One thing Woody Allen didn’t cover in his new “the REAL me/my side of things” autobiography is the nearly 20 years he cultivated a mystique by avoiding talking to the press.
It took the scandalous 1992 revelation of his affair with his longtime lover Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn, to break that spell and put him back in the public eye — uncomfortably — and forced him to start talking to the press again.
I remember the first time I met him, in a small group interview setting, promoting a film for the first time in decades (might have been for “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” though I more clearly recall chatting with him for “Bullets over Broadway”). He looked cowed, deer-in-headlights spooked. He claimed to see no benefit in promoting his pictures, as it never impacted his box office, something he repeated many times in many chats over the years, including the last one, when I got him to reveal his favorite spots in Barcelona for a wire service travel piece related to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
We’ve learned a lot more about him — or think we have — in the years since. The relentless attacks from Mia Farrow, her daughter Dylan and her journalist son Ronan – who may be Woody’s offspring, or Frank Sinatra’s, according to Mia — ruined his reputation and may have permanently derailed his lifetime of releasing a movie a year in his home country.
But the essential works to recall, for me, in approaching “Apropos of Nothing,” his new autobiography, are Mia Farrow’s 1990s memoir “What Falls Away,” about her time with him and the scandal, and the Allen-approved PBS jazz band tour Europe documentary, “Wild Man Blues,” which captured the phobias, on-the-spectrum routines etc. Allen wove into his mystique over the decades — afraid of “entering” parties and crowded places, manic about where the drain was on the floor off the shower.
Farrow’s book declared that a lot of this stuff is just an act. He’d spend a fortune on his frumpy look, those floppy hats and tailored shirts and khakis he’d made his “uniform.” He’d play the simple man of letters and art, chauffeured in his Rolls Royce, ensconced in his penthouse Upper East Side-Central-Park adjacent penthouse apartment.
He sets out to puncture a lot of his own myths in “Apropos.” There’s false modesty about his status as a “genius” or “intellectual” peppered with scores of writer, painter, jazz legend or classical music composer references. He’s just “an anonymous little giggle merchant.”
He says he doesn’t read reviews and never has, and quotes from reviews and mentions his friendship with Time Mag fangramps Richard Schickel and New Yorker critic queen Pauline Kael, who used to call and beg him to hire her friends to do catering or what have you on his productions.
He goes to some pains to list scores of classic films he hasn’t seen, and mention that he never watches his once they’re finished.
And he professes to not care a whit about his reputation, when the entire point of the book is to salvage it from the latest onslaught of Dylan Farrow accusations. Perhaps 25% of “Apropos” is Apropos of Affair/marriage to Soon Yi.
But long before he gets to that, the book gives us a hint of the Woody we might have held onto had he never taken up with a teenager whom he’d allegedly been a father figure to. It’s a funny memoir about his kvetching mother and not-quite-mobster/hustler father, an expanded and allegedly factual account of his “Radio Days.”
Allen doesn’t break into chapters, but rolls through anecdotes, little breaks and bits of advice, big breaks — triumphs and disappointments. I had forgotten who his first wife was, but he is generous to her and especially to Louise Lasser, the manic depressive comedienne he was wed to when his TV writer-turned stand-up career was venturing into theater and the movies.
He litters the page with low-down archaic showbiz/comedy/Brooklyn/jazz slang mixed with snooty pretension, trips to the thesaurus (“Tergiversation” anyone?) and snobby connections between him and America’s artistic elite. It’s meant in fun, and in that way the book reads like his screenplays. I laughed out loud more than twice.
He escaped the draft via “nail biting.” He supplemented his pay for appearing in “Casino Royale” by hustling poker money out of the tough guy cast of “The Dirty Dozen.” Old showbiz tours of the city with New York newspaper “Broadway” columnists before he got famous, reveling in the tony New York eatery Elaine’s for the celeb encounters — “Fellini, a Kennedy, Gore Vidal, Steinbrenner, David Hockney…Simone de Beauvoir.”
“It wasn’t the food, it was the atmosphere. A clean, well-lighted place. Well, a well-lighted place.”
Allen lets us see the ferment which movies like “Broadway Danny Rose” sprang from, the European trip to film his first produced script, the “butchered” “What’s New, Pussycat?” leading to “Don’t Drink the Water.” and he speaks of his passion to be like his true idol — playwright Tennessee Williams.
That’s been an ongoing gripe of mine. His dialogue has sounded more stilted and out of date the older he gets. It’s as if he hasn’t overheard a normal human conversation since the ’70s. His run of more-bad-than-good movies started at about the time “the scandal” broke, and I’ve found it easier and easier to dismiss him — with the occasional “Midnight in Paris” fantasy exception — ever since. Largely based on his “take the vapors” dialogue and the arch ways his actors have to deliver it.
Then there’s all the scandal-explaining he does, puncturing the Farrow narrative, replacing it with his own. But even if you buy his version, the best you can say for him is he’s tone deaf and expects us to be credulous.
Creeping out very young Mariel Hemingway, frankly leering in print over Scarlett Johansson and others — it’s as if he thinks his “lovable lecher” shtick still works.
It doesn’t. And you don’t have to buy into Farrow’s fury to feel that way. He’s made “icky” part of his brand and that’s not aging well.
We may never know the “true” story of what went on between Woody and the Farrow brood. But if she’d lie about who Satchel/Ronan’s real father was, if other evidence of her flaky/needy/clingy connection holds up, if the court-provided evidence of “no molestation happened” but “coaching” did, then somebody other than Ronan Farrow will have to get at that.
As for Allen, perhaps his movies will endure — the best of them — and perhaps more of them will return to TV someday. Perhaps he’s permanently “canceled.” “Apropos of Nothing” gives us just a taste of how we might have felt about the funny dirty old man in his dotage if he hadn’t quoted the poet with “The heart wants what it wants.”
“Woody Allen. Apropos of Nothing. Autobiography.” Arcade Publishing. 499 pages. $40.