Everything you always want to know about Woody Allen
The acclaimed film director’s little sister reveals how growing up paranoid and Jewish in Brooklyn shaped his view of the world
When Letty Aronson was a little girl, her brother used her in his magic act. Not to pass the props or hold the rabbit, but to distract the audience’s attention from whatever the boy magician — one Allen Konigsberg — was doing.
Sixty years on and Aronson laughs at the memory. She is still an intrinsic part of her brother’s magic show — only now the magic is film-making and she is a multi-tasking producer. And Allen Konigsberg is, of course, better known as Woody Allen.
“My brother has more ideas for movies than he has time to make them,” says Aronson, a vibrant 68-year-old who is eight years younger than Allen and visibly devoted.
“Because of the age difference, there has never been any rivalry between us. We always got along and, though we were only briefly together at the Isaac Asimov School in Brooklyn, he made use of that time by getting me to cover for him when he ducked out of school. Woody was a poor student with no interest in school. He believed the non-Jewish teachers were all antisemites and for the most part it was true.”
Until recently, Aronson’s role as finance-seeker, problem-solver and supportive sibling was done in relative obscurity. An appearance at this year’s Oscars (an event her brother ignores) for the Midnight in Paris best film nomination got her in the papers, but it was only Allen’s fans who knew her connection to the prolific director who used to walk her to kindergarten.
The release of the much-anticipated Woody Allen: A Documentary has at last put Aronson in the spotlight — or at least half-light — as she provides the tales and insight into the life and creative process of her big brother. She it is who reveals that Allen’s idea for a new film is often written as a single paragraph and that is all she has to go on to raise the budget.
“It could be Terminator or it could be Bambi that he’s planning,” she jokes. “So when I go out to get funding they have to buy into the Woody brand because he has total independence. No one gets to participate in casting, see a script or a rough cut. You give the money and you get delivered a film.”
There are lots of contributors in the documentary, many of them stars of Allen’s movies such as Sean Penn, Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz and, of course, Diane Keaton; but for the film’s Emmy award-winning director, Robert Weide, Aronson was the lynchpin of a documentary he has wanted to make for three decades.
“Woody has always turned down these projects in the past because he never felt he was a worthy subject for a retrospective. He doesn’t see his place in any big scheme of things and really is self-deprecating,” explains Weide, who has made documentaries about the Marx Brothers and W C Fields (both beloved by Woody) as well as directing Curb Your Enthusiasm for the first five seasons.
Being able to give Larry David direction is testimony to Weide’s patience and determination, though he never imagined it would take more than 25 years from initial pitch to green-light to get Woody Allen to agree to do a documentary.
“I wrote him three letters over that time, but he always politely declined,” says Weide, who was a former employee at the offices of Jack Rollins and Charles H Joffe (Allen’s producers and managers) and on nodding terms with the director. “Then, in 2008, after sending yet another letter outlining why the time was right and I was the guy to do it, I got a call from his assistant saying: ‘If he were to do this’, and as soon as I heard the word ‘if’, I knew I was in.”
Interestingly, Weide does not describe himself as a Allen “superfan” — “You know, the kind who memorises every line of dialogue” — but his interest was sparked when he saw Take The Money and Run aged nine, and then when Annie Hall came out in 1977, “it was like a bomb went off”, he says. “It was just such a different film. I also happened to be involved with a girl who wasn’t Jewish at the time and the dynamic in our relationship was very much like that between Alvy and Annie.”
Once Allen agreed to participate in the documentary, the two directors fell into an easy rapport exchanging emails about what was needed to make the film work. “Woody is famously a luddite and dictates his correspondence, but we started to get very sarcastic with each other,” says Weide. “Let’s just say the ice was broken and this normally reticent man was relaxed and comfortable answering my questions.”
With Allen in a comfort zone, Weide was the first person to be allowed to film him on set, accompany him to Cannes twice and get access to an archive which contains a three-hour interview with his mother, Nettie Konigsberg. “It does give some clues about Woody’s take on the world,” notes Weide, who even managed to get permission from Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow to use film clips.
“Until now, she has always refused, but I told her that I couldn’t ignore the films they’d done together in spite of what had gone on between them. [The couple split over Allen’s relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, whom he later married.] I can’t pretend to understand it; though I’m sure in her mind the events are extremely painful. But enough time may have passed for her to have agreed.”
Approaching the film chronologically enabled Weide to take Allen back to reminisce at the front gate of his childhood home in Midwood, Brooklyn. These are memories Aronson has a share in and she vividly recalls weekly trips with their mother to the movies, though she was not interested in the entertainment business.
“I was the studious one and wanted to be an attorney,” she admits. “But my parents thought teaching was a better choice when it came to having children, so I did that and eventually got a Masters degree in special education.”
Childhood for the Konigsberg kids has been depicted repeatedly in Allen’s films and generally involves a lot of noisy relatives eating and arguing in a culturally Jewish, but non-religious way.
“We were kosher, but not religious, so we would have milk and meat together at the same meal but not on the same plate,” is Aronson’s memory of observance at home. “The main thing we got from our parents was that feeling that people don’t like Jews and that is something you remember, even though I went the opposite way.”
The siblings are stridently secular and non-observant, but Letty married a Jewish sociology professor, Sidney Aronson, who died in 2002, had three children, all of whom went to cheder, and still cannot resist making latkes at Chanucah. The bigger mystery is how she finds time to spend in her kitchen, for Weide’s documentary reveals just how focused Allen still is at 76, to keep up his production rate of a film every year. And since the controversial departure of his long-time producer Jean Doumanian in 2001, raising the money is Aronson’s lot, though she is not always convinced by her brother’s ideas.
“When I read the script for Midnight in Paris, I said: ‘Who is going to come and see this? No one knows who Gertrude Stein or Man Ray were.” But, unlike most little sisters, Aronson was only too happy to admit she was wrong when her brother got an Oscar for best original screenplay and the film took $148 million at the box office.
Weide believes that Allen makes so many movies because excessive productivity is a distraction from the dark thoughts that are always given a comic spin in his films. “When production finishes a normal person goes off to the beach to relax, but Woody just starts the next one,” he says.
After many shared hours — “some of it spent having enjoyable but unremarkable conversations off-camera” — Weide had enough footage to make a 10-hour series, and there will be fans who wish that he had.
Beyond nodding terms, but never likely to be “pals”, Weide is just glad that he got as much material as he could and was able to get Allen to reveal such things as the films he loves and hates and who he would most like to have dinner with.
Turns out that Woody Allen hates Some Like It Hot, thinks Casablanca was no big deal (has he seen Play It Again Sam?) and does not like eating with anyone. Says Weide: “He even made a point of telling me that there were two great things about the Italian actor, Roberto Benigni, who stars in his next film, To Rome with Love. The first was that he was a terrific actor. And the second was: ‘That he never tried to have dinner with me’. And then Woody went home for lunch — alone.”
‘Woody Allen: A Documentary’ is out now