Directing Scarlett Johansson (an Allen defender) on the set of Match Point (2005)
By Ali Moosavi.
Apropos of Nothing is an immensely entertaining, funny, often touching, openly confessional memoir…. It is essential reading for fans of Woody Allen and his films. Even those accusing him of being a pedophile, rapist, of sick mind, should at least hear his side of the story.”
In recent years, Woody Allen’s name has become synonymous with controversy and the MeToo movement. His last film was not distributed in the US, nor was his autobiography. A number of actors and actresses who have worked with Allen have denounced him and expressed regret about having worked with him. In his memoirs, Apropos of Nothing (Arcade Publishing, 2020), Woody has put forward his version of the events. It is very much an autobiography, covering his life from birth to present day.
The first thing that one notices is the book cover, which like his trademark film credits, is simple white lettering over a black background, with no frills. Next are two things which are conspicuous by their absence, as they are part of not just most memoirs and biographies, but just about any non-fiction book. First, the book contains no photographs, save a portrait of Woody on the back cover, taken by Diane Keaton. The second, and more surprising omission, is the lack of an index. I cannot think of a logical reason why this was omitted, as it is a nuisance and wastes time when you are looking up a particular film or character.
He starts his book Catcher in the Rye style, “Like Holden, I don’t feel like going into all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” He tells us some interesting facts about his parents; for example, his father was a member of a firing squad in France in WWII, executing an American sailor for raping a local girl; and he was also a kind of Casanova. Reading this book, it seems that Woody has inherited more of his genes than his mother’s. Much of the book is filled with Woody’s amorous adventures. How his second wife, the actress Louise Lasser, dragged him out of a restaurant, halfway through their meal, to make love in a little back alley in midtown New York. Or, after he finished dating Diane Keaton, he dated her two other sisters. A love affair with a young, sexy actress during the making of Annie Hall became the inspiration for the Mariel Hemingway character in Manhattan.
And as many have reported already, Allen goes over his affair and marriage with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi in, great detail. The affair started, rather appropriately, during the making of Husbands and Wives, which became the last movie that Woody and Mia made together. He claims that Mia treated Soon-Yi with cruelty and always put her down, calling her “retarded” even though she received a master’s degree from Columbia. As Allen puts it, “I began to realize this was not an empty young woman as Mia had painted her but an intelligent, feeling, perceptive one.” Woody’s love affair with Soon-Yi started all the controversy surrounding him, but the real bombshell came years later with Dylan Farrow’s accusations of sexual abuse and the famous Polaroids of Woody and Soon-Yi in compromising positions, discovered by a young Dylan. Allen has devoted considerable space in his memoirs to put forward his side of the events and points to Mia Farrow as the real villain, brainwashing Dylan to falsely accuse Allen. According to the book, the police hired Yale to carry out their psychological examination of Dylan and Yale concluded that, “Dylan was not abused by Mr. Allen.”, her statement had a “rehearsed quality,” which were likely “coached or influenced by her mother.” Allen also accuses Mia Farrow of hypocrisy, adding that she “flew to London to testify on behalf of Roman Polanski who had actually admitted to and been jailed for sex with an underage girl.” Allen writes, “I regret I had to devote so much space to the false accusations against me.”
Allen is clearly disappointed and bemused at some of those persons and institutions who he feels betrayed him, such as the New York Times trashing him and actors such as Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig denouncing Allen and expressing regret over having worked with him. After appearing in Rainy Day in New York, Timothee Chalamet publicly stated that he regretted working with Allen and donated his fee to charity. Allen contends that Chalamet swore to Allen’s sister that he was persuaded by his agent that this denouncement would improve his chances in the Oscars, for which he had been nominated for Call Me by Your Name. Allen adds, “I didn’t regret working with him and I’m not giving any of my money back.” At the same time, he thanks those who stood by him, including Ray Liotta, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, Jude Law, Isabelle Huppert, Pedro Almodovar, and Alan Alda. Parts of the book read like a defence dossier or witness testimonials. In a retort to the MeToo movement, Allen states that in fifty years of making films, he has provided 106 leading female roles with 62 award nominations for the actresses, and “never a single hint of impropriety with any one of them,”
The writing has a sprawling quality, as though Woody sat down and just wrote whatever came to his mind on the day and did the same the following days. The whole book is laced with his trademark humour and jokes, even when discussing serious subjects. He also makes excessive use of Yiddish terms which, for non-Jewish and non-New Yorkers, means having Google or a dictionary by your side. His reminiscences about some of his movies are scattered in different places with some repetition and at least one uncorrected factual error: Allen claims that Sean Penn received his first Oscar nomination for Sweet and Lowdown in 1999, forgetting his Best Actor nomination for Dead Man Walking in 1995.
In many places his well-known belief about the meaningless of life and his disdain of prizes and award ceremonies are repeated; though he was clearly chuffed to be awarded the Prince of Asturias award in Spain at the same time as one of his literary heroes, Arthur Miller. He describes the lunch he had with Miller and how the award was latter followed by the visit of the future king of Spain to his New York home for dinner. Allen is also bemused that in Oviedo, Spain and Konigsberg, Russia (Allen’s actual namesake [born Allan Stewart Konigsberg]; now Kalinngrad), they have put up statues of him. The underlying point he is making, which in other sections of the book he makes more openly, is that he and his works are appreciated far more in countries other than his country of birth.
The book is full of funny, and often touching, anecdotes. When Fellini called his hotel room in Rome, he dismissed it as a prank call. Cary Grant was a big fan and came to watch him play jazz in a club, armed with all the Allen books for him to sign; and not one person in the packed to the hilt place approached Cary Grant to say hello or ask for an autograph! In a scene from Celebrity in a movie theatre, they had an extra sit next to Melanie Griffith as her husband. The scene had no dialogue and the “husband” did not appear in any other scenes. However, Griffith objected that she would have never married a guy like that and refused to be filmed until they found another “husband” for her!
What about his films? Allen writes about all of them, but his writings on them are mostly of an anecdotal nature and behind the scenes adventures rather than deep discussions of their themes and technical issues. He writes, “I did not include technical details about my filmmaking because I find them a bore and don’t know any more about lighting and photography now than when I started.” For some of his favourite films, he does delve in deeper and some of the behind the scenes stories are truly fascinating. Annie Hall had to be re-cut and re-shot several times, he begged United Artists not to release Manhattan as he was not happy with it, Sleeper was first envisaged as a three-hour epic comedy. On Match Point, which was the start of Woody making films in Europe, he writes, “That movie was a joy for me. It was one of the only films I ever made that exceeded my ambitions.” He openly admits his debt to some of his favourite writers, for example on Blue Jasmine, to Tennessee Williams. He is philosophical about the commercial failure of some of his films, such as Interiors and September, and justifies making them by stating that you cannot grow as an artist if you remain in your comfort zone and not take risks. He feels that Stardust Memories was clearly misunderstood by both the public and critics.
In the closing section of the 392 pages book, Allen writes that, when proofreading it, the parts of the book that he enjoyed most were “my romantic adventures and writing about the wonderful women I was passionately smitten with.” He adds, “For students of cinema, I have nothing of value to offer. My filming habits are lazy, undisciplined, the technique of a failed, ejected film major.” Apropos of Nothing is an immensely entertaining, funny, often touching, openly confessional memoir, written by one of the major filmmakers of our times. It is essential reading for fans of Woody Allen and his films. Even those accusing him of being a pedophile, rapist, of sick mind, should at least hear his side of the story. Woody’s views on his legacy? He recounts one of his old standbys: “rather than live in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment.”
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).