Many readers will be grateful that Woody Allen’s memoir has arrived in a time of face masks and latex gloves. So toxic is the volume that some may be tempted to rinse it in chloroxylenol before placing on a lectern 2m distant.
The surrounding furore hardly needs to be reiterated. It is more than a quarter of a century since the film-maker was accused of sexually molesting his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow. The story ebbed and flowed until, in the wake of the #MeToo scandal, it swelled into an unavoidable tsunami. Hachette, Allen’s original publisher, adopted a strategy guaranteed to annoy everyone: first agreeing to run the volume, then dropping out at the last moment.
Yet so much of the book is harmless. One of the many riffs repeated ad nauseam deals with Woody’s lifelong desire to live the life of society gents in prewar Manhattan. White phones by the bed. Cocktails on the balcony. All the Fred Astaire stuff of which a lower-middle class Brooklyn kid could only dream.
Apropos of Nothing could be the title of an autobiographical column ghosted for a star of the era. Sure enough, much of the book talks us through the career in a style that veers from bar-room anecdotal to boilerplate banal. You’ll know the childhood from flashbacks in Annie Hall. His family were noisy, unpretentious and overbearing.
No Clive James
The book, which is self-deprecatory in a style that suggests better memoirs by Clive James, tells us again and again that Allen was never any sort of intellectual, going so far as to list some of the books he hasn’t cracked. “I never read Ulysses, Don Quixote, Lolita, Catch-22, 1984, no Virginia Woolf, no EM Forster, no DH Lawrence,” he almost boasts. He is no more the erudite snoot of the movies than Christopher Reeve was an alien superbeing.
"When you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones," he says of Scarlett Johansson
If we imagine ourselves back in that older era, we can perhaps excuse the wearingly unreconstructed attitude to women that accompanies our journey from gag writer to stand-up comic to Oscar-winning director. Was there nobody around to tell 21st-century Woody it’s no longer all right to introduce every female acquaintance with an assessment of her physical charms? “When you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones,” he says of Scarlett Johansson. It’s as if he’s writing from the judging panel of a Miss World competition during the Nixon administration.
The more general lauding of collaborators has, at least, the virtue of being unintentionally hilarious. Every actor is wonderful. Every technician is a genius. Not even fierce personal animus can dissuade him from talking up Mia Farrow’s performances. The symphony of sycophancy reaches a height when, in the space of a few hundred words, we are told that Edward Norton is a “flawless actor”, Goldie Hawn is a “major, major talent” and that Helena Bonham Carter is “a wonderful and beautiful actress who was smart and charming”. That last four-armed hug reads like the effusions of an emollient fraud from Allen’s high period. One can, perhaps, imagine Alan Alda spouting the words in Crimes and Misdemeanours.
Weird repetitions, weird repetitions
The sense of sub-journalistic carelessness is heightened by a series of weird repetitions. On two occasions, with 60 pages between mentions, he introduces Paul Mazursky’s Scenes from a Mall by telling us that he has never seen the finished film. (Bette Midler, his co-star, was “really terrific”, of course.) The text is punctuated by a “let me say” here and an “as I mentioned earlier” there – as if a ghost writer were chasing after our Depression-era star while he hurtled towards a waiting limousine. It’s lazy. It’s haphazard. But it remains fun for those interested in the career.
Then there is the rest. The central section suggests one of those weeping ulcers that, if urban myth is be believed, fast food customers are forever encountering in their chick-o-fillet. Those who have read closely on the case – many fewer than those who have an unshakeable opinion – will find little to surprise them. Allen, then 56, separated from his partner Mia Farrow in 1992 when it was discovered he was carrying on a sexual relationship with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
The author's approach is to paint Mia Farrow as an obsessive and uncaring mother who brainwashed Dylan
The allegations concerning Dylan emerged shortly afterwards. In 1993, following a lengthy investigation, the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital concluded that Dylan had not been sexually assaulted. The state prosecutor decided not to pursue charges, but Justice Elliott Wilk refused to grant Allen custody of their three children, calling the film-maker “self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive”.
The author’s approach is to paint Mia Farrow as an obsessive and uncaring mother who, after the Soon-Yi revelation, brainwashed Dylan into believing a pernicious lie. “I have something planned for you,” Farrow apparently said to Allen. The book continues: “I joked that placing a bomb under the hood of my car was not a proportionate response. She said, ‘It’s worse.’ ”
The evidence goes to and fro as Allen becomes ever more exasperated. Ranting about Justice Wilk’s supposed bias, he mentions rumours of an affair between him and Farrow, only to disingenuously dismiss them. “I find that hard to believe, but I tend to be naive in such matters,” he weasels.
He relates the discovery of Polaroid photographs – taken of a nude Soon Yi when she was 21 – in a jaunty tone that suggests any of us might have done something similar
One can imagine a lawyer, happy enough with the facts in Allen’s defence, electing not to put his client on the stand. Again and again, as above, he reveals himself to be a poor witness. Allen and Soon-Yi have remained married since 1997, but the apparent soundness of the relationship does little to justify its queasy beginnings. He relates the discovery of infamous Polaroid photographs – taken of a nude Soon Yi when she was 21 – in a jaunty tone that suggests any of us might have done something similar.
“He’s my father married to my sister,” Ronan Farrow, Allen’s son by Farrow, said in 2011. “That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression.” The book makes no serious effort to grapple with this argument. The big questions are knocked back with glib quips. His outrage at the abuse accusations drowns out all other objections.
Still, the stuff about his jazz band is nice.