Books

A Hilarious Book from One of History’s Great Wits

Director Woody Allen poses during a photocall for the film “Cafe Society” out of competition, before the opening of the 69th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, May 11, 2016. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
The new memoir from Woody Allen (no, he didn’t molest his daughter) brings the giggles, and a touch of magic.

Woody Allens movies have trickled off in quality over the years — I’ve liked only four of his last 20. So it’s a wonderful surprise to run the eyes across his new autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, and discover that it’s an absolute delight, hilarious and endearing and glistening with stardust. He’s had a ridiculously blessed life and he’s grateful for almost all of it. The things he’s not so grateful for don’t get him down.

Few celebrities of Allen’s stature carry quite such heavy baggage, yet in his case the two things everyone knows and despises about him (that he molested one daughter and married another) are completely false. He didn’t molest his daughter Dylan when she was seven (new details he provides in the book at great length make it more obvious than ever that he was smeared). And as for Soon-Yi, the adopted daughter of his longtime girlfriend Mia Farrow (with whom he never shared a residence), far from taking advantage of the girl, he and she turned out to be the love of each other’s life, a life in which she is the controlling partner and has been for nearly 30 years. Nonetheless, Allen has been serially canceled. Hachette, a major publisher, nixed this book rather than risk twelve hours of Twitter wrath (though it publishes a Mafia hit man), but Arcade, a minor outfit, brought it out minus fanfare this week.

Allen is now a semi-pariah; the role rather suits him. Life with him has been a Kafkaesque experience. Kafka for the age of red carpets, anyway: One of the actors he directed, Timothée Chalamet, publicly denounced him in 2018 but told Allen’s sister and producer, Letty Aronson, that he did so in order to boost his chances of winning the Oscar he was then campaigning for, according to Allen.

Unlike Kafka, though, Allen knows how to bring the giggles. A problem Allen has been dealing with for many years in his movies since his age made him unsuitable for all but a few acting roles is finding actors capable of smartly delivering Woody Allenisms. On paper, though, no such problem; scarcely three pages into the book, the first by the filmmaker I’ve read in many years, it hit me again: Woody Allen is one of the greatest wits who ever took pen in hand, an inexhaustible quote machine to rank with Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. If Wilde (another unjustly maligned pariah!) had lived twice as long, he might have crafted half as many quips, mots, aperçus, and barbs as Allen. Of an unattractive woman (er, his grandmother): “From her looks, she’d have been more at home on a lily pad.” His parents: “Two characters as mismatched as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit, they disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards.” To those artists who take comfort in thinking that their work will survive them, Allen says, “The catch here is that all the people discussing the legacy and how great the artist’s work is are alive and ordering pastrami, and the artist is somewhere in an urn or underground in Queens.”

Reversing the usual habit of the memoirist, Allen downplays youthful hardships. Despite getting hit every day by his mother and once by his father (“a gentle tap across my face that gave me an unimpeded view of the Aurora Borealis”), he says he received nothing but adoration and cosseting from his working-class Brooklyn family. Yet “along with all of the love I was shown growing up, I still experienced some moderate feelings of anxiety — like when you’re buried alive.” Despair is always available for a punchline: “I never agreed to be finite.” Even as Allen aches for meaning, though, he chafes at his own pretensions, heckles himself whenever he puts on airs. “Like Bertrand Russell, I feel a great sadness for the human race. Unlike Bertrand Russell, I can’t do long division.”

In a universe of sanctimony and humblebrags, Allen is the opposite. Is there any other triple Oscar winner who so relentlessly mocks himself? Allen has every reason to be proud of his Kafka-derived German Expressionist–style 1992 film Shadows and Fog, which would easily be among the top five most interesting films of virtually any other acclaimed filmmaker of our age. Instead he dismisses it utterly. “It’s not a bad idea but you have to be in the mood for it, and marketing tests showed it did not appeal to homo sapiens.” Oh, and: “The filming of Shadows and Fog came off without a hitch except for the movie. The executives gathered in my screening room to see it for the first time. . . . When the lights went on after the screening ended, the four or five suits sat immobile as if they had all been paralyzed by curare.” Still, “there was no truth to the rumor the projectionist at the movie house rushed to the sea with the print and hurled it in. If I recall correctly, there may have even been a rather supportive review in the Poultryman’s Journal.” My truncated quotations fail to do justice to the felicitous way he sets up the jokes, the comic equivalent of the misdirection he learned practicing sleight of hand as a boy magician in Brooklyn. You don’t see the punchline coming.

For a notorious grump and Ingmar Bergman fan, Allen exudes gratitude and appreciation for what he modestly calls his good luck (nope — it wasn’t that) and sprinkles praise on scores of famous people he has known and worked with, including not a few who later denounced him. He also offers kind words for Jacqui Safra, the boyfriend of his business partner Jean Doumanian, whom he was obliged to sue over earnings that Allen claimed they withheld from him. He even praises the skills and beauty of Mia Farrow, who, let us not mince words, is nuttier than the Snickers factory and did what she could to ruin his life, which turned out to be quite a lot, although she did even worse by her children, two of whom committed suicide. Allen says she steered their petite son Ronan into a painful series of cosmetic surgeries that involved breaking his legs to make him taller because, she held, “You need to be tall to have a career in politics.” When Soon-Yi broke her ankle playing soccer, she phoned her mother, who directed her to make her own way to the hospital (on a bus) but not to have an X-ray because they cost too much, according to Allen. Farrow hit Soon-Yi with a phone when she learned about her affair with Allen, locked her in a room and also dubbed her retarded and him a rapist, Allen says.

Even while expending 70 frustrated pages on the Mia–Soon-Yi saga, Allen keeps the wit flowing. He then returns implacably to praising Farrow’s acting in such films as September (1987) while ridiculing himself for making “a drama that asks the question: Can a group of tortured souls come to terms with their sad lives when directed by a guy who should still be writing mother-in-law jokes for Broadway columnists?” Allen has made so many feature films (48⅓ as director) that in order to bring the book in (just) under 400 pages, he typically devotes only a couple of paragraphs to each project, offering zilch on the technical aspects: “I do know you have to remove the lens cap from the camera before you film something, but there my technical expertise ends.”

These days Soon-Yi, who ran away from her mother at age five and survived on the streets by herself for some time before being taken up at a Catholic orphanage, runs him like a machine. She once told him her goal in life was “to be the boss,” and he is the one taking her orders as she makes all major household financial, social, and parenting choices. His devotion to her is total. She is the one who changes the ribbon on the Olympia typewriter he still uses, being ill-acquainted with computers, the Internet, the century. “I couldn’t last a week in a concentration camp without my Buf-Puf,” he writes. “Soon-Yi, on the other hand, after two days would have the Gestapo bringing her breakfast in bed.”

Looking ahead to the future (at 84, he says, “My life is almost half over”), Allen figures to continue vexing his many haters. He had difficulty assembling a cast for his latest movie, but it’s now in the can, and even if he couldn’t make movies, he’d write plays. If no one would produce his plays, he’d write books. If no one would publish the books now, he’d write them for later. The image comes to mind of Allen’s Bananas hero Fielding Mellish, representing himself in a treason trial, getting bound and gagged by the judge, but continuing to speak (and reduce a witness to tears). Sorry, you there with the pitchforks and the torches, despite putting him through (Bananas again) a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham, Allen still doesn’t care what you think of him, and he’s going to keep creating till he drops. “If I died right now I couldn’t complain,” he says. “And neither would a lot of other people.”

 

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