Woody Allen, master of hiding in plain sight

American Masters: Woody Allen: A Documentary

PBS, Part 1, Sunday; Part 2, Monday.Check listings

Woody Allen long ago mastered the art of drawing seemingly unwanted attention to himself as a way of keeping the world at bay. Or perhaps it's that he knows how to keep the world at bay to ensure it pays attention to him and his work.

The realization that both sentences may be accurate comes through in the fascinating new two-part "American Masters" documentary airing Sunday and Monday on PBS. Made with Allen's cooperation, "Woody Allen: A Documentary" is directed with compelling attention to detail by Robert Weide.

Allen has been hiding in plain sight for more than 50 years. By shunning interviews, guarding scripts for movies as if they were top-secret plans and, for the most part, making himself scarce whenever he's nominated for an Oscar, he has managed to turn the definition of the term "famously private" inside out.

For example: Early in the film, Allen is driven back to his boyhood home in Brooklyn where, as Allen Stewart Konigsberg, he spent hours going to the movies, just around the corner from the second-floor walkup he shared with his ever-quarreling parents and younger sister.

As the car pulls up in front of his old home, Allen makes a point of donning his floppy hat before getting out. Does that make him blend in so that no one would know it's Woody Allen? Hardly.

The ratty old hat is as much of a part of Allen's "uniform" as his horn-rimmed glasses, oxford shirts and baggy corduroys.

A famous affair

Elsewhere, and unavoidably, Allen has to address the media wildfire that arose when he and former longtime partner Mia Farrow split up after he began an affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, to whom he has been married since 1997.

Yet, even after all these years, Allen apparently thinks he can get away with saying he was surprised at how interested the media was in his personal life at the time of his romantic realignment.

The Brooklyn version of "who, me?" works because it's stood the test of time, and in no way diminishes Allen's eminence as a filmmaker.

Weide follows the evolution of Allen's career from his beginnings writing gags for newspaper columnists, a TV writer and stand-up comic.

A talk with Mom

Allen fesses up when talking about a failed film, but without specifically expressing regret: For him, a film's success is measured in how well it reflected his vision, rather than in box office returns or awards.

Perhaps the most significant clue to the real Woody Allen comes in an interview with his late mother, Nettie Konigsberg, filmed by Allen himself. In the clip, Nettie seems to reproach herself for not having been more maternal when he was a boy.

She damns him with the faint praise that he is "a good person," and then belittles him by saying he isn't very warm.

In some ways, it's the most revealing moment of the film. Not only does it suggest why Allen can be shy and self-deprecating as well as an artist firmly in control of his own product and persona, the clip is like something out of one of Allen's films: a mother guilt-tripping her son in a way that seems cruel and humorous at the same time.

Allen couldn't have scripted it better himself.