If you love Woody Allen, you’ll love the book; if you don’t love Woody Allen, then I advise you to stop reading here, don’t buy this book, and, for that matter, please do not do as I did last night, which is watch Manhattan again, a movie that, in this troubled and lonely time, made me actually stop worrying and love the quarantine. After all these years, I finally got it. As Isaac almost misses Tracy, these kvetching intellectuals miss the whole point. Manhattan is the metaphor for the thing they/we waste our lives not seeing.
Allen grew up in Brooklyn, raised by a rascally Runyonesque father and what sounds like a hideous mother, though he defends her at every turn. Psychoanalysts, start your engines.
He remembers the early years in Dickensian detail, which might be too much for some readers, but for those curious how this boy nebbish became a giant, this early run is comparable to the rich and heart-swelling first part of Moss Hart’s Act One—a long, leaping aria to jazz, girls, the movies, baseball, and New York, as sung by their greatest fan.
Allen’s not misanthropic here, though he’ll try to convince you otherwise. He still knows there’s no meaning and no God, and the portions are still too small, but—and I may be wrong—he seems to have actually enjoyed writing this book. I can’t say the same for any movie he’s made in the last 20 years, rendered as they are in mostly lifeless masters and one-liners verging on self-parody, as if cribbed from the depths of Without Feathers and dumped into Final Draft in a hurry to make it to the Knicks on time.
But memoirist Allen, it seems, really wants to be here. Though the book, as you probably know, was turned down everywhere before getting picked up by Grand Central, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, then dumped following an outraged e-mail from Hachette author Ronan Farrow and a protest by a group of employees at the publisher, and finally landing at Arcade, it is a work of literary merit by one of the 20th century’s cultural titans. Thank you, Arcade.
It’s also funny; hardly a page goes by without a few good laughs. But jokes are not what this is about. Apropos of Nothing isn’t overcrafted like stand-up and it isn’t out for blood like Portnoy’s Complaint, though it is, like those, a monologue. Think the Carnegie Deli guys in Broadway Danny Rose for 400 pages.
I hope—and I say this as a fan—that he never makes a movie again. But keeps writing. Allen flatly admits he doesn’t enjoy the filmmaking process. He loves writing and editing—and testifies time and again (and again) to his love and admiration for his actors and actresses—but not the cumbersome business of production. This unfortunately comes through. He reviews his films seemingly out of obligation to the fact that his life has largely consisted of making them. Those looking for insight into the mind of the artist or illuminating anecdotage from the sets of his best movies will be better served by Eric Lax’s biography.
The real meat here, as you may have imagined, or hoped, or feared, is Allen’s version of Mia and Dylan Farrow’s version. He addresses the allegations against him at length, and in so doing delivers (via deep rancor and even humor) an unseen Mia that would make Medea cringe. Who’s lying? Who’s telling the truth? After reading Allen’s account, you may find it credible, maybe even against your will. “Some [actors and actresses who have denounced Allen] said it was now their policy to always believe the woman,” he writes. “I would hope most thinking people reject such simple-mindedness. I mean, tell it to the Scottsboro Boys.”
Who’s lying? Who’s telling the truth? After reading Allen’s account, you may find it credible, maybe even against your will.
The detours he makes in the name of love—Paris; Elaine’s; A Streetcar Named Desire; his ex-wife Louise Lasser, to whom he remains devoted; his onetime best friend Jean Doumanian, whom he fell out with over money; Diane Keaton; and Soon-Yi—come through clearer and more meaningfully than anything Allen has to say about his work, so preoccupied as he is in the tedious business of self-flagellation. He describes his 1987 film September, for example, as “a drama that asks the question: Can a group of tortured souls come to terms with their sad lives when directed by a guy who should still be writing mother-in-law jokes for Broadway columnists?”
Allen says he never goes back to look at his work. Too many reminders of how he got it wrong, where he tried to be Bergman and failed, where Gordon Willis saved the day. To which one might reply, “But you hired Gordon Willis.” Yes, he hired Santo Loquasto and Michael Murphy and Dianne Wiest and Juliet Taylor and Bobby Greenhut, so I won’t let Woody get away clean calling himself merely lucky. He had—and has—the very good taste to work, time and again, with only the very best.
So, even if you refuse to watch Manhattan because of the (unproven) allegations against its director and improbable leading man, do yourself the favor of revisiting Bullets over Broadway for the actors, the designers, the songs. It would be a shame to deny yourself the life-giving virtues of their art. Which, yes, has its source in this man and his boyhood dreams. For better and worse, they haven’t changed since the late 1940s.
Sam Wasson is the author of six books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood