Woody Allen’s career has swung in so many extremes, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up; smart stand-up, the weirdo with the funny hair who made wacky comedies, the toast of Hollywood and the world, fodder for every tabloid and ragmag around the world, elder statesman of Hollywood, and, most recently, a pariah, described by the New York Times as ‘a monster’.
It’s difficult to write about Woody Allen today without inciting almost violent invective from both those who think he is a monster, and from those who still think of him as a filmmaking genius.
His new book, the autobiography Apropos of Nothing, has had a difficult time getting to print having been dropped by its initial publisher, Hatchet, after a revolt by its staff members who threatened to walk out. The company obviously saw the possibility of a bestseller on their hands, but people power won the day and the book was denied a release only a few days before it was due to go on sale. In the end, Arcade Publishing stepped in to buy the English language rights and the book was finally released on March 23rd.
In Apropos of Nothing, Allen attempts not just to tell the story of his life, but to correct a few things that people believe him to be. And I’m not just talking about the accusations of child molestation that have dominated the last few years of his life. Firstly, it would come as no surprise to fans of his that Allen does not think very highly of his work. He writes them and obviously gets a lot of pleasure from that; then he films them (which he also enjoys for the social element if not entirely for the artistic), then struggles to find something coherent during the editing. After the films are finally completed, he tries to forget them and then moves on to his next project. He doesn’t like award shows and famously has only ever attended one Oscar Ceremony – for the A Tribute To New York segment in 2002. He has won four Oscars – Best Director and Screenplay for Annie Hall, and Best Screenplay for Hannah & Her Sisters, and Midnight In Paris – and spent the night of each ceremony playing clarinet with his band in New York.
He also tries repeatedly to convince the reader that his onscreen persona is very different from real life. I have never found this entirely convincing as so much of his personal life turns up in his films. I‘ve always thought that the character of Woody Allen is an exaggerated version of the real man, who was born Allan Stewart Konigsberg in New York on December 1st 1935. Based on the brilliant Barbara Kopple 1997 documentary, Wildman Blues, it would seem that the real Woody Allen may not be as interesting or engaging as his alter ego, but it is still there, revealing itself in subtle ways and in one-liners throughout.
The strongest part of the book is most certainly the first section, which focuses on his childhood and his entry into show business. He recounts these memories with warmth and affection, yet they are tinted with a sadness that he and the reader cannot escape. He tells of how his mother was the disciplinarian in the family and how she would give him regular beatings. His father was an interesting character who influenced many a protagonist in his son’s films. He was a low-life, a hustler who couldn’t keep a job. He always had big dreams and small ability. Allen tells us how his father was once given a business to get him on the straight and narrow and after a few years of hard diligent work, he managed to triple the losses.
Allen says that growing up there were a lot of things he wanted to be; baseball player, joke writer, magician, card shark. He fell into stand-up, not because he wanted to, but because his friends and long-time partners Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, thought he could (eventually) be very good. Obviously, they were proven correct.
Allen is very open about his previous marriages; the first to Harlene Rosen (they were both too young), and Louise Lasser (who was bipolar), and speaks of both with affection (even though he was once sued by Harlene for referring to her as Quasimodo in a joke).
The middle section focuses on his turbulent relationship with Mia Farrow and the affair he had with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-yi Previn. I’m not going to go into detail about the whole affair. Suffice to say that whatever opinion you hold of Allen before you read this book is unlikely to change. If you believe he’s innocent then his protestations will ring true; if you think he’s a creep, then you‘ll probably think he’s scraping the barrel looking for excuses.
The main problem I had with this section is that his natural inclination to revert to humour sometimes undermines whatever argument he is trying to make. On too many occasions he makes a joke or makes light of the situation which seems at odds with its severity. At one point he even states;
“When I stepped back, I must say it was very amusing to view all of these people running helter-skelter to help a nutsy woman carry out a vengeful plan. So fascinating and, as I say, not a bad idea for satire.”
For Allen, humour is not only a way of life but, like many of his characters, it’s also a coping mechanism for the travails that life throws at him. I just wish that someone reading the book before its release had used the dreaded red pen and told him ‘now is not the time.’
The third section returns to his filmmaking, telling brief and often witty stories about his films. He doesn’t hold back on his criticisms of these films at all, for example;
“The filming of Shadows and Fog came off without a hitch except for the movie.”
He also discusses at length the various actors he’s worked with. He does have a tendency to describe many of the women he worked with as ‘beautiful’ (a much-overused word here), and this will only give further credence to those who think of him as a creep.
I can’t say I particularly like the revisionist approach to evaluating who he is. Yes there are endless jokes about women and sex in his comedies, especially, but not limited to, his earlier films. If we dismiss every film or filmmaker who made what we today see as sexist humour, then we would have no Carry-on films, no Grease, no Animal House, or no Pretty Woman. I could go on. Even the great François Truffaut laced some of his films with many a joke about sex and almost entirely from the male perspective. There is no doubt that Woody Allen is a product of his time and how you see his films, and indeed, how you judge Allen himself, will depend on whether you accept this or not.
Finally he returns to the molestation controversy and how it has dominated his life recently, making it almost impossible to get funding for his films in the US. As I’ve already said, I can’t see your opinion of Allen changing much after reading Apropos of Nothing. I have read some reviews which have called the book ‘creepy’, which I think proves my point. Another called the book ‘self-obsessed’, which I don’t fully understand – this is an autobiography after all. If the writer is not going to write about themselves, then there is very little to write about. Others have used the all-out attack method of criticism. Maureen Callahan of the New York Post, for example, stated; “[it is] the most tone-deaf, disgusting, bitter, self-pitying, horrifically un-put-downable memoirs since Mein Kampf.”
Personally I found Apropos of Nothing very entertaining and witty and, most of the time, his jokes hit the right target at the right time. Whatever your opinion of him, there is no doubt that his influence on cinema has been considerable, and many of his films stand head and shoulders above many that have been made in the last fifty years. I listened to the audiobook version which is read by Allen himself and this adds to the effect as his comic timing is impeccable.
I think the best way to describe his influence, especially if you have trouble accepting Allen, is in the final joke in his 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall;
‘This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” ‘
Film ‘89 Verdict – 8/10
Apropos of Nothing is available in hardback and audiobook now.