Creep, Genius, Auteur
Creep, Genius, Auteur
By Miriam R. Kramer
I just finished reading famed film maker Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, in which he discusses his life from childhood to his current age of 84. I borrowed it from the library, since as a disillusioned fan, I was not sure I wanted him to receive more of my money. I have kept up with him out of fascination for his artistry since I first encountered his work at age fifteen. His custody fight over the children he adopted with Mia Farrow first swept the news in the early 1990s, and recently was resurrected during the #MeToo era, as his purported son, Ronan Farrow, raked powerful men like movie impresario Harvey Weinstein over the coals for his abuse of women.
Although Woody Allen grew up in a loving home in Brooklyn, he describes himself as an anxious misanthrope by nature. From the very beginning, he was good at baseball and other sports, but hated the boredom and repetition of school despite, or probably because, of his high IQ. He also denies his reputation as an intellectual, saying that his black glasses and ability to extract apt quotations from serious thinkers and writers helped him gain that reputation. He proclaims that his penchant for intellectual, bohemian girls also made him bone up on certain academic subjects to attract them. His parents did not encourage intellectual activities, and he cut high school many times to go to the movies and art museums, also learning to play the clarinet after discovering a lifelong love for jazz.
At sixteen he started writing jokes and submitting them to various newspaper columns across New York City. Finally some of them made it into the paper, and he started making more money even than his shady but loving father, who bounced from job to job, letting his stern mother Nettie hold down the family and pay the bills. Once he was able, he married his first wife Harlene very young, eventually divorcing her and marrying actress Louise Lasser, a mercurial woman with undiagnosed mental illnesses whom he loved but couldn’t live with. In the meantime, he honed his craft, writing for the groundbreaking comedy variety series Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, and signing up with the fabled comedy agents Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, who pushed him to go out on the comedy circuit instead of just writing for other performers.
After his second divorce, Allen took up with the quirky, lovely, and unsophisticated Diane Keaton. While they only remained together romantically for one year, they remained lifetime friends. One of his first big hit plays and movies, Play It Again Sam, featured her as his lead actress. She would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar in one of Woody Allen’s most famous films, which incorporated aspects of her life and their sweet relationship. That movie also won Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Woody Allen, along with Best Movie for producer Charles Joffe, who stuck with him for most of his movies.
Eventually he came to know Mia Farrow, a gifted actress who had already established a pop culture presence through her Hollywood parents, director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’ Sullivan, and her marriage to Frank Sinatra. She also was known as a selfless maternal figure who had a number of children and adopted others, many from South Korea.
Allen and Farrow were together for twelve years. Most people who care about Allen’s films know that they were fruitful years artistically. Yet they ended in disaster when Woody Allen started an affair with Mia Farrow’s daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, then somewhere between eighteen and twenty-one according to her uncertain birth records. Allen sued unsuccessfully for custody of his so-called biological child, Satchel, re-named Ronan; Dylan; and Moses. The stigma of his leaving nude pictures of Soon-Yi on a mantelpiece, where Mia had originally found them, left many people, including me, disgusted and in shock.
Eight months after finding the pictures, Mia filed suit against him for molesting Dylan. Mutual accusations flew back and forth, in which Woody accused Mia of locking her adopted children into closets if they did not follow her orders and brainwashing her daughter Dylan, then seven years old, into testifying against him. Mia’s adopted son Moses, an adoption therapist, defected to Woody and Soon-Yi’s side, testifying to psychological abuse from Mia and pointing to the fact that one of her adopted children committed suicide, another died, and then another took an overdose of pills, accidentally or not. Woody Allen was eventually acquitted of the child molestation charge.
This horrifying story of family dysfunction and disintegration of an exciting artistic partnership died down in the news until the #MeToo movement raised its head. Dylan, now an adult with a changed last name, spoke up against Allen. When the publisher Hachette decided to publish this memoir, Apropos of Nothing, their employees protested, as did Ronan Farrow, known for his groundbreaking work published by Hachette about Harvey Weinstein, Catch and Kill. Farrow threatened to cut ties with the publisher. They then dropped the book, which was eventually picked up by Arcade Publishing.
Woody’s memoir is a chronological listing of at least some of his artistic accomplishments, along with a laundry list of the many great actors, directors, and producers with whom he has worked along the way, full of praise for almost each of them, and self-deprecation regarding his own talents. He also praises Soon-Yi, with whom he has maintained a relationship and then a marriage since he left Mia, along with adopting two children.
His diction tends to be littered with gratuitous fifty-cent words, old pop-cultural references, and somewhat excessive Yiddish phrases, but that is what one might expect both from him and from a man not interested in keeping up with the times.
I would have liked to hear more about the movies he made, but he describes his process very simply: shoot quickly, do few takes, hire great actors, get out of their way, let them re-write his dialogue if their versions are better, and get home by dinner time. After that, he starts to write another movie the next day or as quickly as possible. He mostly speaks of casting problems, not the plotlines of the successful or underperforming movies he made. In addition, he never re-watches his films, so he can only speak to the process of making them, rather than his view of them in hindsight. As he mentions, in his later years, he made films in Europe when offered funding, since he was appreciated in Europe while his box office take was often underwhelming to American film executives.
Woody does not like to dwell in the past, he says. While that may apply to his movie making, it does not apply to his accounts of his relationship with Mia and the debacle it became. I have read articles supporting Mia in Vanity Fair magazine and in her book What Falls Away. After reading both of their sordid accounts, I see it as a he said, she said story almost impossible to untangle, with unsavory aspects appearing undeniable for each. I ended up disliking each of them while unable to discern any real truths.
Woody mentions once that he thinks Ronan is his son, although he does not know since Mia said that he might be a result of an affair with her former husband, Frank Sinatra. For anyone with eyes, Ronan Farrow looks exactly like a combination of Mia and Frank, and nothing like Woody Allen. Allen sometimes comes off as very naïve, trapped in his artistic bubble as a storyteller. In addition, while writing great, in-depth parts for many women in his films—for years actresses have done anything to work with him—he mostly refers to them here by their looks, sex appeal, and acting ability.
What disappointed me most was this memoir’s shallowness. Allen writes upfront that he is not the intellectual people think he is, but rather a storyteller with a knowledge of human nature. In this book, he is mostly here to settle a score with Mia and praise his artistic compadres to the skies rather than discuss his movies, some of which are duds and some of which are exemplary. His effective storytelling is in his movies, not here. The book has no great comic or dramatic elements, other than in its distasteful reactions to Mia Farrow and comments on their shambolic relationship.
When I first saw the movie Annie Hall, even as a teenager, it shot to the top of my list. Its humor, bittersweetness, and originality made it one of my three favorite films then. It stands the test of time. Other favorites include Play It Again Sam, Love and Death, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Match Point, Vicky Cristy Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, and others I am sure I am forgetting. In putting out a film almost every year, he is so prolific that it is hard to remember all his works.
If you can separate the man from the movie, please put these alternately hilarious, entertaining, icy, charming, and moving films on your list. The idea that artists can be amoral, misanthropic, unlikeable beings and produce great works is not a new one. In the end, if you feel you want a brilliant film, watch one of these movies on your streaming service, particularly if you do not want to pay extra for them. You might not want to be friends with Woody Allen, or watch his many failed movie experiments, but when he is great, he is a glorious storyteller and observer of the human condition.