Apropos of a lot: A devout Woody Allen fan on his autobiography and legacy

I’d say roughly a third of Woody Allen’s rather concise autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, is devoted to detailing his professional and personal relationship with Mia Farrow and responding to the allegations made in 1992 that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan at Farrow’s Connecticut  home when she was seven.

As a huge fan of both his stand-up comedy (“The moose mingled, did very well. Scored.”) and his movies (Where do I begin? Love & Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Match Point to name just a few) I would have preferred to have heard more about his many celebrated films. some of which are only disappointingly glossed over in the memoir – but its not hard to understand why the Allen-Farrow story is given so much weight.

No matter the three decades of denials and the two major investigations that have cleared his name (Allen has never been charged with any sexual offence) an ‘innocent-until-proven-guilty’ man he is not. Allen has been tried and convicted by the media and by many of his peers in Hollywood, where he has been  lumped into the same #metoo boat that includes jailed sex offender and former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Just the other day – if I needed reminding of the stigma attached to Allen’s name – I was listening to the podcast, Fresh Air featuring an entertaining interview with the film director Spike Lee.

At one point during the chat with guest host Sam Sanders, Lee remarked that he had been called the “black Woody Allen” by film critics after the success of his film “She’s Gotta Have it”.

Sanders jumped in: “ How did you feel about that, because in hindsight, none of us want to be Woody Allen?”

To his credit Lee responded “He’s a great filmmaker, he’s from Brooklyn and he’s a Nicks fan”. But no doubt many others in the entertainment industry would have agreed with Sanders.

Indeed, the publication of the memoir itself was caught up in the rebooting of the allegations when Allen’s original publisher Hachette pulped the book following intense pressure from Dylan Farrow and his estranged son Ronan Farrow (the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose own book Catch and Kill was published by Hachette.).

A new HBO documentary has again examined these allegations, without the participation of Woody Allen who has said all he wants to say in his memoir, and in a subsequent interview with the actor Alec Baldwin on Baldwin’s popular podcast, Here’s the Thing.

In his June 2020 interview with Allen, Baldwin, a staunch supporter of the filmmaker, asked him why he considered the allegations made against him “ludicrous”.

Allen replied: “The idea that any one of good standing, that has never had any problem in his life at all would suddenly pick an odd day once in his life to do something [like this] in the midst of a hostile break-up…the whole thing was so preposterous, I thought any common sense person looking at it would see it for what it was: The cliched accusation that one party makes against the other so common in custody cases.

He admits that the fact he was dating Soon-Yi (the adopted daughter of Farrow and her former husband at the time, the pianist and conductor Andre Previn) “absolutely” made the accusations seem more credible, but that doesn’t make them so.

“People were saying, my God, this older person has seduced this young girl and he is taking advantage of her. It looked awful. I could understand that. But we’ve know been married over 20 years. We have two girls in college. It was tabloid fodder at the time, and I understand why it would be. I’m not naïve.

“But the charges were something else…they were investigated, they were not swept under the rug and given meticulous investigation in Connecticut and over a year in New York…and they said there was no thought this child was ever bothered in anyway.

“I feel better they investigated it, I don’t have to feel this thing was ever side-pocketed…they really followed up on it and those were the conclusions they came to.

“I was never alone with my daughter [at the time of the alleged behaviour]. My son Moses will testify to this. I was always in a room with a lot of people, on the sofa, watching TV. I may have sat on the floor and lay my head down on her lap for a second, but to infer anything sinister from that is crazy.”

Allen says his philosophy was to not focus on any of the “rubbish” being said, but just to work, which he did .

“From the moment the false accusation was made, I worked. I did a million films, I wrote for the theater, I toured my jazz band, I played every week at the Carlyle Hotel. If you just keep your nose to the grindstone and work…”

All of this is elaborated on in detail in the memoir alongside a deeply affectionate portrait Allen paints of his wife Soon-Yi.

It is interesting to note that Mia Farrow, an outstanding actress in my opinion, has appeared in 13 Woody Allen movies, from a Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1982 to Husbands and Wives in 1992, the last of which was filmed at the time their relationship was descending into anarchy, when Farrow discovered erotic Polaroid photos of him and Soon-Yi.

Woody Allen at Cannes in 2016. Pic credit: Georges Biard

While the media focus has always been on Allen’s marriage to a woman 35 years his junior, whom he knew as a child, in his memoir he paints a very damaging picture of Farrow as an often cruel mother who collected children like “toys” – she adopted 10 and had four of her own – and who was especially unkind to Soon-Yi, threatening to send her to an insane asylum.

Allen also reminds readers that three of Farrow’s adopted children died young and that her brother the businessman John Villiers-Farrow was jailed in 2002 for the sexual abuse of two young boys. (Another brother, the sculptor Patrick Farrow, committed suicide in 2009.)

He also notes the irony that Farrow flew to London in 2005 to defend the film director Roman Polanski (Farrow starred in his brilliant horror film Rosemary’s Baby) despite Polanski pleading guilt in 1977 to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old minor.

None of these events I understand are included in the HBO documentary.

In Allen’s retelling of events, he was a doting father, who was denied a relationship with his children by a woman bent on revenge.

“A little girl, just turned seven…is taken from a loving father forever, placed in the hands of her out-of-control mother during an emotionally confusing crisis, suggested to by her mother that she was abused, then her denials are finessed over years of contact with only one parent and she is taught, led over time, to believe she has been molested.”

Despite the lengthy focus on his relationship with Farrow, where he chides himself for not recognising the “red flags” early on, Allen does not come across as bitter. When he talks about Farrow’s alleged cruel behaviour towards her children he merely asserts that what he is saying is true over and over again.

 “And how have I taken all this? And why is it when attacked I rarely spoke out or seemed overly upset? Well, given the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe, what’s one little false allegation in the scheme of things? Second being a misanthropist has its saving grace – people can never disappoint you.”

That attitude certainly helps dealing with a rapid press mob which Allen says have promoted and given substance to Farrow’s claims and the many actors, who worked with Allen in his movies, but who later stated they regretted working with him though never so far, he points out, to return their paychecks or Oscars.

It is interesting to consider, in light of the allegations and theTime’s Up movement to support victims of sexual harassment, that Woody Allen has probably created more memorable and powerful roles for woman than any other director in the history of cinema, many of whom have won or be nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.

He also claims that not a single actress young or old has ever accused him of untoward behaviour, unlike so many other big name directors and actors.

While the memoir is disappointingly and strangely devoid of any photographs, I think it says a lot that the only picture on the back cover, a great shot of Allen stretched out on a couch, was taken by his former girlfriend and long-time collaborator Diane Keaton.

There is of course thankfully a great deal more Allen talks about in the memoir than his disastrous relationship with Mia Farrow and the terrible consequences of it.

I found there was an intimacy to his writing, that I was part of his inner circle. While I have given up hope of ever sharing a coffee  with him, I do feel at least that I got to know him a little better.

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the book are Allen’s stories about his childhood as a freckly-faced baseball-obssessed redhead living on 14th Street, Brooklyn and the tales of his gambling, philandering, but loving father who would stuff $20 notes into his pocket while he slept, leaving it up to his more stern and serious mother to keep the household together.

He  confesses, that even though his mother was the better parent, he loved his father more because he was a “sweet guy, warmer, more demonstrably affectionate, while she took no prisoners”.

It’s a heartfelt and very amusing  glimpse into Allen’s early years reminiscent of the opening scenes in Annie Hall, when a young Alvy Singer talks to the camera As a reader you really feel as if Allen is confiding in you and sharing his inner thoughts. A huge fan that I am, it was wonderfully satisfying.

It’s interesting that Allen rejects any claims to be an intellectual – in fact, despite his nerdy appearance he was quite sporty – a point he makes frequently in the book, claiming that he instead has a flair for appropriating erudite snippets that he did not really understand and utilising them in his work “to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do”.

He is also extremely self-deprecating about his achievements, especially his work, often attributing its surprising success to cinematographers, editors and co-writers, while always accepting sole responsibility for his flops and failures.

Luck, Allen says played a huge part in the successful career he has had: from getting picked to write jokes that celebrities used in their newspaper columns, to being introduced to the great comedian Sid Caeser (after writing sketches for three seasons at a summer resort in Pennsylvania).

Then, after his stand-up comedy took off, meeting Hollywood superstar Warren Beatty who wanted him to write a comedy. This culminated in 1965’s What’s New Pussycat? which though a bad film in Allen’s opinion, turned into a huge box office hit and paved the way for a long career as an auteur director.

While that luck may have deserted him from 1992 onwards, Allen has just gotten on with his life, making movies, experimenting with different genres and ideas and creating many of his most memorable movies.

While the memoir is ultimately a vehicle for him to tell his side of the story in the Allen-Farrow saga, he has come to terms with the fact that some people won’t ever change their minds about him who “despite all logic, for one reason or another didn’t seem to want to get it.

“Nothing could stir them from the idea that I’d raped Mia’s underage backward child or married my daughter or molested Dylan. I had faith that in due time, common sense, reason and the evidence would descend upon even the most phlegmatic mouth breather, but I also picked Hillary to win.”

An amicable split on screen: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow played a divorced couple in Hannah and Her Sisters.

As a postcript to reading his memoir, I watched Allen’s celebrated comedy- drama Hannah and her Sisters, made in 1986.

I had seen it before, but had largely forgotten the plot which is the story of the loves and lives of three sisters in a large well-off New York family of actors and entertainers.

It’s a wonderful movie, blending dark comedy and pathos in a way only Woody Allen can.

Spookily, the cast contains many of the people who would figure prominently in the abuse allegations.

There’s Allen himself, who plays Mickey, a neurotic television executive having an existenial crisis after finding out he doesn’t have cancer.

His ex-wife Hannah, a Broadway star is tenderly played by Mia Farrow while Moses Farrow (a staunch support of his father) and his future wife Soon-Yi both have cameo appearances as guests at the Thanksgiving dinners that bookend the film

But in a case of art not imitating future life, Mickey and Hannah have parted amicably, remain friends and he is welcomed into her apartment to bring birthday presents to their twin boys. He’s even invited to the second thanksgiving family dinner despite marrying Hannah’s cooky sister Holly (played by Dianne Wiest) and impregnating her.

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