BEYOND doubt one of the most brilliant and original comics of recent years is Woody Allen. Woody started, in 1965, as a fairly traditional Jewish comic in such movies as What's New Pussycat?, and writing much of his own material.
Again conventional left-wing notions inspired his trenchant comedy The Front at the expense of what had come to be pilloried as the Hollywood scandal of the misdeeds of the Committee on UnAmerican activities and its consequent blacklist of Hollywood players, directors or technicians who could be tarred with the brush of Communism.
The hilariously, but also sensitively funny Annie Hall was followed by half a dozen other comedies with Diane Keaton as Woody's leading lady, comedies which promised to establish a Woody Allen genre, before that word had become a movie cliche, and culminating in the clever and topical Manhattan.
In 1978 Woody stuck to a direction with the rather solemn but very elegant Interiors, a student-type essay after the style of Ingmar Bergman in which he did not appear before returning to comedy with A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. Now his latest, Zelig ("PG", Warner, Screen on the Green, ABC Fulham Road etc) raises the question of Woody's status alongside the other great cinema comics.
The eponymous hero of Zelig — the Yiddish word means "blessed" with, I gather, a hint of simpleton or innocent — is the son of a not-too-successful Jewish actor. Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) sets out to be a stand-up comic. But so eager is he to please, to conform, to be one with everybody else and not a Jewish outsider, that he becomes a veritable chameleon taking on the colours of
HISTORY MAN: — Zelig (Woody champion Jack Dempsey.
everybody he encounters, from a negro athlete to the Pope at St Peter's to, ironically, Nazi soldiers saluting Hitler.
His eccentricity lands him in hospital for the attentions of dogmatic psychiatrists of whom only one woman, the almost equally eccentric Dr Fletcher (surprising, grotesque but sympathetic sketch by an almost unrecognisable Mia Farrow) insists she will be able to make sense of him. With' grim earnestness she accompanies him on his travels around the world. Allen) with heavyweight Woody Allen, who has written as well as directed this fine comedy, displays his mastery of the medium by the skill with which he has made the camera lie. Actual old newsreels are cut and edited or padded with invention and with a wonderfully evocative score arranged by Dick Hyman, to create the right period background for Zelig's encounters with past celebrities from Hitler to Hearst, Fanny Brice to Josephine Baker, Scott Fitzgerald to Bobby Jones, all of whose quirks and humours are reflected by chameleon Zelig. The illusion of pseudodocumentary authenticity almost convinces us Leonard Zelig was a real figure of modern American history. The pointed truth of Woody's fleeting imitations are not just mimicry. They are creations from the inside, deriving from his fertile empathy with all humanity. It is the gift of all the great clowns, of Keaton, Chaplin, Beatrice Lillie, Woody Allen uses it to create a comic world reflecting the image of our own. Don't miss it.
RALPH Richardson, the great actor who died this month at the age of eighty himself often betrayed a streak of the eccentric. Richardson received and deserved a marvellous obituary press, epitomised by the comment that he and the Queen Mother were the two best-loved celebrities in the land. He was of course primarily one of our great stage actors, but he had a long and distinguished record in films of which my most cherished memories are of him in Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and as Karenin opposite Vivien Leigh's Anna.
But the Richardson performance I never forget, which showed how perfectly his acting bridged the gulf between stage and screen was in Graham Greene's play The Complaisant Lover. At the tragic end of the first act Richardson conveyed the shattered husband's suffering in a close-up of the absolute truth more often rewarded by the camera than by the footlights. Richardson was a Catholic and in the week of his death. the old Mass, which he upheld, was offered for the repose of his soul at Our Lady of Victories, in Kensington.