Whether or not you would consider yourself a fan of Woody Allen, it’s likely you have an opinion about Woody Allen. My kids – whose ages range from 14 to 20 – have an opinion on Woody Allen and it’s not (for the most part) based on his films. You may like him, you may detest him. You may think him a sexual predator or worse; you may think him the victim of his own just desserts; you may think him a man wronged by a woman scorned, whose clarion call was taken up by a vengeful media – all of these views co-exist. Apropos of Nothing – which has itself arrived on the crest of a controversial wave that has seen its original publisher decide against publishing the book after staff walk outs – is a biography, in which Allen seeks to tell the story of his life, the way he would arguably want it told, from childhood, through burgeoning fame, through wild success and then, as we know, infamy. Scandal. Early on in proceedings, Allen hopes the reader hasn’t bought the book just to hear about all of the disgrace. But then neither does he duck the disgrace or sidestep the disgrace when it comes. And when it comes it comes in buckets.
First the good stuff. If you like Woody Allen, if you followed his films through the undeniable ups and downs and have the necessary detachment to recognise, even when one of his films cannot be counted amongst his best, there may still be elements that work, odd lines, jokes, observations, shots, that make it worthwhile, there will be much here of interest. Allen tells a good tale and the stories of his father (and his father’s run-ins with mobsters) are lively and entertaining. Similarly, when he gets to the point where he is making a name for himself as a crafter of gags and funny lines, as he is debating the move into stand-up, as he is honing his trade on the rural circuits with other wannabe comedians – it’s pretty much all solid gold. Allen is humble, perhaps even to the extent of being unafraid of the odd humblebrag here and there, and so is always quick to puncture any moment of triumph with a “not bad for a boy from…” kind of a line. He is also upfront about the ways in which he has used intellect (not considering himself an intellect in the least bit) to define a persona for his comedic self, when actually he was always more of a sports fan type. He is generous about older comedians (and in fact lays a lot of his success at the door of older comedians who were charmed by the respect he afforded them) and generous about the people he has worked with over the years (although – and there is a big although – he has certain tendencies which we’ll touch upon in a moment). It’s also really interesting to hear what he thinks of his own films – it’s quite well known that he doesn’t rate Manhattan (one of my personal all-time faves) but it’s interesting to hear him put a film like Crimes & Misdemeanours (which I love and which Allen pretty much dismisses) far below the likes of Manhattan Murder Mystery (which Allen cherishes as one of his favourites). What’s more, Apropos of Nothing serves as a healthy reminder that for every dud there is a Bullets Over Broadway, a Broadway Danny Rose, a Sweet & Low, a Blue Jasmine. You read Apropos of Nothing as a fan and you’ll want to rewatch some of these movies.
The bad stuff? Allen has a tendency to talk up the beauty of his leading ladies. Once upon a time that would no doubt have been considered generous too. But no more. Those times are gone. To hear an eighty plus year old man describe Scarlett Johannsson as “sexually radioactive” is quite hard to stomach – and there are a lot of examples of this throughout the book. Such and such was charming – and so beautiful. Such and such was hot. Such and such had legs to die for. Such and such… On and on it goes. It may be that Allen (or even you, dear reader) thinks, hey, what’s the harm in objectifying women. I have to say (and this is as a fan, someone who would rise to Allen’s defence on other matters) it’s a little hard to bear. By the time he describes Cate Blanchett only in terms of her acting ability, I felt the need to rise to Cate’s defence and say hey, isn’t she beautiful too, Mr Allen? Huh? And then I hit myself on the head with a pan. Where for me it was an annoyance, I can imagine that there would be readers who would find this stuff pretty indigestible. I can also imagine that there would be people in the world who regard Allen as a sexually depraved lowlife for whom this stuff would be grist to their mill.
What about the scandal? By which we mean the way in which his relationship with Mia Farrow came apart, the way in which his relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi began. There are facts, of course, that Allen lays out (like the often mis-quoted fact that Soon-Yi was adopted by Mia Farrow and Andre Previn, Allen never adopted her and never really had much of anything to do with her until she about 18 or 19 – and we know as we write that there will be people in the world who would condemn Allen for being a 42 year old man who would have a relationship with a woman that young – but people do, all over the world, all of the time) and there are uncomfortable moments (there is no getting around the painful Polaroids episode without coming off like a heel), but there is also undeniable evidence in his favour (like the investigations that found nothing, like the fact that there are other Farrow children willing to come forward and talk about how Farrow coached them to say terrible things and made their lives undeniably difficult if they didn’t). What you feel, more than anything else, reading these segments of the book is sadness. What a mess, you think. Nobody comes out of it well. Not Allen, not Farrow, not Farrow’s son Ronan. There is deviousness on all sides. And, in the middle of it all, is a person who has very real issues, irrespective of what she believes and whether it is true or not. Whatever Allen says, whatever the Farrow camp says, there will always be a dark blemish upon Allen because there will always be people who think the worst. He cannot shake it. He mounts a spirited defence here, and if you are interested in his side of the story, you’ll get it. But nobody comes out of this well. (Possibly the best overview of this mess is actually here in a review of the recent Farrow doc.)
Even now, having read the book, I continue to consider myself a fan, continue to enjoy his films and to rewatch a great many of them on a fairly regular basis. He continues to make me laugh and he has made me laugh here. There is great sadness too, however you cut it. A great deal of pain. A lot of flames fanned. As such, it’s impossible to read Apropos of Nothing and come away feeling like hey, you should definitely read this! If you are a fan, there are a lot of stories here that will amuse and entertain. If you are not a fan, if you think Allen a demon, it’s unlikely this book will dissuade you otherwise.
Any Cop?: Entertaining and troubling in equal measure then but I’m glad I read it and I’m glad I got to hear Allen’s side of things. But you can’t help but feel there are minds that have long been made up and he isn’t going to change them. (Not that he probably cares by this point.)