Have You Ever Been Chased Across a Meadow by a Breast?

For better or worse, Woody Allen remains a poster child for psychoanalysis.

Posted Oct 18, 2013

With the obvious exception of Sigmund Freud, a decent argument could be made that no other person in history instantly brings psychoanalysis to mind more so than Woody Allen. Because he often referenced psychoanalysis in his films, in fact, Allen’s oeuvre serves as a sort of barometer of the field. In a 1997 article for New York magazine (cleverly titled “The Final Analysis”), James Kaplan tracked the decades-long decline of psychoanalysis by how it was portrayed in Allen’s films, an interesting measuring stick. In Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall, “being analyzed was as integral to being a smart Manhattanite as martinis and evening clothes were in the movies of the thirties,” Kaplan felt, the psychoanalyst “a remote, godlike, intellectually overpowering figure, a direct avatar of Freud himself.” (Alvy Singer, Allen’s doppelganger in that film, had fifteen years and counting of analysis.) But two years later in Manhattan, Allen introduced a new and different kind of shrink much like the cognitive variety currently in vogue to contrast with his clearly orthodox Freudian analyst. Even if this sort of therapist was hardly godlike (at one point in that film, “Donny” called his client, Diane Keaton’s character, at three in the morning weeping and, later, ends up in the hospital after a bad acid trip), it was clear that a new sheriff had come to town. By his 1996 Everyone Says I Love You, Allen had downgraded psychoanalysis to a minor plot point, used as a vehicle for the protagonist to discover what got Julia Roberts’ character turned on.

More recently, Allen has discussed the actual role of psychoanalysis in his life on a number of occasions. Before a live audience in 2002 (which was broadcast to ten Jewish community centers and two psychoanalytic societies across the country), Allen agreed to be interviewed by a psychoanalyst on the subject. “Have you ever actually been chased across a meadow by a breast in one of your dreams?,” Gail Saltz asked Allen at the 92nd Street Y, referring to the funny, very loosely Freudian scene in Sleeper. “I feel I have wasted a lot of time talking about dreams,” Allen replied, this perfectly consistent with the frustration with analysis he often expressed in his films. “On balance, I would say it has been helpful, but not as helpful as I had hoped and helpful in a way they didn’t intend,” he added, feeling it had offered “no dramatic moments,” “no insights,” and “no tears.” Allen also thought of himself as a disappointing patient, “like being in there with, like, a lawyer,” as only he could describe it. Six years later in an interview with New York magazine, however, Allen showed a deeper appreciation for psychoanalysis, crediting it for at least part of his success:

"People always tease me. The say, look at you, you went for so much psychoanalysis and you’re so neurotic… But I could also say to them, I’ve had a very productive life. I’ve worked very hard, I’ve never fallen prey to depression. I’m not sure I could have done all that without being in psychoanalysis. People would say to me, oh, it’s just a crutch. And I would say, yes. It’s a crutch, and exactly what I need in this point in my life is a crutch."