Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

Woody Allen’s Witty, Meandering Memoir

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, 1977 (Brian Hamill/Getty Images)
Apropos of Nothing, by Woody Allen (Arcade, 400 pp., $30)

How good it is to hear again from Woody Allen.

That was the first thought that occurred to me while paging through Allen’s entertaining, invigorating new memoir, Apropos of Nothing. For those who do not remember how omnipresent Woody once was, let me offer a quick refresher. In the mid 1990s — when I, then an adolescent, was won over to the Allen cult on the strength of films such as Annie Hall (1977) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) — Woody still logged appearances in most of his films. Sure, he was absent from Alice (1990) and Bullets over Broadway (1994) — among his most lavish, bejeweled films, in which his carefully honed dweeb persona might have broken the spell — but, more often than not, he showed up: He gave himself the leads in Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Deconstructing Harry (1997), and he didn’t exactly fade into the background in ensemble films such as Everyone Says I Love You (1996).

But, starting in the late 1990s, Woody embarked on a kind of gradual retirement from the screen. He kept writing and directing, of course, but began to withdraw from acting — or whatever one might call his on-screen yapping and whining. Sure, Woody awarded himself nice parts in Small Time Crooks (2000) and Hollywood Ending (2002), but he made Kenneth Branagh and Sean Penn, respectively, the leads in Celebrity (1998) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999). He became more scarce after his U.S.-based-financing well ran dry in the mid 2000s. Now roaming Europe, Woody did not even seem tempted to write roles that he theoretically might play. Where would the Woodman fit in the brilliant drama Match Point (2005)? It’s kind of difficult to picture him as a murderous, on-the-make ex–tennis player, no?

The source of my youthful Allen fandom was undoubtedly the star’s on-screen presence. He was bespectacled but suave (Ralph Lauren did his wardrobe early on), a worrywart never actually felled by illness (remember how his suspected brain-tumor diagnosis comes to nothing in Hannah and Her Sisters?), and an intellectual apt to reference Ingmar Bergman without ever seeming like a bore. Allen was the nerd who told off the academic stiff in line at the movie theater in Annie Hall, and he was, theoretically, the more appealing romantic prospect for co-star Diane Keaton when compared with the genuinely nerdy Wallace Shawn in Manhattan (1979). It all added up to a mixture of nebbish and sophisticate, a combination I could get behind. It wasn’t hard to understand why his likeness was once licensed for a comic strip: Woody was companionable in the manner of many a hero from the funny pages, not unlike a Dagwood Bumstead or a Mike Doonesbury.

During the past several years, we have been lucky to hear from Woody in any form — whether on the big screen, in print, online, or by way of message-in-a-bottle. This silence, though, has not been entirely voluntary. Bear with me for some additional backstory: In the early 1980s, following unsuccessful marriages to Harlene Rosen and Louise Lasser, and a later relationship with Keaton, Allen became, by all outward appearances, completely and, to hear him tell the tale, most ill-advisedly wrapped up in the life of Mia Farrow. Allen cast Farrow in every film — let me repeat that: every film — he made from 1982 to 1992, a creative move that often paid dividends: Farrow was never better than as the materfamilias in Hannah and Her Sisters. But this was no mere professional partnership. While Allen and Farrow never said “I do,” they had one biological son, the journalist now known as Ronan Farrow, whose work on the Me Too movement has been valuable. And, to Moses and Dylan, two among the numerous children adopted by Farrow, Allen became the adoptive father.

The arrangement was convoluted but still firmly within the tradition of Yours, Mine and Ours. Then, in the early 1990s, Allen began a friendship-turned-romance with Soon-Yi Previn, who was an adult adopted daughter of Farrow and her ex-husband, André Previn. Allen and Soon-Yi were free to get involved with each other, but still, this was a little, well, unconventional. A man maintains a relationship with a woman, and has one child with her while adopting two others, and then starts seeing one of her other grown adopted children — really? Thus terminated Allen’s relationship with Farrow, who then accused Allen of molesting their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan. Allen, who was judged to be innocent of the crime following an investigation by the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic at the Yale–New Haven Hospital, vigorously and convincingly denied the accusation. And, notwithstanding the strange context out of which their affair arose, Allen and Previn, themselves parents to a pair of adopted daughters, have been married for 23 years.

Several years ago, the molestation allegation was given a fresh look by the press, mainly because of Dylan’s writing and speaking about the awful crime of which she accuses Allen — which is, of course, her right. But for Allen — to paraphrase Hemingway — this meant a fall from grace that was gradual and then sudden. In December 2017, just after the inauguration of the Me Too movement, Amazon released Allen’s dazzlingly well-directed drama Wonder Wheel, starring Kate Winslet, but declined to make his subsequent film, A Rainy Day in New York, available for public consumption in the U.S.; the film has been shown elsewhere around the globe. Even in this era of widespread delays of movies owing to coronavirus, when some of us might enjoy a fresh comedy by one of the most gifted writer-directors in America, it seems unlikely to emerge.

Assorted actors began making pronouncements that they would rebuff offers to appear in Allen’s future films. Sure enough, Allen’s latest production, the as-yet-unreleased Rifkin’s Festival, features a cobbled-together cast including Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, and Steve Guttenberg. The final insult: Apropos of Nothing was all set to be published by an imprint of Hachette this spring. Then, after some employees said they would have none of it, the book was stricken from their list. Now, Arcade Publishing has brought out the memoir, which has, so far, found an eager readership who have snatched it up on Amazon.

Yet, as eager as I was for new Allen content, I admit to having been unprepared for the sureness of style evident in this book. Allen had never before demonstrated any particular facility for long-form narrative writing; up to this point, his bibliography had consisted of published film scripts, plays, and collections of his brilliant but frequently sketch-like short stories — a number of which (ahem) appeared in The New Yorker, which is now among Ronan Farrow’s outlets but in which Allen has not been published since 2013.

Allen proves to be a memoirist on par with New Yorker alum James Thurber, whose acerbic, wandering style in such classic books as My Life and Hard Times and The Years with Ross finds an echo here. Apropos of Nothing has the quality of a monologue, a reminder of Allen’s background as a standup comedian. Allen goes into and comes out of stories, touching on a subject, leaving it behind, and then picking it up again with enormous ease.

Dreaming as a young man of life outside Brooklyn, Allen writes, “I longed for the day I could go into a Manhattan bar and say, ‘The usual.’” He describes his long-married but unsuited-for-each-other parents, Martin and Nettie Konigsberg, this way: “Two characters as mismatched as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit, they disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards.” The whole book is like that: Allen will describe a person, or recall an episode from his life, and punctuate it with a one-liner that is not only witty but encapsulates the preceding passage. He tries to account for the peculiarity of being born in a hospital in another borough, the Bronx: “Don’t ask me why my mother schlepped all the way up to the Bronx to produce me. Maybe that hospital was giving away free dishes.” Unsurprisingly, his account of his early gig as a gag writer is among the book’s most engaging.

Allen recalls a visit to Paris in the company of (to invoke the title of a great book by Norman Podhoretz) “ex-friend” Jean Doumanian, the producer Allen sued over unpaid profits from his movies — itself an episode of high legal comedy on the order of Dickens’s fictional Jarndyce and Jarndyce case from Bleak House. Anyway, in a moment of passion, Allen shakes his fist affectionately at the City of Light, exclaiming, “You old whore.” The punchline: “Unfortunately, I was facing a lady tourist from Detroit at the time and she didn’t appreciate it.”

Allen zigzags through all the career milestones — writing his first film, What’s New Pussycat? (1965); becoming a playwright with Don’t Drink the Water; meeting Keaton, endearingly described as a “rube from Orange County, denizen of swap meets and tuna melts” — but since he has already fielded questions about his work in previous interview books, Apropos of Nothing does not add too much to our understanding of how he makes his films. Appreciative nods are given to major collaborators, including cinematographer Gordon Willis and film editor Ralph Rosenblum, but Allen insists that he makes films not out of artistic passion but as a sort of time-killer. “You create, you bring your creation to life, and I wake up early in the morning in the South of France and there to greet me and work with me all day is someone like Emma Stone,” he writes. “It does wonders for your metabolism.” Film-specific anecdotes mainly serve to illustrate Allen’s sense of his own incompetence, as when he describes his misjudgment in inviting Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton to his apartment to rehearse his drama Interiors (1978). “God, what a mistake,” he writes. “I never get deeply into those actor discussions of character.” He presents himself as hapless, snipping out Vanessa Redgrave’s part from a film — “obviously not because of her acting, but because of my inept writing.”

Indeed, Allen is happy to diminish his (actually quite impressive) attempts to ditch his comedic roots. “Interiors. OK, nice try. Not a sell-out film, but I’m clearly not ready for prime time,” he writes. “This futile attempt to create in direct opposition to my natural flair happens again and again.” Throughout the book, Allen makes a sport of running himself down, calling himself a “little miscreant” who ill deserves his reputation as a brain. He rattles off a list of classic films he says he’s never seen. It was only to win favor with the opposite sex, he says, that he realized he would “have to actually delve into literature deeper than Kiss Me Deadly.” He admits the appeal the professions of magician and common criminal hold for him. “The only other occupation that ever interested me was a life of crime, a gambler, a hustler, a con man,” Allen writes. He spends time, too, on what he loves, things like what he calls “champagne comedies” and jazz — though he admits that his clarinet-playing is so mediocre that his teacher, Gene Sedric, could be considered an “enabler.”

Of course, much of the book is consumed with Allen’s relationship with Farrow. True to form, he presents himself as a kind of rube for even entertaining the notion of going out with her, let alone sharing his life with her, given his initial misgivings about her; his association with her looms over the book, as when he, rather improbably, says that his second wife, Louise Lasser, was often mistaken for Farrow when they — Woody and Louise — were together. Allen is specific and persuasive in refuting the abuse allegation.

In the end, though, he does not come off as an aggrieved or embittered man. Some scores are settled, but he does not seem exercised by the state of his career. He says that it will be a “miracle” if Rifkin’s Festival comes together, but, then, he diminishes his entire body of work. “I like making movies, but if I never made another one it would not bother me,” he writes, adding that if he wrote plays that weren’t produced or books that weren’t published — as this one nearly wasn’t! — he’d spend his days scribbling anyway. In Stardust Memories (1980), Allen’s character recalls with fondness a particular breezy Sunday afternoon during which he and his girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) exchange glances while a Louis Armstrong record plays. It turns out that, in real life, Allen takes pleasure in similarly quotidian things. “I turn out the pages, dote on Soon-Yi, and peel off twenties so my kids can go see movies that are not as good as ones I saw for twelve cents,” he writes.

So, yes, it is good to hear again from Woody Allen, who comes across as comfortable in his skin, realistic and then some about his faults, resolute in defending himself, and, finally, not too worried about where the chips might fall.

This article appears as “The Companionable Woody Allen” in the May 18, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette is the author of the forthcoming book Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director.

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