Woody Allen- comic genius or creepy old man?
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Apropos of Nothing. Autobiography.
by Woody Allen 2020
If you were around in the 1970's and 1980's. Woody Allen movies were an enormous pop culture influence. Movies like Sleeper, Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Love and Death, and Annie Hall were among the best comedies of their time, and Woody did it all- wrote, directed, and starred.
I love comedians, because they are in many cases the smartest and wisest among us- forcing us to look at the absurdities of our world by helping us laugh at them. Apropos of Nothing, Allen's long look at his 60+ years long career in movies and television, almost didn't get published. Its original publisher was hit with protests because of an abuse allegation against Allen from the 90's, and another publisher picked it up instead. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Allen in his distinctive voice, which I would recommend above a print version.
Born Allen Konigsberg, the author lived a simple childhood in Brooklyn, scenes of which have been played out in some of his movies. His gift for comedy was discovered early at age 19 when he started writing for people like Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar. Listening to him describe his comedy idols like Bob Hope and the many comedy superstars he dabbled with in the 50's and 60's is a treat. He obviously knows and loves comedy, and his skill as a writer lifted him up into the world of television and eventually stand-up comedy.
Allen always positioned himself as the underdog, an antihero who acknowledged his weaknesses and neuroses that made him relatable and funny at the same time. His jokes were more cerebral than those of comics from that time, and he never used swearing or dirty humor to shock his audience. He also claims to have never indulged in drugs, unheard of in his age and field. Compared to many of today's comedians, his routines from the 60's are another world.
Eventually, Allen entered the world of movies, with silly but smart comedies that both made you laugh, touched your heart, and stimulated your brain. Constant themes in Woody Allen movies are death (Allen was born Jewish and converted to Atheism after serious questions about God plagued him), and sex,(a subject that dominated his personal life and films for decades.)
Each of Allen's many movies gets a treatment in this book of how they came about and the actors that made them. From Take the Money and Run in 1969 to Rifkin's Festival in 2020, there were 49 films that he directed, and a few others that he starred in or wrote part of. What amazed me is how much control he had over his product- something extremely rare in blockbuster-obsessed Hollywood today. There have been very few writer-directors who've been able to have his level of total artistic control in a movie, and in his case it worked.
Writing and coming up with original content is hard work, and to add the pressures of directing and starring in a movie is unimaginable today. People like Peter Jackson and James Cameron have done writing and directing, but only Tyler Perry has tried all three that I can recall. What amazed me about Allen's method is that he rarely rehearses. He seems to know exactly what he wants, chooses the right people, and plays out the scenes with few takes. He's the first to admit he's not a great director, even though he has six Oscar nominations and one win that say otherwise.
Another things that amazed me about Allen is how absorbed he is in his work, but not in his persona. He never watches any of his own movies after they are finished, and never attends award ceremonies- almost unheard of in Hollywood. When the Golden Globes gave him a lifetime achievement award, he sent Diane Keaton. Instead, he prefers to play jazz in New York City in a small bar that he favors. All those years of self-deprecation have left him with a remarkably small ego but plenty of self-confidence, especially when it comes to writing and women.
Allen spends a good bit of time in this book on his personal life, much of which was in the news. He was married twice at a young age, and while it's clear he adores women, his two divorces and many affairs show his immaturity and insecurity about them. As a man, I've always admired Woody's ability to attract glamorous women given his small stature and nerdy looks. He rattles off name after name of woman he's dated and it's clear that power and money are a great aphrodisiac in Hollywood, even for a short and skinny writer-director.
There are extensive descriptions of Allen's relationships with Louise Lasser, his second wife, and Diane Keaton, with whom he starred in some of his greatest movies including Annie Hall, but the biggest news of the book has to do with his rocky relationship with Mia Farrow, who also starred in a large number of his movies.
Woody Allen and Mia Farrow are eccentric artists and had an unconventional relationship. Allen never lived with Farrow while they were together, even though he adopted two of her children and had a biological child with her. Farrow had 12 children, 8 of whom were adopted from overseas (many with serious disabilities). Allen's attitudes towards children in this book are shockingly naive- as he says he's be happy with children or without. His life was his work and he was not the most hands-on father. He apparently matured and grew in dealing with Farrow's brood.
The story of how Allen ended up romantically involved with one of Farrow's adopted children, Soon-Yi, is one I never quite understood, but Allen does his best to explain it. There was a 35 year difference in ages when he started becoming involved with Soon-Yi, giving him a creepy old man reputation that he continued with several May-December pairings in his movies. She was 21, and supposedly complained about being verbally and physically abused by Farrow. Allen took pity on her and spent more time with her, somehow leading to a romantic entanglement that's lasted 28 years.
How Mia Farrow found out about this betrayal (nude polaroids left out in the open) was something I had not heard before, nor had I heard the many serious abuse allegations that Allen makes against his ex-partner. Two of her children ended up dead by suicide and Farrow's own family had a history of mental illness. According to him, Farrow was furious and determined to turn the entire family against him, which she has mostly succeeded in doing.
While Allen is unapologetic about his affair with Soon-Yi, he goes into great depths denying the allegations that were later raised against him by Dylan Farrow, who was 7 at the time and accused him of sexual abuse. In 1992, Mia Farrow accused him of abusing his adopted daughter Dylan while he was in the house, and police were called to do several investigations. Allen was never formally charged and he points to studies done at the time that exonerated him, but this charge haunts him to this day as Dylan still claims it happened.
Allen points to many things that back him up, including testimony from Soon-Yi about Farrow's abusiveness, and also from Moses Farrow, another adoptee who has publicly denounced Dylan's allegations. He claims to have loved Dylan and her little Brother Satchel (now known as Ronan Farrow) and misses not being able to speak with them since the allegations were made public.
In 2017, Dylan Farrow wrote an op-ed repeating the charge during the time of #me too and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and Hollywood quickly dropped the axe on Allen and his movies, even though no new evidence had been produced. His latest movie can't even be released in the US because of this op-ed, and some actors who had previously worked with him have no expressed their regrets about working with him.
The big idea of this book is- how do we judge entertainers who may or may not have had criminal or moral failings? Can you judge their art separately, or do their personal failings eclipse everything they ever did? In Bill Cosby's case- his acts are indisputable and have erased all the good he did. I have a harder time with Michael Jackson because he was so wonderfully talented but also so obviously disturbed. I have less trouble with Woody Allen, as the story of abuse runs counter to his stellar reputation working with women, and even raising two daughters without incident with Soon-Yi. Being only four, Dylan Farrow could have been heavily influenced by a mother out for revenge, but we will never know for sure. It's a sad story that casts a cloud over a talented artist who, by his own admission was far from perfect.
After listening to this book I watched about a dozen Woody Allen films, mixing early and late, comedy and drama. They all have so much in common, including Allen's obsession with jazz music, and they all have meaty roles for actresses, who arguably steal the show from his nebbish neurotic. Hopefully after he passes away these movies will live on and show what was possible when truly talented people were given total artistic control.