Here's looking at Jew, kid
"My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."--Woody Allen
As an emotionally challenged New York Jew, I identify with Woody Allen. As an American, steeped in its popular culture, I also revere Humphrey Bogart.
Like Allen, Bogart was a short New York native who, after multiple marriages, finally settled down with a partner many years his junior. In Allen's case, it was Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen's long-time love, Mia Farrow. In Bogart's, it was the breathtakingly beautiful, glamorous, (and Jewish) actress Lauren Bacall. Nevertheless, the Bogie persona was as quintessentially goyish (that's Gentile to all you gentiles) as Allen's is over the top Jewish.
Allen's films are steeped in the cultural anxieties of the Jew struggling to fit into a gentile world. Of course, in Jew York City, that's easier to do than it might be in Lynchburg, Virginia. But make no mistake--us wandering Jews are everywhere. It's just that New York City is the American capital of the Chosen People, hands down. Here, we can be much more comfy about getting in touch with our inner Jew without feeling like alien beings.
Allen addresses the Jew/goy divide in many of his films. In Annie Hall, when he first meets up with ultra-shiksa (non-Jewish woman) Annie, she quickly declares that he is what her Granny Hall would call "a real Jew." While visiting Annie's family, Allen demonstrates, via split screen, the steeotypical cultural chasm between Jew and Wasp. Annie's family is polite and reserved, not a hair out of place, choosing their words with care and constraint; Allen's family is noisy, messy, and generally chaotic. Annie's family talks of hunts and swap meets; Allen's family might talk, perhaps, of the relative who developed a large goiter, as the children throw food and chase each other around the dining room. Flung into this alien goyish world, with Granny Hall periodically looking up from her plate to glare at him with unadulterated anti-Semitic contempt, Allen is clearly both out of his element and in it-- because his role as the striving but insecure outsider is part of what makes Woody, well, Woody. The struggle for identity is part of Allen's identity.
Zelig goes even further--documenting a Jewish born man with no sense of self whatsoever. A human chamelion, he takes on the appearance of anyone he comes into contact with. He literally transforms himself, by turns, into an Asian, an African-American, an Orthodox rabbi, an obese man, a Native American, a psychiatrist--even a Nazi, sitting behind Hitler at the podium during one of his rallies. With the help of his shrink (played by Mia Farrow) he struggles to discover who he really is beneath all the briefly acquired facades.
Play it Again Sam (1972) is director Herbert Ross' adaptation of Allen's own Broadway play. and the first film that pairs Allen and future long-time lover Diane Keaton, who went on to star in many of his films. Originally slated to be filmed in New York, the production was moved to San Francisco due to a New York filmmakers' strike in the summer of 1971.
Allen plays Allan Felix, a movie buff whose job is writing film-crit for magazines. Having just endured a painful divorce, he turns for solace to married friends Linda and Dick--played by Keaton and Tony Roberts--who repeatedly try to fix him up. But Allan's nervousness and lack of self-esteem sabotage any and all efforts they make to get him laid (or even to master a successful first date.) Plagued with anxiety and insecurity, Allen laments, "How will I be able to get a woman into bed? I won't even be able to get her into a chair." (Note: quotes throughout are occasionally paraphrased).
In times of stress, he conjures up the apparition of his idol Bogey, circa Casablanca. Bogey attempts to advise Allen in the fine art of bagging "dames." When Allen reveretially asks if Bogie he was crushed at the end of Casablanca when his love Elsa got back on the plane with her Nazi-fighting husband Victor Laslow, he laconically replies: "Nothing a little bourbon and soda wouldn't fix." Being the antithesis of Bogie, Allen of course fails miserably at drinking and any other Bogie-ism. In one scene, for example, Bogie advises him not to let his date know about the non-drinking thing or "she'll think you're a boy scout." Allen, the quintessentially nerdy and tentative Jew, is just not built to be the Goyishe shikker (drinker) and heroic risk taker his film idol embodies.
Allen's inadequacies are further exposed in a scene where his ex-wife, tired of her cloistered existence with a man who is a "watcher" rather than a "doer," proclaims her newfound freedom by getting on the back on a chopper with a "tall, handsome...blue-haired, blond eyed man." Perturbed by her quick transformation, Allen laments: "we've been divorced two weeks and she's dating a Nazi."
Linda's hubby Dick is preoccupied with work, constantly discussing real estate deals on the phone. One of the funniest running gags in the film concerns Dick's Type A, pre-cell phone wheeling and dealing. As soon as Dick arrives at any new location, he has to call in to let his colleagues know his number. ("I'll be at 362-9296 for a while; then I'll be at 648-0024 for about fifteen minutes; then I'll be at 752-0420; and then I'll be home, at 621-4598. Yeah, right George, bye-bye.")
Feeling neglected and insecure, Linda winds up spending a lot of time with Allen. Both hypochondriacs (it's a Jewish thing; Bogie would never take a trank, just a drink), they compare notes about their shrinks and the use of aspirin and tranquilizers.
Allan: You want a Fresca with a Darvon?
Linda: Unless you have apple juice.
Allan: Apple juice and Darvon is fantastic together!
Linda: Have you ever had Librium and tomato juice?
Allan: No, I haven't personally, but another neurotic tells me they're unbelievable.
Observing their banter, Dick remarks: "You two should get married and move to a hospital."
Eventually, Allen realizes he has fallen in love with Linda, and is advised by Bogie in how to properly seduce her. In preparation for a romantic dinner at his apartment, complete with champagne, Bogie has to reprimand him as he shops for supplies: ("Don't get those candles. Those are for a Jewish holiday.") As the time for Linda to come approaches, Allen is plagued with anxiety:
Allan: I can't do it. How does it look? I invite her over and then come on like a sex degenerate. What am I, a rapist?
Bogart: You're getting carried away. You think too much. Just do it.
Allan: We're platonic friends. I can't spoil that by coming on. She'll slap my face.
Bogart: Oh, I've had my face slapped plenty of times.
Allan: Yeah, but your glasses don't go flying across the room.
With "Bogey" egging him on, Allan scores--by modifying Bogey's pick up lines to match his own more sensitive persona. Ironically, it is Allan's non-Bogieish sweetness and sincere romanticism that ultimately captivates Keaton.
The film culminates with Allan reenacting the final scene from Casablanca, running to the airport after Linda, who is trying to catch up with Dick before he boards a plane for a business trip to Cleveland. In the dark, smoke-filled air, as the plane's propellers whirl a la Casablanca, Allan and Linda acknowledge their love for each other, but agree that Linda, who also still loves her husband, belongs with Dick--that she's essential for his life and work--the thing that keeps him going--just as Bergman's Elsa was to Victor Laslo.
Allan: If that plane leaves the ground, and you're not on it with him, you'll regret it - maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.
Linda: That's beautiful!
Allan: It's from Casablanca; I waited my whole life to say it.
After the plane takes off, Bogie congratulates Allan, saying, "Everyone is Bogie, sometimes. There's more to life than dames. You did the right thing for a pal. You're a stand-up guy." Allan acknowleges that he can't be Bogie, but can succeed very nicely if he will just be true to himself.
You don't have to be Jewish to relate to this dialectic of identity. Virtually all Americans have roots elsewhere in the world. Part of the American experience for all immigrants and ethnic groups involves balancing the desire to become assimilated, "real" Americans with the urge to retain some of their heritage.
And thus it is that Woody Allen--a skinny, short, nerdy, bespectacled, Brooklyn born Jew--became, like Bogie, an icon of American cinema.
Plus, he's bagged a bunch of swell dames.