In Stardust Memories (1980), the actor/director Woody Allen plays a celebrity filmmaker who is challenged in an interview to explain why he is an atheist. “To you I’m an atheist,” he quips; “to God I’m the loyal opposition.” Like most of Allen’s one-liners, this is meant more for comic than for philosophical effect. But as a statement about his own filmmaking career, there is a grain of truth to it. He is the opposition in that he does not believe in God, but loyal in that his work does evince a concern with the difference between doing what one wants and doing the right thing, the latter being often (if, again, comically) conflated in his movies with the dictates of Judaism, or at least with the generalized Jewish determination to be “a good person.”
In Manhattan (1979), for example, one of his better efforts, Allen created a memorable scene around just this issue. The Allen character is a TV writer named Isaac who is furious to discover that his friend Yale has been committing adultery—and with Isaac’s new girl, Mary, to boot. To have the matter out, the two friends retreat to an empty science classroom at the college where Yale teaches. Yale, making excuses, protests that he’s “not a saint.” But Isaac lectures him:
You’re too easy on yourself. Don’t you see that. . . . That’s your whole problem. You rationalize everything. You’re not honest with yourself. . . . You cheat a little bit on Emily, and you play around the truth a little with me, and the next thing you know you’re in front of a Senate committee and you’re naming names, you’re informing on your friends.
To this effort at connecting small misdeeds with large ones (never mind that, to Allen, “naming names” seems the most heinous sin imaginable), Yale responds by spitting out angrily, “You think you’re God.” To which Isaac replies: “I gotta mod el myself after someone.” Joking aside (if he is joking), Isaac then points to the skeleton of a gorilla hanging in the classroom and dilates on the importance of right behavior:
What are future generations gonna say about us? My God, y’know, someday we’re gonna be like him [the skeleton]. I mean, y’know, he was probably one of the beautiful people . . . and now look, this is what happens to us. Y’know, it’s very important to have some kind of personal integrity. . . . I’ll be hanging in a classroom one day, and I want to make sure that when I thin out, I’m well thought of.
Not bad, for a movie made in the “Me Decade.” But as it happens, a little over a decade later this very same issue would assume an offscreen salience in Allen’s own life, when a moral scandal erupted concerning him and Mia Farrow, his long-time companion. The story of their relationship was of course well known, and had been the subject of many admiring journalistic profiles: Farrow with her brood of children, three natural and three adopted, from her marriage to the conductor André Previn, plus an additional child, a Korean boy with cerebral palsy, adopted since her divorce; Allen twice divorced, veteran of multiple relationships, still childless well into his forties. Their union seemed to bring fulfillment for both—maturity and an instant family for him, for her a helpmate and a father-figure for her children.
Although they never married and lived apart, the two appeared to be very close, shuttling back and forth between their separate luxury apartments flanking Central Park and working together in his films, with Farrow as bedmate, muse, and leading lady. After some time, the pair managed to have a biological child, Allen became the legal father of the child Farrow had adopted on her own, and the two adopted still another child together. They became a familiar sight, especially to New Yorkers, frequently photographed pushing a stroller and trailing a clutch of children of different races and sizes, a model of generous-hearted, child-centered domesticity that had no need for a marriage license, that old “piece of paper.” Farrow in particular, sometimes carrying a bit of extra weight but never looking less than pretty, seemed to have achieved that level of confidence in a longstanding relationship when a woman can relax, secure in the love of her man.
But then, like some kind of made-for-TV morality play, it broke apart, and the sordid details spilled out. Farrow was not a modern woman, having it all without a care or a license; as it emerged, she had desperately wanted to be married, to have a regular home life, permanent commitment, and secure financial support. But Allen would not agree, and she, like many other emotionally needy women, had clung to the relationship despite its shortcomings. Worse, far from being comfortably ensconced in Allen’s affections, she had lost his interest almost entirely, and he had already helped himself to fresher fare.
And what fare. Something you might have heard while growing up, back before the sexual revolution, from still-young single mothers—that they would not marry again for fear of bringing a “strange man” into the house to live with their children—turned out to contain a core of wisdom. In early 1992, Farrow discovered that Allen had been having an affair with her sexually inexperienced, nineteen-year-old adopted Korean daughter, Soon-Yi, whom he had photographed nude in a lascivious pose. Moreover, it emerged, he had been behaving “inappropriately” with his and Farrow’s adopted daughter, an adorable blonde toddler named Dylan.
Most alarming of all was that the man everyone knew from his intensely autobiographical and often charmingly funny films, the likeable little nebbish whom Allen usually played on screen—neurotic and sex-obsessed, to be sure, but basically decent—could do such things. Indeed, when his fans and admirers looked for some sign of shame and remorse, they were greeted instead with unflappable blandness and a comment that might have been lifted straight out of the mouth of a character in those films: “The heart wants what it wants.”
What had happened to doing the right thing?
It is easy to make too much of Allen’s films, only to find that he and they deflect analysis through pervasive irony and self-reflective humor. But it is also possible to make too little of them. At the very least, they serve as indexes to attitudes toward the moral life in one advanced segment of the culture. Exactly what they tell us about those attitudes—and about Allen’s own—is a question addressed obliquely in two new biographies of the filmmaker by John Baxter1 and Marion Meade.2
Both books are pleasant to read, stronger on accumulated detail (sometimes at a level more appropriate to a study of Henry James) than on overall analysis, though the Baxter biography has been assailed by critics for errors of fact. On the specific issue of Allen’s betrayal of Farrow, they are inconclusive. Baxter sometimes seems almost as blase as his subject, questioning what the fuss is all about. As for Meade, she takes a somewhat different tack, pointing out that Allen has actually had to pay for his conduct by forfeiting contact with his children and enduring the desertion of many of his fans, particularly women. Most astonishingly, if one is to believe her report, the film industry seems to adhere to some kind of line against the near-incest and quasi-pedophilia associated with his name.
Yet the simple truth is that anyone paying attention to his movies might have seen it coming. There were, for one thing, the floating references to perverse desires and acts, the oblique or overt admissions of attraction to young girls, the extraordinary amount of bedding and cross-bedding, of cheating and betrayal in love. More important, though, is the way, since Manhattan and Stardust Memories, he had continued to work out the problem of doing good in a countercultural world with few rules and no noticeable Jewish God.
The issue would be most thoroughly explored in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), a mesmerizingly dark meditation on evil that is adroitly leavened with a comic subplot. We meet its protagonist, a highly successful ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal, at the pinnacle of his life, a festive black-tie dinner celebrating the opening of a new hospital wing for which he has been the chief fundraiser. Judah is blessed with a beautiful and loving family, membership in a country club, and a couple of impressive if rather chilly-looking homes. He is widely traveled and highly cultivated, with a special affinity for the music of Schubert.
In a speech to his guests, Judah proclaims himself a freethinking man of science, but also recalls his upbringing by a religiously observant father who taught him that the eyes of God are always on us. (Perhaps it is no accident, he remarks to softly appreciative laughter, that ophthalmology became his specialty.) This same sort of simple belief, so at odds with Judah’s own cultivated skepticism, is also embodied in the film by his friend and patient, a rabbi named Ben who is losing his eyesight but holding fast to his faith.
The plot of the movie turns on a murder. Judah has been involved for two years with an emotionally demanding younger woman, Dolores Paley, who looks to him almost worshipfully for guidance toward a more cultivated life. Now he wishes to break off the affair, but Dolores, clinging hysterically, threatens to tell Judah’s wife Miriam and also to expose him for finagling with the foundation’s funds. Desperately, Judah calls on his brother Jack, a shady figure who has a wide acquaintance “from Atlantic City,” and knows how someone “can be gotten rid of.” Judah is horrified, but eventually—smaller misdeeds leading to larger ones—agrees. After the thing is done, Judah suffers terrible remorse, and although he manages to take the necessary steps to cover himself, he is haunted by images of his father teaching him about the eyes of God and how wicked deeds are always punished.
Not for long, however. After a time, “the crisis passes, he isn’t punished, in fact he prospers,” as Judah himself tells it later in the third person, and he returns to his normal life of wealth and privilege, happier than ever before. The universe is not a “just and moral one,” as his father saw it, but an empty hole in which human beings can do what they will, so long as they can get away with it. This hideous lesson is in fact something the teenaged Judah and Jack first learned from their “brilliant” Aunt May at a memorable Passover seder gone awry that we witness in flashback.
Of course, Judah has committed his “black deed” precisely in order to protect a life that is dedicated to family, work, and philanthropy. Why should his more useful existence be sacrificed for that of a silly, unstable woman who is no good to anybody? Allen’s answer to this question, which is reminiscent of the question Dostoevsky raises in Crime and Punishment, could not be more different from the Russian novelist’s. At the end of the film, we hear in voiceover the words of another character, a philosopher and probable Holocaust survivor, who counsels that man must make his own meaning in an indifferent universe. As he speaks, we see Judah’s friend Ben, now totally blind, lovingly dancing with his daughter at her wedding, at which we have heard a solemn recitation of Hebrew prayers. Thus does the man of faith, blind to the reality the film has shown us, dance in his own bubble of (deluded) meaning, while Judah, who has looked into the eyes of God, sees nothing beyond human will but a “black void.” It was not long after this film was made that Allen began engaging in the activities that would later erupt in headlines and in his cryptic self-justification: “The heart wants what it wants.”
And since? Well, there is Deconstructing Harry (1997), made almost ten years after Crimes and Misdemeanors and a logical—and fouler—extension of its painstaking foray into nihilism. In it, the badboy fiction writer Harry Block, suffering an agonizing lapse in creative energy that leads him to mull over his many personal misdeeds and betrayals, pays an imaginary, G.B. Shaw-like visit to hell; there he meets the devil, played by the amiable Billy Crystal, and the two raise a toast “to evil.” Returning home, he receives (in another imaginary scene) the plaudits of the many fictional characters he has. created in his career and of the critics and professors who love his work. “The author’s message,” one professor lectures, “is know yourself, stop kidding yourself, accept your limitations, and get on with your life.” So much for even trying to do right thing.
And if Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry represent Allen’s repudiation of, as it were, Jerusalem—in both of them, and especially the latter, he goes out of his way to savage the religious law of Judaism and the Jews who observe it—in Mighty Aphrodite (1995) he takes out after Athens as well, getting his faux-Greek chorus to sing hymns to “life” in all its messy, lawless perversity. Only his two most recent movies, Celebrity (1998) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), seem to be throwbacks, each about a man leaving a good woman for something better and finding emptiness instead: post-devil efforts, perhaps, to placate a female audience.
All in all, to revisit Woody Allen’s later movies in the light of his life is not only to understand how he has gone about rationalizing his own behavior—a matter of interest, surely, to few other than himself—but to develop, if only by indirection, a renewed appreciation for the intricate and astringent moral law first formulated in the Torah. The real pity, one cannot help feeling, is that Allen has not just quietly opted out of the covenant altogether, but, like other talented nihilists of our time, seems driven to advance his own anti-Torah of darkness and confusion—and, given the amount of wholesome artistic energy this consumes, at the price of destroying his one true gift, which was the gift to make us laugh.
1 Woody Allen: A Biography. Carroll & Graf., 492 pp., $27.00.
2 The Unruly Life of Woody Allen. Scribner., 384 pp., $26.00.