A witty, self-deprecating showbiz reminiscence and a detailed, persuasive self-defense
One of the greatest writers in American history has led a life filled with celebrity encounters, punctuated by spit-your-coffee scandals. The very fact that Woody Allen had trouble finding a publisher for this brilliant and unputdownable memoir tells you everything you need to know about the state of America’s censorious, judgey, anti-evidence, sloganeering culture. And yet, you must not skip this book.
Apropos of Nothing is essentially two books. First, there is the traditional memoir, detailing the author’s childhood in Brooklyn, his fascination with early performers who are recognizable influences for anyone who’s enjoyed his 48 feature films, and a too-brief skim through the making of each of those movies. Allen also takes a loving walk through romances past, recalling his first wife, Harlene Rosen, and first famous wife, Louise Lasser, with that same vivid insight that has helped him create some of the most memorable female characters In American cinema history.
The author describes himself in a way that will seem quite familiar to longtime fans of his work: The neurotic, cerebral city-dweller who delights in magic and New Orleans jazz. He expresses his disappointment that he’s raised “millions to make movies, total artistic control, and I never made a great film.” There is a ton of vitality left in that legendary pen, and even with a surplus of self-deprecating remarks, you feel an artist still awash in self-confidence. Along the way we glimpse his early days as a writer guided by Neil “Doc” Simon and Neil’s brother Danny, and other early influences like his manager Jack Rollins, who brings an unshakable belief in the nebbishy but headstrong young joke writer.
A Thorough Denunciation
Then there’s the second book. It’s a legalistic, thorough, and impossible-to-refute denunciation of the way the false molestation accusations against him have played out in the media, both when they were originally raised in 1992 and when they mysteriously resurfaced in 2018 after having been debunked.
The accusation at the core of this nearly 30-year ordeal has been thoroughly investigated and found to be untrue. At least twice. That’s good enough for me and it ought to have been good enough for all others like me, who have no independent knowledge or evidence beyond the investigations conducted by Yale’s Child Sexual Abuse Clinic and New York State Child Welfare Agency.
I have no new evidence to add here, and neither does anyone else. If you don’t accept the conclusion of the two highly regarded independent agencies, then I encourage you to spend some time on the blogs of Robert Weide and Moses Farrow. But a central deceit at the core of this book should be of greater interest to the reading public.
Allen’s whole schtick is to insist that he doesn’t care how he is remembered. One of his most famous one-liners is that he doesn’t want to achieve immortality through his work, he wants to achieve immortality through not dying. However, it’s crystal clear from both the proportion of this book devoted to details of the family ugliness, and from the Talmudic ferocity with which he argues his position, that he does care.
And he should care. Because at this point it’s not only about this or that actor who earns a flex on Twitter by announcing a refusal to work with Woody Allen. Right now, audiences throughout Europe are enjoying A Rainy Day in New York, while here in America distributors deny us the privilege of making up our own minds about this film. Is that the society the #metoo mob has prescribed for the rest of us?
When Woody Allen writes of actors who “heard that not working with me had become the thing to do—like everyone suddenly being into kale,” he’s totally correct. The fact that it became fashionably “courageous” to stand against child molestation shows the banality of Hollywood. It’s not courageous for Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite, or Ellen Page, or Greta Gerwig, to stand against something everyone in the known universe opposes. What takes courage is to stick up for someone who’s been falsely accused of unspeakable acts.
Ultimately, #metoo’s First Commandment, “Believe all women,” has felled Woody Allen. He makes reference to the painful results of such absolutism, citing the Scottsboro Boys. Had he written the book just a month or two later, he could just as easily have cited Amy Cooper. Were it not for the video taken by a falsely accused birder, that situation in Central Park might have played out very differently. Amy Cooper’s a woman. Do we still “believe all women”?
‘How could smart people believe this shit?’
It’s an infuriating tale for anyone who puts stock in quaint notions like the presumption of innocence or the sanctity of court findings. Allen’s own frustration is at its peak when he plays media critic. He calls out the hypocrisy of his estranged son, the journalist Ronan Farrow. According to Allen, Ronan Farrow joined the effort to kill author Daphne Merkin’s story about Soon-Yi in New York magazine. That’s rich for someone who made his own name by writing a book about the efforts of NBC to quash his reporting on Harvey Weinstein.
Therein lies one of the book’s weakest points, a blind spot that bedevils its author even as he’s clearly invested countless hours contemplating “How could smart people believe this shit?”
Allen’s disappointment and surprise at the way the New York Times has covered his struggles is naïve to the point of absurd. Because he agrees with the newspaper on many issues, he looked at the Times as some kind of ally. And yet it seems to give him zero introspection that maybe his thinking about those other issues, covered by exactly the same incurious journalists guilty of sloppy reporting in his case, might also benefit from a nuanced re-examination.
The filmmaker expresses his disappointment that the “usually reasonable and level-headed” New York Times called him “a monster.” Elsewhere he finds dismaying that the Times’ version of fairness is to report Dylan’s accusation and add only that Allen “denied” the account, rather than including the fact that “I had been thoroughly investigated and totally cleared of the accusation by both separate major investigations.” Allen doesn’t get it. The New York Times that he’s disappointed in just isn’t the same New York Times upon which Daniel Ellsberg relied.
Woody Allen is similarly disappointed in Hillary Clinton for returning the double max donation he and Soon-Yi tried to make in 2016. He jokes that maybe that $5400 would have helped her carry Pennsylvania. This unwavering faith in the exact cowardly peers who dumped him is so mysterious for an allegedly thoughtful and scrupulous person. What leads him to believe Hillary Clinton would be an able President when she’s shown such disregard for truth and justice in his case? In a twist that is a sign of our times, one of Mia Farrow’s lawyers who tormented Woody Allen during the original trial was Alan Dershowitz, who himself has now been falsely accused and targeted for cancellation and social ruination.
Allen notes that in addition to other performers who heroically denounced him, his liberal heroes have also let him down, including iconic old-school journalist Murray Kempton and the feminist Gloria Steinem. To be sure, some of his past collaborators, such as Alec Baldwin, Scarlett Johansson, Diane Keaton, Joy Behar, and Larry David, have publicly supported Allen, despite campaigns designed to bully them into dumping their friend.
More movies, less scandal
Allen seems equally shaken that his unmatched history of providing meaningful opportunities to women in the business counts for almost nothing by the rules of today’s mob. Names that are familiar because of him even to casual moviegoers, like the editor Susan E. Morse (who he refers to by her nickname Sandy) or his longtime casting director Juliet Taylor, not to mention hundreds of meaty, nuanced roles he wrote for women. Even in this memoir, women get some of the great lines. His mother comes in for pretty rough treatment for insufficiently appreciating his genius. But he depicts her reacting to his clarinet practice by saying, “Oy, I have such a headache from his tweeting on his fife.”
As much as I appreciated the detail about the personal turmoil, the failure to delve more deeply into his movies weights the book even more in the direction of legal summation. The author maintains that he has learned very little technically about filmmaking and uses that as justification not to include particulars about lighting and camera gear. Fair enough. But the inclusion of just one quick anecdote per movie left me hungering for more, because those tales are splendid.
One involves the casting of Lou Canova, the has-been singer at the heart of Broadway Danny Rose. The role is one of Allen’s greatest writing creations, but it’s impossible to envision it being played by anyone other than the then-unknown Nick Apollo Forte. Allen reveals that he had auditioned Robert Goulet and Jimmy Roselli. But he also reveals that Diane Keaton insisted Apollo Forte was the guy. This demonstrates not only Keaton’s exquisite taste but how much faith Allen placed in his former girlfriend and frequent leading lady.
There are charming moments of self-reference. He recalls the time lightning struck his 5th Avenue penthouse and mentions expecting “to be barbecued as I pound out a puckish satire of contemporary mores.” I’ve been killing with that ‘puckish satire’ line since I first heard it in 1974’s Love and Death.
Allen’s criticism of today’s standup comics is spot-on, as well. “Did you ever go on one of those fucking Caribbean cruises? They’re the fucking worst.” He also wonders why he’s seen four-hour Shakespeare plays that function as nightly endurance challenges for the performers, but every comedian needs to hit a bottle of Poland Spring during his 20-minute set. “Where did all these thirsty comics come from?” He’s still got it.
Endearingly human errors
I read Apropos of Nothing in both hardcover and audiobook and they’re equally delightful. Woody Allen said of Martin Landau’s performance in Crimes and Misdemeanors (my vote for Allen’s “great movie”) that “of all the actors I ever worked with, Marty read my dialogue exactly the way I heard it in my mind.” That’s why the audiobook is such a pleasure, with Allen narrating his own life story.
There are several endearingly human errors in the performance, reminding us that for a guy incredibly precise with his language, he’s also 84 years old. When he meets a distant relative to ask a favor, he means to say “tenuous connection” and instead says collection; elsewhere he intends to call David Panich a “gifted sculptor” but says gilted. Some of the errors are more substantial, such as when he says that Barbara Hershey played Hannah. Of course he is referring to Hershey’s amazing performance as Lee, the sister of Hannah, who is masterfully played by Mia Farrow. That section is correct in the printed book, but wrong on audio.
An interesting idiosyncrasy throughout is that despite the tremendous hostility that remains between Allen and Farrow, Allen never takes that out on his assessment of Farrow as a performer. He gives her full credit for the enormous range she showed in his films, from the wisecracking, sunglass-wearing Tina in Broadway Danny Rose to her tremendous performance as the vulnerable daughter of a larger-than-life mother in September. He also correctly assesses his own work, judging that latter film as a noble but unsuccessful attempt at American Chekhov.
If Woody Allen has indeed failed to measure up to Anton Chekhov–he would likely say Tennessee Williams came closest in America—then that leaves a hell of a lot of room to be pretty good. Apropos of Nothing reveals one of the hardest-working artists America’s ever known. At 84, having just finished shooting his next film, he might get there yet.