Apropos of Woody Allen’s New Autobiography

There’s a book review below, but first a necessary diatribe.

I know there will be more than a few who object to the publishing or reading of a book by this author, much less the posting of a review. To be clear, I find myself often temperamentally aligned with the instincts of so-called Cancel Culture. Cosby roofies 5 dozen women; Louis CK jacks off in the presence of his underlings; Harvey Weinstein sexually harasses half of Hollywood — the appropriate place for guys like that is the pasture. It was nice knowin’ ya! But I believe Woody Allen to be in a different category. The most damning, and only criminal, charge against him relied on the heavily coached testimony of young children, under the direction of an unstable, neglectful, and abusive caregiver, and it was more than credibly countered by Moses Farrow two years ago. I also highly reccomend this airtight documentary. In most #MeToo cases, I am foursquare on the side of crediting the woman. They have much to lose and little to gain but harassment and threats for bringing charges against powerful men. But as for ceding the definitive map of the firmament to a coached seven year old, whose testimony is disputed by her much older siblings — and many other individuals…at the very least, I will have to remain agnostic. Allen was exonerated by courts, cops, doctors, experts, lie detector tests, and two of the Farrow children who haven’t killed themselves. He just hasn’t been let off the hook by the media, the public, and the film industry.

In addition to the acquittal, there’s this to consider. Allen is a writer who wears his obsessions on his sleeve involuntarily. He is a FREUDIAN! I’d sooner believe he was guilty of murder-for-hire (which has been a disquieting theme through more than one of his films) than pedophilia, at least pedophilia involving a seven year old. Because there’s not a scintilla of a whiff of that predilection in any of his 50 motion pictures and dozen theatreworks.  A seventeen year old, maybe. I was sickened by the Mariel Hemingway plot in Manhattan (1979) from the very first time I saw that movie, and REALLY sickened by the revelations about Soon-Yi and the Polaroids in 1992, despite the fact that she was 22 years old (a consenting adult) at the time. Widespread media coverage of Mia Farrow’s assertions that Soon-Yi was underaged and mentally retarded when they began their affair fueled that disgust, but even knowing the truth doesn’t entirely remove reservations about such a relationship between such a young adult and a man who was nearly 60 years old and her (informally) adopted stepfather figure. Now that she’s 50 years old and they’ve been together for nearly 3 decades even that has lost some of its oomph. The age disparity now reminds one of that between Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill, another cradle robbing situation that raised eyebrows in its day, but lasted for decades. We can all agree I hope that it’s not the most “normal” and “healthy” thing that ever happened. But for me personally, it’s not sufficient for me to want to boycott his work, in the way that I’ve found it necessary to boycott Bill Cosby’s, for example.

Allen addresses all of this business head-on in Apropos of Nothing. Clearly it’s one of the reasons for its existence — to clear the air and finally tell his side. The timing is no mystery. Since Dylan Farrow revived her allegations in 2018 in the wake of the #MeToo tsunami, Allen can barely (excuse the expression) get arrested in the movie business. He could find no U.S. distributor for his 2019 film A Rainy Day in New York, and had a difficult time finding name actors willing to appear in his latest film Rifkin’s Festival (2020). His livelihood in jeopardy, he obviously needs to do whatever he can to rehabilitate his image. A good chunk of the middle of the book elaborates on the case made by Moses in that earlier blogpost, as well as much more.

As riveting and racy as that stuff is, the best part of the book is the first half or so in which he writes about his early years. It’s illuminating about his art and his psychology, is extremely valuable from a show business history perspective, and is frequently as wittily written as his humor books like Getting Even, Side Effects, and Without Feathers. 

I was most taken with his portrait of his father, whom for some reason I had envisioned very differently (I pictured something along the lines of Lou Jacobi). His father was a sort of borderline hoodlum, with mob connections, a gonif, a hustler, a bookie, always coming around with get-rich-schemes, fencing stolen merchandise and so forth, while also working occasional legit jobs as a cabbie, a waiter, a jeweler, etc. It makes me want to go back and watch Allen’s films, for though I’ve often noted his preoccupation with criminality, I always assumed he was drawing mostly from his imagination, or at most from characters he had witnessed from a distance. In addition to being unreliable, his father indulged the boy with gifts of money and stacks of comic books. Meanwhile, his mother, whom I’ve always felt the presence of in his films, was a bit of a nagger and a prodder and the steady one in the family (she worked as a bookkeeper).

Having walked all over Brooklyn, I had a good feel for the areas he writes about growing up in. He spent a lot of time in local movie houses (some of which had formerly been owned by his grandfather), teaching himself to be a magician, listening to the radio, playing sports, hating school — and yes, pursuing girls. He liked the brainy type, which encouraged him to expand his horizons beyond comics. He writes that in addition to its programs of movies, the Flatbush Theatre featured five acts of vaudeville, spurring an early love of show business, especially comedians. For a time his dad waited tables at Sammy’s Bowery Follies, where he also saw variety acts. His dad also first brought him to Times Square where he first visited  Hubert’s Museum. As a teenager he would skip school to go to theatres, museums, and shops in Manhattan.

It is rewarding to read about his early influences. He compares Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd (favoring the former over the latter two). He speaks several times about his fondness for W.C. Fields, as well as for Groucho, whom he later had the opportunity to befriend. He also says he met Jack Benny late in life, who confessed that he had tried pot and liked it! He talks about his huge love of the movies of Bob Hope, and shows respect for unsuspected comedians like Jerry Lewis and Jackie Gleason. 

When Allen was still a teenager he was getting well paid as a jokewriter for newspaper columns and that led to television writing for such entertainers as Peter Lind Hayes, Arthur Godfrey, Herb Shriner, Paul Winchell, and Garry Moore. He was briefly head writer on The Pat Boone Show! He wrote an episode of Stanley starring Buddy Hackett.  Allen has seldom been publicly effusive, so one might have assumed he was a snob who didn’t respect his contemporaries but the book is full of admiring assessments of contemporary show biz folks. He took part in a NBC writers program where he worked with Don Adams, Jonathan Winters, and Kaye Ballard. He wrote for the  The Colgate Comedy HourNeil Simon’s brother Danny was an important mentor there and he also worked with Norman Lear and even show biz legend Joe Frisco. And as is well known, he was part of Sid Caesar’s legendary writing stable with Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks et al. The book contains many warm portraits of all these guys, and many others.

While he attended NYU as a film major only briefly, he did put his first wife Harlene Rosen through school. She was a philosophy major, and his involvement with her studies is where he got rough familiarity with the likes of Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Kafka etc, references to which pepper most of his subsequent writing. This is where the downbeat aspects of his persona (awakened, I theorize, by news of the Holocaust having reached him at an impressionably young age) found existentialist form for expression. Having married extremely young, the couple was divorced by 1962.

The true love of his life appears to have been his second wife Louise Lasser, believe it or not, whom he writes about far more passionately than any other woman in the book. He describes her as his first romantic love, his fantasy, and as beautiful as Bridgette Bardot. Mental illness on her part finally drove them apart after about a decade together.

It was also instructive to read about his early years as a stand-up at clubs like the Blue Angel, the Bitter End, and Upstairs at the Duplex (which is where I launched my American Vaudeville Theatre in 1998). He writes about working alongside a young Garry Marshall, Phil Foster (who played the father on Laverne and Shirley), and Barbra Streisand, and having guys like Buddy Hackett, Jack E. Leonard, and Henny Youngman come to see him perform. He writes that broadcast veterans like Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, and Henry Morgan were initially mean to him but came around and mentored him once he proved the efficacy of his innovative style. He was friends with Johnny Carson, even guest hosting for him at times. Dorothy Kilgallen trashed his and Carson’s performances at LBJ’s inaugural. He was (and is) even better friends with Dick Cavett.  He reveals that his comedy albums didn’t sell as well as those of his contemporaries like Mort Sahl, Nicholas and May, Bob Newhart, and Vaughn Meader. In particular he raves about Sahl — who he says inspired him to go into stand-up in the first place. (He gets predictably Boomery when writing about contemporary stand-up, however. He thinks it is too crude, and he objects to the presence of water bottles on stage. No word of a lie! I want to say to him — just think of them as “21st century cigars”).

The weakest section of the book is the last third or so, where Allen plows through his gazillion movies as though he were on a treadmill, sprinkling the descriptions with perfunctory, unconvincing praise for the artists and actors he’s worked with.  His literary gift, so in evidence in the earlier parts of the book, abandons him completely here and he repeatedly falls back on a paltry handful of adjectives near Trumpian in their anemia: “great”, “brilliant”, “beautiful”, “gifted”, “talented”, “flawless”, “wonderful”, “a pleasure”, “a privilege”.

But compelling tidbits do emerge. We learn that he originally wrote What’s New Pussycat?  (1965) for Warren Beatty. He hates that movie, and is dismissive of most of his early film projects. He replaced Ruth Gordon in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) with Geoffrey Holder. He got along great with Sam Shepard (they talked jazz and swapped records) despite replacing him with Sam Waterston in September (1987). He says that Martin Landau’s performance in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) was the most perfect realization of a character in all his films, in terms of how he had conceived the role as a writer. Shockingly, Mia Farrow was angry at having been replaced in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) by Diane Keaton, even though she had been attacking him in courts and the media for a year. The book contains surprisingly little about Keaton, his leading lady onscreen and off prior to Farrow. ( I didn’t realize her real surname is Hall!). For a time he dated Jessica Harper, who appeared in Love and Death (1974) and Stardust Memories (1980), as well as other fare such as De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), the original Suspiria (1977), and My Favorite Year (1982), which was largely inspired by Your Show of Shows. 

Allen is pretty frank about his limitations as an artist. He minimizes some of his his good films; champions his less popular ones. It’s hard to feel sympathy for his opinion that he has never made a great movie, given his frequent assertion that he likes to quit at 5pm so he can go home, eat dinner, and watch TV. He’s a hard working guy but not a perfectionist, and there is no greatness without perfectionism.  I agree with his assessment that Wonder Wheel (2018) is his best realized drama to date. Unfortunately the Thundering Virtue-Herd has kept the public from knowing it.

I…um…

I would also add that Allen has had a voluminously productive career, and I am more than certain that when he is no longer with us, his astounding body of work will be better appreciated, even in light of his weaknesses as a person. BTW, I don’t count finding women beautiful or attractive, and expressing that natural sentiment, in and of itself a moral failing, unless its accompanied by simultaneous denigration of their other qualities. But I don’t see that from him. He writes with deep admiration about every woman in his life, including Farrow (as an artist), and most tellingly, Soon-Yi. And it may have been self-serving of him to list his stats, but the numbers are real: he’s written 106 leading roles for women; his actresses have been nominated for 62 awards for performances in his films; 230 women have been part of his production teams behind the cameras. Less than convincing is his protestation that he’s not obsessed with females in the No Man’s Land of legality and propriety. In addition to Soon-Yi, Hemingway, and the real life girl her Manhattan character was based on, whom he calls “Stacey” in his book, one can’t help but observe his wolf-like enthusiasm for the likes of the decades-younger Emma Stone, Scarlet Johanssen, et al, and the sketchiness of casting the latter as his leading lady on a couple of occasions. He could be her grandfather.

I make no excuses for the guy, as far as this goes. He still types on a typewriter…you want him to be “Woke”?  I wouldn’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to engage with what Woody Allen has to say. But show biz historians, on the other hand….if you’re one of those, you should probably read this book.