Her brother’s keeper: Letty Aronson is Woody Allen’s younger sister and producer/gatekeeper
Woody Allen couldn’t care less about the Academy Awards. The 23-time nominee, mostly in the directing and writing categories, notoriously disapproves of the contest between creative works, eschews the ceremony and usually learns of its results from the following day’s New York Times. Not so for his younger sister and producer of 18 years, Letty Aronson, who is herself nominated for the first time for best picture for “Midnight in Paris.”
“I’m very excited about it,” she admitted by phone from New York.
Unlike her brother, who attended the Oscars only once, in order to make a post-9/11 plea to restore film production to New York, Aronson isn’t shirking any of her duties as nominee. Ever the good sport, she has flown to Los Angeles seven times since September to tend to award season fripperies and formalities, such as sitting for panel discussions and attending endless ceremonials, like the Producers Guild Awards, the Golden Globes and the annual Oscar nominees’ luncheon, which took place earlier this month. More to the point, she chose her Oscar-night attire more than a month ago and will traipse the reddest of all carpets in Badgley Mischka.
The 68-year-old producer and mother of three is taking advantage of all the peripheral pleasures, but doesn’t have high hopes for the big night. “I do not think that we’ll win, because we’re up against a lot of very stiff competition,” Aronson said. “But the timing worked out well, because my older daughter moved to L.A. in July, and I get to see the children who are living in Malibu, so it’s been nice for me.”
At the box office, “Midnight in Paris” already has won. The film, released last June, has become the top-grossing film of Allen’s career, reaping $150 million in domestic and foreign sales. Approximately $56 million was grossed in the United States, according to boxofficemojo.com, compared with Allen’s 2008 hit “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which grossed $23 million. “Paris” also has topped the iconic, career-defining 1970s films “Annie Hall” ($38 million) and “Manhattan” ($40 million), which firmly established Allen as an American artist and auteur. But the sui generis Jewish filmmaker is even more popular overseas, which is where he gets the majority of his box office revenue, and also, according to Aronson, who raises all the money for his films, most of his films’ funding.
“In Europe, they have always had an appreciation for the filmmaker,” Aronson said, referring to the “auteur,” the artist with total vision and responsibility for a creative work. “In this country, it was always the actors.”
The European sensibility, she said, is better suited to Allen’s style than is Hollywood, which is notorious for meddling with creative control. “The way we work — which is nobody sees the script, nobody has input on casting, nobody sees rough cuts; you pay your money and you get a delivered film within the budget prescribed — made it easy for me to see that getting money in Europe was going to be much easier than here. We’re just not part of the studio system. We don’t work that way, and they don’t work that way.”
To be sure, you’d be hard pressed to find a single studio in Tinseltown that would agree to Allen’s terms, but even Aronson confessed she initially thought “Midnight in Paris” would flop. “I said to Woody, ‘Who is going to come to this movie? Do you think anyone now cares about Gertrude Stein? Most people don’t even know who she was.’ ”
But Aronson has worked with her brother long enough to know that her opinion, while valued, is rarely abided. Which, in the case of “Paris,” turned out to be providential. “I was exactly wrong,” she admitted freely. “You can never predict how a movie will do with the general public.”
Her sisterly deference to a brother eight years her senior is probably one of the reasons the siblings formerly known as Konigsberg get along so well. “It’s an easy dynamic,” Aronson said of their relationship. “Because of the age difference, there’s never been any sibling rivalry or anything like that.”
Going to work for her brother was an act of providence for both of them. Aronson, who graduated from Brooklyn College with a teaching degree at age 20, was first a high school English teacher. “But they sent me to such a bad neighborhood that the kids were as old as I was, so that wasn’t going to work. So then I went back and I got a license to teach junior high school, and that was worse, because they’re a bad age.” After that, she attended Yeshiva University, where she earned a master’s degree in special education, but after a few years working with children who had severe emotional problems, she gave up teaching altogether.
She had been working for a decade as vice president for the Museum of Television & Radio, now known as The Paley Center (which she helped establish in Los Angeles), when the producer Jean Doumanian, a longtime friend of Allen’s, invited Aronson to work with her. There was first a short stint as a researcher on “Saturday Night Live,” which ended quickly when Doumanian was fired, followed by some film work, which included David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner.” In the mid 1990s, Doumanian and her companion, Jacqui Safra, began financing Woody Allen films out of their privately held production company, Sweetland Films. But by 2001, a bitter lawsuit shattered the friendship, with Allen first filing a suit claiming Sweetland had cheated him out of millions of dollars in back-end profits, to which Doumanian filed a countersuit alleging Allen had cheated her.
Aronson took over as Allen’s primary producer after that, beginning with the 2001 film “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” For Allen, the trust between siblings would prove indispensable, and for Aronson, a path to success.
Allen had always been an endearing big brother, inviting little Letty to tag along with him and his friends, she said. And even now, rather than feel in his shadow, she obviously looks up to him. But, was working in movies her childhood dream, or his?
“We were brought up on movies,” she said, recalling how their mother used to take her to matinees at The Roxy and Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. “In our neighborhood, at that time, movies were very popular. We went at least once a week. We were a very movie family.”
The influences of their childhood, from their parents’ personalities to the games they played, to the Jewish customs they practiced, often show up in Allen’s films, which tend toward the autobiographical. It is a world cut from a traditional Jewish cloth, where families sit around a table together, argue about politics and eat matzah ball soup. It is also perceived as the domain of men, in which father is head of household, and son the child most vested with future promise. This milieu emerges in Allen’s work, and he has been accused of being too squarely focused on the viewpoint of men, in which the male psychology and its attendant neuroses, delusions and sexual appetites are central, and women, though smart and complicated, figure primarily as objects of desire.
“That’s completely contrary to his philosophy of life,” Aronson said dismissively. “In our household, education was very, very stressed — mine was as important as his. And there was never any, ‘Oh he’s a boy,’ and that kind of thing. I don’t see that in his films at all — his films are very user-friendly to women. They get the best roles.”
Aronson also dismisses the suggestion that his personal life, specifically his marriage to Soon Yi-Previn — who had been the adopted daughter of Allen’s girlfriend and muse Mia Farrow — has not done much to dissuade his feminist critics.
“I think that the [thing] women have objected to is where they see an older guy with a younger woman,” she said, adding, “That’s life.”
She is at the ready to defend her brother’s honor. “My husband died,” she said, “but he was 20 years older than me, and it was way before Woody and his situation. I’m not saying women like it; nobody likes to be replaced by a younger person, but it is a reality in our society. In European society, it doesn’t even cause a blink. We’re a puritanical country here, [and] I feel that the women who feel some objection to it are very small-minded and not reality based.”
The sort of lax European posture Allen and Aronson have applied to their social mores also seems to guide their religious beliefs. They are both essentially secularists who connect strongly to Jewish culture and conventions. Allen’s musings on the subject have notoriously come through in his work as a writer/director, but Aronson’s feelings are more restrained and private.
“In terms of how it affects my work, I can’t see it,” she said. When she was growing up, religious observance wasn’t exactly a priority: “My mother was kosher, but we weren’t religious kosher — we were kosher in the sense that at the same meal you could have [meat with] potatoes that had milk in it, if it was on a different plate.” Still, a strong tribal identity was formed, much of it out of fear of anti-Semitism. “There’s always a feeling anywhere that people don’t like Jews,” she said. “I grew up with that from my parents. They would say, ‘Who are you going out with — is he Jewish?’ Or you bring a friend home: ‘Is she Jewish?’ But I got so overloaded with that that I’m the complete opposite. I find that whole Jewish thing too much.”
And yet, Aronson joked that she has “the perfect Jewish family”: In addition to having married a Jew, her son is a doctor, her daughter an attorney, though her third child, she said, is “too young to be something.” They all went to Sunday school at the ritzy Temple Emanuel in New York City, located on Fifth Avenue and Central Park, and they all get together for major holiday dinners. “We don’t observe the holiday,” she said, explaining that she’s drawn to the cultural traditions of Judaism over the implicit religious hegemony. “We don’t not eat bread [on Passover], and we don’t fast [on Yom Kippur]. It’s just the tradition of doing that — like every Chanukah, I make potato latkes.”
For all they share, Aronson said, her brother’s movies aren’t always to her taste. She named the Iranian film “A Separation” and Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” as two of her favorites this past year. Von Trier, I remind her, may have spoiled his Oscar chances when he made some strange comments praising Hitler at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“It was very self-destructive of him, but if the awards were really done in a fair way, that shouldn’t matter,” she said, referring to her earlier explanation of why Allen doesn’t believe in awards. (“It’s comparing apples and oranges.”)
“You know, when Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, that whole thing appeared — if Hillary gets hurt, do I care? He’s a good president, that’s all I care about. People get so tied up in other people’s personal things,” she offered, by way of strange comparison. “It was stupid of him to say it, but if they think people who don’t say it don’t think it, they’re wrong. Anti-Semitism is very, very popular. Just because you don’t hear it out of people because they’re more careful does not mean that they’re your friend.”
That’s the kind of talk Aronson and Allen were raised with and may even be why they pride themselves on being Hollywood outsiders. In a way, they’re the Jewish Diaspora of Hollywood.
“We’re in a different business,” Aronson said. “We’re more toward art.”
So, the Oscar hullabaloo has been “very nice,” she said. “We’re just … New Yorkers.”