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Friday, April 17, 2020

And Now, for Something Completely Different. . .

Last week I read a new book, Apropos of Nothing, the autobiography of Woody Allen.  Before I describe the book and tell you what I think about it, I should perhaps say something about how I came to read it.

I am not sure, but I think that the first real Woody Allen movie I ever saw (he didn't make much of an impression on me in What's New Pussycat, which he helped write), was the hilarious Take the Money and Run, which I think I caught at the Orson Welles Cinema near Harvard Square in 1970 or 1971.  Then came Play It Again Sam, which he wrote and starred in but didn't direct, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, which included at least two absolutely hilarious episodes.  By that time, Woody--from the Silent generation, born in late 1935--was an idol of a certain portion of the Boom generation, including myself, because of his humor and because he put things on the screen that no one else would.  Later in the 1970s, of course, came Annie Hall and Manhattan, as well as his first foray into serious drama, Interiors.  By then, as he explains in Apropos of Nothing, he had the power to get final cut for all his movies--partly because they have always been relatively inexpensive.

I am now looking at the complete list of films that Woody has directed.  Those that I really enjoyed and would never get tired of include Take the Money and Run, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love, Blue Jasimine, and A Rainy Day in New York, which I watched last month on a DVD I had to buy from Poland (more later on that.)  (Several others, including Love and Death, didn't quite make that cut.)  I also love Play it Again, Sam, which he wrote but did not direct, and The Front, directed by Martin Ritt, in which he played the lead.  That makes fifteen total movies that he wrote and directed that I really loved, out of a total of 49 full-length films, which works out, oddly enough, to a batting average of a little over .300.  Woody is a baseball fan, and his enormous strength and weakness as an artist is that he makes a movie every year, and that he understands, as he has said, that some will inevitably turn out much better than others.  For me the remainder of his films fall into two categories, the ones I enjoyed and the ones that I would have been just as happy had he never made them at all.  Thanks to facebook, however, I know now you can't name any of his movies that some people didn't like.  Or anyone else's movies, for that matter, but that's another story.  Several times in Apropos of Nothing Woody remarks that when a movie goes badly, the writing is almost always the reason.  The reverse is also true.  In his masterpieces, like (for me) Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry, the energy in virtually every line of dialogue is incredible.  Several of his plots and story designs are also extraordinary.

Personally, Woody Allen is obviously   very complex, and I realized long ago that like certain other artistic heroes of mine like George Orwell and Marcel Proust, he is much more fun to know through his work than he would be in person.  In the autobiography, as in his films, he wears his neuroses on his sleeve, including a phobia about social situations, hypochondria, and much more.  I also felt that despite many decades of therapy, he is still in denial on some points.  He repeatedly says that he felt plenty of love growing up, but it's not always easy to see that in the stories he tells about his parents, especially his mother.  He also claims that he doesn't care what anyone else thinks about his work, and he proudly repeats over and over that he never reads what critics, or others, have to say about it.  That, it seems to me, is a case of the man protesting too much.  I do care what other people think about my books, but not so much that I'm too terrified to see if some one has said something negative about one (as people have from time to time.)  I agree with him, though, that the best way to keep your sanity if you are dedicated writer or author is to get going on the next project before the last one comes out.

Apropos of Nothing is, in its own way, riveting, informative, and revealing.  Woody obviously wrote it without any help--the persona it projects could not have been invented, or even mimicked, by a ghost.  His memory remains excellent and he goes into his childhood and youth in great detail.  He tells us in great detail about his key relationships with Harlene, his first wife (I just spent five minutes searching for her last name in the book and I now think that it isn't there); with Louise Lasser, his second wife, who acted with him in several films; with Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and, of course, Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's adopted daughter and now his wife, with whom he has spent the last 28 years, as well as another whom I will mention in due course.  He admits to plenty of responsibility for the failure of some of these relationships.  It is interesting that with the notable (and total) exception of Mia Farrow, all the major women in his life have apparently remained lifelong friends.  I have seen in my own life the hold that impossible men seem to hold on many women, perhaps simply because of their neediness. 

Perhaps the second-biggest subject of this book--after Woody's own life--is comedy.  With loving detail, he describes the comic environment of the 1950s into which he was introduced and which shaped him.  It included men like Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, Norman Lear, and perhaps Woody's favorite, Mort Sahl.   It was a world of clubs, television shows, and Hollywood movies, and he became involved in them all.  And it was not without integrity.  At one point Woody quotes his long-time agent Jack Rollins telling him not to do anything just for the money--if you do what you believe in, he said, the money will take care of itself.  That has been my credo as well, but I would have loved at some point to hear either an agent or an editor say it.  I never have.

One of the most fun parts of the book was seeing the connections between his life and various movies he has made.  While none of the films, clearly, is totally autobiographical--not even Annie Hall or Radio Days--bits of his life pop up everywhere.  When he described the New York apartment of Louise Lasser's well-off family, I thought that I had been transported to the set of Interiors: everything was just so.  The scene in Manhattan where Isaac and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) take a horse and buggy ride through Central Park came from his relationship with Louise--who also looks like the model for many of the impossible women the heroes of his films can't resist.  The hilarious episode in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex in which Woody and Louise play an Italian couple who have sex in public because that's the only way she can become aroused is based on an episode in their relationship. Like Isaac in Manhattan, Woody made his living early in life writing for TV comedy shows.  His cinematic love affairs with Paris and Rome come from his own life as well.  The story of the production of John Cusack's play in Bullets over Broadway, complete with out-of-town tryouts, draws heavily on his own successful Broadway play, Don't Drink the Water.  And so on.

And now I must turn to the most controversial aspects of his life, which are also the subject of many pages of the book.  Woody Allen, as you all know, now has the reputation among many, many people of being a sexual abuser if not a pedophile.  That has had an enormous impact upon his life at two different times--in 1992 and subsequently when he was first accused of serious offenses, and in the last few years, largely because of the #MeToo movement.  I certainly am not going to retrace the whole story of those accusations but I will try to make some things clear about which I feel strongly.

Let us to begin with separate out various elements of these accusations.  Woody Allen and Mia Farrow had had a relationship of more than ten years in 1992 when all hell broke loose.  They had been romantic partners, they had worked together on various movies, they had adopted two children together, and they had tried to conceive a child together, resulting in the birth of Satchel Farrow, now a successful journalist known as Ronan Farrow.  They had however never lived together (and apparently had spent relatively few nights under the same roof), and had never married.  Their romantic relationship had apparently come to an end several years earlier after Satchel/Ronan's birth.

It was at this point in 1992 that first Mia Farrow, and then the whole world, discovered that Woody was having an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom she had adopted from a Korean orphanage when she was eight years old.  Soon-Yi was not one of the children that Woody and Mia had adopted together, and she evidently disliked Woody during the 1980s because she thought he was under the thumb of her mother, whom she detested.  By the time of their affair she was 21 or 22 and living on her own; he was 56.  Whatever one may think about the beginning of this relationship, it certainly means something that they have been together ever since, have married, and raised two adopted children of their own together.  I must say, however, partly for humorous reasons, that perhaps Woody's greatest piece of self-delusion in the book is the statement that Mia Farrow discovered the naked polaroid pictures he had taken of Soon-Yi on a visit to his apartment by accident.  It reminded me of one of the most brilliant lines in Manhattan, when he is arguing with his ex-wife Jill (played by a very young Meryl Streep) about an incident in the past when, Jill says, he had tried to run her gay lover over with his car.  He claims it was an accident.  "What would Freud say?" She asks. "Freud would say I tried to run you over,"  he replies. "That's why he was a genius." q.e.d.

Now the second element of the accusations against Woody related directly to the revelation of the affair with Soon Yi.  Many immediately recalled the affair between 42-year old Isaac (Woody) and 17-year old Tracy (played brilliantly by Mariel Hemingway) in Manhattan and used this (and at least one non-sexual friendship in another film, Crimes and Misdemeanors) to suggest that Woody, like Roman Polanski, had a long-standing obsession with very young women.  Now in fact, Tracy was based on a real 17-year old, a young New Yorker and aspiring actress named Stacey Nelkin, whom Woody had met when she auditioned for and then shot a scene for Annie Hall (the scene didn't make the final cut.)  They had had  a real affair and she also appeared much later in a small role in Bullets over Broadway.  As Nelkin explained just a couple of years ago, she regards the affair as a wonderful experience, has no regrets, and certainly does not believe the more serious accusations against him.  I highly recommend that any interested reader watch the interview Nelkin (now 60) did just a couple of years ago here.  And as Woody points out in Apropos of Nothing, Stacey Nelkin and Soon-Yi are the only two much younger women that he has ever been romantically involved with.  Nor has any actress--including the ones (see below) who have recently expressed regrets for having worked with him--ever accused him of making any unwanted advances on a movie set or trying to take advantage of his position.

Last and most important was the accusation leveled by Mia Farrow 1992, and backed up then by their adopted daughter Dylan (then seven years old), that shortly after the Soon Yi story had broken, Woody had visited the Farrow household in Connecticut to spend some time with his children, had taken Dylan in to a crawl space off an attic, and sexually molested her.  In the wake of the accusation, authorities in two states--Connecticut and New York--investigated it thoroughly.  Both teams concluded that the sexual assault had not taken place and no charges were filed.  Obviously, the New York authorities would never have permitted Woody Allen and Soon Yi to adopt two daughters of their own had they thought they were credible.  We are taught in the United States to judge people innocent until proven guilty: Woody Allen was investigated and found innocent by trained professional investigators who look into cases like this for a living.

Another part of the story, which Woody goes into in excruciating detail, is the issue of Mia Farrow as parent, and the really hair-raising accusations which two of her adopted children--Soon Yi and Moses Farrow, who has now become a therapist, defends his adoptive father, and has written a long blog post of his own explaining why the molestation accusation could not possibly be true--have repeatedly made.  Two people who worked in the Farrow household have backed them up.  The children, inevitably, have now split into pro-Mia and pro-Woody camps.   I leave it to anyone interested to look into the controversy themselves, in Apropos of Nothing,  Mia Farrow's own memoir, and elsewhere, and try to reach their own decision.  I see no need to go into it any further here.

Back in 1992, Woody faced years of civil legal proceedings to determine the custody of their children (which he lost) as well as the two investigations.  He got a lot of bad publicity again but continued making movies and the late 1990s became, for me, one of his most productive periods.  Gradually the controversy died down, but it has re-ignited in the last few years thanks largely to the #MeToo movement, which encouraged Dylan Farrow to renew her investigations.  (Her brother Ronan, now a journalist, has played a big role in exposing the behavior of Harvey Weinstein and others that kicked that movement off.) And this time--despite the complete lack of any new evidence about a thoroughly investigated, 27-year old accusation--the consequences for Woody Allen have been devastating.   Several actresses who worked with him, including Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for her role in Mighty Aprhodite (and never had a comparable success again), have attacked him and expressed regrets for working for him.  Amazon.com backed out of a long-term deal to finance his annual productions.  Until recently almost any actor in the world was delighted to get in front of a camera for Woody Allen; now many are refusing to do so.  He does still have many defenders, including Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett (who won an Oscar for her reprise of the role of Blanche DuBois in the brilliant Blue Jasimine), and Diane Keaton, but they are an embattled minority.  His last movie--which I think was a very good one, Rainy Day in New York--has not been shown or released on DVD in his own country, the United States, although it has deservedly done very well in Europe.  He has managed to complete yet another movie, and I am looking forward to it.

I am very sad that all this has happened to one of our finest filmmakers, who captured so much about the Awakening of the 1960s and 1970s, and whose best films also touch on truly profound issues about human life, and who is now 84 years old.  I am glad that he took the time to write this book, which Ronan Farrow convinced Hachette publishers not to publish after they had contracted for it with Woody. (Perhaps Woody and his new publisher, Arcade Publishing, should thank Ronan for the free publicity. The book appears to be selling very well.) Allen has fallen victim, in many ways, to a new blacklist.  Martin Ritt, who directed him in The Front, was off the blacklist after just a few years, and the whole blacklist lasted only a little more than a decade, but Woody has been devastated by a discredited accusation from 27 years ago.  I am glad that he is still working and living his life, and I will close by linking the final scene of The Front--one of my favorites--in which his character, Howard Prince, faces up to the blacklisters of another time.


Bozon said...

I think it is wonderful that you are taking up so inflammatory and divisive an issue so well.
Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Having defended sexual abuse cases, it rang certain bells for me.

Some different bells than those rung in these matters in the excellent discussion of them here.

We are seeing some of the bad bells in some of the #metoo accusations and prosecutions, eg Weinstein's guilty count for acts and an ongoing relationship with a glorified prostitute.

There was a time, back, then, when experts for the state attorneys, at the local level, in many places, had a sort of social science witch hunt mandate at that time to tend to give credence, and to bolster whatever evidence was claimed to exist re allegations of abuse: of almost any kind, often originating from difficult family group relations and dynamics.
Foster children, adopted children, divorcees with boyfriends and children, a whole very diverse group of social situations where players within those diverse kinds of so called family groups sought power within the group, and to side with one or another, or against another.

Once it became obvious, especially in the early 90s, that law enforce, departments of children and families, would not only listen to claims of any kind, but in many cases willingly stepped in and tried to fabricate, by coaching, accounts tending to show evidence of things even that never happened, sometimes with young children, easy to coach that way, it was open season, and as you say one became guilty until proved innocent.

My views on Woody Allen's work are not adulatory like yours at all. Terms search: Woody Allen.

But he may well deserve better than what he has gotten I think.
And it was brave to say so in print.
I am waiting for more of the back story, from other sources.
There is a lot more I could say, but enough for one comment.
All the best

Unknown said...

Recognizing that the greatest cultural achievement of the Silent Generation is the self-effacing comedy that has kept us from becoming unduly stuffy (Andy Griffith, Leslie Nielsen, Marilyn Monroe, Dick Van Dyke, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Alan King, Marcel Marceau, Tim Conway, Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, George Carlin, Alan Alda, Flip Wilson, John Cleese (and most of the Monty Python crew), Gene Wilder, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Pryor... and even such sports figures as Yogi Berra, Alex Karras, and Bob Uecker did their own comedy fairly well. The most brilliant of them all was of course Woody Allen. But brilliance does not keep people from personal vileness. Just think of Richard Wagner. It would be far easier to love Wagner's music if we didn't have to think of the person who composed it. As the Silent Generation dies off and the few remaining great comedians of their generation no longer do comedy their art becomes fossilized. It is no longer fresh.

In the meantime we get deadly serious about things that we would be wise to laugh off.

Can I compare Silent comedy to the baroque composers Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Telemann, D. Scarlatti, and Zelenka? Maybe. One can listen to Bach and remain a pompous ass.

Here is my hope that we will get a revival of the sort of comedy that we need so that we can laugh when we are stressed. Supposedly the Millennial Generation is Civic, and the youth are going to be an Adaptive/Artist generation.

Great comedy is wisdom with a zinger. We now get the zinger, but because we cannot laugh at some of our political figures we can only cry.

And that was so before CORVID-19 gave us Americans the worst mass death, for at least a month and a half, since the Civil War. There's no potential humor, unless gallows humor, about CORVID-19.

Energyflow said...

Woody Allen remains a cultural icon to me, but then again I left the states as the 80s finished and did nt follow his later work and could never figure out what was going on in those accusations. If he has been many years happily married then it seems he was caught up in a cultural witch hunt which so often sweeps across a country. You know well my stance on US foreign policy, particularly regarding Russia since the Ukraine and Syrian problems got going. Getting caught on the false side of power struggles, in the case noted male/female struggle, is a losing game, competely hopeless. Trump wanted to make up with Russia but had to back down as the entire establishment was against it and used russiagate to force him in this sense. Tht was our latest witch hunt. Once we find a bad situation of some sort then every problem is a a nail and all you have is a hammer. There is only one idea in your head. People obsess, not finesse. Millions of Americans are in jail(1/4 of global prison ppulation). 80% of prescription drugs are used in America. By far largest military and most expensive medical industry. Need I go on? Like ths proverb about Texas, always biggest. If exaggeration is a national pastime then it seems we should project that generally before taking anything said in America without a grain of salt. The British stereotype of 'understatement, reserve, tight upper lip'can be held in comparison here, along with other national characteristics. I wish Woody and yourself all the best. Artists like him and Chapln had quite a reputation with the women. I saw a video biography of chaplin recently on youtube. He also ended up with a young woman and living abroad in Switzerland till his death but it was red scare that caught him. For every generation its own excess. Very predictable. Ho hum. Germany will get through this crisis bored while America ups its debt and creates an exaggerated surveillance state. Nothing new here. For normal life go elsewhere.

Antonia Tejeda Barros said...

Thank you very much! We love, support, and admire Woody! Woody's films make life better. I will never forget all the stupid people who was false accused Woody. He's a victim of a social lynching hysteria. But the page is turning. You can read more about Woody's case here: https://www.ibelievewoody.com/
Many greetings from Spain. Stay safe / Antonia

PJ Cats said...

Dear Prof. Kaiser

A belated comment, meant to point you at this article in today's Guardian (05-29-20):


The title is a bit stupid, the artcle itsrelf isn't. All the best, be happy.

Bozon said...


Having read the article PJ Cats cites above,
for now, I still side with DK on this,
my views on Woody's art aside.

All the best

Guyplasschaert said...

Professor, The family name of Harlene is Rosen.
All the best from Belgium, a fine country that is known to be surreal and absurd... hence our admiration for Woody Allen.

Bozon said...


Having now heard more of the back story, I have to swing over to the Woody haters.
I cannot get into details.

I had already long castigated his art.

This is a different issue.

All the best,