Woody Allen: Tall Dark Strangers, Dirty Old Men, and Other Fun Tropes



Who is Woody Allen?  For decades, his fan base has been trying to figure him out—carefully extrapolating clues from his characters, tenderly piecing together an image of one of the most prolific artists of our time. Of the recurring tropes within the Woody Allen canon, one could reasonably see him as a neurotic, quirkily funny intellectual with a morbid fear of death and an erotic propensity toward younger women. While Allen will adamantly deny that he, himself, embodies any of his fictional characters, he admits that some of his obsessions might subconsciously make their way into his scripts. Case in point, Allen’s new film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), contains all of the elements of a classic Woody Allen film—an older man afraid of dying leaves his wife for a younger woman; a washed-up writer magically seduces a beautiful young stranger; various couples struggle with the fantasy of love, only to end-up facing the tragic realities of love and marriage. While I do appreciate some of Allen’s insights, I find his cinematic fantasies tiresome—particularly that of the awkward older man successfully seducing the naïve, beautiful, young woman.  What’s worse, it is a fantasy that has somehow crept into his personal life, with the highly publicized marriage to his adopted stepdaughter, Soon-Yi. Nevertheless, if Woody Allen is not present in his films, then where is he?


Many have wondered to what extent Woody Allen’s films are autobiographical. Perhaps the real answer is that they are the way through which Allen realizes his fantasies. In an NPR interview with Steve Inskeep in September 2010, Allen denies that his films reveal his true identity: “People always think that writing is based on characters you’ve observed, or autobiographical things, because it’s hard for them to really empathize with an act of imagination. But the author is sitting in a room and making up the story completely.” Yet, Allen admits to Inskeep that his films do perhaps serve as an outlet for “working out some obsession without knowing it.”  In the same interview, Inskeep asks which character Allen would have played in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, if he were still acting in his own films. He acknowledges that, if he were younger, he would have played Josh Brolin’s character, Roy—the washed-up writer who is tempted out of his failed marriage by a beautiful, young woman. Allen eventually confesses that he would also have played Anthony Hopkins’ character, Alfie—the older man who leaves his wife of 40 years for a younger woman. When asked why he did not play these characters, Allen cleverly directs the conversation to the fact that Brolin and Hopkins are superior actors, never admitting that these fictional characters share any similarities to the real life Woody Allen's fantasies and/or perspective on life and love.  


Why do these types of relationships keep turning up in Allen’s films? The intellectually mature, yet emotionally stunted older man seems to find peace with the sweet, non-confrontational younger woman. On the one hand, these types of relationships seem to reflect the unrealistic fantasies of a hopeful older man. Yet, we also can recognize this relationship trope in the world outside of Woody Allen's fantasies. Moreover, Hollywood tends to reinforce our acceptance of them. Case in point, Melody (Evan Rachel Wood) in Whatever Works (2009) eventually leaves Boris (Larry David) when she is finally able to form her own opinions. Without the discovery of her own voice, she would have undoubtedly remained in a dependent relationship with her significantly older partner—taking care of him and his neurosis, blindly accepting his ideas as that of pure genius. Allen fixates on this type of power dynamic throughout his canon. For example, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, leaves his wife for a professional escort. Having once paid her for sex, he sees the next logical step as paying her to marry him. Yet, as she becomes frustrated with the arrangement, Alfie becomes increasingly more controlling.  Lavishing her with gifts and praise, he keeps her trapped in a pretty glass box of an apartment, only allowing her the pleasure of his own hobbies and interests. When she realizes that she desires something more, he becomes angry. As the relationship deteriorates, the power structures become clearer, seemingly protruding beneath the initial fluff.  As long as the younger woman remains naïve and ignornant, she is safe from the "crazy" label usually reserved for Allen's intellectual, strong female characters.  


Although Allen himself is an older man married to a woman 35 years his junior, one cannot assume that he writes directly from lived experience. Yet, as Allen himself acknowledged to Inskeep, perhaps he is working out some obsession in his films without knowing it. His film Manhattan(1979) gives us some more insight into his fixation on relationships with younger women. Woody Allen plays the 42-year-old Isaac, who is dating the 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Towards the end of the film, he admits his regret at not having tried to make the relationship work:  “Of all the women I’ve know over the last years, when I actually am honest with myself, I think I had the most relaxed times, you know, the nicest times with her. She was really a terrific kid. But, young, right?  So, that’s that.” Yet, at the end of the film, he throws away convention, running after her as she is leaving to study in London. He admits to her that he still loves her and that he made a terrible mistake by pushing her away. But now it’s too late, and he regrettably lets her leave.


Yet, the “real” Woody Allen must have learned from the mistakes of his characters, because in Allen’s life outside of his cinematic fantasies, he actually did get the girl. When then-partner Mia Farrow found Allen’s naked pictures of Farrow’s 21-year-old adopted daughter and Allen’s stepdaughter, Soon-Yi, on his mantle, a scandal erupted. During a Vanity Fair interview from December 2005, Peter Biskind asks Allen what he thinks would have happened if he had not left the pictures on the mantle.  Allen responds: “I don’t know. But it was just one of the fortuitous events, one of the great pieces of luck in my life.”  Evidently, he is relieved with his decision to pursue the relationship.  In a Fresh Air interview on NPR, Terry Gross mentions to Allen that many of his fans were upset when they heard of his marriage to Soon-Yi. She continues by asking if he cares what people think about his personal life. He replies: “If I say I don’t care, it sounds so cold and callous.  But, let me put it this way.  How could you go through life, you know, taking direction from the outside world.  I mean, what kind of life would you have?” Like Isaac in Manhattan, he went for the girl with whom he had the nicest, most relaxed times. Thirteen years later, they are still married—apparently, happily.  While no one can fully understand the inner workings of a couple, it is hard to stomach the real life actualization of Allen’s classic and disturbing trope. Nevertheless, if the couple is happy, why should I really care?  


In the same interview with Terry Gross, Allen admits—like many of his characters—to having the same panic attacks over death and the horrible realities of life.  In response to how filmmaking falls into the spectrum of life’s ups and downs, he replies: “Making a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world.” As someone who has written and/or directed almost a film a year since 1965, he has had a lot of time to escape. Although he may not like to admit it, his cinematic fantasies seem to have melted into his personal life. Like Josh Brolin’s character, Roy, in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, he was eventually able to seduce the seemingly unattainable young woman, albeit his stepdaughter. Meanwhile, Roy’s stunning wife Sally (Naomi Watts) has no such luck with her steamy boss Greg (Antonio Banderas). Figures. 


Regardless of where you may stand in terms of Woody Allen’s personal life, I would prefer not to be consistently reminded of it onscreen. While his films can be quirky, funny, and insightful, he represents many of his intelligent, strong female characters as “crazy.” If this is any reflection of Woody Allen’s real life experiences, it seems that Allen prefers to retreat to the safe, relaxed naivety of the younger woman. Nevertheless, although I recognize Allen’s classic contributions to cinema, and although I have enjoyed Allen’s most recent films, despite the misogynist power dynamics—particularly, Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) and Whatever Works (2009)—You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has failed to make much of an impact. Yet, if you are a Woody Allen fan, and if you aren’t bothered by the same old tropes, you will certainly be treated to the usual quirky, funny misogynist perspective on life.  If that’s what you’re looking for, then you certainly will not be disappointed. Yet, if you are looking for an alternative to the “old boy” film industry—either independent or Hollywood—You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is not the place to look.