‘One of the longest journeys in the world,” Norman Podhoretz wrote famously in his 1967 memoir Making It, “is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan—or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.” In this era when many Brooklyn neighborhoods are as chic as any part of Manhattan, it should be explained that Podhoretz was referring to the transformation that he and others of his generation had undergone from lower-class slum kid to upper-middle-class sophisticate.
One boy who made that journey was Woody Allen, who begins his own new memoir, Apropos of Nothing, with a brisk, vivid, and extremely funny account of his boyhood as a “misanthropic gangster-loving illiterate” with parents “as mismatched as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit” but who “loved each other in their own way, a way known perhaps only to a few headhunting tribes in Borneo.” Allen says his young self “never rose academically above baseball, pinochle, or Hopalong Cassidy movies.”
Woody Allen’s Memoir Gives Insight Into What Drove Him From an Early Age
Born in 1935, Woody Allen would have us believe that he was initially drawn to high culture because he wanted to date brainy girls, but he also underscores that it was the movies—specifically, movies about beautiful people living glamorous lives in Manhattan penthouses—that inspired him to have ambitions beyond Kings County. Recalling his first trip across the East River, he writes: “I experienced instant passion for Manhattan.”
His transformation from a Brooklyn nobody to a Manhattan nob was swift. At 16, he began selling gags to newspaper columnists. Soon he was writing for radio, then TV. After becoming a top stand-up comic, he wrote a Hollywood movie (What’s New, Pussycat?) and two Broadway plays he now calls “junk.” But they were hits, and they ushered him into the showbiz elite.
He also married and divorced twice. His account of his passionate but psychologically tormenting second marriage, to the “manic,” wildly promiscuous Louise Lasser—later the monotone star of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman—makes it clear, hard though it is to imagine, that she was the model for Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), his ravishing bipolar amour in Stardust Memories (1980). He also had a year-long affair with Diane Keaton, with whom he lived in his penthouse, “two jerks, as she used to describe us, living amongst the swells high above Central Park.”
Between 1969 and 1975, Woody Allen wrote, directed, and starred in five successful film farces in which he deftly translated to the screen the nebbishy, bespectacled persona he’d established in stand-up. Then, he recalls, “something inside me said I wanted to do a realistic comedy, where I can speak to the audience and bare my soul. Maybe there’d be fewer laughs, but hopefully the characters will be engaging and their lives will be interesting, even if they’re not always speaking in joke.” Thus was born Annie Hall (1977), based on his year with Keaton. It won four Oscars.
He’d always had an egghead mien, but Annie Hall took it up a notch. In the first 10 minutes, he name-dropped Bergman, Fellini, Wagner, MacLuhan, Mozart, Joyce, and Beauvoir. And what movie had ever featured a joke about Commentary? (“I heard that Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery.”) Bookish young New Yorkers (I was one) were naturally drawn to Annie Hall, as well as to later golden-age Woody Allen pictures set in book-crammed New York apartments and in the very bookstores, cinemas, and museums we haunted. But throughout Apropos of Nothing, Woody Allen heatedly denies being an intellectual of any kind: “I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue.’…To this day, the Tin Pan Alley poets are my poets….I never read Ulysses, Don Quixote, Lolita, Catch-22, 1984.”
This was only the beginning: Over the years, we’d get used to Woody Allen’s wince-making lines. (Jeremiah, in Manhattan: “I read an article in the Atlantic by you. On Brecht!” Mary: “Well, you know I always was a sucker for Germanic theater.”) Although nominated a record 16 times for writing Oscars, Woody Allen never quite developed an ear for how educated types talk.
Interiors was ludicrous. But after Annie Hall, some New Yorkers were so bewitched by Woody Allen that they lapped it up. Watching Interiors in a packed Manhattan theater, I laughed out loud while everyone around me sat solemnly, as if in church. (Two years later, in Stardust Memories, Woody Allen would ape Fellini, with only somewhat less painful results.)
A fling with a teenager named Stacey Nelkin was the springboard for Woody Allen’s next film, Manhattan. We all swooned. Not until we were older did some of us realize we’d been snookered by the Gershwin score and by Gordon Willis’s sublime cinematography into seeing the affair between Isaac Davis (Allen) and 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) as a tender romance and not statutory rape. Although the film pretends to be exploring moral questions and presents Isaac as a moral arbiter (he quits his TV-writing job out of principle and tells his adulterous pal Yale: “You’re too easy on yourself”), there’s never a hint that having sex with a high-school girl behind her parents’ backs might be ethically appalling.
In fact, the sexualization of minors is a recurrent theme in Woody Allen’s movies. In Love and Death, a wizened sage declares that the best thing in life “is blonde 12-year-old girls—two of them.” In Stardust Memories, Dorrie accuses Sandy Bates (Allen) of flirting with her 13-year-old cousin. In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), a colleague reacts to a comedy sketch by Mickey (Allen) by saying that “child molestation is a touchy subject.” Several characters played by Woody Allen are uncomfortably chummy with schoolgirls, such as Rain (Juliette Lewis) in Husbands and Wives (1992) and Jenny (Jenny Nichols) in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
On this subject, Allen protests—too much—in Apropos of Nothing: “Much would be made in the press in later years over the idea that I gravitated toward young girls, but it’s really not so. My first wife was three years younger than me. So was my second….Of the many women I have been involved with over the decades, almost none were much younger than I was….I was obsessed with gangsters, baseball players, jazz musicians, and Bob Hope movies, but young women have been a tiny fraction of the women I dated over the decades.”
The films kept coming—one a year, like clockwork—and for a while there, each was a triumph: Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters. East of the Hudson, at least, his annual release of a new film was big news. Revival houses held Allen retrospectives. Collections of his New Yorker pieces were bestsellers. In 1979, when Time called Manhattan a work of genius, it was only echoing the cultural elite’s consensus. People didn’t just love Allen’s movies—they loved him.
And then it all collapsed. In 1992, Mia Farrow, Allen’s longtime paramour and the star of a dozen of his movies, discovered that he’d taken up with Soon-Yi Previn, a college student who’d been adopted at age seven by Farrow and her second husband, André Previn. Enraged, Farrow retaliated by accusing Allen of sexually abusing their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan, in the attic of Mia’s Connecticut house. A media storm ensued. Farrow, who at the time had 11 children—four biological, seven adopted, was depicted as a saint, Allen as a villain. All his movie references to sex with minors were paraded out—even though Soon-Yi, then 21, was no minor, and, many news reports to the contrary, was not his daughter.
Allen’s account of this fracas takes up much of his memoir. Of Mia, he defensively states: “We never married. We never even lived together, I never once in the 13 years we dated ever slept at her apartment in New York.” Noting her troubled family background and the suicides of two of her adopted children, he portrays her as a whack job who accumulated kids as if they were accessories, treated her adoptees as second-class citizens while clinging to two of her biological sons (Fletcher, then Ronan), exploited Allen to advance her career, and, ultimately, in an effort to destroy him, invented her molestation charges out of whole cloth.
As for Soon-Yi—who’d “run away from home at age five and wandered the streets of Seoul like the urchins in Buñuel’s Los Olvidados” before being found at an orphanage by Mia—Allen claims that he and she, during her childhood, “never particularly liked one another.” He writes: “I thought she was a quiet, boring kid, and she thought I was her mom’s patsy.” When she grew up, “Soon-Yi said…I was foolish to think Mia ever loved me.”
And what of Ronan, whom Allen supposedly fathered but who Mia and Ronan have both suggested may be the son of her first husband, Frank Sinatra? Allen charges that Mia and Ronan slept naked together until he was 11, and that Farrow had Ronan undergo a procedure “to extend his legs,” her argument being that “you need to be tall to have a career in politics.” During his conflict with Mia, Allen recalls, he was contacted by the songwriter Dory Previn, Mia’s immediate predecessor as André Previn’s wife. She told Allen about her song “Daddy in the Attic,” which concerned an illicit encounter “between a little girl and her father in the attic.” Mia knew the song, said Dory, who “was certain that’s what gave Mia the idea to locate a fake molestation accusation…in the attic.”
Investigations cleared Allen: There was no trial, let alone a conviction. But the tarnish remained. Without question, Allen’s liaison with Soon-Yi is unsettling. He’d directed dozens of beautiful actresses. Why bed his girlfriend’s daughter, 35 years his junior—who, though sharing no blood with him or them, was the sister of his two children? It’s horrific. But it’s no crime. In any event, Allen and Soon-Yi ended up marrying and adopting two children themselves—which, he points out, wouldn’t have been possible if the authorities had doubted his fitness as a father.
When Farrow exited from Allen’s life, she also vanished from his films. At once, the darkness of some of their last collaborations—September (1987), Alice (1990), Shadows and Fog (1991)—lifted. Humor returned, in fare such as Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Hollywood Ending (2002). And Everyone Says I Love You (1996) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999) had a surprising sweetness.
But he also got lazy. Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Anything Else (2003), and Melinda and Melinda (2004) had scripts that no producer would ever have picked off a slush pile. Celebrity (1998) was a tired rehash of Allen themes. Was he played out?
When U.S. financing evaporated, Allen worked abroad. He made Match Point (2005) in Britain (“one of the only films I ever made that exceeded my ambitions”). Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) was shot in Spain, Midnight in Paris (2011) in France. All three won plaudits; Midnight broke Allen’s box-office records and earned him a third screenplay Oscar. His account of these years, alas, is a numbing slog, short on diverting anecdotes and heavy on repetitive praise for his actors. Once wed to Soon-Yi, one gathers, he largely withdrew from other social contact.
Then, in February 2014, Farrow’s accusations were dredged up again by a now grown-up Dylan on (weirdly enough) Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog. Ronan backed her up. But Dylan’s fellow adoptee Moses, a therapist by trade, took Allen’s side. Farrow, he maintained, had brainwashed Dylan into believing her allegations. After the #MeToo movement began in 2017—kicked off (small world) by Ronan’s New Yorker exposé on Harvey Weinstein—Dylan renewed her attack.
It worked: Amazon Studios scotched the U.S. release of Allen’s movie A Rainy Day in New York, scheduled for 2018. Cast members Timothée Chalamet and Selena Gomez bad-mouthed Allen and donated their salaries to charity, while other Allen veterans—among them Keaton, Alec Baldwin, and Scarlett Johansson—stood up for him. It was pointed out, and he points out in the book, that none of the actresses he’s directed had ever accused him of anything untoward.
Yet the New York Times savaged him as a pedophile. Sounding like a million other credulous New Yorkers, Woody Allen writes that this was especially wounding, given that he’d grown up “loving the paper, looking forward to reading it over breakfast every morning, and being proud of their rational humane courage.” How could Times editors—“serious men and women very much on the right side of issues I cared about”—proffer such slander?
What to make of Woody Allen? He still feels compelled to churn out a film a year, with or without a decent screenplay. Self-absorbed yet low on self-perception, he’s a social misfit who, by his own testimony, has held aloof from his actors and had few real friends, the closest of whom—Jean Douminian, who produced seven of his movies—ended up cheating him out of millions (a story he recounts at unnecessary length).
As for Soon-Yi, with whom he’s had his longest-lasting relationship by far, she comes off in his memoir—and in the 1997 documentary about him, Wild Man Blues—as a domineering harpy. (So, ahem, does his mother.) As Woody Allen explains, he, “who had been the top priority of a large, extended family, the apple of many loving eyes, tried to put myself in Soon-Yi’s place and decided to make her my top priority. I decided I would dote on her, wait on her, spoil her, celebrate her, never deny her anything she wanted….She has no problem with this arrangement, allowing me the privilege of indulging her every whim around the clock.”
Still—and this, ultimately, is what counts—he’s made some good movies. As for his memoir, it’s definitely worth a read, mainly because of the illuminating and hilarious opening sections and the eye-popping dirt on Mia. But if you’re looking for insights into filmmaking or reflections on his themes and characters, you’re out of luck.
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