Apropos Of Nothing

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

I’ve always been a fan of Woody Allen, but my respect and admiration for him deepened considerably when I read his autobiography, APROPOS OF NOTHING (Arcade Publishing). In it Allen deals modestly and wittily with his life. And what a life it has been, one which has taken him from a bizarre childhood in Brooklyn to the glitzy heights of Hollywood, with such iconic films as “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” topping his list of credits as writer/director/actor.

Woody’s showbiz career started at fourteen, when he stepped on stage at a local social club and did magic tricks for fifteen minutes, earning himself two dollars. But, as he confides, he also noticed that whenever he inflicted his “fatal prestidigitation” on the audience his spontaneous patter “would always break up the crowd.” That innate gift of being funny soon enabled him to sell jokes to Broadway columnists, help write the Arthur Godfrey radio show, and win a seven-year NBC writer development deal. All this while still a teenager.

NBC sent him to Hollywood to work on the Colgate Comedy Hour, a struggling show. That’s when he met Danny Simon (brother of Neil Simon) and his life was changed forever. Danny taught him how to write sketches and improve his jokes. A tough taskmaster, he saw greatness in Woody and soon began collaborating with him. “He taught me some key things,” Woody said. “For example: great straight lines make great punch lines.” He also counseled him never to be competitive. “Always root for the success of your contemporaries, as there’s room for everybody. And most important, always trust your own judgment. No matter who tries to tell you what’s funny, or what isn’t, or what you should be doing, always go with your own judgment.”

After teaming with Danny for nearly two years, Woody then returned to New York and began writing for revues like “From A to Z” and television (“The Sid Caesar Show,” “The Pat Boone Show” and “The Garry Moore Show”). He also began to investigate the possibility of becoming a stand-up comic, spurred on by the encouragement of his new manager, Jack Rollins. He debuted on a Sunday night at the Blue Angel. “After Shelley Berman gave me the nicest, most helpful introduction a star could give a beginner, I mounted the stage, a mass of terrors, and began. The laughter came back so strong that Jack Rollins told me I went right into my shell.”

The shell had many psychological layers. Despite his early professional success, Woody has never been a happy, well-adjusted person. “I was gloomy, fearful, angry, and don’t ask me why,” he writes. “Maybe it was in my blood stream, or maybe it was a mental state that set in where I realized Fred Astaire movies were not documentaries.”

For most of his 58 years Woody has been in analysis. “It has helped me, but not as much as I hoped and not in the way I imagined. I made zero progress on the deep issues; fears and conflicts and weaknesses I had at 17 and 20; I still have...The fact that solving these problems is illusory and you will always remain the same tormented wretch, unable to ask the baker for schnecken because the word embarrasses you, doesn’t matter...After all, we are an accident of physics. And an awkward accident at that. Not the product of intelligent design but, if anything, the work of a crass bungler.”

That brings us to the other major problem in Woody’s life: his relationship with Mia Farrow, a relationship that lasted and deteriorated over a ten-year period and resulted in Farrow charging him with the rape of her underage, retarded daughter (one of her ten children). Farrow later accused him of molesting her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, with whom Woody had fallen love. That Soon-Yi was 22 and living on her own did not figure in Farrow’s account, which motivated the tabloids and feminists like Daphne Merkin and Gloria Steinem to denounce him as a sexual predator.

Woody devotes two chapters to this lurid story, detailing his side of things in a methodical and honest way. What is clear from his description of Farrow is what an unhinged, dangerous woman she is, a psychopathic liar, a vengeful bitch masquerading as an earth mother. Woody had to spend millions of dollars–-and suffer intense public humiliation–-to defend himself before the New York State Child Welfare Board, who concluded in 1993 that “no credible evidence was found that the child named in this report has been abused or maltreated.”

It is a miracle that Woody could survive the angry, protracted legal battles he had with Farrow and keep functioning as an artist. But thanks to his courage and fortitude–and to a successful marriage with Soon-Yi–-he has been able to survive and turn out an impressive number of films, some comic, some serious, but all of them worthy. The descriptions of how he made these films and worked with such stars as Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Tracey Ullman, Rob Reiner and Sarah Jessica Parker (among many others) are juicy and revealing. That he also managed to write regularly for The New Yorker, finish a couple of books, and direct plays and operas, proves what a major, multi-talented artist he is, one of the most remarkable this country has ever known.