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Right for the part

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by Ed Symkus


Woody Allen has a cold. He's all stuffed up, a bit hoarse and is having trouble hearing out of his right ear. It's very similar to the cold he had a year ago when he was promoting Small Time Crooks. It's most likely some psychosomatic thing about dealing with the press. But he's game.


"I sound terrible, but I'm okay. I won't whisper," he promises. "I'll give you my full stentorian voice."


And he does, sitting back and chatting it up, that voice eventually getting stronger as he talks about the trials and tribulations as well as his own special method of getting films made outside the Hollywood system. His newest, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, is the 31st feature film he's directed, unless you count his TV movie, Don't Drink the Water, and his segment contribution to New York Stories.


This one's a comedy of the wacky type, set in the 1940s, focusing on C.W. Briggs (Allen), head investigator for a New York insurance firm who finds himself at odds with the company's new efficiency expert, Betty Ann (Helen Hunt). Translated: They hate each other on sight. Circumstances lead the two of them to be hypnotized together at a nightclub show, after which the evil hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers), in a plot turn reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate, gets C.W. unconsciously to pull off a string of robberies.


Allen says the idea for the film was spontaneous.


"I was walking down the street, and I thought it would be a funny idea to be both the criminal and the person pursuing the criminal and not realize that," he says. "And I grew up with these 1940s movies with fast-talking men and women, and you knew they would get together at the end, but you never knew how. Because they apparently hated each other so much, and they insulted each other for the whole movie. You would see Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell do it, and Claudette Colbert and Robert Montgomery did it. You see it in the Lubitsch films and the Wilder films. I loved that sort of thing when I was a kid. And I thought, here I have a story that was right for that kind of treatment, a story where I could have rapid banter between the male and female protagonists."


Allen wrote down a few lines about it and threw it in a drawer, along with some other ideas he had over the years. A couple of years ago he was sifting through the drawer and realized he had a number of ideas he still thought were funny.


"I thought Small Time Crooks was funny, and I did it. And I thought this one was funny, and I did it, and I thought this other movie that I just finished -- it's called Hollywood Ending [which up to this moment had been a secret title known only as Woody Allen Spring Project 2002] -- was funny. I was accumulating all these comic ideas and not doing them. I kept saying, 'I'll get to this.' And I started to think, 'I'm getting older, I should get to these things, because, uhh, you never know.' So now I've done three of them, and I don't know what I'll do next, a serious film or a heavier film, or one of the other comic ideas in my drawer."


The one thing Allen doesn't readily find in his drawer is a casting director's roster of actors available for the male lead, a chore he has found himself doing more often than not. But that's not by design.


"On Deconstructing Harry I went through every actor that I could possibly think of for it, and couldn't get an available person from Robert De Niro to Elliott Gould to Dennis Hopper. I just tried everybody. So I played it, but I was really my last choice. On this one I would have been very happy to have cast any one of a number of actors. I would have loved Tom Cruise to have done it, Tom Hanks to have done it. Dustin Hoffman could certainly do anything I do better than me. But there was no one available at the time. These guys never stop working. It's hard to get them for nine weeks straight for no money.


"But I'm in Hollywood Ending," he adds. "And in that role, I think I'm the best person to play the part. And I think you'll think, whether you like the movie or not, that I'm the right casting for it. Because it's a New York neurotic film director. It's right up my alley."

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