I had a great time reading Woody Allen’s autobiography, “Apropos of Nothing.” It was one of the rare times I had to put a book down because I was laughing so hard. Although it would be hard to prove if the evidence were only his last few movies, the man definitely still has a wonderful sense of humor.
The book is essentially a stream-of-consciousness recap of Woody’s life, from childhood through his start as a television writer to his standup years to most of his movies and right up through the present. From page one on, he takes very few breaks, no chance for you to say, “I’ll just get to the end of this section and then make a sandwich.” There are no chapters and no index, but he covers a lot of topics (and tangents).
I was disappointed that Woody doesn’t go into a lot of technical detail of how he makes movies, saying he’s ignorant of most of the process, but loves doing the job. He’s been long known for the freedom he gives actors to develop their own characters, to the point where they don’t have to say the words he’s written as long as they get the points across. He explains that, but if you’re a film student and wonder why he chose a certain lens in this scene or lit the set for that scene, you won’t find the answers here.
What you will get are plenty of stories of the people he’s worked with, including how managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe steered his decades-long professional life so brilliantly. He writes about how an ugly fight over money ended his longtime friendship with Jean Doumanian, who produced many of his movies. He explains how editor Ralph Rosenblum helped make sense of some of his earlier projects, and what it was like to work for other directors like Herbert Ross (“Play It Again, Sam”), Paul Mazursky (“Scenes From A Mall”), and Martin Ritt (“The Front”).
Woody also writes about his marriages to Harlene Rosen and Louise Lasser, his personal and professional relationship with Diane Keaton, and, of course, his years with Mia Farrow, which ended when her seven-year-old daughter Dylan accused him of sexual assault. A large middle section of the book is devoted to this controversy, with Woody explaining yet again that he was never found guilty of any crime, that two investigations ruled that there was no evidence he’d done anything wrong, and that the accusations were more than likely ginned up by Mia — who encouraged Dylan to lie — in order to get back at Woody for beginning a relationship with now wife of 20+ years, Soon-Yi.
You may believe Dylan, but there’s no denying Woody lays out his whole side of the story in the book. It’s a major deep-dive into the subject, which he returns to at the end to address the actors who — after Dylan and brother Ronan Farrow reignited the long-dormant controversy a few years ago in the wake of #MeToo — have made public statements wishing they’d never worked with him, as well as those who have supported him. He glosses over his lawsuit against Amazon for not following through on its contract with him to produce a six-part streaming TV show, but claims that the movie he made a few years ago, “A Rainy Day In New York,” which was never released in the US, has been a hit in many European countries.
Ironically, despite all of that, Woody still speaks fondly of Mia, particularly the performances she gave in a dozen of his movies. It was inarguably the best work of her career, and I’d rank “Broadway Danny Rose” right behind “Annie Hall” on any list of Best Woody Allen Movies.
Woody also debunks the idea that he’s obsessed with young women in real life — though he wrote many movies in which his character had that attraction and did marry Soon-Yi, who is 35 years his junior. But even a cursory examination of his filmography would reveal that he gave leading roles to an enormous number of actresses, many of whom won Oscars and other awards for playing parts he wrote.
There’s one section towards the end of “Apropos Of Nothing” where Woody muses about possibly returning to stand-up comedy, a topic he discussed with Larry David, who starred in his movie “Whatever Works.” Having written for tuxedo-clad cliché-spewing nightclub comics in the 1950s and making several of his own refreshingly clever albums in the 1960s, Woody mentions a few stand-ups he’s admired, but says there’s one thing he detests:
Today’s clichéd comics come out, take the microphone off the stand so they can prowl around the stage screaming their lines, and God help us, going to a chair or table that’s been placed center stage with bottled water on it, allowing the comic to drink now and then. Where did all these thirsty comics come from? I never knew a monologist to keel over from dehydration. Actors play hours of Shakespeare without Hamlet or Lear sneaking behind a drape for a belt of Poland Spring water. But on TV you find some funny guy marching up and back saying, “You know what bugs me — did you ever go on one of those fucking Caribbean cruises? They’re the fucking worst.” Now he needs to get some water somehow or his desiccated remains will be found onstage like a skeleton in the desert. Waiting for him to slake his parched tonsils, I always switch the dial to something more compelling, like the Invicta Watch channel.
The subject on which Woody seems most defensive is the popularly-held belief that he’s an intellectual. He still thinks of himself as a guy who was good at sports when he was young and never knew much about the worlds of art, music, and philosophy — but he also disproves this notion throughout the book by using words that I had to stop and look up.
Speaking of art, Woody has long detested awards shows, particularly The Oscars, which he has never attended — as a nominee or a four-time winner for writing and directing — including his refusal to show up in the year “Annie Hall” won Best Picture. His only appearance on that stage was a surprise spot at the first Academy Awards broadcast after the 9/11 attacks, when he did a very amusing monologue to introduce a Nora Ephron-directed montage of clips from movies made in New York.
I found it interesting that, in the book, Woody says you can’t compare one movie to another any more than you can pit one piece of art or music against another. And yet, he repeatedly claims that he’s never made a movie as good as those of his heroes, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, etc. In fact, there were times in his career when it seemed like he was angered by the public loving one of his movies, as if to say, “Oh, yeah? You like that dreck? Well, I’ll teach you a lesson with my next movie, ‘Interiors.'”
Fortunately for us, his misses have been significantly outnumbered over the last fifty years by his classics: “Bananas,” “Sleeper,” “Manhattan,” “Zelig,” “The Purple Rose Of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Mighty Aphrodite,” “Midnight In Paris,” and “Blue Jasmine.”
“Apropos Of Nothing” is a delightful though sometimes harrowing ride through the life an American original, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Almost as much as The Moose Joke.