Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, has finally appeared; you can read it now. I argued for its publication when Hachette dropped it after a walk-out by its staff, and so I felt I should read it.
He is, as he says, a pariah now, stalked by accusations that he sexually assaulted his seven-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992, and contempt that he married his partner Mia Farrow’s daughter Soon-Yi Previn in 1997.
The title Apropos of Nothing is typical, combining, as it does, the nihilism and pseudo-intellectualism that is Allen’s signature. Concerning Nothing would be better; I am Nothing better yet; Nothing best of all, and I will call it that for brevity and emphasis. It is an interesting book, but not a good one, especially from a man who was nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar 16 times and won it three times. It is, rather, a sullen defence filled with anecdotes without texture. For instance, Allen writes that the other great Jewish comedian, Mel Brooks, liked him. I wanted more, but perhaps Allen isn’t interested in other great Jewish comedians.
Mostly, it reads like a witness statement with digressions about Ingmar Bergman, his hero. He calls Mia Farrow a narcissistic abuser of children (she bore four and adopted 10) and writes that, had she been reasonable, the three children they shared — Dylan, Moses and the writer Ronan Farrow — would have tolerated his relationship with Soon-Yi as merely “unorthodox”.
I gasped at that; does he have no concept of betrayal? Does he not know what he did? He calls himself a good father, although Dylan says he assaulted her, and Ronan tried to stop the publication of Nothing; the children he adopted with Soon-Yi, he says, have money hurled at them.
He is not a good father. Nothing is a work of denial and self-deception, then; of gawping at young women; of anecdotage, including a note of every suicide in Farrow’s family. His response to #MeToo is basically #WhoMe? It is pitiable: a man who spent his career analysing himself hit a dead end. He ran out.
Only rarely does something heartfelt leak out, and when it does, it feels like a mistake, a loss of concentration, for instance this: “Finally, I enter the world. A world I will never feel comfortable in, never understand, never approve of or forgive”. Forgive?
Or this: “I managed to turn out nervous, fearful, an emotional wreck, hanging on by a thread to my composure, misanthropic, claustrophobic, isolated, embittered, impeccably pessimistic”. Impeccably? These lines made me want to watch his films again, because they are more telling than Nothing, and so I did. They are 40 years of barely disguised biography in which, hiding behind the nebbish, the fool, who is his stock character and his disguise — he maims women and himself.
Everywhere, there is betrayal. He obviously wonders, in Nothing, why so few people believe he did not assault Dylan Farrow, despite two investigations which did not lead to charges. I think I know. He has been baiting his audience since Manhattan, hiding on a 40-foot screen. No wonder he has depression. Suddenly, with Soon-Yi, they knew who he was, and he wasn’t funny anymore.
Allen was the most successful comedian of the 20th century. People think he is a filmmaker, but he is really a comedian. And, in the way of comedians, his work is both a shield and a riddle waiting to be solved. Anyone who knows comedians knows that depression, not joy, is their natural state. The laughter is merely the antidote; the bigger the laugh, the greater the void. Lenny Bruce killed himself with morphine. Joan Rivers maimed her face because she thought she was repulsive.
The early films — Bananas, Take the Money and Run, Sleeper — are silly and joyful, but the protagonist is not the essential Allen. After these, he began to write more personally, to spool his neurosis into film after film; to finesse the nebbish he depends on, because the nebbish does not have to take responsibility for anything. His success was artistically a gift, but with terrible emotional jeopardy. What do you do with that kind of power to deceive?
Here it is in Manhattan, in which he seduces 17-year old Tracy — Mariel Hemingway, speaking like a 35-year-old woman who speaks like Woody Allen (“Everyone gets corrupted”) — to praise then, and disgust now. It is in Hannah and her Sisters, which had a rare happy ending — amid the usual intimate betrayal — and in Husbands and Wives, in which he deceives the Mia Farrow character with a very young girl (Juliette Lewis) as they were breaking up in life.
In Stardust Memories, he plays a famous film maker who despises his audience and falls in love with an insane woman; his character, incidentally, lingers in front of a poster that says ‘Incest’ as he defends himself from charges that he flirted with a 13-year-old-girl. In his masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanours, a respectable Jewish optometrist (Martin Landau) has his mistress (Angelica Huston) murdered. It is a rumination on guilt.
In retrospect, and only in retrospect, we see him, and it is no longer charming. It feels, rather, like another betrayal. He did covet very young girls. He did destroy his family. He plagiarised their lives. In Hannah and her Sisters, Mia Farrow’s real mother Maureen O’Sullivan played her on-screen mother as a drunken bawd. It was very close to the truth. “How can you act,” she asks, “If there’s nothing inside to come out?” I think that, for Allen, betrayal is love. That would explain why he stayed with Soon-Yi. The scope of the betrayal of Farrow nourished him.
“He always attracted to the crazies, the nutcases,” says Jack, (Sydney Pollack) in Husbands and Wives of the Allen character, “deep down somewhere he knows it’s not going to work, so he suffers and that kind of atones for some kind of early on guilt over what I don’t know”.
He writes in Nothing that his mother beat him daily, but he doesn’t dwell on it — nor did the critics, though it was the most interesting thing he wrote — and it flies away. She “always”, he writes, took the side of “anyone who hates me”.
I found the films brilliant but desolate, because a distinct post-war Jewish identity grew around Woody Allen, and it is self-hating. For a certain type of Jew, liking Allen’s work was a signal of status, and belonging. For non-Jews it signified a liking of Jews; a solidarity. This identity was born in the Holocaust, of course; he was born in 1935.
He wrote, for me, the best line on the Holocaust in cinema in Hannah and her Sisters. “You missed a very dull TV show about Auschwitz,” says Frederick (Max Von Sydow) “more gruesome film clips, more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question, ‘how could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is: why doesn’t it happen more often?”
That bitterness — that truthful cynicism — is what I want to hear. I don’t want Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List crying, “one more life”, with a redemptive ending patched on because Steven Spielberg panicked.
This identity is irreligious, existing to be thwarted — secular Judaism is flimsy — which is interesting, because Allen is like that too. But there was chosen-ness of a kind. Allen’s work is filled with pseudo-intellectualism — he taught me to namedrop Freud without reading him, he taught me to betray my readers — contempt for the homely, or religious, kind of Jew (his Jews are ghastly stereotypes) and social aspiration.
He mocked the New Yorker in cinema; in life he pitched to them. He mocked Hollywood in Annie Hall; in life, he demanded to star in What’s New, Pussycat?, the first film he wrote. In Nothing he writes with pride of his penthouse in the sky. That is the reason for his infamous attachment to Manhattan. It isn’t Brooklyn, where he was born. In Venice he stays at the Gritti Palace. In Paris he stays at the Ritz. He’s like the dentist he despises. His mother wanted him to be a dentist.
The self-hatred is so obvious; why couldn’t I see it? Was I laughing? The women — the love — are always unavailable. They are drug- or sex-addicted; too remote; too crazy; too young. Even if they weren’t, he would ruin it.
In Crimes and Misdemeanours, the nebbish plagiarises a love letter from James Joyce, and I can think of nothing more pitiful from a writer. In Stardust Memories he fantasises about placing the brain of a kind, plain woman in the body of a beautiful, mad one; but, he says later, he’d want the remnants instead: the mad drab. He cannot be happy.
Stardust Memories contains, for me, his essential revelation. An alien tells him, when he says his life is meaningless: “You’re not superman, you’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service, tell funnier jokes”. He used an alien for comedy, but it only exacerbated tragedy. He wanted to be a great film maker, but he remained a comedian. He collected none of his four Academy Awards. You could call it a peculiar kind of vanity, or you could call it imposter syndrome; his films leak shame. I think he is a great artist, though parochial. I am certain he would not agree.
When I first read the Soon-Yi story, I thought he should fire his shrink. He is famously in therapy, but narcissists are almost impossible to cure. And, like a narcissist longing to be found out he has goaded his audience to know him and suffers when they do; and Nothing is his surprised post-script. “I’ve seen it all before,” says a critic in Stardust Memories, “they try to document their private suffering and fob it off as art”. “The way your lead character views women,” Rain (Juliette Lewis) tells him in Husbands and Wives, “it’s so retrograde, it’s so shallow”. He kisses her on her 21st birthday and returns to Mia Farrow.
His work, then, was a brilliant deception on himself and others that, in the end, failed; when his audience realised they had practised the same deception on themselves, they ceased to believe anything he said. They stopped laughing.
Perhaps this is right, and he is a greater artist for being known — and loathed — than he was when misunderstood. I certainly find the films more moving now. He has exposed comedy for what it is; you could call that generous, even revolutionary, but it was probably unconscious. The work remains a luminous study in post-war Jewish self-hatred, and it will endure, but he has not morally survived it. He could not. Perhaps he should have listened to his mother. He should have been a dentist.