Woody Allen’s engaging autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, has been one of my respites from COVID-19-related reading. After finishing the Kindle version, I prolonged the pleasure by downloading it on Audible, and have thus been treated to the 84-year-old Woody animatedly reading his own book, with his signature New York accent. While the book gets its title from the author’s conviction about “the meaninglessness of existence,” Apropos of Nothing turns out to be apropos of a great deal.
Woody Allen made his mark as an artist in three ways that have mattered to me: as a stand-up comedian with a unique voice; as an author of more than 50 humor pieces that bear comparison with Twain, Thurber, and his own idol, S.J. Perlman; and as a prolific auteur filmmaker, with many failures, but with a fair number of successes.
A memoir of that artistic career would be reason enough to enjoy this book, especially since it’s laced with Woody one-liners, most of which provoke a smile. (We get, for example, “I have always hated reality, but it’s the only place you can get good chicken wings,” and his preference, if he were to end it all, for “placing my head in the dishwasher and pressing Full Cycle.”)
We get candid accounts of his failed marriages and romantic relationships, leading up to his enduring marriage, in late middle-age, to Soon-Yi Previn. We learn that, far from being a lonely nebbish in high school, he was popular and confident with girls, partly because he was an unusually good athlete.
We also get a striking self-portrait of an artist who doggedly went his own way. He declares that, despite being thought of as intellectual, “I don’t have an intellectual neuron in my head,” adding, I have no insights, no lofty thoughts….” Which makes you wonder what he might have become had he bothered to apply his unusual intelligence to insights and lofty thoughts. With his fierce sense of independence and unusual success in maintaining his artistic freedom–in filmmaking, no less, where the studios usually rule–I like to think he might have become a full-blown libertarian, rather than the conventional New York City progressive he’s actually been.
Unlike most bright Jewish boys, he didn’t let school get in the way of the education he sought in show business. “I hated, loathed, and despised school,” he declares, adding, “I hated Hebrew school as much as public school.” Graduating high school “with a seventy-two average” (such numbers are indeed hard to forget), he “didn’t want to go to college, confident of a show business career, but in the interests of keeping my mother from setting fire to herself like a Buddhist monk, I gave NYU a try.”
At NYU, his “first English composition caused trouble, and the teacher failed the paper, writing in the margin ‘Son, you need a lesson in rudimentary manners. You are a callow adolescent and not a diamond in the rough.’” More than 65 years later, the words sound harsh enough to be remembered. But he seemed to know even then that he was both a callow adolescent and a diamond in the rough.
As a filmmaker, he’s won four Academy Awards for his direction and screenwriting, and has been nominated 20 other times, in one case for Best Actor, for his starring role in Annie Hall. Yet he’s never joined the Academy, “despite their pressing me to join.” The reason: “I’m not a joiner. The only thing I ever signed up for was the Cub Scouts when I was ten, and I hated it.”
Like many filmmakers, he also hated allowing the “suits” that financed him to have final cut on his films. “Most of the money guys know nothing…but often fancy themselves guys who do know,” he writes. “They maul and mangle the work in progress….” But they haven’t ever mauled his work. “I insisted, if you wanted to invest in my movies, you put the cash in a brown paper bag, go away, and I’d show up with a finished film which you then had the right to distribute as you saw fit.”
He’s managed to maintain complete artistic freedom with more than 49 films. Harvey Weinstein, who had bought the distribution rights to Everyone Says I Love You, told him that, if he’d agree to drop the single word “motherfucker” from a rap song in the movie, it could play Radio City Music Hall. “I said I understand,” recalls Woody, “but I don’t make films to accommodate movie houses.”
The only time he mentions yielding to his backers is when he agreed to title one of his films To Rome, with Love rather than his chosen title, Nero Fiddled. “I could have pulled rank and insisted,” he writes, “but the Italian backers were nice men, and if I could keep them off Berlusconi’s hit list with a small title change, why make their lives miserable?”
The Allen canon includes mostly failed attempts to imitate filmmakers and playwrights he admires (Fellini, Bergman, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams), work that he himself often criticizes, although he defends his Fellini-inspired Stardust Memories. But the creator of farces like Sleeper, Love and Death, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, and bittersweet romantic comedies like Annie Hall and Manhattan, did go on to create three memorable works on serious themes: Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Matchpoint, and at least three flawed efforts that are still worth seeing: Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and even the Tennessee Williams-inspired Blue Jasmine.
When he mentions Harvey Weinstein as having distributed one of his films, he hastens to add that, “despite what was printed in the newspapers, Harvey never produced any movies of mine.” While he doesn’t say so, the papers may have falsely linked him with convicted sexual felon Weinstein in order to pursue their habit of suggesting that he belongs in that category.
In 1992, Woody Allen was charged with having sexually molested his 7-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. While the author covers the sorry story quite effectively, and in great detail, I’d come to the book with the added advantage of having read two interesting documents that had already settled the matter for me. One is “A Son Speaks Out,” by Moses Farrow, Woody’s adopted son, who was in the house, at the reasonably aware age of 14, when the alleged molestation took place. At age 40, he quite effectively exposes its absurdity.
The other document is a long, two-part interview with the brilliant filmmaker Robert B. Weide, who had done a wonderful American Masters documentary on Woody Allen for PBS. Answering the interviewer’s pointed question at the outset, Weide states: “I’m absolutely certain that the molestation charged in 1992 and reignited in 2014 did not take place” [emphasis in original]. He adds, “I’ll go a step further and say that I see no way any reasonable person who has really evaluated all the available facts in this case — and I’ve had access to more than the average person — could come away with any other conclusion.” In the 9,000 absorbing words that follow, Weide convincingly explains why.
One reason the charge won’t go away is that Woody Allen had already shocked societal norms by getting romantically involved with his ex-girl friend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, when she was 21 and he 56. Even a relatively sympathetic book reviewer in Commentary believes the romance was “horrific;” the far less sympathetic New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner calls it a “perverse act.” Soon-Yi turns 50 this year, having been married to Woody Allen for 22 years. Together they’ve raised two daughters who were adopted at birth, and who are now in college.
As Allen points out, somehow he and Soon-Yi had managed to pass a strict process by which the adoptions were granted, despite their critics’ claims about their unholy union, and his alleged child molestation. So maybe those who persist in condemning their relationship should finally have the good grace to fall silent.
There are multiple ironies here. One is that Woody and Soon-Yi donated $5,400 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, money that was promptly returned. So a man innocent of the charge of molestation gets rebuffed by a woman who had actively tried to sully the reputations of women who had far more plausibly accused her own husband of sexual assault and abuse.
Then there’s Woody’s naive disappointment with the way this case has been covered in the New York Times. According to him, the daily’s staff has consisted of “serious men and women very much on the right side of issues I cared about.” But somehow these serious types were pretty much on the wrong side of an issue he also cared about. “And yet, over and over,” he observes, “they printed articles that implied or assumed I had done a bad thing, always writing that I had been accused of molesting my daughter and sometimes adding that I denied it or even that I was never charged. What they never mentioned, although they knew, is that I had been thoroughly investigated and totally cleared of the accusation by two major investigations.”
As though consciously following this script, New York Times book critic Dwight Garner delivers an acid review of Apropos of Nothing, and observes, with artful innuendo, that the author “speaks about two investigations that did not lead to criminal charges,” with no further elaboration.
The investigators’ conclusions are amply quoted in the same book Garner was supposed to be reviewing. The first, from the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, states: “It is our expert opinion that Dylan was not sexually abused by Mr. Allen.” The other, from New York State Child Welfare, states: “No credible evidence was found that the child named in this report was abused or maltreated.” So to avoid leaving a wrong impression, Garner should have reported that the two state-appointed investigations did not lead to criminal charges because the investigators concluded that no crime had occurred.
Garner somewhat strangely comments, “I believe that the less you’ve read about this case, the easier it is to render judgment on it.” If Woody Allen didn’t completely lack intellectual curiosity, he might be interested to learn–from me, for example–how the New York Times routinely renders distorted judgments, with the same ease, on a whole range of issues people care about.
Robert Weide makes a striking observation that the book does not mention. The 34-year-old Dylan Farrow “can still file a claim against Woody in civil court because in Connecticut, the statute of limitations won’t expire until she turns 48. A civil suit wouldn’t put him behind bars, but she can take him for every dime he’s got.” And what a great opportunity for Dylan’s stepbrother Ronan Farrow, a Yale-trained lawyer who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the Harvey Weinstein scandal, to vindicate his own highly public condemnation of Woody’s alleged crime.
As Weide remarks, “I would love to see her do this as it would force everyone involved to testify under oath. It’s a bit different than the court of public opinion where you don’t have to be under oath to tweet or blog, and you’re never cross-examined.”
As director of the debate society, the Soho Forum, I invited Robert Weide to debate Ronan Farrow on Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence. Weide promptly wrote back, “I’m open to this,” and I then wrote Ronan two invitations in succession to his email address at The New Yorker and tweeted him a couple of times.
No reply from Ronan. But I did get flak from Twitter followers for gross insensitivity. Ronan is, after all, Woody’s birth son (although Mia Farrow herself has speculated that Ronan may be the biological child of Frank Sinatra, and he resembles Frank far more than he does Woody). So how dare I ask him to accuse his own father in public of sexual molestation? I had to remind these caring folks that Ronan had already accused Woody Allen in public of sexual molestation, and had actively helped prevent the Hachette Book Group from publishing the autobiography. So why should he hide from having his views challenged at the Soho Forum?
In any case, Ronan, the offer’s still open.
Toward the end of Apropos of Nothing, the author writes: “Not believing in a hereafter, I really can’t see any practical difference if people remember me as a pedophile or at all. All that I ask is that my ashes be scattered close to a pharmacy.”
Meanwhile, his stories about time spent at Elaine’s–he “ate dinner there with friends every night for ten years”–makes New Yorkers like me long for the days before social distancing.
* This article was originally published here
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