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters) has no illusions about his skill as an actor. "I'm not Dustin Hoffman", shrugs Allen. "I couldn't earn a living that way". "In fact", adds Allen, "I'd be very happy not to perform. My name on the box office in America means zilch."
So what if he's never made mountains of money (except maybe in Europe, where he's huge)? Allen's films have been drawing critical raves for four decades. Even so, the notorious neurotic worries about his place in filmmaking history. "I've never made a movie where scholars sat around and said, 'This ranks with the greatest' ", he says. "It's a goal, but the trick is to have a great vision. That's not so easy".
The vision thing is a bit easier for an auteur with a bizarre personal life that he can mine for stories and themes. With that built-in advantage, and a new willingness to branch out a bit--Allen's next film marks his first attempt at musical comedy--his elusive masterpiece could finally be on the way. If he can learn to stay behind the camera.