In this memoir, Woody Allen is keen to clear up some misconceptions. He is not, as he has frequently been described, an intellectual. As a man who is practically “illiterate and uninterested in all things scholarly”, he dismisses the notion as being as “phony as the Loch Ness Monster”. He also explains that, contrary to appearances, he is no slouch on the sports field. In his youth he was a fast runner, “very fine” at baseball and a decent schoolyard basketball player who could also “catch a football and throw it a mile”.
Allen, 84, also wants it to be known that he is not a child molester, as claimed by his former partner, the actor Mia Farrow, and his alleged victim, their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, who is now 34. Throughout this complicated saga, which erupted in 1992, and was reignited in 2014 when Dylan wrote an open letter reasserting the alleged assault, many have had their say on the matter. Along with Dylan’s letter, there have been public missives from Allen’s son Ronan (who has stood firmly with his sister), Mia’s adopted son Moses (who has taken Allen’s side and whose letter is extensively quoted here), and Soon-Yi Previn (Mia and her ex-husband André Previn’s adopted daughter, who had an affair with Allen and later married him). Police investigators have twice found no legal case against Allen, a fact that is sometimes forgotten amid the public rush to judgment. While Allen quips that the main theme of Apropos of Nothing – which was controversially binned by its original publisher, Hachette, after staff staged a walkout – is “man’s search for god in a pointless, violent universe”, the 90-odd pages devoted to the Farrow “to-do” would suggest that, after remaining mostly quiet on the subject for 30 years, he has deemed it time to offer his version of events.
Of course, this is the story of a life, not just an accusation, and, as one might expect from a writer with his comic pedigree, Allen’s style is gossipy and spry when dealing with his childhood and rise to fame. It begins with a sprint through his early years in Brooklyn as the son of a cab driver father and bookkeeper mother. His parents “disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards”, but they doted on their two children. Cultural awakening arrived via his cousin Rita, who would take him to the movies on Saturday afternoons and encouraged him to listen to the radio where he discovered Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday. At 11, a trip to Manhattan with a childhood friend opened his eyes to vaudeville after they found the cinema closed. He was so taken with the comedy skits that he returned every Saturday, taking a pencil and paper to make notes.
While still at high school, he began sending jokes off to newspapers, many of which were printed. Eventually an agent got in touch and asked him to spend a few hours each day after school writing one-liners for their celebrity clients, for which they would take the credit. He went to NYU, majoring in film, but was kicked out after he failed to show up to classes. No matter, as he was already working in comedy writers’ rooms and making more money than his parents did. He decided to change his name (he was born Allan Konigsberg), something he never regretted aside from the time a saleswoman at Bloomingdale’s asked: “Will that be all, Mr Woodpecker?”
Self-deprecation is Allen’s default setting and his bleak humour can be winning. He recalls drunkenly daydreaming with his second wife, Louise, about their preferred method of suicide – “Her preference was to go by pistol shot, mine by placing my head in the dishwasher and pressing Full Cycle.” Looking back on the biggest flop of his film career, he says: “The filming of Shadows and Fog came off without a hitch except for the movie.” When the lights went up after the screening for the film’s financial backers “the four or five suits sat immobile as if they had all been paralysed by curare”.
Elsewhere, however, egotism tramples wit. He routinely plays down his talents, and wants us to know how little his films returned at the box office, but wastes no opportunity to list the luminaries who have showered him in praise. It’s also a familiar Allen routine to wonder why any woman would give him, a self-anointed schlemiel, the time of day romantically, but here they are rated ruthlessly on their looks. Even his mother doesn’t escape judgment – she was “loving and decent but not, let us say, physically prepossessing”, he writes, before observing her similarity to Groucho Marx.
You might think that a man dogged by dark accusations would take extra pains to avoid coming over like a creep around young women. Yet 17-year-old Stacey Nelkin, who appeared in Annie Hall, and who the 42-year-old Allen briefly dated, caused him and the screenwriter Marshall Brickman “to spin around each other like electrons”. Talking about Scarlett Johansson, he observes “when you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones. Not only was she gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive.” He carps that much has been made of his dating much younger girls when “it’s really not so”, offering as evidence his first wife, Harlene, who was just three years younger than him. Given he was 20 when they married, it would have been a grave matter had the age gap been any wider.
Aged 56, apparently marooned in a chilly relationship with Farrow, he says he was “ripe for the plucking” when he began an affair with the 21-year-old Soon-Yi; his revelation that “we couldn’t keep our hands of each other” is, frankly, too much information when discussing a woman who was, to all intents and purposes, his stepdaughter. His account of the fall-out, and the subsequent accusations regarding Dylan, pinballs between sadness and fury. He is sympathetic towards Dylan, whom he claims was coached and “brainwashed” by her mother into believing that, one afternoon in the crawl-space in their Connecticut home, her father abused her while she lay playing with trains.
He is less forgiving towards his son, Ronan, from whom he has long been estranged and who has written extensively about his father’s alleged misdeeds. Another sub-plot in the eternal Farrow soap opera is the question mark over Ronan’s paternity, and Allen can’t resist making a dig about the child support he was legally obliged to pay: “If Mia was right about [Ronan] being the son of Frank Sinatra, then I was really being bilked.” But he saves most of his vitriol for Mia, whom he claims told him: “You took my daughter, now I’ll take yours.” He paints her as bitter, damaged and cruel, a woman who shopped for adopted children as if she were collecting ornaments, and then neglected and physically abused them. It makes for grim reading. While you can’t blame him for putting his point across forcefully, and for howling against perceived injustices, the spiteful tone helps no one.
But Allen isn’t in it to win friends, as evidenced by intermittent rants against the “Appropriate Police”, the “#MeToo zealots” and his former friends and colleagues in Hollywood who, after gauging the public mood, have publicly denounced him. He makes clear his understanding that the book is unlikely to influence those who have already made up their minds. Reflecting on his legacy, he says: “Rather than live in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment.”
• Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen is published by Arcade.
Source: The Guardian