Scarlett and Woody Forge Unlikely Alliance

Woody Allen may still be a reclusive curmudgeon, but not apparently when Scarlett Johansson, his latest leading lady, is in the room.

"He's painfully shy when you first meet him, so you have to harass him to get him to talk. I just kept harassing him and now we have a playful relationship," says the 21-year-old star of "Match Point," the first Woody Allen film in nearly a decade to generate serious Oscar buzz.

"Others might not say so, but I'd even describe Woody as something of a chatterbox."

Johansson and the 70-year-old director have forged an unlikely mutual admiration society. Though she's one of Hollywood's hottest actresses and he's been struggling through the longest dry spell of his career, they've already completed their second film together, and both are downright effusive about their professional relationship.

"I could work for him forever and feel completely satisfied," says Johansson, talking with reporters at a New York hotel, alongside co-star Jonathan Rhys Meyers. "I just adore him. It's only his legacy as a director that makes him so intimidating."

And Allen, who isn't known for granting interviews, massaging egos or even keeping a high profile on the film-festival circuit, came to Cannes in May gushing over his star.

"I usually want to crawl into the ground after I make a film, almost invariably, but I'm very bullish about this film because Scarlett Johansson is such a strong actress," the Oscar-winning director told reporters.

'Annie Hall' Meets Buckingham Palace

"Match Point" -- which has already earned four Golden Globe nominations, including one for Johansson -- is the story of a social-climbing country-club tennis pro who befriends a student, marries his sister and takes a high-flying job in the family business. But he teeters on the edge of ruin when he falls in love with his friend's fianceƩ -- an American actress played by Johansson.

If Allen's subject matter -- marital infidelity -- is familiar turf, the project is clearly a step in a new direction. Famous for rarely leaving his beloved Manhattan, Allen filmed "Match Point" in London last summer, after American producers insisted on having more input.

Allen's latest films -- "Melinda and Melinda," "Anything Else" and "Hollywood Ending" -- hardly improved his bargaining position with Hollywood. Each opened to lukewarm-to-negative reviews -- and while he's never been a sure thing at the box office -- they grossed less than $5 million apiece, an abysmal streak even for an artist who says he doesn't pay attention to the bottom line.

Nevertheless, after striking a deal with the BBC, the former standup comic got to work with the same independence he has enjoyed since the mid-1970s.

"I don't feel that [the studios] are qualified to give the input," Allen told Vanity Fair over the summer. "They wouldn't know a good script from a problem script or how to cast a picture."

The move was completely contrary to character. It was once thought that Allen's love of New York was only exceeded by his hatred of Los Angeles. The three-time Academy Award winner had never bothered to show up on Oscar Night, despite 20 nominations. And he only lifted his boycott in 2002 to make a plea to directors to keep filming in his hometown after Sept. 11.

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