Culture

A New Life of Woody Allen

Woody: The Biography by David Evanier

Woody Allen
Woody Allen / AP

David Evanier’s Woody: The Biography is an engaging account of Woody Allen’s life and works. It’s not a biography in a traditional sense, like Marion Meade’s 2000 The Unruly Life of Woody Allen or Eric Lax’s 1991 Woody Allen, the only biography for which Allen fully cooperated. Nor is it like the many books, most recently Richard Schickel’s 2003 Woody Allen: A Life in Film, which focus on Allen’s movies. What Evanier has done is marry the two approaches, weaving between Allen’s life and his creative output, which makes sense given that Allen is so enmeshed in his films. Evanier notes that Allen is "the only comedian in Hollywood history to insert the same unchanging comic persona into every genre of his filmmaking: comedy, satire, melodrama—and yet work himself effectively into the plot."

Of Allen’s early life we learn he was a peculiar, if talented child. Peculiar, for instance, in his reaction to learning about death when he was five. He apparently never recovered from the shock. Evanier notes the scene in Annie Hall where the mother takes her son (obviously meant to be a young Allen) to the doctor because he has become depressed. The reason—he has learned that the universe is expanding. "Someday it will break apart," the boy says, "and that will be the end of everything."

Only some aspects of Woody’s on-screen persona are true of the real-life Allen. Yes, he was funny, hypochondrial, introverted, shy with girls—"a nerdy type of person," a childhood friend says. But, like Allen’s other biographers, Evanier emphasizes that in crucial respects Woody is unlike the character he plays. Lax calls him "a business tycoon." Evanier says: "Allen is not a schlemiel, a nebbish, a sad sack, or a Kafkaesque character." Unheard of in Hollywood, he has total artistic control of his films. Even his appearance belies the movie image. Evanier quotes Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, who saw Allen on the street: "I was struck by how utterly different his posture was from his image: strong, stiff, upright."

Allen enjoyed almost instant success. Still in high school, he began writing jokes for newspaper columnists. At 17, he was making far more than his parents—$1,600 a week—and by 19 he was writing comedy for a host of famous shows. (Ironically, his parents didn’t view this as success. His mother wanted him to become a pharmacist.)

Allen wanted out of television. The path opened when he hooked up in the late 1950s with Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, a premier management team. They saw in him what he didn’t yet see in himself—in Rollins’ words "a triple threat, like Orson Welles—writer, director, actor." The relationship spotlights one of Allen’s most admirable qualities—his loyalty in business dealings. In his 2012 film Woody Allen—A Documentary Robert Weide asked Allen why he still paid Rollins as a producer when it had been 10 years since he was involved in one of Allen’s films. Allen replied, "Because without him, I wouldn’t be here."

Allen’s probity was key to his success with United Artists. He kept his word and was not disdainful of their commercial concerns. Evanier quotes Steven Bach, a producer at United Artists, who wrote in his memoir Final Cut: "Woody had an old-fashioned, deeply ingrained sense of honor about his commitments."

In his analysis of the individual films, Evanier has a talent for unearthing the most thoughtful and trenchant comments of Allen’s reviewers. He notes that Allen himself is the most stringent critic of his own work, repeatedly saying that he has failed to achieve the highest standard of achievement, which he had set for himself. In a letter to Evanier, he disputes Evanier’s assessment that Zelig and Crimes and Misdemeanors are his masterpieces. Part of the sin of the latter seems to have been its success. Of that film he had said earlier, "When I put out a film that enjoys any acceptance that isn’t the most mild or grudging, I immediately become suspicious of it … I start to feel convinced that a work of any real finesse and subtlety and depth couldn’t be as popular as it is."

Evanier himself, for all his admiration of Allen’s work, does not hesitate to come down hard on films that disappoint him. Here’s his take on Interiors (1978). "Interiors is practically unwatchable. … Interiors bears no relation to the rich multilayered originals that Allen’s best films are. It is a pale replica of an Ingmar Bergman film, divested of life, real characters, drama, tension, immediacy. These are people Allen does not know, has not experienced, doesn’t have a clue about."

Evanier may be the first to point out the frequent references to the Holocaust in Allen’s films. Evanier suggests these references may be overlooked because they appear in comedic contexts. But there is nothing humorous about the attitudes Allen expresses. In the film Anything Else, the central character says, "The crimes of the Nazis were so enormous it could be argued that it would be justified if the entire human race were to vanish as a penalty." In a letter Allen writes to Evanier, included in the book, Allen corroborates the sentiment: "Since the Holocaust was such an immense event in my lifetime it couldn’t help but wind up as a sporadic or even frequent issue in my work."

Evanier devotes two chapters to the great twin scandals in Allen’s life: his affair with his long-time lover Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi and the subsequent accusation that he had sexually abused Dylan, the little girl he and Mia had adopted together. On the first, Evanier goes easy on Allen, pointing out that Soon Yi was not underage and unrelated to him. But this misses the point: Allen was guilty of an astonishing betrayal of trust. Evanier misses the opportunity to plumb the contrast between Allen’s self-discipline and honesty in his work with his self-indulgence and lack of conscience in his relations with women—especially given that trust and its betrayal, as Schickel points out, is the theme to which he returns again and again in his films.

Unlike Meade, Evanier strongly defends Allen against Mia’s charge that he sexually abused Dylan. Although Evanier does not make this point, the child who comes to believe such false charges — as Dylan did — is the true victim, and Dylan’s case exhibits strong echoes of the wave of therapy-induced false memory claims endemic in the 1980s and 90s.

In the aftermath of the scandals, even Allen’s greatest admirers wrote him off. It is perhaps not surprising that Meade should conclude that Woody was pretty much washed up, with acting about all he could do well. But Schickel too, in 2003, wrote that he doubted Woody would ever again have a domestic hit. "Woody Allen is now, as far as the United States of America is concerned, an almost fully marginalized filmmaker … it is a career … that belongs now to the cineastes and cinephiles of the world, not to the mass audience."

"Many years of incredible triumphs have followed Meade’s book and Schickel’s observations," Evanier now writes. "Allen has bounced back with a vengeance. Two of his recent films have made infinitely more money than any he released previously. Allen remains what he has been all along: the most prolific and productive American filmmaker of his time."

A final cavil: Evanier asserts that Woody Allen "passionately loves the state of Israel." The evidence Evanier produces is thin. He cites interviews Allen gave to Israeli media in 2012 and 2013, where he averred his support for Israel and said that criticism of the state may serve as a front for anti-Semitism. But Allen has never bothered to visit Israel, and the only other evidence Evanier produces would seem rather to contradict his claim, notably a letter to the New York Times in 1988, in which Allen lamented Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and a 2002 article about the Holocaust in Tikkun magazine (a leftwing anti-Israel journal). The truth is that Allen’s politics are quite pedestrian, and are about what one would expect from a conventional liberal Democrat.

Quibbles aside, Woody: The Biography is a pleasure to read. Evanier conveys his love for Woody Allen films, makes a convincing case for why they’re important, and inspires the reader to watch them. Although Allen didn’t cooperate with Evanier on the book, explaining that he’d been disappointed by people he’d trusted, he must be happy with the result.