Transubstantiation,” Woody Allen explains in his latest book, Without Feathers, is “the process whereby a person dematerializes and then rematerializes somewhere else in the world. This is not a bad way to travel,” Allen continues, “although there is usually a half-hour wait for luggage.” That genius for juxtaposing the cosmic with the mundane has improbably transubstantiated Woody’s own negligible (if yearning) flesh into superstardom. Feathers, a collection of cerebral wackiness, mostly rerun from The New Yorker, sold 90,000 in hardcover alone. And Allen also wrote—not to mention directed and played the klutzy lead in—the Czarist-epoch parody, Love and Death, one of the handful of 1975 movie smashes that didn’t star a fish.
If Allen had tried to shoot a Jaws, it would have turned out Lox, but uncannily, all of Woody’s eight movies have spun a profit. To be sure, a lot of his New York-Neurotic wit theoretically shouldn’t play in the boonies, and when Jerry Ford is seeking a little comic escape, he would probably tackle Burning Tree with Bob Hope. But who did Betty Ford choose to adorn her arm at the arts event of 1975, the Martha Graham ballet gala? Allen, a fellow Graham disciple, who showed, characteristically, in black tie and sneakers.
Somehow, Woody (born Allen Stewart Konigsberg, 40 years ago) has converted his horn-rimmed horniness—as well as his Freudian guilt (he is twice divorced)—into gelt. Son of a Brooklyn jewelry engraver, he started as a teenager peddling one-liners for 10¢ apiece to press agents, then progressed, after dropping out of two colleges, to write for the likes of Sid Caesar. The next step was to deliver his own material, but rather than overcome the deep wallflower complex that has entertained analysts for two decades, Allen incorporated it into his act.
His one possibly justified paranoid fear is typecasting, and Woody is courageously countering it in his next film, The Front, his first straight dramatic role, about blacklisted entertainers in the ’50s. A nonstop worker and non-drinker (except for chocolate milkshakes), Allen is still a New Yorker, and very private, except for Monday evenings, when he sits, pokerfaced, with a Dixieland band blowing clarinet at mid-town Michael’s Pub. As Woody says, “At least my neurosis is creative. It could have been writer’s block.”