Donna Levin: Apropos of Woody Allen’s Autobiography

On Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing: When I was 15, I went to the Bridge Theater, here in San Francisco, to see Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run with my dad and stepmom du jour. There weren’t three seats together, so I sat by myself, which is what they call a metaphor.

But it was just as well, because I got to do all the overly loud guffawing and chortling, I wanted without embarrassing them any further than I had when I showed up wearing a mini skirt up to my pupik.

A devoted fan

I walked out of that theater a devoted fan of Mr. Allen and have remained so, in spite of scandal and some true cinematic clunkers: September, Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Christina Barcelona, and Irrational Man come to mind.

But then there’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan, Whatever Works, Midnight in Paris … and the movie I watch once a year: Annie Hall.

Apropos of Nothing: A scandalous memoir

For those readers who have boycotted the news for the past few months (and who can blame you?), Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse, has just released Woody Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing.

He had trouble finding a publisher for it, and when he did, that publisher, Hachette, backed out of the deal after some of its employees staged a walkout in protest. That little piece of theater was inspired by threats by Woody’s son, Ronan Farrow, who is also a Hachette author, to break ties with the company. Farrow claims, along with others, including the purported victim herself, that Mr. Allen molested his adopted sister, Dylan.

You can read Allen’s side of the story in Apropos of Nothing, and you can read the opposition’s side of the story everywhere else, at exhaustive length. My own belief is that he’s innocent of this crime. Pedophiliacs are never “one and done.” The origins of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn are troubling, but their marriage has now lasted 23 years, and if there were any drama (substance abuse, infidelity, tubes of toothpaste left uncapped) taking place behind the scenes, I’m pretty sure we would have heard about it. Friends and household help may be loyal, but there’s always someone who has their price.

So, that’s enough on that subject. Back to the book. Apropos of Nothing is almost 400 pages long, most of which are devoted to the rest of the author’s life and work.

No villains here

Allen first describes a childhood we’ve glimpsed in some of his movies: raised in Brooklyn by devoted parents (Allen preferred his father, even if Dad did have a bit of a gambling problem) and often extended family.

“As it is, having two loving parents, I grew up surprisingly neurotic. Why, I don’t know.” He’s adored his sister, Lettie, eight years his junior, since her birth, and they remain close today.

There are no villains here, no whining about neglect or deprivation; in an autobiography, this makes for a nice change, and almost, if not quite, compensates for his relentless description of women according to their appearance.

Of Barbara Hershey, “she was delicious to behold and gave new meaning to the word eros.” Naomi Watts is “not only very beautiful, but she has the sexiest two upper front teeth in show business.”

If observations such as these are a deal-buster, you’ll want to skip the book. (By the way, he has nothing but admiration, which he expresses in detail, for Mia Farrow as an actress. Now we really are finished with her.)

Most readers will be familiar with how Woody started in high school by writing jokes for columnists, then stumbled into television and screenwriting, and, for a while, into standup comedy.

Joining the movie business

His first involvement with the movie business was as writer for What’s New Pussycat, but he was so disappointed in the finished product that he sued to get his name taken off. After a similarly disappointing experience with What’s Up Tiger Lily, he vowed never to share artistic control with anyone, and he’s stuck to that. He wants “a paper bag with cash” and no questions.

Enough money-people have acceded to this demand that Allen has released a movie a year since 1982. (He missed 1981 but made up for it with two films in 1987.) That’s 42 films, in addition to the limited series for Amazon, A Crisis in Six Scenes (best forgotten anyway) and his not insignificant earlier output.

Flashes of brilliance

Many of them have flashes of brilliance that illuminate the darkness: that is, they make the 100 minutes (Allen’s films tend to be short) worth the watching.

But I’ve thought for some years: wouldn’t it be better to make fewer movies, and take more time on each one? He freely admits — except that it’s as much a boast as it is an admission — that he doesn’t have the patience to do a lot of rewriting, reshooting, or, usually, even to watch the dailies.

He shoots a lot of long masters (a shot that includes both actors in a scene) without much coverage (close ups on the individual actors) so when it comes time to edit, he and the editor have limited material to work with.

And he’s fine with that. He wants to knock off at 5:00 so he can catch the baseball game, presumably even in December.

These long masters do give a Woody Allen film some of their unique texture. And he manages to hire brilliant cinematographers, costume, and set and lighting designers, who cover a multiplicity of failings.

Repetition of plot devices

What they can’t hide is the repetition of plot devices: the ordinary man who becomes a murderer; the married man who falls for another woman even though he knows (and she warns him) that she’s “trouble.” His characters’ debates about the meaningless of life and the hopelessness of lasting love, are simultaneously part of his appeal to me and, at times, self-parody, presumably unintentional.

But after years of watching and re-watching Woody Allen movies, I identified a quality that only a few Hollywood films possess: they improve not only on second, but often on repeated viewings.

I walked out of Radio Days thinking, cute, but it’s no Annie Hall. But that’s like comparing every one of Eugene O’Neill’s plays to Long Day’s Journey into Night. Even Tolstoy wrote a novel that people don’t read as often as War and Peace. (That’s Resurrection, by the way, if you’re looking for something new that also comes with bragging rights.)

A few weeks ago, I saw Radio Days for probably the fourth time, and liked it better than the third time, and way better than the first time. Compare that to a movie like Forest Gump, which is feel-good and inspiring, but full of plot holes that open wide the second time around.

Parties, lunch, dinner dates … and name-dropping

Allen insists that he’s anti-social, but for a guy who doesn’t like going out, there are an awful lot of descriptions of parties, and lunch and dinner dates. There’s also an awful lot of name-dropping, but I don’t suppose we read the autobiography of a famous person to hear about their mailman.

If you’re a fan, like me, none of this will trouble you, as it will be outweighed by the fun of his humor and natural story-teller’s voice. I do wish that he had more to say about his movie-making process, beyond his lack of perfectionism, and less about the beauty of his female stars. I wish he had more insight into himself: just why has he been drawn to so many “troubled” women?

As Stephen Sondheim wrote for Into the Woods, “I wish a lot of things.”


Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.