For Woody Allen's Next Trick, Shrugging Off Bad Publicity

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By DAVE ITZKOFF

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The cafe here on Westminster Street that was the location for a future Woody Allen movie looked like an elaborate stage illusion, surrounded by large screens that focused light into the restaurant, while also concealing any action within from onlookers outside.

In time, Mr. Allen will raise the curtain on that particular act, starring Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix. But for now, that trickster was keeping it hidden, emerging from his protective barriers only to talk about another motion picture, “Magic in the Moonlight,” which opens July 25.

Written and directed by Mr. Allen, this comedy tells the tale of a 1920s stage magician (played by Colin Firth) whose sober belief in the empirical world is sorely tested by an enticing younger woman (Ms. Stone) who claims to be a psychic medium.

Issues of artifice and uncertainty are pervasive in Mr. Allen’s work and life. “Magic in the Moonlight” is the latest of his films to exhibit his fascination with the early 20th century and to offer a philosophical arena where the forces of rationality and spirituality can duke it out, though it is no secret which side the author favors.

“I’m like Blanche DuBois,” said Mr. Allen, 78, sitting on an ice chest in a parking lot outside the cafe. “I hope in life that there’s a certain amount of magic. Unfortunately, there’s not enough. There are little, sporadic things one could think of as magical. But for the most part, it’s grim reality.”

Those remarks may simply reflect the comically crushing skepticism of Mr. Allen, who has considerable power to construct his own worlds, fictional and otherwise.

But the comments could also apply to the tumult of recent months, when he was confronted with past accusations he may have thought had vanished; and the reality that “Magic in the Moonlight” may test whether his audience has disappeared.

Magic — the form that has worked in Mr. Allen’s favor — has appeared in his movies in various guises, whether overtly, as in films like “Scoop” (the 2006 film in which he played a fumbling would-be Houdini), or obliquely, as in the 1985 comedy “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (in which a movie character stepped off a screen into real life).

In his adolescence, Mr. Allen said, he was obsessed with stage magic and taught himself card tricks and sleight-of-hand stunts, even performing them for small audiences. But, given what he called “my inherent criminal personality,” Mr. Allen said, “I was interested in being a gambler, a card hustler, a dice hustler.”

“It was aiming to a life of borderline crime,” he added.


Letty Aronson, Mr. Allen’s sister and longtime producer, said from the set that her brother’s early interest in prestidigitation was a sign that he was “very, very observant of small things that happen in everyday life.”

But there was a mischievous side to Mr. Allen’s magic act, too. When Ms. Aronson asked him for the secret of a certain knife trick, she recalled: “He said, ‘If you give me $5, I’ll sell it to you.’ So I gave him $5. I never got the knife, and I still don’t know how it was done.”

As a filmmaker, Mr. Allen has been a vocal disbeliever in a world beyond what is perceivable, as certain that there is no foundation for it as he is that such faith could never take root in him, though he holds a certain fascination with those who possess it.

“But if you’re the kind of person that finds it hard to deceive yourself — even though it’s seductive to believe the other thing — then you’re stuck with it,” he said. “The overwhelming amount of logic and evidence is that we’re all victims of a bad deal.”

The trials that Mr. Firth’s character undergoes in “Magic in the Moonlight” — he badly wishes Ms. Stone’s psychic is not a fake, and even resorts to prayer in a desperate moment — might seem to indicate that Mr. Allen is more flexible about his beliefs than he is willing to acknowledge.

Mr. Allen denied this, though his leading man thought it was plausible.

“Woody must at least understand that certainty is to be questioned,” Mr. Firth said in a telephone interview. “Sometimes there are more paradoxes in good writing that are revealed about the person than they might consider.”

These fanciful renderings of bygone eras are surely more comfortable than the period this past winter, when Mr. Allen was publicly challenged by his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow, who said in The New York Times and in other publications that Mr. Allen sexually molested her when she was a child.

In an Op-Ed article in The Times in February, Mr. Allen wrote, “Of course, I did not molest Dylan,” saying that a police investigation had cleared him at the time and adding that the piece would be his “final word on this entire matter.”

Here in Providence, Mr. Allen dismissed the possibility that lingering outrage could affect the public’s interest in “Magic in the Moonlight.”

“No thoughts like that occur to me,” he said to this reporter. “They only occur to you guys.”


“I don’t think anyone has ever not come to a film of mine that they thought they would enjoy,” he added. “Nothing keeps them away if they think they’ll enjoy the film. And if they don’t think they’ll enjoy the film, nothing we can do ever brings them in.”

Ms. Aronson agreed it would be “sheer stupidity” for Mr. Allen’s fans to avoid his future films. “If they like Woody Allen movies, what are they doing?” she said. “They’re not hurting him. They’re hurting themselves.”

Asked if the recent scrutiny weighed on Mr. Allen, Ms. Aronson said: “No, not at all. And I think this year’s rehashing of everything made everything so much more obvious.”

Whatever people want to believe about Mr. Allen, “there’s nothing you can do,” she said. “You just move on and go on with your life, which is what he’s done.”

A publicist for Ms. Stone said she was unavailable for comment.

Mr. Thomson said that Mr. Allen’s “annus horribilis was some time ago” — that is, when he separated from Mia Farrow in 1992 and the sexual-abuse claims against him were first made.

“I don’t have the impression that it threw him off stride very much,” Mr. Thomson said.

Professionally, Mr. Allen still enjoys wide latitude to make movies as he wishes. His last three directorial efforts, “Midnight in Paris” (which sold $151 million in tickets worldwide), “To Rome With Love” ($73 million) and “Blue Jasmine” ($97 million), are among his most lucrative movies ever, with “Blue Jasmine” earning its lead actress, Cate Blanchett, an Academy Award.

Mr. Allen said that his next four films, including the currently untitled one he is making with Ms. Stone and Mr. Phoenix, have financing, and he has the full support of Sony Pictures Classics, which has released his recent films, including “Magic in the Moonlight.”

Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said: “Every detail of what we do, he sees, he looks at, he approves. He still has a lot to say, and this process that he has allows him the comfort to say it exactly the way he wants to.”

Mr. Barker declined to comment on how he thought the recent controversy might affect the performance of “Magic in the Moonlight.”

Thoughts of winding down his career do not occur to Mr. Allen, who described his work as if it were a mixture of fantasy and vacation.

“You go in, in the morning, and there are women like Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone that you spend months with,” he said. “They’re charming, they’re beautiful, they’re gifted. The guys, like Colin, like Joaquin, are larger than life. They’re delightful.”

Should he simply one day run out of ideas, Mr. Allen suggested, he could still fall back on his old sleight-of-hand skills.

“I could probably cheat some old ladies out of their pensions, if I had to,” he said.


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