There is a conventional interpretation of the life and career of Woody Allen. It goes something like this, he was good, then he had a fall, and the critics have been hailing ‘a return to form’ ever since.
With the critical and commercial success of BLUE JASMINE (2013) and the astonishing box office of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) it seems that long-promised rise from the ashes is beginning to be realised. The point of his fall is a moot point. For some, it was as early as INTERIORS (1978) when he squandered the good faith of his audience by producing a Bergmanesque drama that seemed to be for his own amusement, and no one else, least of all those who were keen to see his ‘early, funny films’. For others, his fatal lapse was the moment that his affair with Soon-yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his partner Mia Farrow, became public. The sister to his son Satchel. Audiences who were already distrustful of his eccentricities, turned their back on him. Even some hard-core fans thought it was too much to take and stopped going to the movies to see his pictures: at worst, many misinterpreted the relationship as some form of incest, at best, it displayed an irresponsible lack of judgement.
Proving that there is nothing worse than a Farrow scorned, the acrimony between his former muse began to resurface last year as BLUE JASMINE was gathering plaudits from audiences and critics. People had got used to the idea of his relationship with Soon-yi, as they have been married nearly 20 years, they have adopted children of their own, and they seem very happy together. Unlike his other long-term female partners, she shows no interest in his films and has a healthy distain for celebrity.
Farrow made a suggestion that their son Ronan (he used to be Satchel, before his nose-job) wasn’t his son afterall, but the product of a fling with, former husband, the geriatric Frank Sinatra. Ronan took to twitter to say “Listen, we’re all *possibly* Frank Sinatra’s son,” fuelling the press speculation. Newspapers around the world featured side-by-side photos of him to compare the handsome Ronan with the crooner when he was younger. I wasn’t too convinced. What’s the most significant inheritance? The blue eyes or the line in witty one-liners on twitter?
The bitterness was fuelled by a feature piece in VANITY FAIR where Farrow repeated her allegations made at the time of the custody battle, claiming that Woody had molested Dylan, the youngest of the two children that they had adopted together. The charges have become more and more intense with mother and son using social media during the Golden Globe awards to decry the industry recognising Woody’s life work with a Cecil B. DeMille award as a shameful act.
The affair has become more shocking when The New York Times published a blog entry, in the form of an open letter, by Dylan (now 28, and named Malone) giving the circumstances of the alleged molestation and turning the attention on audiences and the film-industry for their complicity in venerating him.
WHO IS WOODY ALLEN?
A number of commentators have noted that both Mia and Ronan have a flair for using their communication skills to manipulate situations to help their humanitarian efforts. There is more than a whiff of spin at play. Accusations made by victim need to be taken very seriously, however the context of these allegations seem to be against the background of a complicated family situation being played out in the weird world of celebrity aristocracy.
Woody is more than capable of manipulating his own press too. He is vary careful in his self-presentation and protects his identity with litigious action if necessary. Watch Michael Parkinson’s interview about CELEBRITY to see Woody turn a question about the molestation charges on its head. Parkinson known for his disarming charm and ability to ask a penetrating question, gingerly picks around the issue during a jovial interview, but makes a hasty retreat once Woody accuses him of having a “morbid curiosity”.
For this reason, there have been relatively few biographies for someone who has been in the public eye for such a long time. There are plenty of books that act as a companion to his career, detailing his films and other artistic output in some depth, many of them are illustrated with a copious amount of photographs and stills. There are not many actual biographies that have attempted to shine a light on the dark corners of his life outside of the movies. There are only two books of note that were published in the prelapsarian period before the split with Farrow. The was a spurt of interest in the early 90s, then … nothing. Every year Woody has been schlepping through the TV studios and giving interviews to magazines to promote his latest release. He is careful only to present a side of himself that he wants us to see. Even his most revealing interviews merely serve to develop his on screen character. In the 1970s a notable journalist, Lee Guthrie, created a biography of sorts that quoted extensively from his stage work and New Yorker pieces. She hadn’t got the appropriate clearance so Woody sued her for copyright infringement and publication ceased.
The only remaining biography of note from this period is one by Gerald McKnight that was only published in the UK. His earlier subjects included Adolf Hitler, so Woody was nervous about the publication, especially when he discovered that the journalist managed to penetrate his iron wall and interview his unsuspecting mother. He need not have worried. You can see the strings working in this book because the journalism is so raw. He includes every interview with his class mates at Midwood High School, even if they couldn’t really remember him. There’s quite a bit about his first marriage to Harlene Rosen and her successful ‘cease and desist’ legal action to prevent Woody from using their early life together as material for his act. He fails to find the dark corners that he is looking for and perhaps the most revealing section is the chapter on the aborted television special in 1972 (he accused ‘the authorities’ of censorship when they canned his broad satire of Nixon and Kissinger).
Eric Lax’s biography (1991) is the closest that we’ll ever come to an autobiography. It is based on extensive interviews with his subject and he had access to many of his friends such as model, turned producer, Jean Doumanian. It makes an excellent companion piece to his work, but offers little insight as it is too comfortable presenting the version of Woody that Woody wants to present.
AFTER THE FALL
The Lax biography was ‘revised and reissued’ in 2000, but seems oddly disjointed as it is merely a chapter tacked on to the original. After the public fall from grace, there was a spate of autobiographies picking through the pieces. There was WOODY AND HIS WOMEN by Tim Carrol, a tabloid hack-and-slay job and the more workman-like John Baxter biography. Baxter has a good track record (De Niro and Spielberg) of stringing together a narrative from tabloid sources. He also makes the cardinal sin of making the assumption that his films offer some indication what is really happening in his life. There’s also a sordid imagining of the moment when Farrow discovered the Soon-yi Polaroid’s.
The link between his life and films are not straight-forward. The best biography, by some degree, is the meticulously compiled THE UNRULY LIFE OF WOODY ALLEN by Marion Meade. She is forensic in her research and presents a balanced, objective approach to the issues around the court case. She reflects on his films and work by selective quotes and offers soundbites from others to illustrate points. The epilogue is indicative of the tone she adopts throughout the book – persuasive, backed up with evidence and entertaining insight:
By following the logic of his heart, Woody paid heavily, the cost of pleasure, marriage or no marriage, added up to millions in legal fees, the loss of children and abandonment by his audience, altogether a remarkable price, but he seems not to care. Just as Charlie Chaplin would never be forgiven his transgressions with un-American politics and underage girls the public’s memories of sex scandal and accusations of child molestation stubbornly cling like barnacles to Woody’s reputation.
It was published in 1997, all the books on Woody fizzle out in the early noughties. Even the revised WOODY ALLEN ON WOODY ALLEN and the ‘updated’ Eric Lax book finish around the time of HOLLYWOOD ENDING. There are more stories to be told about his European tours, his falling out with Jean Doumanian over loss of earnings and his recent renaissance and the continuing child-abuse accusations.
However this sorry tale unfolds, one thing is certain, the question “What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?” is never going to sound the same again.