A Review of Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen, Arcade Publishing (March 2020) 400 pages
Rolling Stone has pronounced Woody Allen’s new memoir, Apropos of Nothing, “horrendously ugly.” The writer, David Fear, is not enraged that the book, originally scheduled for publication by Hachette, was cancelled and pulped after employees staged a walkout. Nor is he relieved that it was rescued by a smaller house, Arcade, and published this month. Instead he suggests that the book be thrown into the furnace, that Allen is guilty of being an “elderly man” and that he has “a whole lot of creepy comments about the younger women he’s cast.” The Washington Post suggests that the book be used as toilet paper, that it is “terrible” and “preposterous” and “a giant piece of belly button lint.” The New York Times says that Allen is “incredibly, unbelievably tone deaf on the subject of women… Every time a woman is mentioned, there’s a gratuitous pronouncement on her looks.” The most inchoate review came from a young woman at the Forward who lamented the publication of the book after its earlier book-burning as “crass” and said it made her cry.
There are, to be sure, favorable, balanced, or at least rational reviews as well, in the Los Angeles Times, the Spectator, the New Republic, National Review, the Guardian, and by Bret Stephens in the New York Times, but in the main the book has triggered an outpouring of savage hostility in quarters that ought to be avatars of free speech and expression. The anger of many of these writers is not at the attempt to censor Allen, both his book and his new films, which are not being shown in the United States, or the continuing campaign of opprobrium against him, begun 25 years ago, but rather the fact that he has not been fully purged from polite society. He is still alive, vital, and writing. And funny, even about death: “At five or so, I became aware of mortality and figured, uh-oh, this is not what I signed on for. I had never agreed to be finite. If you don’t mind, I’d like my money back.”
So what is going on? Let’s begin with the critic at the Forward. What is she crying about? I’m quite certain she cried because Allen hasn’t understood that he is a powerful white man who took advantage of younger women, and that, when given an opportunity to confess to his crimes and acknowledge that his relationships were always disrespectful and outright criminal in at least one instance, he failed. There is not the slightest acknowledgment by most of these critics that Allen was cleared of all accusations by two major investigations: one was conducted by the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital—the prestigious institution chosen by Mia Farrow to examine her charge that Allen sexually abused her adopted daughter, Dylan—and the second by the New York State Child Welfare Department, which examined the case for 14 months. “It is our expert opinion that Dylan was not sexually abused by Mr. Allen,” the Yale report stated Dylan’s statements had “a rehearsed quality.” They were likely “coached or influenced by her mother.”
A puritanical rejection of spontaneous thought, creativity, and feeling plays a poisonous game today. The element of envy cannot be overlooked either, since the onslaught often seems to come from those who were kissing Allen’s backside not long ago, hoping to curry favor with him. In the heady days of the Communist Party, which practically invented the word “progressive” to denote clear, correct, proper Marxist thinking, “white chauvinism” was a cardinal sin, and to be convicted of it was to be cast out into the cold world. You could be denounced for looking the wrong way at a person of color, for not looking at all, for acting too friendly—which could be considered condescension—or for eating watermelon in front of them. A gaze, a look, a sigh—the possibilities were endless, and they were exploited by anyone who was jealous of or sought revenge on an enemy, wanted their job, their girlfriend or wife, or by ordinary hapless neurotics and nutcases. Ralph Ellison brilliantly portrays one of them in his account of the Harlem branch of the Communist Party in his novel, Invisible Man.
Allen’s defiance of what he calls the “Affirmative Police” is partly rooted in his experience as a director. A liberal, he is not opposed to affirmative action, except that “it does not work when it comes to casting. I always cast the person who fits the part most believably in my mind’s eye… I do not go by politics but by what feels dramatically correct to me.” He cannot help being true to himself. In this calm, blithe, and objective memoir, Allen emerges, at wild odds with his comedic persona, as a very tough, independent artist, a passionate lover of women, avowing his innocence of the one and only charge ever leveled against him in 84 years. He is more concerned with his own estimation that he has never made a great film. He weighs his work against Ingmar Bergman, De Sica, and Tennessee Williams and is harsh in his self-appraisal. Self-taught, he repeatedly asserts that he is no intellectual, and tells us he only read comic books until he realized he had to read real literature to appeal to the girls he was yearning to date.
When I began writing my biography of Allen in 2014, in spite of Mia Farrow’s long campaign of calumny against him, there was still stardust about him. He has been vilified as if he were a career rapist, and by now the sustained abuse might have pushed him near the margins. Yet he is clearly in good shape, roaming as he does here through a life of success and productivity, a life that had a lot of luck in it, but most especially hard work and a unique talent. But luck there was: he moved into a beautiful townhouse overlooking Central Park in Manhattan and installed glass doors from floor to ceiling. On the day of New York’s most spectacular fireworks display, he rushed to get his cameraman and from his balcony shot the beautiful display and soon it constituted the unforgettable opening of his film Manhattan.
The requisite of solitude has served Allen well throughout his incredibly successful life. He is not a sociable creature and calls himself a misanthrope. He is most comfortable writing, pacing his room for hours, waiting for the moment of creation. He waits long enough, and it comes. He makes clear that this is all that matters. It has made him impervious enough to the outside world, which he fears and dislikes, to withstand its slings and arrows. He insists he does not look back, that when a work is done he has no need to revisit it; he has only to find a new plot, a new story, and to do it as well as he can. The joy is in the doing; if the work fails, he accepts it and moves on. He has insisted all along that he does not read reviews of his work, and even when I wrote his biography, I didn’t believe him. He convinces me in this memoir, and it is an extraordinary strength. He has outlined the recurring themes of his films:
Certainly the seductiveness of fantasy and the cruelty of reality… the unsolvable problems: the finiteness of life and the sense of meaninglessness and despair and the inability to communicate. The difficulty of falling in love and maintaining it. These things are much more interesting to me than… I don’t know, the Voting Rights Act.
This ability to move on has its drawbacks, however. By planting the nude pictures of Soon-Yi, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, where she would be likely to find them, Allen acted cruelly and never really looked back. He was growing impatient with Farrow’s increasingly bizarre behavior and clearly wanted to end the relationship without a confrontation. The master of compartmentalization, Allen’s empathy tends to be mostly confined to his films. As his mother said in Wild Man Blues, a documentary about him directed by Barbara Kopple, she wished he were “a warmer person.” She added, “But he’s a good person.” Allen’s childhood pal, Jerry Epstein, a psychiatrist who died this year, told me that with Woody, it was “Me real, you shadow.” It was Epstein who got Allen into psychoanalysis at the age of 20. “I used to meet Lou Lind, a psychoanalyst I sent Woody to. We would commonly get around to talking about Woody. Lind said to me, ‘Woody did so well with me. But the one thing I missed is I didn’t seek to socialize him.’”
The roots of his triumphs go back to a happy, raucous childhood in Jewish Brooklyn, surrounded by loving parents and relatives. His father, whose favorite movies were Hopalong Cassidy westerns, was a happy-go-lucky wastrel, a gofer for the mob, a cab driver, and a waiter at Sammy’s Bowery Follies, a cabaret featuring plump red hot mamas in floppy hats on the bandstand singing saloon songs. He always carried a gun. When a cousin displayed an expensive ring at her wedding, she soon looked down and discovered it was missing from her finger. Woody’s father had stolen it.
Allen had a strained relationship with his strict and punishing (but loving) mother Nettie—who, he maintained, hit him every day. Nettie Konigsberg was unintentionally funny, never knowing what the joke was. A boyhood friend of Allen, Elliott Mills, recalls that Allen’s mother “was a hysteric, and Woody drove her to greater heights of hysteria. The angrier she got, the funnier she got. Woody would tell her in front of his boyhood pals that she looked like Groucho Marx, and she was both flustered and flattered. “Well, so what?” she said “He’s a handsome man.” “But Ma, you’re a woman!” Woody said, drawing gales of laughter.
Allen would taunt other women for many years of his adulthood: among them his first wife Harlene Rosen, whom he made fun of in his nightclub act and on television. He called her “Quasimodo.” He held up a picture of a house with her in front of it and said she was the one who had the shingles. He also said that on her birthday he gave her an electric chair, pretending it was a hair dryer. And, most famous of all, there is Mia Farrow and her discovery of the nude pictures of Soon-Yi. In a way this was Allen’s ultimate taunt. It was unconscionable. But conflating that behavior with the alleged molestation of his daughter Dylan, barring any facts or past patterns of similar conduct, is a huge leap. And I doubt that Mia Farrow really made that leap herself. After she charged Allen with these heinous acts, she inquired of her therapist about Allen: “Do you think I should marry him?”
Allen makes a compelling case against Farrow. He writes that when he and Mia were being interviewed by the investigators at the Yale-New Haven Clinic, Mia insisted that Dylan had been so upset by Allen’s molestation that she ran into the next room and sought comfort in the arms of her sister, Lark. Allen said to Mia, “You’re telling me that Dylan was so traumatized she fled weeping into the embrace of Lark?” When the investigator questioned why he asked, he replied, “Because Lark was not in Connecticut [Mia’s home] when you alleged that happened. She was in New York, so how could Dylan have run and embraced her?” There was an awkward silence and Mia replied, “I know Lark was in New York at the time, but Dylan embraced her spiritually.”
Allen plausibly traces Mia’s accusation that he molested Dylan in the family attic to composer Dory Previn’s song, “With My Daddy in the Attic.” (Previn and Mia Farrow were close friends until Farrow seduced Dory Previn’s husband, Andre. She also wrote a song about that experience with Mia after Farrow married Andre Previn. It was entitled “Beware of Young Girls.” Dory later committed suicide.) The lyrics of the “Attic” song are about a child being the victim of incest with her father in an attic and are uncannily prescient of the charges Mia brought against Allen in 1992 and repeated (along with her daughter Dylan) in 2014. Allen writes that Dory Previn communicated with him during the initial scandal that while at her home, Mia often sang the song aloud.
I trace Allen’s coolness to his early apprehension that his mother’s vulnerability was due to her lack of control over her emotions. In Deconstructing Harry he plays Harry Block, a writer who drives his psychiatrist wife to rage and frenzy by patiently explaining that he is having an affair with her female patient because he doesn’t meet women anywhere else. He says, “I was merely explaining why my choice of necessity is confined to your practice.” He baits and incites her while pretending that he does not understand his wife’s fury. Allen, the writer, of course has a total awareness of Harry’s seeming unawareness. Harry keeps it up: “I cannot understand why the most sophisticated of women can’t tell the difference between a meaningless, hot, passionate sexual affair and a nice, solid, tranquil routine marriage.”
Allen’s parents loved him but he was not understood by them at all. They shrugged and gave him the freedom to stay in his room and dream up stories, roam the hurly-burly of Times Square in its heyday, practice his magic tricks, fall in love with hundreds of movies at three movie theaters in Brooklyn, and especially with the old-time vaudeville shows sandwiched between the movies. Allen took notes on a candy box when he liked the comic’s jokes and he adored the tap dancers, acrobats, musicians, singers, and the impressionists of Cagney, Gable, and Crosby. He would incorporate some of those memories into his comic masterpiece, Broadway Danny Rose.
It’s a protean, fulfilled creative life. I was struck by the cascade of films he’s created, over 50 of them, 25 among the best work any director has given us in the last 60 years. They never grow old. Their rich layered textures bear watching again and again. Allen shrugs about the witheringly bad ones. It’s part of the process—the sublime Hannah and her Sisters and Radio Days were followed by the wretched Chekhov and Bergman knockoffs, September and Another Woman. His greatest film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, came soon after.
The #MeToo movement was an extraordinary gift to Mia Farrow. The campaign of vituperation she had waged against Allen ever since their breakup in 1992 had never abated, but its impact had somewhat waned with the passage of the intervening years. Farrow’s vengeance now overlapped with a fierce and unrelenting new force in American life, and an even intensified storm of savagery was unleashed on Allen. “Believe Women” was a dubious, simplistic slogan, inevitably targeting the innocent as well as the guilty. Allen was lumped in with predators like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein by millions who had no knowledge of what had actually transpired between Farrow and Allen so many years ago.
One of the actresses most prominently associated with the movement, a victim herself of abuse, referred to Allen as a “worm,” and this level of cruel character assassination was tolerated or even accepted and cheered on. It might be seen as Farrow’s rare good fortune that the leading journalist to emerge charting the investigation of sex abusers would be her handsome and dashing son (and Allen’s), Ronan Farrow. Ronan would make it clear at every opportunity that he considered Allen to be among the very worst of the predators. There is no doubt in my mind from Allen’s account that he deeply loved Ronan, once called Satchel, and Dylan and Moses, his adopted son who has confirmed Allen’s account of what transpired with Mia. His pain at being separated from Dylan and Ronan is palpable in this memoir.
What strikes me in this book is Allen’s acknowledgement that he had no real idea of what Mia Farrow was really like and what she was capable of. He writes of her troubled family past—alcoholism, the suicides of two of her brothers, the current incarceration of another brother for sexually abusing young boys. But, despite their many years together, he writes that he was taken unawares by the full brunt of her assault. He paints himself as the naif that in fact he may very well be, but it does not absolve him of obliviousness and a curious lack of self-reflection.
The key to Allen can be found in his discussion of one of his most brilliant films, Zelig. He writes that the film “was about how we all want to be accepted, to fit in, to not offend, that we often present a different person to different people knowing which person it might best please.” Allen, in the totality of his life and career, has had the strength and centeredness to avoid those traps. But his love appears to be primarily for his art.
David Evanier is the author of Woody: The Biography (St. Martin’s Press). He is the author of ten books, the former senior editor of The Paris Review, and a recipient of the Aga Khan Fiction Prize. He is writing the biography of Morton Sobell, convicted of espionage with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidEvanier.
Featured Image: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose (1984).