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Woody Allen’s memoir is as witty as it is problematic

Apropos of Nothing is both the best thing Allen has produced in 20 years, and a showcase for dismaying lapses of tact, taste and judgement that will sway anyone still on the fence about loathing him.

Woody Allen is a lowlife. A misanthropic imbecile, a second-rater, a runt and a louse. An immature, maladjusted wreck, a fatuous dunce, an ignoramus, a schnook and a klutz. In a directing career spanning more than half a century, he happens also never to have made a great film. The source of this invective is Allen himself, and it is in generous supply across the 400-odd pages of his autobiography Apropos of Nothing. With self-esteem like that, who needs the critics, the public and what he calls the “#MeToo zealots”?

Or, for that matter, a lily-livered publishing house. Employees of Hachette staged a walkout in protest over the acquisition of Apropos of Nothing by the company’s Grand Central Publishing imprint: it was an attempt to censor an author who has been exonerated after multiple investigations into whether he molested his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was seven. Now 34, she stands by those accusations, which were first made after Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow discovered he had been sleeping with her 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. (Allen and Previn, to whom the book is dedicated, remain together: they married in 1997 and have two adopted daughters.)

The cowardice of a powerful publisher, however, is altogether more egregious. Stephen King was among those who expressed alarm earlier this year when the publication was called off. “The Hachette decision to drop the Woody Allen book makes me very uneasy,” he tweeted. “It’s not him; I don’t give a damn about Mr Allen. It’s who gets muzzled next that worries me.” Thank goodness, then, for Arcade Publishing, an American imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, which has put out into the world what is, in many respects, a lively and invaluable book – easily the best thing Allen has produced in at least 20 years – and, in others, a showcase for dismaying lapses of tact, taste and judgement that will sway anyone still on the fence about loathing Allen.

The book’s first half is a blast, piling on the sort of glittering social and cultural detail familiar from Allen’s films Annie Hall and Radio Days, along with a wealth of vivid imagery. Allen describes his “weak, wan and degenerate-looking” uncle delivering newspapers around Brooklyn until he “dissolved like a pale wafer”. His parents “disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards” while his mother always “made sure there was fresh cheese in the traps”. His account of childhood cinema-going is steeped in ripeness and colour, with discontentment setting in only once he discovers that Fred Astaire movies “were not documentaries”. Mortality presents its own problems. “I had never agreed to be finite,” he complains, describing himself as a “coffin half-full” kind of guy.

Chronology is largely respected, though the hope (on page 193) that his very public scandals are “not the reason you bought this book” would be more convincing had he not gone in for so much appetite-whetting up to that point. He refers to “that whole mishigas” as early as page 19, alludes to “the Appropriate Police” 11 pages later, wonders on page 62 whether a statue in his likeness has been “pulled down by irate citizens with a rope like Saddam Hussein’s” and recalls thinking, when he made headlines in 1965 for a supposed bad-taste routine at Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration gala, that he would “never again in my lifetime be on the front page of newspapers. I got that wrong.”

Already prodigiously talented, and earning as an 18-year-old gag-writer triple the combined wages of his parents, he blossoms in Los Angeles while working under Danny Simon (Neil’s brother) at NBC in the 1950s.

The blissfulness of this era is equalled only by Allen’s relationship, around 15 years and two marriages later, with Diane Keaton. Contrary to the general assumption, their romance is over before they are first seen together on-screen (in Herbert Ross’s 1972 film of Allen’s stage comedy Play It Again, Sam) and thereafter he counts her as one of his most loyal friends. He writes with infectious joy and vitality about this “female Huckleberry Finn” who dresses “as if her personal shopper was Buñuel” and loses her job at a cinema concessions counter for eating all the candy. That lip-smacking comic detail reveals its unhappy flipside decades later when Allen reads in her memoir of the bulimia she concealed from him.

It’s only to be expected that the book should get bogged down in defensiveness and explanatory justifications once it reaches his cataclysmic break-up from Farrow. No wonder he quotes at length Previn’s allegations of the physical and psychological abuse meted out by her adoptive mother, or clings to similar testimony by Allen and Farrow’s adopted son Moses as though it were the Ten Commandments. What has been lost in much of the agitated discourse on this subject is that Dylan isn’t the only family member who claims to have been abused. Many opponents of Allen who have been quick to believe that he is a paedophile have simultaneously turned a deaf ear to the accounts by Moses and Previn of Farrow’s cruel and intolerable abuse. Can’t all three of them be telling the truth?

The one unambiguous fact here is that the Allen/Farrow domestic set-up was a crucible for suffering and dysfunction from which no one has emerged unscathed. Apropos of Nothing would have been a tougher book to write but a more rewarding one to read had Allen accepted his own part in this ugliness, rather than merely itemising the injustices, disproving specific allegations and scattering barbed one-liners on Farrow ground (“I check to make sure Mia casts a reflection in the mirror”).

What he calls “the gale force of the second wave of the hideous false molestation accusation” arrives in 2017 when, in a twist few screenwriters would have dared attempt or anticipate, it is his own estranged biological son Ronan Farrow who breaks the Harvey Weinstein story, boosting the #MeToo movement and reviving the allegations against Allen. For the first time, this has a calculable impact on his film-making. Amazon reneges on its deal with him and actors turn him down flat: “Not working with me had become the thing to do – like everyone suddenly being into kale.” Some of his former cast members atone for their sins, among them Timothée Chalamet, the young star of A Rainy Day in New York (streaming in the UK in June but still unreleased in the US), who allegedly tells Allen’s sister Letty Aronson that publicly disavowing the beleaguered director might help his chance of winning a Best Actor Oscar for Call Me By Your Name. (It didn’t.) Hillary Clinton refuses a campaign donation from Allen and Previn, which leads the author to wonder whether their offer of $5,400 would have tipped the election her way.

Allen can be convincingly poignant: when he writes of the red and yellow autumn leaves “dying but not going quietly”, he is addressing more than just a change of season. He is also very funny on his maligned Kafkaesque comedy Shadows and Fog (“Marketing tests showed it did not appeal to homo sapiens”) and his relationship with his wife (who considers him “some kind of savant – I forget the full term”).

Some jokes fail outright. When he speculates that Cary Grant’s request for him to autograph several books may have been motivated by a desire to sell them on eBay, even dozy readers might consider this unlikely given that Grant died in 1986, nine years before that website existed. Other slip-ups are indefensible and self-sabotaging. He refers to “poor Louis CK” and that stand-up performer’s “harassment problems” – an unusual turn of phrase to describe a multi-millionaire comedy superstar who masturbated in front of budding female comics against their wishes. That pales alongside a mistaken-identity anecdote revolving around a recent dinner invitation from Roman Polanski.

Elsewhere it is Allen’s prose rather than his circle of friends that lets him down. A phrase like “some leggy tootsie” is clearly a stab at the Runyonesque, while the “stacked miracles” at the Playboy Mansion and the “adorable birds in their miniskirts” on Carnaby Street in the 1960s constitute an attempt, however clumsy, to evoke an era linguistically.

But it is disappointing that a man who boasts of the juicy female roles he has written can be so complacent describing the women who played them. Helena Bonham Carter, we discover, is “wonderful and beautiful”, Sharon Stone “very beautiful”, Emma Stone “beautiful in an interesting way”. Léa Seydoux is “a ten plus”, while Naomi Watts is “very beautiful” with “the sexiest two upper front teeth in show business”, and Scarlett Johansson is “sexually… radioactive”. Rachel McAdams “looks like a million bucks from every angle”, which puts her some distance behind Farrow, who resembles “a zillion dollars” when Allen first meets her in the early 1980s; whether these figures have been adjusted for inflation we aren’t told. Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for playing a porn star in Allen’s execrable 1995 comedy Mighty Aphrodite, “couldn’t appreciate how gifted and attractive she was”. A more empathetic writer might have wondered in retrospect whether those feelings of inferiority were related to being harassed by Harvey Weinstein during this period. A gallant one would have avoided passing comment altogether.

The worst is reserved for Barbara Hershey, who is “delicious to behold and gave new meaning to the word eros”. Michael Caine, who took the role of Hershey’s lover and brother-in-law in Hannah and Her Sisters when Jack Nicholson dropped out, told Allen he felt that “if you just go up to her and touch her, she would have an orgasm”. Did either man share this salacious conjecture with Hershey herself? We aren’t told. Either way, she can read about it now along with the rest of the world. Lucky her.

Admirers of Allen will be accustomed to taking the rough (the past two decades of his films, say) with the smooth (most of the work that precedes them), and any book that didn’t contain its share of maddening flaws, oversights and insensitivity would scarcely be representative of him. The surprise is that he remains such a winning comic writer and chronicler, showing himself even in the closing pages to be the same sorrowful wit (“I’m 84, my life is almost half over”) and bruised romantic (on the high price he paid to be with Previn: “All worth it”) as he ever was, and no less inclined to love-bomb life’s miseries with bathos. “Like Bertrand Russell, I feel a great sadness for the human race,” he laments. “Unlike Bertrand Russell, I can’t do long division.” 

Apropos of Nothing: Autobiography
By Woody Allen
Arcade Publishing, 400pp, £24.20

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 22 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show