During the Cuban missile crisis, the writer Christopher Isherwood was surprised to find himself going to the gym. “If we are to be fried alive,” he wrote in his diary, “it seems funny to be working out.”
During the Covid-19 crisis, I’m surprised to find myself reviewing “Apropos of Nothing,” the memoir from the 84-year-old Woody Allen. It’s hardly the book I’d want to go out on.
Volunteering to review it, in our moral climate, is akin to volunteering for the 2021 Olympic javelin-catching team. I told my wife and daughter my plan, and they stared at me as if I’d announced my intention to find the nearest functioning salad bar and lick the sneeze guard.
This isn’t going to be a verdict piece on Allen’s morality. There have been a lot of verdict pieces. But so we’re on the same page, I’ll tell you where I stood before my editor emailed me a PDF of “Apropos of Nothing.”
I believe Allen’s sexual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime partner Mia Farrow, which began when Previn was 21, was obviously the perverse act of a man whose brain salts are dangerously out of balance. He was nearly pushed out the door of American culture, only to sneak back in through a window. There’s queasy-making evidence of his sexual pursuit of other teenage girls. If these acts make you want to scrub his movies permanently from your Netflix queue, scrub.
The accusation that in 1992 he molested his adopted daughter, the 7-year-old Dylan Farrow, is a charge of another magnitude. I believe that the less you’ve read about this case, the easier it is to render judgment on it.
I believe that Hachette, the publishing house that acquired and then canceled “Apropos of Nothing,” behaved cravenly. I wish Nat Hentoff, the free speech absolutist whose columns in The Village Voice made me want to go into journalism in the first place, were still around to write a 25,000-word essay about publishing writ large circa 2020 that would run under the sardonic title “Profiles in Courage.”
So kill me now or come along, there’s a book to talk about.
Here’s Allen’s first sentence: “Like Holden, I don’t feel like going into all that David Copperfield kind of crap, although in my case, a little about my parents you may find more interesting than reading about me.”
Anyone who’s read Allen’s previous books — “Without Feathers,” “Side Effects,” “Getting Even” — knows he has an authentic and easygoing voice on the page. That’s true in “Apropos of Nothing,” too, at least for a while. Later on this book begins to make the clicking sound cars do when the battery has expired.
Allen takes us from his childhood in Brooklyn (his father was a bookmaker who held a variety of menial jobs, his mother worked for a flower shop) through his early days submitting jokes to newspaper columnists. He was quick, funny, hard to top. He was hired young as a comedy writer for television shows, including some of Sid Caesar’s, before becoming a stand-up comic and beginning to direct movies. He had two early marriages, to Harlene Rosen and Louise Lasser.
There were two surprises, for me, in this early material. Most memoirists exaggerate their sense of outsidership when young. Conversely, Allen writes that while you might presume he was a lonely nebbish in high school, he was in truth very popular and adept at many sports, especially baseball.
The second surprise is how hard he pushes back at the notion that he is any kind of intellectual. He presents lists of the authors he hasn’t read, the movies he hasn’t seen.
“I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue,’” he writes. “What I do have, however, is a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and I propose that it is these specs, combined with a flair for appropriating snippets from erudite sources too deep for me to grasp but which can be utilized in my work to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do that keeps this fairy tale afloat.”
Like many of our fathers and grandfathers, Allen is a 20th-century man in a 21st-century world. His friends should have warned him that “Apropos of Nothing” is incredibly, unbelievably tone deaf on the subject of women.
This tone deafness starts before the book has even properly begun. On the dedication page, he writes, “For Soon-Yi, the best. I had her eating out of my hand and then I noticed my arm was missing.” I had to rub my eyes with my freshly sanitized fingers and read that second sentence again.
Nearly every time a woman is mentioned, there’s a gratuitous pronouncement on her looks. Early on, he chases “delectable bohemian little kumquats” in New York City. While in London filming “Casino Royale” (1967), a James Bond spoof, he writes, “one could stroll on the Kings Road and pick up the most adorable birds in their miniskirts.” Birds? I kept waiting for him to sail to Australia to scoop up a basket of “Sheilas.”
The heavy breathing gets more intense as the book moves on. Little pats of butter are deposited. Christina Ricci “was plenty desirable.” Léa Seydoux “was a 10 plus.” Rachel McAdams “looks like a million bucks from any angle.” He can sound like our current president.
“When you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones,” he writes about Scarlett Johansson, 19 when he first worked with her. “Not only was she gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive.” He manages to get Penélope Cruz into a movie with Johansson, which “caused each woman’s erotic valence to cube itself.”
It was Mia Farrow’s looks, her “drop-dead punim,” that blinded him to the fact that she was, in his view, mentally unstable, he writes. The Farrow, Soon-Yi and Dylan material takes up about a third of this memoir, and entirely drains it of oxygen.
Allen writes about dysfunction in Farrow’s own family. One of her brothers was a suicide; another was imprisoned for child sex abuse. He suggests she visited dysfunction on her own children, adopted or otherwise.
“Mia enjoyed adopting, loved the excitement, like one buys a new toy,” he writes. “She liked the saintly reputation, the admiring publicity, but she didn’t like raising the kids and didn’t really look after them.” He alleges some pretty horrific parental misbehavior and neglect on Farrow’s part.
Farrow discovered Allen was sleeping with Soon-Yi after finding erotic Polaroids of her adopted daughter in Allen’s apartment. “Of course I understand her shock, her dismay, her rage, everything,” he writes. “It was the correct reaction.” It’s Allen’s contention that, in her rage, Farrow decided to frame him for molestation.
He speaks about two investigations that did not lead to criminal charges. He says he passed a polygraph test while Farrow refused to take one. About the notion that we should simply believe all women, he writes: “I mean, tell it to the Scottsboro Boys.”
At this book’s nadir, he broaches the idea that Farrow may have slept with a state judge and a state attorney in order to try and influence their opinions during a custody battle. (“I find that hard to believe, but I tend to be naïve in such matters,” he coyly writes.)
Together Allen and Farrow had a biological son, Satchel, who now goes by Ronan. “Despite her suggesting Satchel was Frank Sinatra’s child, I think he’s mine,” Allen writes, “though I’ll never really know.”
Allen suggests that Ronan was groomed by Farrow to despise him. He alleges that Farrow had Ronan undergo cosmetic surgery to add a few inches to his height, which required the breaking and rebreaking of his legs. He calls this “barbarism.”
Ronan Farrow has of course grown up to become a journalist, a determined and righteous exposer of the evil that powerful men do. Allen writes that he would still like to have a relationship with Ronan, but he cites instances of what he considers to be his son’s hypocrisy. About one such instance, he writes: “Ronan Farrow always publicly urged women to speak out, but when Soon-Yi did tell her story, he did not like what he heard.”
There’s a lot more in this book that there’s no room to talk about here: Allen’s relationship with Diane Keaton; details about the making of many of his films; tours with his jazz band; what it was like to know Mel Brooks and Pauline Kael and Norman Mailer and eat a lot of meals at Elaine’s. He remembers to thank many, many people who were generous to him over the years.
The final third of this book falls apart dreadfully. It’s a rolling of credits, a handing out of goody bags. Alan Alda is “a wonderfully gifted actor.” Owen Wilson is “wonderful and a pleasure to direct.” Goldie Hawn is “a major, major talent.” Multiply these banalities by a hundred.
He’s been married to Soon-Yi now for more than 20 years. They have two adopted daughters who are now college-age. The upside of being a pariah, he writes, is that he doesn’t have to blurb any more books or sit on any more panels.
He can live with being reviled by many, he says, because he doesn’t read the articles. He lives in a bubble. He’s making a new movie.
Near the end of this sometimes appealing, occasionally funny, sad and somewhat tawdry book, he writes: “I’m 84; my life is almost half over. At my age, I’m playing with house money. Not believing in a hereafter, I really can’t see any practical difference if people remember me as a film director or a pedophile or at all. All that I ask is my ashes be scattered close to a pharmacy.”
The post Woody Allen’s New Memoir Is Sometimes Funny — and Tone Deaf and Banal appeared first on New York Times.