Apropos of Woody Allen: The Anxiety of Being… and don’t forget Nothingness
Woody Allen, Apropos of Nothing: Autobiography (2020)
“Let the jury consider their verdict,” says the King in Wonderland. “No, no,” countermands the Queen, “Sentence first, verdict afterward.” Just about all discussions of filmmaker and comedian Woody Allen these days, whether of his life or works, follow the protocols of judicial proceedings found in Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That’s where the ruling Queen of Hearts demands the punishment – usually, “Off with his head!” – prior to the decision, and the guilty verdict well before any presentation of the evidence. Notwithstanding sensible Alice’s pronouncement, “Stuff and nonsense,” about such upside-down procedures, let us bow to current fashion. So, herewith the verdicts on Woody Allen:
On writing a not-so-great autobiography, namely, Apropos of Nothing: Guilty as charged.
On sex crimes: Not Guilty (no substantiated evidence).
On film making: Lots of good ones.
The worst thing about reviewing a movie or a piece of writing by Woody Allen during the past two decades is that you’re more or less required to file a customs declaration before you’re allowed through passport control and back into the world on this side of the Looking-Glass. So, my partial disclosure: I read (and am reviewing) Allen’s autobiography as a minuscule gesture of solidarity against those who want to shut up and “cancel” Woody Allen.
The censors include the Hatchette Press conglomerate, which accepted Allen’s manuscript for publication and then cancelled it at the behest of allegedly offended Hatchette employees and others. (Fortunately, a smaller publisher, Arcade, quickly picked up the rejected book and published it.) The most well-known of the complaining others was Ronan Farrow, one of Hatchette’s best-selling writers — most recently, the author of Catch and Kill, the story of the travails of hunting down and reporting on prominent sexual predators. Ronan happens to be Woody Allen’s son. He also happens to believe his sister Dylan’s claim that his father is a sexual predator who molested her as a child His own parental relationship with Woody is more of a technical matter than filial affection. The actual paternity claim remains murky, and Ronan’s mother, the actress Mia Farrow, has hinted that the singer Frank Sinatra may have had a part in the gestation.
In addition to these immediate complainants, there is a wide array of other objectors to Allen. The most important of them are feminists of a particular strand (a school associated with the thought of the feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin) who strongly and genuinely object to Allen’s sexual mores (I’ll get back to this in due course). Then there are a lot of amateur film critics who don’t particularly like Allen and are sincerely indifferent to his films. (I’m okay with the utterly uninterested. Chacun selon son gout. Each one to his taste.) Finally, there are people and actors who have sworn off ever seeing an Allen film again, on allegedly moral grounds. They think his artistic endeavors ought to be boycotted or that their previous participation in his films ought to be publicly regretted because of Allen’s objectionable character. And did I forget to mention the legions of freelance moralists, both on the political left and right, each of whom is entitled to his or her or their opinion, however uninformed?
Having duly rendered the verdicts and detailed the circumstances of Allen’s somewhat unwelcome arrival for literary scrutiny, we can proceed. Book first, sex and silver screen later.
Whatever else might be said, it certainly should be granted that the autobiography of an 84-year-old eminently successful filmmaker and comedian is prima facie a legitimate undertaking and, given the author’s advanced age, timely.
The first thing to notice is the slightly odd, syntactically ambiguous opening sentence of Apropos of Nothing, to wit: “Like Holden, I don’t feel like going into all that David Copperfield kind of crap, although in my case, a little about my parents you may find more interesting than reading about me.”
There’s something linguistically bumpy, isn’t there, about that “… although in my case, a little about my parents you may find more interesting than reading about me…”? Am I hearing an echo of the Yiddish-inflected syntax that used to be the specialty of a once prominent Jewish humorist, Milt Gross, author of Dunt Esk! (1927)? Shouldn’t it be, “you may find a little about my parents more interesting than reading about me”? Rewrite, get me rewrite!, as they used to cry out in newsrooms, when they were still populated by working journalists, rewrite editors, and other living souls.
And what about Holden? I wonder how many people today will pick up on the reference to Holden Caulfield, who is otherwise unidentified in Allen’s book? Holden, on the off-chance that you’ve forgotten, is the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel about teenage coming-of-rebellion, Catcher in the Rye. In this age of diminished reading, will casual readers have heard of the late, eccentric Salinger, even though he was a multi-million bestseller back in his mid-20th century day, 70 years ago?
I don’t even want to think about readers who fail to get the nod to Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield; it’s too depressing. And wondering about whether they will recognize that the title of Salinger’s classic is a reference to Scottish national poet Robbie Burns’ “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” is probably a waste of time. I’ll also leave the exegesis about some arcane fine points in Holden’s reading of Burns to the appropriate scholars… (Oh, alright, if we must. The mystery concerns how Holden gets from Burns’ line “Gin [If] a body meet a body,” to “[If] a body catch a body.” Like I said, let’s skip it, okay?) And we’re only at Allen’s first sentence!, which is a paraphrase of the more readable Salinger original: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
In any case, syntactical and referential confusion aside, that sentence does lead to Allen’s forebears and their hard-knocks Brooklyn lives in the early 20th century, full of material scrabbling, assorted scams, and running the occasional errand for the neighborhood Mafia capo. Eventually – on the road to Allen Stewart Konigsberg’s birth on Dec. 1, 1935 – Woody’s about-to-be father runs into Woody’s about-to-be mother. Allen presents all this as Jewish picaresque and, admittedly, the one-liners produce a chuckle.
“How he wound up with Nettie is a mystery on a par with dark matter,” Allen says of his parents. “Two characters as mismatched as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit, they disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards… Still, I’m sure they loved each other in their own way, a way known perhaps only to a few headhunting tribes in Borneo.”
I’ll skip further annotation – either you know who philosopher Hannah Arendt and the protagonist of Guys and Dolls are or you don’t – or else we’ll be here all afternoon. But that gives you the flavor of Allen’s patter. Gradually the self-portrait of a bright, surprisingly athletic kid emerges, someone interested in magic tricks, comic books rather than classics, sports statistics, and local legendary gangsters, as he grows up in a semi-literate cultural milieu in the 1930s and 40s.
Throughout the book, Allen emphasizes his non-intellectualism in tones of unrelenting self-deprecation, and, rather insistently, the severe limits of his talents as a clarinet player, specializing in New Orleans jazz (which he’s performed publicly for several decades). It’s often hard to tell whether the self-criticism is mere fact, irony, or real humility. Apart from a volume of folklore about New York gangsters, Allen declares, “My entire library consisted of comic books. I read only comic books until I was in my later teens.” So his childhood heroes were not the protagonists of Stendhal, Dostoyevsky or Faulkner, he avers, but a cast of superheroes and Disney creations ranging from Batman to Donald Duck, augmented by characters seen at the available movie houses, such as the great comedians Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, or the existential types played by Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, plus the screen heroines of the era.
Allen insists, “Folks, you are reading the autobiography of a misanthropic gangster-loving illiterate; an uncultivated loner who sat in front of a three-way mirror practicing with a deck of cards so he could palm off an ace of spades…” His own Wonderland materialized when he was first taken from Brooklyn to magical Manhattan, the realm of glamorous high life, “champagne comedies” on the silver screen featuring “leggy tootsies,” and a background soundtrack of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin songs. Adolescent Woody eventually got around to literary works and the paintings in New York’s museums, but only because such cultural acquisitions were useful when it came to picking up girls – whom he has the habit of describing as “delectable bohemian little kumquats” and other epithets that ring rather tone-deaf in an era of #MeToo hashtags.
Despite a perfectly happy, well-fed (kumquats and all), trauma-free childhood, “yet somehow I managed to turn out nervous, fearful, an emotional wreck… misanthropic, claustrophobic, isolated, embittered, impeccably pessimistic.” He attributes this state of ontological anxiety to the recognition that “at [age] five or so, I became aware of mortality and figured, uh-oh, this is not what I signed on for. I never agreed to be finite… As I got older, not just extinction but the meaninglessness of existence became clearer to me.” And the rest is psychoanalytic and cinematographic history – “but so is the Holocaust,” as Allen, gallows humor aforethought, likes to quip.
Okay, that’s enough coming-of-age. We can now fast forward (or jump cut) to the young joke-writer, comedy show scribe and reluctant stand-up comedian, who ultimately arrives at well-paid success in all his varied roles. This is also where the trouble starts for Allen’s book.
But before we get to the compositional difficulties of Apropos, I’ll address one question that always interests me in literary autobiographies, namely, How did the writer become a writer? Here, Allen has a satisfying story. From the beginning, when he was in school, “anytime we had to write something I wrote comedy, and not only did it make the other kids laugh when it was inevitably chosen to be read aloud but was sometimes passed from teacher to teacher.” In addition to a natural flair for the funny, there was something else. Early on, Allen wrote a school composition “in which I referenced Freud, the id, and the libido, not knowing what I was talking about but having some odd instinct for knowing how to parlay a jot of knowledge… into a comic bit that works and makes the reader or audience think I know much more than I do.” It’s a talent that also gives fans of Woody Allen what he regards as a false impression of him being an intellectual – that instinct for “parlaying a jot of knowledge” and a pair of nerdy black-framed eyeglasses.
Still in high school, “one fateful afternoon, after a particularly good volley of gags directed at the screen during a movie, someone said, ‘You should write some of your gags down. They’re funny.’” That casual remark and a purloined typewriter acquired through his father’s not entirely kosher business dealings was all it took. He made up some jokes, banged them out on the machine, and his mother suggested he show his wise cracks to one of their relatives, Phil Wasserman, a man of the world and some sort of press agent who ran with the Broadway crowd.
Phil in turn was impressed and told Allen, “They’re good gags. You should mail them in to some of the newspaper columnists –” and he rattled off the names of the then fashionable gossip-and-nightlife writers, Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, and Hy Gardner, chroniclers of the sophisticated world on the far side of Brooklyn Bridge. Allen concedes that his one-liners were not quite the equal of the bons mots of such French masters as Voltaire and La Rouchefoucauld; rather, “they were mother-in-law jokes, parking space jokes, income-tax jokes” and other mundane yuks. Allen mailed in a few of them to various columnists, didn’t immediately hear anything back, and meanwhile returned to the turmoils of adolescent life (i.e., he kept fruitlessly chasing those “delectable bohemian kumquats” who remained uninterested in polishing this illiterate diamond in the rough). Then, it happened. One evening, around bedtime, “I got a call from a friend who said, ‘Hey, you’re in Nick Kenny’s column.’”
Kenny was one of the nightlife columnists who printed some gags each day. Bolting from bed, Allen raced down to Avenue J and picked up a copy of the Daily Mirror where “I saw my name in print for the first time. ‘Allan Konigsberg says…’ – and then some stupid gag I mercifully can’t remember.” The Flatbush teenager was suddenly a published author (sort of), with fantasies of writing jokes for his favorite comedian, Bob Hope, making the down payment on the Fifth Avenue penthouse which would inevitably come with show business fame, as would the transformation into “Woody Allen.” Fantasies aside, Allen would be soon seeing his new name and jokes in all the columns.
It was all uphill on an escalator from there. A local publicity firm noticed the jokes, tracked their author down, and offered the kid an after-school job. The mission of the firm was to get their celebrity clients as much publicity as possible, and one of the gimmicks to get the client’s name in the papers was to have them be quoted saying something witty while frolicking at some posh nightclub, like the Copacabana. Naturally, the scintillatng remarks were written by the p.r. firm’s staff, now including the precocious kid from Brooklyn. It paid 40 bucks a week, which is what Woody’s mother was earning at a full-time job. In short order, Allen graduated to the writing teams of TV comedians of the day, found a lifetime-long manager with a heart-of-gold named Jack Rollins, and was reluctantly coaxed into appearing on stage and small screen doing his own monologues.
One of several problems with what follows – Allen’s reminiscences about working in the comedy business — is what’s known in journalism as the problem of “attribution” or “assuming reader knowledge.” Allen regularly invokes a roster of comics and writers he worked with and for in the mid-1950s – Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, his teen idol Bob Hope, and dozens of other once-household names. For elderly readers of Allen’s generation, this will all be familiar stuff and mildly amusing or nostalgically pleasant. For people under 50, it’ll probably be mostly puzzlement. Allen seems oblivious to the fact that he’s referring to people who were stars 60 years ago, dropping names that can only yield the faintest of echoes to the present generation.
To make matters even less interesting, Allen is largely engaged in off-the-cuff reminiscing – a couple of reviewers have suggested that the prose may be more dictation, complete with “where was I now?” asides, than real writing – and as a result he really doesn’t say much about the people he’s writing about. In explaining how he got a job on Sid Caesar’s staff, Allen notes, “Caesar had the great comedy show of those years, Caesar and The Honeymooners – two very different great comedians, Sid and Jackie Gleason.” Leaving aside the syntactical mess of that sentence, the reader is apparently supposed to know that “The Honeymooners” was a recurring sketch on The Jackie Gleason Show (before it became a sitcom of its own), and although Caesar and Gleason are “two very different great comedians,” Allen doesn’t bother to explain what the differences were, much less the mutual greatness.
The attributions become skimpier as we proceed. “At 22 I was made head writer of the Pat Boone TV show. I lost that job because I wasn’t the right fit, but Pat was yet another very nice man to work for.” And that’s it for Pat Boone. By the time we catch Mort Sahl’s act at The Blue Angel, attribution is merely beyond description – “to say that I was blown away by Mort Sahl…when it comes to Mort I could go on and make this book longer than War and Peace. I can’t do justice to his work as a comedian. I can only say what a sports writer said to me as he extolled Babe Ruth, ‘You had to be there.’” And since most potential readers weren’t there, partly because they hadn’t been born yet, you have to be content with the notion that Sahl made things hard on subsequent comics in the same way that Charlie Parker wrecked it for later saxophonists, and Marlon Brando did in acting for future actors (assuming, that is, you happen to know who Charlie Parker and Brando were). By the way, things will only get worse when Allen gets around to talking about his films and the actors he worked with in them.
Although the opening section about Woody Allen’s boyhood may be a bit jarring at first, it nonetheless (at least on second reading) has a kind of coherence and a satisfying denouement in his narrative about breaking into print via writing jokes for New York columnists. What’s needed for the section on Woody getting a foothold in the world of comedy in the mid-1950s – and its absence may be a result of Allen’s self-admitted intellectual limitations – is an overview of a segment of U.S. popular entertainment in terms of generations, ethnicity, and even technology. This level of analysis and description is clearly beyond the fondly anecdotal and much of the text goes slack here.
That’s a shame, because humor in the U.S. was going through both a “golden era” and a significant shift in tone around the time of Allen’s rise to comic prominence. The radio comics of the 1930s and ‘40s, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, and Bob Hope were shifting to a new medium, television, and gradually being supplanted by a younger generation.
In the mid-to-late 1950s, as the music world was tuning in to Elvis Presley and other icons of early rock n’ roll, TV was turning to sketch comedy and variety programs starring Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason, zany buddies like Jerry Lewis and crooning sidekick Dean Martin, as well as serial weekly comedy shows, epitomized by Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.” In the next mini-generation of comics, where one finds Allen, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, and Lenny Bruce, there’s both a darker shade of political commentary and a glimpse of a Zeitgeist whose key figure is a neurotic, nerdy, guy in dark-framed glasses — Allen himself — navigating relationships and existential dread.
That overview also contains an ethnic subplot – of Jewish comedians who trained and traveled in their own minor league of middle-class Jewish resorts known as the “Borscht Belt” – and a range of comic hosts, such as Johnny Carson, Jack Paar and Steve Allen, who established the template for today’s “late night” television talk shows. Unfortunately, that sort of orientation is not available in Allen’s memoir, nor is there the slightest awareness on Allen’s part that it might be helpful to readers.
2. Sex & Art imitating, uh, Sex & Art
Okay, you’ve been very patient: let’s get to the sex stuff. I should confess, at the outset, that my interest in, avidity for, and outrage about this topic in relation to Woody Allen’s life and works will likely be considered by most readers to be woefully inadequate to the magnitude of the crimes he is alleged to have committed. I’ll provide an apologetic for my relative lack of interest in a minute.
I’m going to assume that most people likely to be reading this review are at least vaguely familiar with the events involving Woody Allen that have led so many people to declare him a social pariah, and that I can forego the granularity of detail required by the deeply devoted. Allen offers a lengthy and (perhaps justifiably) embittered account of the accusations against him, along with his avowals of innocence, which takes up at least a quarter of the text, and comprises the most painful and saddest part of the autobiography.
Unlike prominent contemporary sex monsters and their serial predations uncovered by the Me Too movement, and duly punished by the courts – such figures as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and the late Jeffrey Epstein — the alleged crimes and misdemeanors of Allen are confined to what is actually a single two-part disputed incident that took place more than a quarter century ago. One useful thing to keep in mind when discussing this event is that Allen and his partner at the time, actress Mia Farrow (with whom Allen had made a raft of successful films) are both unconventional and relatively eccentric people.
As Guardian newspaper columnist Hadley Freeman, who recently interviewed Allen on the European release of his 48th film, A Rainy Day in New York, notes, “The broad outlines of the scandal are now better known than most of his films.” (Hadley Freeman, “‘Do I really care?’ Woody Allen comes out fighting,” The Guardian, May 29, 2020. By the way, Allen’s latest film is not distributed in the U.S. for the same reasons that Hachette pulped the copies of Allen’s autobiography.)
Taking up Freeman’s succinct and useful summary, the simplest version of events is that in 1992 it was learned that Allen, then 57, was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, 21, the Korean-born adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, the woman Allen had been in a relationship with for the previous dozen years or so. In the predictably acrimonious breakup, Farrow accused Allen of sexually molesting their 7-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan. The accusation, it’s crucial to remember, came after Farrow’s discovery of Allen’s liaison with the adult Soon-Yi.
With respect to the molestation charge, “these are the facts,” as Freeman puts it: “After Farrow alleged that Allen – never accused of any impropriety before or since – molested Dylan in [Farrow’s] house in Connecticut, doctors examined her and found no physical evidence of abuse. Allen was then investigated by the Yale New Haven hospital’s sexual abuse clinic and New York City’s Child Welfare Administration. The former concluded: ‘It is our expert opinion that Dylan was not sexually molested by Mr. Allen.’ The latter, after a 14-month investigation, wrote: ‘No credible evidence was found that the child named in this report has been abused or maltreated.’” (Freeman’s article, of course, provides all the requisite links to the detailed findings to which she refers.)
Freeman adds that “Dr. John Leventhal, who headed the Yale New Haven report, testified that Dylan’s statements had ‘a rehearsed quality’ and hypothesised that ‘she was coached or influenced by her mother.’” Indeed, Farrow had even made a home movie with Dylan, in which the child recited the events, a “documentary” that the investigators didn’t find persuasive. Instead, it contributed to their view that the girl had been coached. In addition to the molestation investigations, which never resulted in charges or court appearances, there was also a tangled, overlapping custody battle, since Allen had earlier co-adopted Dylan and another of Farrow’s adopted children, Moses, as well as being then-4-year-old Ronan’s father. This civil determination took place in a courtroom, and Allen lost the custody case before a decidedly unsympathetic judge but, again, it involved no criminal charges of any kind.
In sum, although the molestation claims against Allen necessarily remain ambiguous, and though Dylan has repeated them as an adult, there were never any legal charges brought; at least two state agencies found no grounds for proceeding; and whatever scraps of circumstantial evidence that were available favoured Allen – for instance, he submitted to and passed a polygraph test, while Farrow declined to take one. Finally, there were plausible grounds for regarding Farrow as having a motive for instigating the accusation. As for the complaint, if ever there was a candidate for an instance of “false memory syndrome,” this was it. While there are, to no one’s surprise, disparate verdicts in the “court of public opinion,” even to this day, it is not far-fetched for people to come to the view that Allen is innocent of the accusations, or that the allegations are unsubstantiated. Or, more simply: Not Guilty. I offer my own exonerating verdict here in as intentionally non-provocative language as I can manage, since I have no desire to further inflame those with differing and strong opinions.
If that’s the case, then what remains is Allen’s relation with Soon-Yi Previn. There are many observers (myself included) who believe that that issue is in fact what the dispute is mostly about. I suspect that disapprobation of cross-generational intimate relations, plus the particular circumstances of this case – i.e., Allen’s betrayal of Farrow — is the real subject of the controversy, and is also the place where the views of one group of feminists are of relevance. Again, a few facts might help.
Allen and Farrow, despite their long professional and personal relationship, were not married and did not live together. They both owned luxury apartments on either side of New York’s Central Park, frequently dined together, and spent time at each other’s residences, although Allen claims that the relationship itself was sputtering out by the time of the scandal. Given their living circumstances, Allen — apart from being involved in the lives of the two children he had co-adopted and his son, Ronan — had little to do with raising Farrow’s other children, such as Soon-Yi, and in fact didn’t know her well until she became an adult. At one point, Farrow was mother to half a dozen or more mostly adopted children, and her philanthropy on behalf of children in distress was publicly recognized by organizations like the United Nations. There is some controversy about the life outcomes for many of the children she (along with her household staff) raised, but the harsh details can be left aside here, although they can be found in Allen’s account. In any case, contrary to malignant rumor, Allen was not Soon-Yi’s adoptive father nor is there evidence that he “groomed” her in any way.
The feminist perspective that’s relevant here is easy enough to understand. There’s a long patriarchal history of relatively powerful men often abandoning earlier relationships and acquiring, in mid-life, decidedly younger “trophy” wives. Indeed, in her two previous marriages, Farrow herself had been married to older men: she was 21 when she married 50-year-old singer Frank Sinatra, and a couple of years later, having parted from Sinatra, became involved with the middle-aged composer Andre Previn – which occasioned a messy breakup of Previn’s own marriage. It also subsequently led to her and Previn’s adoption of Soon-Yi.
Such relations involving significant age differences between the partners raise all kinds of questions of unequal power, as well as a plethora of other issues with respect to morality and sexism. From one particular feminist view, which arguably contains a streak of misandry, large age differences in male-female relationships are an important and, almost always, negative marker. When you add to this general disposition the specific circumstances of Allen’s breakup with Farrow – even Allen evinces some rare awareness of why his actions might be seen as deplorable — it’s not difficult to see why this December-May romance ignited a moral uproar. (I should probably point out that significant age differences in same-sex relationships tend not to arouse similar antipathy in their respective communities.)
My only point here, apart from noting the explanatory relevance of this feminist perspective on heterosexuality, is that consenting adult relationships involving significant age differences violate no laws, and that it’s perfectly conceivable there could be such relationships that are exceptions to the rule that elicits moral disapproval. This is a long-way-around of duly recording that Woody and Soon-Yi have been married for nearly a quarter-century, that Soon-Yi has acquired an advanced post-secondary degree, and the couple has raised two adopted daughters who are themselves college students. All of the foregoing is why I tend not to share the widespread tabloid-like interest in and outrage about Allen’s personal affairs. (For Soon-Yi’s view of these issues, cf. Daphne Merkin, “Introducing Soon-Yi Previn,” New York magazine, Sept. 16, 2018.)
Finally, there’s art. For me, that’s what important about Woody Allen, and why we might be interested in his life, including even some of the seamier details. The development from comedy writing and stand-up performance to screenwriting and film directing in the 1960s and ‘70s unfolded for Allen with almost preternatural ease. Moreover, he was comfortable in a variety of writing genres that included humour pieces for The New Yorker, theatre plays, and short story collections. With respect to the last, it’s perhaps incumbent upon me to note that Allen’s best-known story, “The Kugelmass Episode,” collected in Side Effects (1980), features a magician named The Great Persky (alas, no relation, as far I know) who makes it possible for the protagonist, Professor Kugelmass, to time travel to the mise-en-scene of Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary, where an affair with the eponymous Emma Bovary ensues. The story provides a hint of Allen’s facility with creating thoroughly realized imaginary worlds.
Allen’s first screenwriting and directorial efforts – Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973), as well as Play It Again, Sam (1972), which he wrote and starred in, but didn’t direct – were critical and box office successes, as well as innovative filmmaking in an era that featured directors as auteurs. That combination of material success and a recognizably distinctive creative vision put Allen in the rare and happy position of having sole artistic control of his films, as well as the knack of producing them with seasonal regularity – about 50 over a half-century.
The height of Allen’s fame as a writer-director was in the decades of the 1970s and ‘80s. Starting with Annie Hall (1977), which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress for its female star, Diane Keaton, Allen made a series of films which defined one important segment of U.S. filmmaking and established himself as a premier cultural voice. The must-see films that followed included Manhattan (1979), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and her Sisters (1986), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Even after the zenith of Allen’s immediate cultural relevance, he continued to make remarkable films over the next three decades, and the list would have to include Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013). That’s an extraordinary number of very good films from a single director (and no doubt Allen devotees would want to add another half-dozen titles).
It’s hard today to recapture the intellectual excitement that Allen’s films evoked three and four decades ago, and unfortunately Apropos of Nothing doesn’t help a lot. Allen seldom talks about film critics, since he doesn’t read them. However, he offers a singular hat tip to Vincent Canby, the film reviewer for the New York Times from the 1970s to the 1990s. It was Canby’s enthusiastic and influential reviews that boosted Allen’s career at a crucial moment. Perhaps a taste of Canby’s prose can serve as a reminder of why Allen mattered.
Canby is writing about Allen’s 1983 film Zelig, a “remarkably self-assured comedy” which “runs a mere but delicious 84 minutes” and yet is to Allen’s career as seemingly weightier key films, such as Scenes from a Marriage or Berlin Alexanderplatz are to important contemporaries such as Ingmar Bergman or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “Zelig is small, but it’s one of those Allen comedies by which all his other films will be compared.” The reason one can make such comparisons between Allen and others is “only because it’s understood that exceptional films by great filmmakers are never really comparable. When they are mentioned in the same breath, it’s to suggest relative importance, and Zelig is a Woody Allen masterpiece.” Heady claims, indeed. (Vincent Canby, “Woody Allen Continues to Refine his Cinematic Art,” New York Times, July 17, 1983.)
For those who have forgotten the content, Canby’s review contains a helpful summary: The film is “presented as a solemn documentary on the life and times of one Leonard Zelig (Mr. Allen). Zelig… is an initially mysterious and nutty character who, in the 1920s, briefly enjoyed a celebrity equal to that of Charles A. Lindbergh [the trans-Atlantic pilot], Jack Dempsey [heavyweight boxng champion]” and sundry other temporary stars of long ago. But “Zelig’s claim to fame is something that very much reflects the concerns of our 1980s. Zelig, you see, is a man so completely and so pathologically without any identity of his own that, without conscious effort, he takes on the physical, mental and emotional characteristics of any strong personality he’s with.”
In the film, “we witness ‘the chameleon man’s’ rise to celebrity, his miraculous cure, his awful fall from public favor and, eventually, his rehabilitation as seen through ‘old’ newsreel footage, early interviews with him, home movies and footage shot during his treatment by Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow). Throughout the film there are contemporary interviews with fictional characters as well as with such real representatives of the intelligentsia as Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim and Irving Howe, each of whom discusses Zelig’s place in history…”
Playing with simulated newsreels and invented “factual” material, Zelig manages to be unexpected but, Canby affirms, “pricelessly funny” and yet, moving. “It works simultaneously as social history, as a love story, as an examination of several different kinds of film narrative, as satire and as parody.” That’s at least a whiff – from a contemporary critic — of what made Allen so interesting as both filmmaker and measurer of the Zeitgeist.
Naturally, not everything was Zelig. Along the way, there were a number of clunkers, experiments that didn’t quite work, a temporary obsession with making films in the mode of the great but dour Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and a penchant for comedy-noir “entertainments.” Altogether, even with the failures, Allen offers one of the most memorable of modern film oeuvres. The recurrent male protagonist in his films is a semi-autobiographical verson of Woody Allen, who portrays an anxiety-ridden playwright, critic, novelist or stand-up comedian who is dealing with the vagaries of identity and romantic life in an otherwise meaningless universe. There are also a number of luminous films about the nature of art itself. The best-known are The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway, but Stardust Memories (an homage to Italian director Federico Fellini’s 8 ½), Deconstructing Harry, and even Midnight in Paris also provide self-reflections on this theme. In a pertinent sense, these films tell us more about Allen’s art that he is either willing or able to do in Apropos.
One reason for this brief reprise of Allen’s artistic career is because of what writer Gore Vidal called the “United States of Amnesia,” a generalized cultural condition of instant historical forgetfulness. It’s a distractedness that makes it hard to connect the cultural dots. Another is because the persistent prominence of derogatory gossip about Allen’s life has had the effect of erasing knowledge of his work. As columnist Hadley Freeman remarked (above), “The broad outlines of the scandal are now better known than most of his films.” Finally, the reprise may be useful because Allen himself says so little about his work and its meaning in Apropos of Nothing.
Allen’s discussion of his films is limited to what amounts to little more than the haphazard trivia of production notes, along with boilerplate praise for the actors he’s employed over the decades. In addition, there’s the irritating habit of attaching some epithet of sexual evaluation to every female actor mentioned. As New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner puts it, “The final third of this book falls apart dreadfully. It’s a rolling of credits, a handing out of goody bags. Alan Alda is ‘a wonderfully gifted actor.’ Owen Wilson is ‘wonderful and a pleasure to direct.’ Goldie Hawn is ‘a major, major talent.’ Multiply these banalities by a hundred.” And then there’s what Garner aptly calls “the heavy breathing.” Even an abridged anthology assembled by Garner is cringe-making: “Léa Seydoux ‘was a 10 plus.’ Rachel McAdams ‘looks like a million bucks from any angle.’… ‘When you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones,’ he writes about Scarlett Johansson… ‘Not only was she gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive.’ He manages to get Penélope Cruz into a movie with Johansson, which ‘caused each woman’s erotic valence to cube itself.’” Sigh… or as Garner laments, “Allen is a 20th-century man in a 21st-century world.” (Dwight Garner, “Woody Allen’s New Memoir Is Sometimes Funny – and Tone Deaf and Banal,” New York Times, March 26, 2020.)
All of the above is stuff a copy-editor could have cleaned up (if copy-editors and other such useful minions still existed in publishing houses). No, the real problem is Allen’s dearth of reflection about the films. And the shallowness of what little there is. In order to refresh my memory of the contents of the films, I ended up reading David Evanier’s Woody: The Biography (2015), mainly for the intelligible plot synopses, as well as critics like Vincent Canby. I’m afraid that’s a telling judgment on the autobio, given that you’ve got the auteur practically sitting in your living room.
Other critics have made similar observations. Perhaps the most pained reader is Mark Harris, writing in New York magazine, who says, “What Woody Allen… thinks of himself is reasonably clear (a more apt phrase might be ‘unnervingly simple’). But what he thinks about the movies he has spent the last half-century directing is not. There may be no American filmmaker alive… who has volunteered less insight into his art — his writing process, his taste in actors, his creative struggles, when he thinks he succeeded or failed, why he made the choices he made, what, if anything — please, anything! — he felt ambivalent about.” (Mark Harris, “Red Flags,” New York, April 22, 2020.)
As Harris points out, the little that Allen says about his films doesn’t help. “Yes, Allen says something (defining ‘something’ as at least one bored sentence) about almost every one of his pictures, even the ones you’ve long forgotten existed… His account of the shooting of Annie Hall begins with ‘The first scene we ever shot… was the lobster scene’ and ends with ‘I had a half-dozen different endings, eventually ending up with what you see.’ Between those two sentences, he offers 91 words that nobody would call revelatory.” There’s more, but the point is made.
The one item of interest that sporadically turns up is what might be thought of as the “artist’s credo.” Writing about how he skips Academy Award and other prize ceremonies (even though his films have racked up a dozen Oscars, as well as two dozen Golden Globes and Baftas, and countless nominations, including 16 for Best Original Screenplay), Allen cites the legendary Black baseball pitcher Satchel Paige’s advice, “‘Don’t look back… something may be gaining on you.’ … I try never to look back. I don’t like living in the past. I don’t save memorabilia, photos from my films, call sheets, nothing. To me, when it’s over, it’s over.” He adds, “I’m not out to make hits, but the best films I can. Failure comes with the territory. If you’re afraid of failure… — and if you’re not playing it safe as an artist it will surely happen now and then – you must find another way to make a living.”
Along the way, Allen says that he doesn’t read the reviews of his movies (apart from those early career-boosting ones by Vincent Canby), nor does he look at his films again after he’s made them. He doesn’t do rehearsals, he doesn’t set up shots in advance, he’s not very interested in doing re-takes, he doesn’t have much of a plan. He doesn’t like discussing character motivation with the cast, he welcomes them improvising a bit if the lines he’s written are uncomfortable to say, he’s noted for writing substantial parts for women (actresses in his films have won more Oscars than probably under any other director), and despite the notorious scandals, there’s never been a hint of sexual impropriety on the set over a half-century of filmmaking. All Woody Allen is interested in when it comes to filmmaking is writing the script, and then making the movie. He doesn’t like long days on the set, he prefers to finish up on time, go home, turn on the basketball game on TV. And the result of 50 or so years of doing this is some 50 films, including an unusual number of very good ones.
On first reading Allen’s account of his work practices, I thought he was putting us on. Only on second reading did I take it more seriously as a modus operandi, or rather, take him more seriously as an artist describing how he does it. In his self-evaluation as a film-maker, Allen is thoroughly self-deprecatory. In a passage quoted in David Evanier’s Woody: A Biography, Allen tells an interviewer, “I’ve squandered an opportunity that people would kill for. I have had complete artistic freedom… But I have a very poor record given the opportunities I’ve had. Out of 40 films I should have 30 masterpieces, eight noble failures and two embarrassments, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Many of the films are enjoyable by the mean standards of movies, but look at what has been accomplished by people who have done beautiful things… and then look at my films. I have squandered my opportunities, and I have nobody to blame but myself.” He adds, “You reach a certain age and you come to the conclusion that greatness is not in you. You aspired to greatness… but either through lack of industry or lack of discipline or simply lack of genius you didn’t achieve greatness.”
Apropos of Nothing appeared in spring 2020, and six months of global pandemic later, the book has pretty much disappeared. Its “reception,” as they call it in the literary trade, was pretty brutal. Most of the reviews adopt the tone of a tweet from reviewer Mark Harris that went, “I read Woody Allen’s memoir so you don’t have to.” Allen’s sympathetic biographer Evanier reports that Rolling Stone’s critic pronounced it “horrendously ugly,” and chides the reviewer for not being disturbed by the attempts to suppress Allen’s work, but instead being more concerned with finding Allen guilty of being an “elderly man” given to making “a whole lot of creepy comments about the younger women” who appear in his films. A Washington Post reviewer apparently suggested that the book be used as toilet paper. Even a sane book critic like the New York Times’ Dwight Garner (he gave the book a dreaded “mixed” review), who announced near the outset, “This isn’t going to be a verdict piece on Allen’s morality,” nonetheless felt obliged to declare, “I believe Allen’s sexual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn… was obviously the perverse act of a man whose brain salts are dangerously out of balance.” Garner adds, Allen “was nearly pushed out the door of American culture, only to sneak back in through a window,” a reference, I assume, to the periodic resuscitation of the sexual accusations against Allen after a quarter-century, even though there’s never been any new or additional evidence, merely recurrent ideological tides under the headings of #Me Too and “Cancel Culture” (though we’re often assured that the latter doesn’t exist).
I don’t have any brief for Allen’s autobiography (which is definitely at the not-so-great end of the literary scale), but I remain puzzled by how much of a moral trigger Allen remains, even to the point of obscuring his work in the name of crimes he almost surely is not guilty of. And I remain equally baffled by the depth of the outrage that sporadically spills out over social media. It’s not popular these days to defend art as such, even when the attempted cancellation, erasure or deplatforming is based on events, crimes and ideological sins that are unproven. In the end, I’m pretty certain Allen’s films will outlast the gossip, even though as the non-posterity minded Woody would be the first to quip, it won’t personally do him any good. In the face of the more extreme verdicts, I’m tempted by always sensible Alice ultimately telling the Queen of Hearts and the other rulers of Wonderland, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”