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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews



One can’t help but wonder what might have happened had Woody Allen released his autobiography just a few years earlier, after returning to critical acclaim (with the release of Midnight in Paris, the airing of a fawning three-hour American Masters documentary and receiving the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement) but before the renewed media attention over allegations that he sexually abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow (which date back to 1992 and are highly questionable).

Not only would that have affected the public reception to the book (which Hachette Book Group backed out of publishing following employee protests, with Arcade Publishing then taking its place), it would have no doubt affected the content of the book itself, which is little more than an overextended harangue in which Allen points a finger at his accusers and critics, as well as a testament to his overwhelming bitterness over his public shaming in the United States (which he compares to blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era, Alfred Dreyfus and even the Scottsboro Boys). The rest of the book is just scattered notes and filler.

Allen’s digression into his childhood does not offer any new details for those who are already familiar with his life from earlier writing, the PBS documentary or even viewing the loosely biographical film Radio Days. Allen reminisces about his days as Allan Stewart Konigsberg, growing up in a lower middle class Jewish family in Brooklyn with a mother and father who supposedly resembled Groucho Marx and Nathan Detroit respectively. He makes a point of mocking the religious Jews of Brooklyn. Entering the local movie palace provided a respite from the outside world where he could bask in the sophisticated glamour of black and white Hollywood cinema in which movie stars lounge about in swanky Manhattan penthouses. Allen likens himself to Cecilia, the tragic moviegoing protagonist of The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Blanche DuBois, looking for romance and moonlight. The young man also loved magic, hustling, jazz, comics and sports. In fact, Allen adamantly insists that he was a stellar athlete in his youth. He eventually began his career path sending funny tidbits to newspaper columnists, which led to writing for Sid Caesar and then trying his hand at stand-up comedy. Getting kicked out of NYU was apparently no big deal.

If you are hoping to learn about Allen’s individual films, forget about it. He professes to remember little about Sleeper. His assessment of Alice: “It's a definite notch below Citizen KaneIf you go in liking me as a human being, you could enjoy it.” September was an attempt to do something “Chekhovian.” Mighty Aphrodite is too dirty for his taste. He holds up Bullets Over Broadway as one of his best movies while regretting that he has never made what he considers a truly great movie (invoking A Streetcar Named Desire). He also praises its Broadway musical adaptation while acknowledging its tepid reception. He insists that Stardust Memories was incorrectly assessed as being autobiographical and people are overlooking the central thesis of Zelig, namely that conformity leads to fascism. All the while, he has a habit of name-dropping with little detail, such as meeting Stephen Sondheim (who is noted to be a friend of Mia Farrow) at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos and his dinner conversations with the passionate and knowledgeable movie critic Pauline Kael.

Allen is at his best when providing a bit of insight into his peculiar work habits – even if the info being shared has all been heard before. Discussing his discomfort with having actors audition for him: “I have nothing to say to them.” Allen does not own a computer and still uses a typewriter to write his scripts. He is fine with actors putting his dialogue into their own words. He lacks the patience for rehearsing, coaching actors or shooting scenes multiple times. He needs total artistic control over his films. He is oblivious to film critics. He does not care if his work is forgotten after his death. His formula of success: “hard work, some talent, much luck, major contributions from others” – in particular Diane Keaton, who Allen calls his “North Star.” He describes himself as a lazy anti-intellectual who thinks Some Like It Hot is overrated and has never bothered to see a production of Hamlet or Our Town.

Had he quickly acknowledged the Soon-Yi and Dylan scandals and moved on and instead devoted more space and insight into his career, Apropos of Nothing might have proved to be valuable. Instead, Allen plunges into “that whole mishegas” and gets utterly lost, defensive, self-absorbed and whiny. The play-by-play from Farrow’s discovery of the nude Soon-Yi Polaroids to the subsequent police investigations and court hearings is nauseating. He blasts everyone who has been critical of him, including the actors who have disavowed him. For instance, he suggests that Timothee Chalamet (recently of A Rainy Day in New York) spoke out against him only because Chalamet was up for an Oscar at the time.

Allen obsesses shamelessly over women’s looks and sex appeal. On Emma Stone: “She’s not just beautiful, she’s beautiful in an interesting way.” On Scarlett Johansson: “Not only was she gifted and beautiful but sexually she was radioactive.” On Penelope Cruz: “One of the sexiest humans on the face of the earth.” On London in the 1960s: “One could stroll on the Kings Road and pick up the most adorable birds in their miniskirts.” Seriously, “birds?”

In Apropos of Nothing, Woody Allen makes himself out to be a shallow, obnoxious, and ungrateful jerk. Even if his fans wanted to learn more about his films and overlook the scandals, Allen made that impossible. And even if they were willing to skip over the extended harangues on Mia and Dylan, Allen cannot bring himself to seriously explore and open up about his filmmaking besides making random and generalized comments. Allen treats the book as a way for him to tell his side of the story and take out his anger on those he believes wronged him. It’s not an autobiography. It’s a pity party.


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