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Last modified: 7/8/2012 12:00:00 AM
It's a torrid summer day in New York, but the lobby of a well-appointed Park Avenue building has an immediate cooling effect, its well-appointed marble corridors keeping the heat at bay.

Down a side hall, a sign on a nondescript door reads 'Manhattan Film Center' and behind that door lies a room crowded with FedEx boxes, bursting file cabinets and the detritus of creativity's business end. The only clues pointing to the identity of the occupant are a Mighty Aphrodite poster, a book about Fellini and a khaki bucket hat that sits poised on a bookshelf, waiting to be joined with a pair of equally iconic black eyeglasses.

And then, there they are - the glasses and the quiet, soft-spoken man behind them. Woody Allen beckons a visitor to join him in a big, dark room. 'I was looking for a screening room to screen movies for pleasure,' he explains, settling into one of the room's green velvet club chairs. 'I didn't want it at my house, because I figured people would never leave. So I put it here. And then I found that I could actually edit (in) a room next door. So it's great - we edit the film in there, put it on screen, look at it, hate it, and bring it back in there and re-cut it. That's the procedure.' The word 'procedure' comes out as 'pro-cee-djuh,' drawn out at the end in Allen's familiar Brooklynese.

There's something about Allen's office - its jumble of clutter and luxury, set in an elegant but understated building just blocks from where Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese live - that embodies some of the very contradictions that animate his own life and work. His movies are sophisticated but unpretentious; populated by big stars but produced on modest scales and budgets. Allen himself enjoys all the privileges his wealth and celebrity status accord, but hews to a relatively unprofligate lifestyle, preferring sports events and his weekly clarinet gigs at the Carlyle hotel to the more soignee rituals of big-name New York.

Even the most notorious episode of Allen's private life - the revelation in 1992 of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the then-20-year-old daughter of his former romantic partner Mia Farrow - has taken on the contours of a stubbornly unresolved paradox: a scandalous violation of societal and familial norms, but one that has resulted in a lasting marriage, two children and a comfortably stable, sedate home life.

At 76, Allen is relaxed and in good shape, dressed in uniform-like khakis and button-down shirt. A few hours from now, he will attend the New York premiere of To Rome With Love. The film - an omnibus of four intercut stories that take place at the same time in the title city - co-stars Jesse Eisenberg as a young architecture student, Roberto Benigni as a man who becomes an overnight reality TV star and, for the first time in six years, Allen himself. He plays a retired opera producer who, when he arrives in Rome to meet the fiance of his daughter (Alison Pill), discovers a gifted tenor who can only sing in the shower.

'I finished writing the script and saw that there was a part that I could play,' Allen says, explaining his return to the screen after a half-decade hiatus. 'I never force it. I never write something for myself. I'm trying to be faithful to the idea. . . . If I had made (this picture) in the United States, I could have played Roberto Benigni's part. . . . If I was 50 years younger, I would have played Jesse's part. Right now, I'm reduced to fathers of fiancees.'

That last line is delivered with the resigned inflection and flawless timing audiences have come to expect from Allen, who from the moment he appears in To Rome With Love, delivers the nervous one-liners and sense of rumpled haplessness his fans have adored since his earliest films. 'It's effortless,' he says of slipping into his on-screen persona. 'It's the only thing I can do. I'm not an actor. I can't play Chekhov, I can't play Shakespeare or Strindberg. I can do that thing that I do.

'There's a few different kinds of things I can act credibly,' he continues. 'I can play an intellectual or a low-life.'

The down side of developing such a strong alter-ego, of course, is that when people meet Woody Allen, they expect to meet Woody Allen: an extension of his own speech patterns and personality, to be sure, but also a character he has created over years on stage as a stand-up comic and as an actor in his own movies. 'I'm not as crazy as they think I am,' he says. 'They think I'm a major neurotic and that I'm phobic and incompetent and I'm not. I'm very average, middle class.'

By 'they,' Allen is referring to his fans, who tend to be rabid, able to quote lines from every Allen film going back to What's Up, Tiger Lily? with impeccable accuracy. They're the filmgoers who have stuck by Allen throughout his one-movie-a-year production pattern, who kept coming even at the height of romantic controversy and who made last year's Midnight in Paris the biggest commercial hit of Allen's 47-year career.

Allen won his fourth Oscar for Midnight in Paris, for best original screenplay (his films have won 11 in all). As always, he declined to accept the accolade in person. 'They always have it on Sunday night,' he says of the Academy Awards ceremony. 'And it's always - you can look this up - it's always opposite a good basketball game. And I'm a big basketball fan. So it's a great pleasure for me to come home and get into bed and watch a basketball game. And that's exactly where I was, watching the game.'

Did he at least flip the channels? 'No, I wasn't flipping. I had no idea of anything that happened. When the game was over, I was exhausted and I went to sleep.'

The rhetoric of his films - both verbal and visual - has become so woven into the American vernacular that it's just as difficult to remember how much of an outsider he still is within the Hollywood system, a culture and industrial practice he never embraced.

Even all those Oscars - the highest tokens of show business esteem - never meant anything, he insists. 'That, or anything I ever won, has never changed my life one iota,' he says forcefully. 'And the fact that Midnight in Paris made $160 million meant zero in terms of anyone - and by anyone I mean no one - stepping forward and saying, 'We'd like to bankroll your next film.' '


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