06/26/2012 11:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Woody Allen Visits Rome -- and We Enjoy the Trip!

Courtesy of Sony Classics

As I have relayed previously, I went to a school in Brooklyn, New York called Midwood High, across from Brooklyn College. My best friend then was the late Hilly Elkins. When we were seniors, there was a funny, bespectacled freshman named Allen Stewart Konigsberg writing jokes for the school's newspaper, The Argus. Hilly and I used to read his funny stuff aloud and predicted he might have a future in show business. The young man had gone to the same public school as me, P.S. 99, and lived just one block from me on Avenue K in Flatbush.

I advised him to submit some jokes to columnists like Earl Wilson and Leonard Lyons, which he did... and they were printed. A start. Some years later, I was production V.P. of a film company called Palomar Pictures, financed by Leonard Goldenson's ABC Network. By then the comedy writer's name went from Heywood Allen to Woody Allen and he had graduated from doing standup routines in the Duplex Club in the Village to becoming a very successful TV writer.

I often went to Michael's supper club to hear him play clarinet with his jazz group. Then, in 1966 he wrote a Broadway show called Don't Drink the Water. One day my partner in the film company, Ed Scherick, came in after seeing the show and told me he had gone backstage and committed to making a film of Woody's show. I protested that I had seen it opening night and didn't think it would work as a movie. (It was about an American Embassy behind the Iron Curtain; later it was filmed and didn't do well.) My associate then said to me, "OK, you know him, fix it." I visited Woody and we decided to instead film a screenplay he had written called "Take the Money and Run, a bank-robbing comedy. He wrote, directed and starred in it; I recall that the film cost about $600,000 to shoot in San Francisco and received excellent reviews. It showed a tidy profit for us... and an amazing film career was born.

Woody Allen with Co-producer Stephen Tenenbaum on the set in Rome -- photo from Stephen Tenenbaum

All of this came back to me on Saturday night when I attended a screening at the Academy of Woody's 45th film, To Rome With Love. It was truly wonderful, a romantic and exhilarating fantasy of Rome as seen through Woody's idiosyncratic eyes. It's also the first film he has acted in since 2006. There is something appropriate about Woody filming in Rome, since he admittedly owes an enormous debt of gratitude to such Italian filmmakers as Fellini and De Sica. Of course, his main influence still remains Ingmar Bergman. (Remember when Woody remade a small 1958 Italian film called Big Deal on Madonna Street directed by Mario Monicelli; his effort was called Small Time Crooks.)

The use of the device of intertwining several stories is characteristic of the Italian directors. Woody plays a retired music promoter who arrives in Rome with his wife, Judy Davis (just wryly wonderful), to try to connect with his young daughter, played by Alison Pill, there on a romantic journey with a young Italian lawyer. An amusing sidelight is the fact that the boyfriend's father, a funeral director, has a magnificent tenor voice... only exhibited when he sings in the shower. Famed Italian opera singer Fabio Armiliato plays this role, and his opening aria from Tosca is breathtaking.

Ellen Page and Jesse Eisenberg in a scene from the film. Courtesy of Sony Classics

My favorite segment was sparkled by Penelope Cruz as a frank, funny hooker involved accidentally with the wrong man, a small-town innocent who then receives a wonderful lesson in love from her. At the same time his young wife is receiving a similar love-lesson from a fatuous movie actor. I admit I was also enchanted by Juno's Ellen Page in the segment where she moves in with fledgling architect Jesse Eisenberg and his on-screen girlfriend, Greta Gerwig.

His older 'muse', skillfully played by Alec Baldwin, makes reference to the legendary architectural book and film, The Fountainhead, when Ellen says she dreams about sleeping with its hero, architect Howard Ruark (played by Gary Cooper in that film. Coincidentally, my ex and her partner have been striving mightily to remake that wondrous movie.)

Jesse's apartment in the Trastevere section of Rome reminded me of the great food to be found there. And not to be overlooked is the legendary Italian comic, Roberto Benigni , he of the Academy Award incident when he climbed over the chairs to kiss Harvey Weinstein. (Not worth the climb, methinks.) Roberto humorously plays a man with '15 minutes of fame' and can't understand why. On Charlie Rose's TV interview show the other evening, Woody's sister Letty Aronson, who now co-produces all of his films, told us that the original titles of the film were either Bop Decameron or Nero Fiddled. Both awful.

After the Academy screening Saturday night, my old friend Stephan Tenenbaum, a co-producer for 12 of Woody's films, was interviewed and revealed that Woody's next film will be shot this summer in San Francisco and New York, with his usual all-star cast. (Baldwin modestly admitted that he has been asked to join in with Cate Blanchette and Louis C. K.) Strangest moment of the TV show was watching an uncomfortable Ellen Page trying to enunciate some of her very profound thoughts.

Stephen noted that Woody's last film, Midnight in Paris, was financially his most successful, with a $57 million gross to date and a nomination for best picture Oscar.

We all once asked Woody why he had never moved to Los Angeles, and his legendary response was, "I couldn't live in a city where the only cultural advantage is making a right turn on a red light." It is our loss, of course.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for 12 monthly issues) email him at