Woody Allen gets serious, entertains all the same: SEPTEMBER

Contributor Jeremy Carr takes a look at one of Woody Allen's lesser-known dramas.

September

It’s hard to believe that at one point, the most controversial issue surrounding Woody Allen was whether or not he should be making serious movies. Should he stick to the flat-out comedies that launched his cinematic career, or should he push the boundaries of his creative potential and delve into more dramatic fare? It was a question Allen sardonically alluded to in the self-referential Stardust Memories (1980), and it was a question still being considered when September, one of his more unapologetically somber features, was released to mixed reviews in 1987.

This is a purely superficial concern, of course, entirely subjective and revealing little about actual quality, but part of the reason serious Woody was so often suspect had to do with the sweeping change in tenor of these more solemn selections. The characters in September, for example, were wholly removed from the average viewer, certainly more so than those in Allen’s immediately preceding film, Radio Days, a nostalgic, working-class comedy also released 1987. And while Allen had already tread this territory before, most notably with Interiors (1978) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), the latter a masterpiece with a nice tonal balance—the comedy retained by Allen himself in a starring role—these ostentatious, upper-crust types could seem miles away from Allen’s hapless fools or quixotic romantics. When rigidly affluent figures sit around sipping wine and speaking French for no other reason than they can, the socioeconomic disconnect could easily be more than some are willing to entertain.

And yet, it could be entertaining. Yes, these characters talk constantly of escaping to Paris, and all seem to have the means to do so, and yes, everyone seems to be a writer or a photographer and they don’t appear to do anything more than contemplate these artistic aspirations. Yes, they’re plagued by assorted anxieties and affectations; they’re high-strung and self-absorbed. But when it comes to September, such is the gift of Woody Allen, operating in harmony with nearly every performer, that this pretentious milieu could also be effortlessly engrossing. It has to do with the narrative web spun by Allen, entwining the suicidal Lane (Mia Farrow), who has recently moved to her family’s country home in Vermont, with her friend, Stephanie (Dianne Wiest), who is seeking respite from an unhappy home life of her own. Also showing up is Lane’s spirited mother, Diane (Elaine Stritch), her lighthearted husband, Lane’s stepfather, Lloyd (Jack Warden), and neighbors Peter (Sam Waterston), a younger writer, and Howard (Denholm Elliott), an older professor. Aside from the family dynamics, at first implied then brought dramatically to the fore, amorous interplay contributes to the insular combustion; briefly put, Howard is in love with Lane, who is in love with Peter, who, in turn, has feelings for Stephanie.

Mia Farrow and Denholm Elliott

Not every character or relationship is of equal prominence or interest. Peter and Stephanie advance the most passionate, emotional engagement, in large part because Waterston and Wiest are so individually talented and so comfortable with Allen’s material; this was his third time working with Allen, and he would return for Crime and Misdemeanors in 1989, while Wiest was appearing in her fourth consecutive film for the prolific director, winning two Oscars for her Allen collaborations, the first for Hannah and Her Sisters, the second for Bullets Over Broadway, still to come in 1994. The least convincing of the primary players is Farrow, in her seventh straight film with Allen. Typically a brilliant, quintessentially Woody Allen performer, particularly in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, here she is tedious and insipid. Although these traits do correspond with her character (Diane says her apathetic daughter dresses like a “Polish refugee”), her whiny disposition does little to develop Lane as a character deserving much consideration.

Also working for and against Farrow is Stritch. For, because a late-film revelation concerning Diane triggers a genuinely forceful outburst from Lane, and their mother-daughter contention is reasonably potent throughout; against, because Farrow simply can’t compete with the vivacious senior actress (nor can anyone else in the film for that matter). Stritch’s Diane is a dynamo; she is effervescent, commanding, and charming. Reveling all listeners with tales of gangsters and movie stars, it’s little wonder Peter finds her life-story worthy of a book, much to Lane’s resentful chagrin. Known primarily for her stage and Emmy-winning television work, Stritch is especially prominent when the truth comes out about the shooting of Lane’s father—a riveting sequence inspired by the story of Lana Turner and her own 14-year-old daughter, who killed Turner’s gangster-lover Johnny Stompanato—but her most profound scene is when she reflects on her aging fragility. Mortal quandaries are part and parcel for Woody Allen, but rarely has a character so convincingly examined his or her own frailty as it directly relates to old age, not necessarily along existential lines, but regarding the effects of natural mental and physical fatigue. Like so many others, Stritch would likewise reunite with Allen for Small Time Crooks (2000) and, though her scenes were ultimately cut, Everyone Says I Love You (1996) and Celebrity (1998), and for those seeking the comedy in September, she’s the one to go to. Summoning her ex-husband on a Ouija board, Diane’s sadness and desperation is promptly undercut by a winning proclamation: “The Richmonds are flooded, electricity’s gone off. God is testing us and I for one am gonna be prepared. Where’s the vodka?”

Elaine Stritch, Mia Farrow, & Jack Warden

Stirred by the works of Anton Chekov, Eugene O’Neill, and Ingmar Bergman, September is one of Allen’s most restrained chamber dramas, twisting and tying the varied threads within a developed single location. Not surprisingly for the three-time Oscar-winning screenwriter (16 nominations total), Allen masterfully assembles and revisits the animosities and jealousies and swiftly establishes, through passing discourse alone, concise, illuminating backstories. The dialogue, at times somewhat contrived, is delivered with conviction by all, save for Farrow, whose early recitation feels rather strained. With everyone at a critical crossroads, with varying degrees of consequence, the theatrical structure provides a suitable form for the respective crisis. Allen recognized as much when commenting on the motivating concept of the film—a small cast in one location—stating his desire to “work in play form deliberately.” “I wanted to put it in four acts, which I did,” he told Eric Lax. “This thing, I could just publish the script, an acting version of it, and you could probably put it on in a theater with almost no changes at all. But it’s not stagy because it was conceived for film.” That may be, but September does have its theatrical attributes. Motivated by Farrow’s rural Connecticut home—“on many acres isolated on a little piece of land with water and trees and a field here and a swing out there….No wonder people kill themselves”—Allen’s recreation of this rustic residence is vividly realized by production designer Santo Loquasto, working on a Kaufman Astoria soundstage. An efficient integration of suggested sights and sounds, natural elements like a late summer thunderstorm, birds chirping, and cicadas humming in the night, creates a wonderfully authentic country atmosphere, further illustrated by the muted earth tones and occasionally vibrant visuals of Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography (the red-orange candlelight during a power outage is extraordinary).

Acting and technical virtues aside, the real buzz around September concerned its production, or rather, productions. As has often been recounted, Allen shot September twice in its entirety, with different scenes and a partly different cast (initially with Maureen O’Sullivan as Diane, Sam Shepard as Peter, Charles Durning as Howard; Christopher Walken was actually first cast as Peter but was jettisoned just days in). The decision to re-do the film was made after editing, and Allen has been predictably cagey about why he chose to scrap the original—and apparently, he didn’t bother to tell all the earlier actors. He justified his decision by again calling to mind the theater. “It’s no different than any playwright with a show out of town,” he said. “In Philadelphia, you sit in the hotel room and rework scenes. I was doing the same thing. It’s just more cumbersome to do it on film.” Still, the process was relatively easy, given the single setting, and the picture came in at about 20 percent over budget. In fact, not long after September was released, Allen said he’d like to shoot it a third time.

Dianne Wiest and Mia Farrow

Allen’s films have never received a Blu-ray treatment brimming with supplemental content, and despite the backstory recollections that might be out there concerning this reconstruction, from cast and/or crew, the new Twilight Time disc of September follows in the tradition. Though the HD transfer is gorgeous, the disc features only a cursory essay by Julie Kirgo, a music and effects track, and the theatrical trailer.

The years leading up to 1987 included a string of more accomplished work from Allen, and there were several superior films still to come. But even a minor Woody Allen movie features its fair share of memorable moments and fine performances. There are surely more than a few of these to distinguish September.

September is available on limited-edition blu-ray exclusively from Twilight Time. 

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