Your Manhattan Voyeur wrote an article for the New York Times in summer 1977 about Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen’s writing collaborator for Annie Hall.
Annie Hall is a work of art. And watching it makes me happy.
The article was prelude to a difficult time. Marshall and I embarked on a treacherous romantic voyage. (He was separated from his wife.) He couldn’t seem to make up his mind to commit to a relationship and I finally suggested that we collaborate on a screenplay about it.
He stopped by frequently to collaborate, but unbeknownst to me, he began collaborating with Woody Allen on a far better version of the story.
Manhattan, the movie, was the result of their collaboration.
Friends I hadn’t seen for years called to tell me that aspects of two female characters in Manhattan reminded them of me.
I cried. These characters are selfish and annoying. But nobody else minded. I was treated as something of a celebrity since Woody was totally adored at that time.
When I yelled at Marshall over the phone, he said, “But isn’t it fun to send secret messages through a big Hollywood movie.”
I dried my eyes and made jokes for an article on Page Six of the Daily News: I said, “Next time Woody and Marshall should do their research in the library.” And, “Woody should get out more and meet more girls.” People Magazine called me the muse of the late 1970s.
Book editors ogled me and begged for my next project.
I escaped to Jerusalem and cried every day for two weeks at the Wailing Wall.
Nonetheless I still like the article I wrote about Marshall Brickman. Here it is.
He’s Woody Allen’s Not So Silent Writing Partner
“Marshall makes my game better,” says Woody Allen. “It’s like playing tennis with a pro.”
Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman wrote “Annie Hall,” Allen’s most successful film to date, by walking up and down Lexington Avenue and across to Madison and talking and talking and talking. Sometimes they stopped for ice cream. Brickman describes the perambulatory work as “highly stylized conversation.”
On a recent day, the two men, wearing khaki pants, sneakers and sports shirts, walk past Bloomingdale’s. A car filled with teen-agers stops at a red light. “Hey, Woody, Woody,” they shout, banging on the horn and the ensuing dialogue between Allen and Brickman goes like this:
Allen: [nodding and waving toward the car]: “I think I need a large flame-thrower. What do they want?
Brickman: “Movie stars provide a sense of heightened reality for people when they see them on the street. It certifies their existence. On the other hand, they may want cash.”
Allen: “It’s not their existence I’m worried about.”
Standing behind the two men, it’s impossible for an eavesdropper to discern whose soft Brooklyn-accented voice is topping whose line. They never take notes. The way some people never forget a face, they never forget “the good stuff” – which lines make each other laugh.
Allen: “Isn’t that what’s-his-name, you know the agent?”
Brickman: “Oh, yeah, I didn’t recognize him without his mustache.”
Allen: “I hear he had a bad divorce.”
Brickman: “Apparently his wife won the mustache.”
Allen: “I think she sued for the whole face and settled for the mustache.”
Brickman has been collaborating with Woody Allen for nine years. He prefers the work to solitary writing. “I need the feedback.” For his part, Woody Allen says, “The times I spend with Marshall are among my best experiences in film.” Brickman wrote jokes for Allen’s live appearances in the 60’s and co-wrote the movie “Sleeper.” He remembers the following dialogue from an early walk:
Allen: The other day, the telephone rings. Some guy says, “Hello, we’d like you to do an ad for vodka.” I say, “I don’t do advertising. It’s demeaning. I’ve never done it. I don’t intend to do it. It’s the worst thing a public personality can do.” So the guy says, “It pays a hundred thousand dollars.”
Brickman: So you said, “Hold on, I’ll get Mr. Allen.”
At 27, Brickman was the youngest head writer for the “Tonight Show,” and although largely unknown, one of America’s top comedy writers. In addition to Woody Allen, he has written for Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers and Dick Cavett. Now, at 36, he has emerged on his own with contracts at United Artists and Columbia. He will also direct his original screenplay “Simon” for Paramount this winter. “It is a comedy about the end of the world, more, or less,” he says guardedly. Brickman is reluctant to talk about the new work. “I feel so needy. I watch people’s faces for approval or laughs.”
Also, his highbrow pieces have been appearing in The New Yorker and play on themes similar to those of another New Yorker humor writer, Woody Allen. In “The Analytic Napkin,” for instance, Brickman traces the history of the paper doily at the head of the patient’s couch.
At the conclusion, Dr. Norman Fek, a modern analyst, exults, “It took 70 years before we perfected the beard and the fee. Now, finally, the napkin. No one need ever be crazy again.”
There are three things to say about Marshall Brickman’s physical appearance: First, he looks “nice” (a word he calls quintessentially Jewish, as in “a nice piece of fish”); second; his hair is a little too short, and third, he looks less a screenwriter than an ophthalmologist from Minneapolis. Brickman shrugs off the description. “In college I did plan to be a doctor. When that didn’t work out, I became a patient.”
He refuses to pick out his lines in “Sleeper” or “Annie Hall.” “All you can say is that when you collaborate, you’re both responsible for everything. You never know when one person will make the other person think of something. The early parts are hard. You try not to make any big mistakes, to paint yourself into a corner. At first, in “Annie Hall,” we made Diane Keaton a neurotic New York girl, but the character had no dramatic transition. This led us to giving her a family in Wisconsin. You keep asking each other – who is this guy, what are his values? Face it, the movie only hints at profound issues, but we asked ourselves, ‘is it neurosis or honesty that makes the character Woody plays so pessimistic? Is it merely maladjustment, immaturity, or is it a relentless philosophical integrity?”
It is hard to cite differences between Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Both come from Brooklyn; Brickman’s family is left-wing intellectual, Allen was more of a street kid. One thing, Brickman has been married for four years – to Nina Feinberg, a former film editor who recently completed a documentary about ballet dancers – while Allen’s failed marriages and relationships form the basis of his public persona. (Indeed. “Annie Hall” is based on his relationship with Diane Keaton.)
Brickman: [at the yellow light on 61st and Lexington]: “Happiness is not a state, it’s a change of state.”
Allen: “A state is repetitious, therefore, boring. We need a new definition of happiness as a more benign form of torment.”
Like Allen, Brickman has a hard time talking about what makes him happy. “Oh, stuff,” he says finally. “Don’t think I’m so bleak. It’s nice to watch your enemies get their comeuppance. Also, I like to sit on a rock at East Bay Harbor and watch the surf.” He sighs, “I’ve never done it. But I’d enjoy it for a few minutes.”
He finds it easier to rattle off what makes him unhappy. “The fact that you’re going to die, loneliness, alienation, disappointment, not being able to get to sleep.”
Both men could be called “Jewish macho” – a tradition in which male pride is based on intellectual pursuits. Neither appears to pay any attention to the way he looks, but both are furiously and flamboyantly exercising their head muscles. When asked to compare himself to Woody Allen, Brickman says, “I’m taller.” But after a second or two, he elaborates: “I suppose a Martian would find the two of us more like each other than different. But to a Martian, I am more like a cow than different from a cow.”
“Look,” he continues, “Woody lives on the East Side. I live on the West Side. He lives on the top. I live in the middle. My wife would say we’re not at all alike. At night, at my house, I show up.” He exhales, a noise between a sigh and a cheer, “as far as I know.”
Though Allen is still an analysand, Brickman claims to have graduated after seven years. “I never did anything weird during my therapy sessions, like jump off the couch and kiss Freud’s picture. I said nothing that could be called personal or in poor taste. Of course, I’m a changed person. I’m poorer and more confused. I have learned one thing. As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.”
The next day; Brickman is pacing the halls of the United Artists building in Manhattan, without Allen but with a headache. Moments before, he learned that “Annie Hall” has grossed $25 million and is still drawing summer crowds. But he doesn’t smile. He rarely does. In fact, he’s brooding about the connection between art and commerce.
He sights an executive office: “Maybe somebody has a Bufferin,” he says. But then he peers inside the office. “No, I can’t go in there. That guy decides on my new script.” He paces outside the door, rubbing his hands. “No, yes, I will go in.”
Inside the office, the executive nods, ushers him into an even bigger office, and digs two aspirin out of his desk.
“I’ll remember this kindness,” Brickman says, sounding uneasy. “I’ll tell the people who count.”
The executive does not smile. “I’m someone who counts.”
“Yeah, right, you decide on my script. Then you will be hearing about this.”
Then the executive does smile.
Susan Braudy is a journalist and author. She clawed her way from Philadelphia to Manhattan. She wrote the memoir Between Marriage and Divorce: A Woman’s Diary, two novels Who Killed Sal Mineo? and What the Movies Made Me Do: A Novel as well as two highly researched non-fiction books This Crazy Thing Called Love: The Golden World and Fatal Marriage of Ann and Billy Woodward and Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. The last was nominated by publisher Alfred Knopf for a Pulitzer. She is a frequent blogger on the Huffington Post.