Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
Chapter 2. Woody’s Nights
The best of America drifts to Paris. The American in Paris is the best American. It is more fun for an intelligent person to live in an intelligent country. France has the only two things toward which we drift as we grow older—intelligence and good manners.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
The first person to ask me “Do you do night walks?” was a staid middle-aged lady from Montreal.
Paris has no shortage of tours after dark, but few have literature on their mind. Most feature can-can girls at the Moulin Rouge and a visit to Pigalle’s Museum of Eroticism. Somehow, she didn’t seem the type.
Seeing my confusion, she went on: “I mean the same walks you do by day, but at night. There’s this movie …”
Which is how I first heard of Midnight in Paris.
In Woody Allen’s film, Gil Pender, a young American screenwriter and novelist visiting France with his fiancée, falls out of love with her and in love with Paris. During strolls alone at night, he’s inexplicably transported back to the 1920s. There he meets Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, even Salvador Dalí and his film director friend Luis Buñuel—to whom, in one of the film’s best jokes, he outlines the plot of what would become Buñuel’s milestone movie The Exterminating Angel. To Buñuel, however, the story of how guests at a dinner party, afflicted by inexplicable terror, refuse to leave, but settle down to squat in their hosts’ home, in increasing squalor, makes no sense at all.
Midnight in Paris dodges the logistical difficulties of night walks. Gil doesn’t stumble about too long on poorly lit streets before an antique Peugeot 176 picks him up and whisks him back to the années folles. After that, most of the action takes place indoors.
Sensibly, Allen also opts for entertainment over authenticity. He limits himself to the few years between the Great War and the crash of 1929 and concentrates on a dozen big names—most of whom, as it happens, were strangers to one another. If Cole Porter and Scott Fitzgerald ever met, for instance, history is silent on the subject. Nor did French intellectuals such as Jean Cocteau party with the expats quite as intimately as Allen suggests, mostly because—one detail on which he’s absolutely accurate—hardly any American expatriate spoke more than a few words of French.
A night walk around Paris would have to include some of the locations Woody used in his film, starting with the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. Gil Pender is sitting on its steps when the vintage Peugeot carries him back to the 1920s. Nor should one forget the Crémerie Polidor on rue Monsieur-le-Prince. He goes there to meet Ernest Hemingway but, doubling back with an afterthought, finds it’s become a laundromat. Usually scornful of Americans, the Polidor found Woody charming when he filmed there, even asking for a signed photograph to place in the window.
With Midnight in Paris, Allen embraced Paris almost as passionately as had Hemingway or Stein. This is ironic since, whatever he says these days, he didn’t always love France. On the contrary, he was outspoken in his hostility.
He paid his first visit in 1964 to write and act in What’s New Pussycat with Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers, and loathed almost everything about it, in particular the food: both the ingredients and the way it was prepared. Despite living at the luxurious Hôtel George V, just off the Champs-Élysées, he shunned its restaurant and ate in a small café where, for eight months, he ordered the same meal every night: soup, sole meunière, and crème caramel. As he disliked being watched as he ate, and covered his mouth with his hand while he did so, he preferred to dine alone.
Mostly he kept to the hotel. Some nights he played poker, very profitably, or practiced the clarinet. The producer even found a rare example of the antique Rampone instrument he favored. Its hard, unyielding reed made it difficult to play, but the thin tone approximated that of the New Orleans jazz with which the adolescent Woody fell in love: jazz played on inferior instruments by men stiff in their fingers and short of breath—a shadow of Louis Armstrong’s fiery music, and, for that reason, perversely satisfying to Allen. Years later, when he had become France’s favorite foreigner, the Rampone factory dug out the blueprints and manufactured two new examples as a gift.
Woody did respect France’s reverence for jazz and support for such American musicians as soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet and pianist Bud Powell. Bechet came to Paris in the band accompanying Josephine Baker and made the city his home. But Bechet died in 1959, and in 1964 Powell had just returned to New York. Allen contented himself with getting to know, albeit tentatively, Claude Luter, France’s senior virtuoso on the instrument. But as theme music for Midnight in Paris he would choose Bechet playing one of his own compositions, “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère.”
The rest of the time, he worked on a play called Don’t Drink the Water, which summarized everything he disliked about Europe. The main character, Walter Hollander, is a caterer from Newark. Trapped with his family by a revolution in the fictitious communist country of Vulgaria, he takes refuge in the American embassy, where he’s at the mercy of a chef who uses ingredients that nauseate Hollander (and Woody)—oysters, hare, eel. Allen vented this dislike again in Stardust Memories, berating his housekeeper for trying to serve him rabbit. “I don’t eat rodent!”
Given what happened on What’s New Pussycat, his view of France was hardly surprising. They’d planned to shoot in Rome, but O’Toole, with memories of its paparazzi, persuaded the producer to relocate in Paris. Peter Sellers, who’d just recovered from a heart attack, was particularly obnoxious; he was determined to turn the film into a rerun of his success, The Pink Panther. Newly slimmed down, Sellers resembled Allen, and Woody wearied of being mistaken for him.
What’s New Pussycat. Famous Artists Productions/United Artists.
Woody Allen (left), obviously less than enchanted with costars Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers in What’s New Pussycat.
(Larry Shaw/United Artists)
However it wasn’t the food or Sellers that soured Woody on Paris so much as a sexual disappointment so humiliating that, in the words of Rhys Ifans in the film Notting Hill, it would “make your balls shrink to the size of raisins.”
Among the crew of Pussycat, Woody was surprised to see a face from his days as a coffeehouse comedian. Vicky Tiel had worked at a Greenwich Village club, The Duplex, where, in the scantily clad character of “Peaches LaTour,” she introduced the acts and passed the hat afterward. As he was paid only what Tiel could coax out of the audience, Woody was grateful for her good looks and personality. Since then, she’d become a costume designer and was working with Mia Fonssagrives on some dresses for Paula Prentiss, cast in Pussycat as a Crazy Horse stripper named Liz Bien.
Tiel and Woody had a few dates in Paris, but she was already being pursued by the film’s director, Clive Donner. The crew saw a way to settle the rivalry and celebrate Tiel’s birthday at the same time. As Tiel explained later, “The crew told us, ‘Look, this is the movie business! Everyone sleeps with everyone else, so you had better start joining in.’ That’s when they devised the competition between Clive and Woody, neither of whom had gotten as far as first base.” She agreed to sleep with whichever of them produced the most lavish birthday gift. Donner offered the largest box of chocolates made by prestigious chocolatier Godiva, but Allen won with an American-style pinball machine.
Woody coached Tiel in the choreography of their big night. There would be no dinner, no small talk or foreplay of the sort that, in his films, so often goes wrong. Instead, she was to come to his room, go straight to the bathroom, undress, and join him in bed. That night he waited, but she never came. At lunch that day, she met the man she later married—Ron Berkeley, makeup man for Richard Burton, who had a cameo in the film. “I fell in love with Ron on the spot,” says Tiel, “and went to bed with him straight away. It was only in the morning I realized I’d been supposed to spend the night with Woody. The next time I saw him was the following morning on the set. He was absolutely devastated. He’d spent the evening getting himself ready and planning what we were going to do.” Woody found consolation in a classically Allenesque manner. His girlfriend Louise Lasser rang from New York with the news that her mother had committed suicide. He invited her to join him in Paris. She remained there for the rest of the shoot, and they married in 1966.
It took almost forty years, but Allen forgave Paris. It helped that the French embraced him and his films with an admiration denied him by the United States. In Everyone Says I Love You, he played a grudging expatriate who overcomes his loathing for snails in order to seduce Julia Roberts, but with Midnight in Paris he fell into the city’s arms. Paris had waited for him.