Saturday, March 22, 2008

Woody Allen Meets Margaret Atwood: A Lost Interview

It’s a little-known fact that in 1977, Woody Allen, a couple months before his Oscar win for Annie Hall, was invited by then-Governor General Jules Leger to participate in the Governor General's (GG) Awards ceremony at Rideau Hall. Allen was a personal guest of Leger, who was encouraged (almost hectored) by his wife Shirley Birnbaum-Leger to extend the invitation on what she called “cross-cultural” grounds. “Why just stick to Canadians no one’s heard of?” Mrs. Leger wrote in a guest column for the Montreal Gazette. “Mr Allen is so young and fresh and alive--he’ll add a perfect balance to the Canadian guests we already have.”

So Woody was alerted, he sent back his RSVP card, and he was there that night in 1977when the cheques and fruit baskets were handed out.

Another little-known fact is that Margaret Atwood, another Canadian favourite, was also in the audience that night. Atwood had been tagged by Timothy Findley—-whose The Wars would win the prize for fiction—-as one of his three mandatory guests. The objective was to fill every table, balancing out the number of male guests with the number of female guests so that photos of the traditional GG waltz could legally appear in issues of the Toronto Star.

Also in attendance that night was Alison Frum, the niece of the now-deceased Barbara Frum, a Canadian broadcasting icon and CBC employee. Alison was working for the now-defunct magazine CanIt, and her mandate was to secure an interview—-regardless of length or depth—-with both Atwood and Allen. The following is a transcript of that interview; it’s taken from Alison Frum’s notes, which are now housed in the archives at Algonquin College. I was only allowed to view them after requesting and receiving permission from Allen, Frum, and Frank Davey (who, of the three, was unconscionably long in replying).

Because of issues with American-Canadian content restrictions, Frum’s article never ran in CanIt. Allen, born in Brooklyn, wasn’t Canadian enough to meet Canada Council funding requirements, and so a third of the grant money for that particular issue was withheld on ethical grounds. “If he’d been born in Yonkers,” Frum told me, “we might have been able to swing it. But Brooklyn was just too far south.” I asked her what had happened to the actual article, or at least a rough copy, and she told me that she'd tossed it when the story was torpedoed. “Why hang onto it? The story was no good anyway. Woody kept smacking his lips. Finally I had to hold onto his hands.”

So here’s the transcript, or at least all that survives, of that lost interview.

Frum: Ms Atwood. Can I call you Margaret?
Atwood: Sure.
Allen: Call me anything.
Frum: OK. Margaret, have you heard of Mr Allen’s films?
Atwood: I have.
Frum: And what do you think?
Atwood: Some of them are in colour.
Allen: Don’t worry. I don’t think her songs are too hot either.
Frum: Margaret’s a writer. She’s a poet and a novelist.
Allen: Oh! Oh, OK.
Frum: You thought she was a singer?
Allen: Maybe in a dark club, you know.
Atwood: How do you like Canada, Mr Allen?
Allen: It’s nice. It’s very nice. I had a steak last night. It was perfect. Rare as anything.
Frum: Really? What restaurant?
Allen: I can’t remember. It was a beautiful place though. No Jews, but dogs everywhere.
Frum: Except you.
Allen: I am of the Hebrew persuasion.
Atwood: You’re kidding.
Allen: No. Have you got Jews in Canada?
Atwood: There’s a street…
Allen: Oh.
Frum: We have lots of Jews in Canada.
Allen: That’s good. That’s good, you know. Because Jews are very important to an economy. Who else is going to buy all those seashells?
Atwood: That’s an interesting comment. I have seashells in my house.
Allen: Of course. I didn’t mean to offend you.
Atwood: Do you think I’m Jewish?
Allen: Wait a second. My sweater’s caught on your nose, here.
Frum: Have you read any of Ms Atwood’s books?
Allen: No, I’m actually very busy with work. I haven’t had much time for anything else lately. I’m about to start filming something about a WASP-ish, you know, over-privileged, neurotic, energetically delusional woman. Not that, you know, I’m making any comparisons.
Frum: So you haven’t read any of Margaret’s work?
Allen: No, but she’s on my list. Do you have any recommendations?
Atwood: I’ve got a book out called Surfacing, which I think you’d like. It’s short.
Allen: And what’s it about? It sounds good.
Atwood: It’s a contemporary re-telling of a Heart of Darkness-type narrative.
Allen: That’s great. That sounds perfect.
Frum: It was a big success in Canada.
Allen: I’ve never heard of it. But I’m sure it’s fantastic.
Atwood: I have a question for Mr Allen.
Allen: Sure.
Atwood: Where were you during the ceremony?
Allen: Tonight? I was in the back. Way in the back. Aisle Z. Zee, right? Zed? Yeah, they said Canadians first. I could see what was happening, though. And, you know, a couple seconds later, whatever, I heard it.
Frum: That wasn’t very nice.
Allen: Well, I’m a foreign guest.
Atwood: Are you coming to any of the parties tonight?
Allen: I haven’t been invited.
Atwood: I’m inviting you.
Allen: OK. Where are we going?
Atwood: The river.
Allen: But, I don’t understand. It’s not frozen.
Atwood: Perfect.
Frum: Do you two know each other?
Allen: No--but every joke needs a good straight line. Are you married, dear?
Atwood: No.
Allen: Well, keep looking. Somewhere there’s a man for you. If he’s lying down with his arms crossed over his lap, I say jump in.
Atwood: I hear you’re terrific with women.
Allen: I do OK.
Atwood: But you’re not here with your wife?
Allen: I’m not married.
Atwood: (To Frum) You know Mr Allen met his first wife at summer camp?
Frum: (To Allen) Really? Is that true?
Allen: It is.
Frum: Really? When was that?
Atwood: Visitor’s day.
Allen: This one’s got a little edge to her. That’s nice. It’s funny. Really good. Does she do all the clubs up here? Or just the spades? You like that? That’s a Red Buttons line.
Frum: Oh, wait a second…
Atwood: I’ve known this man for three minutes and he’s already pulled out his hand-buzzer.
Allen: I always carry one.
Atwood: Sure, it’s portable shock treatment.
Allen: Good. Can I write that down? You know, Hope can use that.
Frum: Bob Hope?
Allen: Yeah I used to write for him. He’s just back from Yugoslavia, you know. He was over there doing a benefit. He’s trying to get scarves for all those poor kids.
Frum: (To Atwood) What do you think of Bob Hope?
Atwood: He’s within the scope of the American cultural thing.
Allen: The American cultural thing? What is that?
Atwood: Shit.
Allen: Very nice.

The notebook ends there, but Frum tells me there’s more hiding in a banker’s box somewhere. So I’m going to do some more digging and get back for an update. She also gave me a really good Philip Roth interview in which Roth sits down with Mordecai Richler to discuss their work. It’s from 1979, and some of it’s really good stuff. So I’ll copy that and get it up here.


metro mama said...

You are hilarious!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the smirks.

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