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Review: Canceled, creepy and still funny, Woody Allen shrugs

Woody Allen in a scene from his 1972 film, “Play It Again, Sam.”
Woody Allen in a scene from his 1972 film, “Play It Again, Sam.”
(Paramount Pictures)

Agreeing to write this review felt like signing up for a lifetime of social distancing. Before I go any further, I need to put my cards on the table: I once profiled Woody Allen for Vanity Fair, and I’m agnostic about the accusations. I understand the seriousness of sexual-abuse allegations. While there’s just too much evidence against Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, too many stories from too many accusers for there to be any reasonable doubt, in Allen’s case the accusations that he molested his then-7-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow, all originated from the same hot spot, the Farrow family — which is no Brady Bunch. Mia’s brother was convicted of sexually abusing minors, and one of her children, Moses, disputes Dylan’s molestation allegations.

To me, the battle over Dylan is a he-said, she-said situation about which the jury is still out and may never return. It’s possible Allen did what Dylan says he did, but he has repeatedly denied it, two investigations have let him off the hook, and Moses Farrow’s 5,000-word cri de coeur accusing his mother of coaching Dylan cancels Ronan Farrow’s attempts to cancel Allen, who may or may not be his biological father. So until I learn otherwise, I’ll give Allen the benefit of the doubt.

Woody, who has ghosted America for Europe, where his films are still beloved and seen, and who hadn’t until recently shown much interest in resisting cancellation, now defies erasure with a 500-page tome. Released by tiny Skyhorse Publishing after Hachette fecklessly pulped its press run, his new memoir, “Apropos of Nothing,” is at once a lively tale of growing up lower-middle-class in Brooklyn; a gossipy account of scrambling up the comedy ladder from tabloid gag writer to Oscar winner; an aggrieved attack on Mia Farrow; and a look in the rear-view mirror at his long career with the aim of assessing its worth. (His verdict: not much.)

If you’re 100% convinced that he molested his daughter Dylan, this book is not for you. But for those of us who admire that career and can still muster an interest in it, this memoir is for the most part a pleasure to read and entertaining company.

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There are some tells in Allen’s account that are disquieting. Despite his marriage to Soon-Yi, 35 years his junior, Allen denies that he has been attracted to young girls, citing his relationships with Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. But he has a habit of using demeaning endearments to refer to a variety of female actors, friends, lovers and former wives. He calls one a “delectable bohemian kumquat.” Léa Seydoux is a “10-plus.” Of Barbara Hershey, he quotes Michael Caine: “You get the feeling if you just go up to her and touch her, she would have an orgasm.” Watching Mariel Hemingway bounce up and down on a trampoline, he calls her an “athletic blond goddess. … If only Leni Riefenstahl could be here.” It strikes an odd note for someone defending himself against sexual indiscretions or worse.

A book cover for Woody Allen’s “Apropos of Nothing.”
(Skyhorse Publishing)

And yet you read on (or I did). You’d have to be a real sourpuss not to laugh at the fusillade of one-liners, two-liners, three-liners and so on. Within the first few pages Allen calls his father’s sister a “circus pinhead,” says his mother looked like Groucho Marx and opines that his parents were as mismatched as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit. His grandfather and father were mob-adjacent, which I suppose might explain some things. (He says he “inherited his father’s DNA for dishonesty,” a rather incautious statement in this, his own personal “J’Accuse...!”)

If he’s tough on those supposedly near and dear, Allen is equally unsparing of others, no matter how powerful. He once dug his own grave with Pauline Kael by telling her that “she had everything a great critic should have … [except] taste.” He’s also harshly critical of his scripts, his movies and himself, whom he describes as given to “delusional self-worship.” Even though such self-flagellation is transparently intended to disarm, it’s hard to resist.

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Apropos of Nothing” is filled with vivid detail about the movies and the producers, directors and actors with whom Allen worked. He provides sharp thumbnails of the people he knew, which was everyone, especially those who guided him through the puzzling protocols of success — Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Gordon Willis, et al. (He didn’t know whether and how much to tip coat checkers, and once he acquired the habit — drumroll — he claims to have tipped a process server.) He attributes his success to producer Jack Rollins, editor Ralph Rosenblum and the New York Times’ Vincent Canby.

The first third of the book is a romp, but when Allen finally works his way up to Mia Farrow, out comes the heavy artillery. This part will get the most attention, especially from those whom he calls the “Appropriate Police.” It amounts to the Woody Allen version of a lawyerly brief submitted on his own behalf in the highly contentious matter of Allen v. Farrow, a feud more ferocious, even, than Latte Larry v. Mocha Joe.

Woody deflates Mia’s reputation for being a “supermom.” (She has 14 kids, four biological and 10 adopted.) Speaking of her efforts to adopt disadvantaged and/or physically challenged children, he says she “browsed for new orphans like one goes through the remaindered bins in a bookstore.” He indicts her for resisting his attempts to adopt Moses and Dylan, even though he says he was their de facto parent (she finally gave in). According to him, she kept Satchel, a.k.a. Ronan, for herself, preventing Allen from being a proper father to a child who later grew up to become his Javert.

He continues with a litany of accusations about Mia berating and coaching her children that were, to me, plausible in their specificity, but which of course have been vehemently denied by Mia and those in her camp. This is Allen’s version, needless to say, but it is one that we’ve heard only in bits and pieces. Adding new details and marshaling it all together in one place, he makes a compelling case that he is the victim of a vendetta.

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The final section pays tribute to Soon-Yi, surveys his recent films, glosses his suit against Amazon for breach of contract and touts the advantages of being a pariah — no one bothers him to write blurbs. (He also mentions that Louis C.K. was puzzled when Allen declined to play a pedophile in a planned film.)

On his life in exile and his genuine feelings about being ostracized, there is, unfortunately, almost nothing, though a general sense of resignation creeps in.

Allen ends on a melancholy, valedictory note. Calling himself an “imperfectionist,” he writes: “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.” He goes on: “My biggest regret? Only that I’ve been given millions to make movies, total artistic control, and I never made a great film.”

If he actually believes this, it’s too bad. He may not be Ingmar Bergman, but he has made a great film — “Annie Hall” — and several nearly as good. As for his career, at the age of 84, he just shrugs.

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“At my age, I’m playing with house money,” he writes. “Not believing in a hereafter, I really can’t see any practical difference if people remember me as a film director or a pedophile or at all.”

Of course, this can’t be true, or else why would he have devoted a big swath of his memoir to countering charges and rehashing decades of personal disasters? What is true, however, is that he’s a comic to the core. To the existential shriek of indifference, he can’t resist tacking on a joke: “All that I ask is my ashes be scattered close to a pharmacy.”

Biskind is the author of many books, including “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.”

Apropos of Nothing
Woody Allen
Skyhorse: 498 pages, $40


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