Woody’s Wicked Levity and Wicked-er Gravity

“I ought to join a club and beat you over the head with it, [but] I would not belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

– Two Groucho Marx cracks joined together

A few decades ago I lived in low-rent East Hollywood among junkies, assorted burn-outs, and people playing extras — in movies and in life.  A California native, my move there from the East Coast was a kind of homecoming.  Fit a typical bill, I imagine: living with friends in a bungalow, working as an IBM temp through Manpower, smoking a lot of dope, reading Nietzsche, listening to Wagner, learning to play violin, writing poetry, eating next door at Shakey’s pizza joint (ragtime music, cheap beer, cheap eats), and, finally (maybe even inevitably), being invited to be an extra in a movie (Raid on Entebbe, Israeli commando).

But East Hollywood was a dirty place. I didn’t like being asked by a total stranger if I’d like to come up to their mother’s place to shoot up heroin.  And standing at a bus stop to go to work, you’d note newspaper boxes and beside them boxes filled with smut rags, reminding one of all the kids who’d run away to Hollywood to become stars and ended up fellating some wannabe Harvey Weinstein on a Naugahyde casting couch and finding fame as naked cover girls on these rags, their telephone numbers included. Or homeless starlets sleeping on the Walk of Fame.  Smog all around you, smut in a box, you felt dirty and in need of a shower, all the time.

Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing is a funny — at times hilarious — memoir, for the first 200 pages, and that’s just as well, as the reader needs that extra bounce and buoyancy for when the gravity of Mia Farrow’s entry, midway into the narrative, kicks in, and the voice-over begins to snarl and get ugly.  You knew it was coming, suddenly it’s dirty, and you find yourself showering, hoping you drop your Irish Spring, even though you’re in that jungle rain all alone.  You’re protected in your thinking: East coast movie-making is worlds apart from all that Hollywood sleaze.  But then Woody introduces Mia’s lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and you recall him helping Jeffrey Epstein get off easy for molesting all those girls. On the East Coast.

The memoir is broken up into three distinct parts — or acts, if you want to see its movie potential.  In Act One, Allen directs us through his Brooklyn childhood, including his Jewish home life; indifferent education; avocations; early gag writing, stand-up comedy and movie aspirations; musicianship; womanly girls who enlightened him and girly women he married.  Act Two is a descent into one man’s moral hell: making love to Mia, the milkshake Mama from Rosemary’s Baby. Act Three is an attempt to recover dignity by name-dropping and a bitter blowing of raspberries toward a woman who has destroyed his reputation to the point he’s “not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses.”

Act One of Apropos of Nothing is vintage Woody Allen story-telling.  He starts out by saying he’s no Holden Caulfield, (but, by the end, he’ll seem like he’s doing all he can to be a catcher in the rye). He paints his childhood Brooklyn as a busy, multicultural village teeming with hustlers, small time hoods, future social democrats (Bernie Sanders grew up Midwood, like Allen), and the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Jackie Robinson, white baseball’s first Black player.  Allan Konigsberg, Woody’s birth name, was an amateur magician and an avid card sharp, who spent his time developing  “false shuffles, false cuts, bottom dealing, palming” — sleight-of-hand skills that, presumably, would later inform his later movie-making.

He describes his Mom as a Groucho Marx look-alike who nagged him for wasting his IQ by underperforming at school, but he honors her by noting how her outside work and completion of domestic chores “kept the family from going under.”  He pushed his further education relentlessly and questioned his life decisions in an effort to engage his critical thinking skills. She was an Old School mother full of tough loving.

He feels bad for loving his mother more than his Dad, but the latter was a kind of hero to young Allan.  Dad was part of “a firing squad in France when they killed an American sailor for raping a local girl.”  And that, in the spirit of JFK’s PT 109, “during World War I his [father’s] boat got hit by a shell..sank… [e]veryone drowned except for three guys…[and] that’s how close I came to never being born.”

His father owned one book, The Gangs of New York, of which Allen said, “it imbued in me a fascination with gangsters, criminals, and crime. I knew gangsters like most boys knew ball players.” His father was a bustler and hustler and a criminal, too.  “How he loved that life,” writes Allen. “Fancy clothes, a big per diem, sexy women, and then somehow he meets my mother. Tilt. How he wound up with Nettie [Allen’s mother] is a mystery on a par with dark matter.”  Allen’s parents stayed married for 70 years, “out of spite,” Allen speculates, and you can almost picture them as the interviewed parents critical of their criminal son depicted in the early Allen romp, Take the Money and Run.

Act One has two surprises. Allen indicates a youthful athleticism, lithe games of pick-up basketball, and unpredicted agility playing shortstop in baseball games.  But the bigger surprise is Allen’s repeated denial of his Intellectualism: “This is a notion as phony as the Loch Ness Monster…I don’t have an intellectual neuron in my head.” And, “I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue.’” Methinks the laddy doth protest too much; he’s not just a shtick up man, as he pleads, but is capable of pointed deconstructive criticism: Pulling Marshall McCluhan into the frame, in Annie Hall, to take down a mouthy, “pontificating” NYU professor in line behind him at a cinema was genius.

Another aspect of Act One of Apropos of Nothing that you can’t help but pick up on as you go is Allen’s generous spread of  Yiddish words and expressions that serve to remind the reader of the schlemiel character Allen often portrayed early in his career (although, some say he’s more nebbish than schlemiel).  Since most readers are likely not familiar with Yiddish, the inclusion of these words causes one to stop and look it up.  We get the following: kvetch, schlep, yentas, shul, mishigas, gonif, momza, mitzvah, schlemiel, schnecken, tummler, schlumps, schmoozing. Mashugana, schmuck, kosher, noodge, schnooky, mensch, rube, yokel, schlepper, klutz, lammister, shekels, schnook, weltschmerz, shiksa, chutzpah, and nudniks. Comedy’s fast, funny Yiddish slows, and given what’s coming in Act Two, it’s a good strategy.

It’s a real treat reader-performing Woody’s early years, as he moves toward gag writing for newspapers and then comic performance. As a young atheist everything was open to revaluation. First up, the fools of his education.  “I hated, loathed, and despised school,” he writes. “with its dumb, prejudiced, backward teachers.” But more than “the coven of teachers” he hated “the whole regulated routine:” march, line up, no talk, feet straight, “no talking, joking, note passing, nothing.”  He played “hooky” frequently, often finding himself at a library or at MOMA: “There I was at fifteen…confronted by Matisse and Chagall, by Nolde, Kirchner, and Schmidt-Rottluff, by Guernica and the frantic wall-sized Jackson Pollock, by the Beckmann triptych and Louise Nevelson’s dark black sculpture.” Funny stuff, truancy.

He found himself in trouble with the school dean for turning in writing with lines like, “She had an hourglass figure and all I wanted to do was play in the sand.” After he showed a few of these, someone advised him to start sending in gags to newspapers. He writes,

…I have to warn the reader the one-liners were not the equal of Voltaire or La Rochefoucauld. They were mother-in-law jokes, parking space jokes, income tax jokes, maybe an occasional topical one. Example (and don’t shoot me, I was sixteen): “There was the gambler’s kid who went to school. in Vegas. He wouldn’t take his test marks back—he let ’em ride on the next test.”

Pretty offal stuff, but the seagulls loved it, haw-haw.

The narrative takes a serious leap into maturity as young Allen becomes interested in the opposite sex.  We learn that his strongest youthful influence came from the womanly girl, Rita Wishnick, “an attractive girl, a polio victim who had a slight limp” with whom he hung out, platonic-style.  They went “to movies, the beach, Chinese restaurants, miniature golf, pizza joints.”  Rita came from ‘respectable’  middle class Jewish stock that were “getting educated to teach, to become journalists, professors, doctors, and lawyers.” It was from this relationship that Allen later decided to give NYU a try. He cracks, “I was a motion picture major for no other reason than watching movies seemed nice and cushy.” And almost middle class.

His success as a gag writer, leads to renown in the neighborhood, which leads to a knock on the door by someone with an angle on his talent who wants his manager — Harvey Meltzer.  Allen sketches him up, as arriving at his door with “a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of facial tics.”  It was a good move; he did have an angle, and soon Allen was doing stand up, cutting comedy albums and writing for top talent — eventually leading to a gig on the Ed Sullivan Show. (For those really interested in this portion of Allen’s career, see The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader.)

The maturity that he gained hanging out with Rita pays dividends when Allen meets up with real women, albeit girly ones for the most part, like Harlene, who would become his first wife. She was “pretty,” “bright,” and was into music and theater.  She came from “a good family,” who, despite his getting seasick on their boat, were glad to see Harlene marry up-and-comer Woody. Of Harlene, Allen recalls, “I must say, for a college-age kid, I took her to very romantic, sophisticated places. Off-Broadway shows, Birdland to see Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Candlelight restaurants in Manhattan.”  But their marriage turned into a “nightmare,” as Harlene couldn’t adapt to Woody’s West Coast lifestyle, and his struggle to be not-Mort Sahl, which he likens to being a saxophonist after Charlie Parker.

But then Allen stumbled upon “the neurotic’s philosopher’s stone, the overlapping relationship” in the guise of Louise Lasser, a Brandeis drop-out, with whom he gets on famously, and immediately.  She is smart, witty, beautiful, and soon becomes “the apotheosis of my dreams.” He loves her energy and quirkiness — she makes spaghetti for eight, unable to figure out portioning, and always “with six portions leftover.”  She’s his coach, his psychologist, his champion and he looks at her “standing, her head tilted so her long blond hair could hang down on the ironing board as she ironed it over and over to make sure it was straight.”

And what’s more, his apotheosis “was supersonically promiscuous” and “had a cottontail’s libido.” He describes her going mad with lust while they’re ordering dinner at a restaurant one night:

“Let’s go,” she says, wanting what she wants when she wants it. “Where?” I squeal, being pulled up and dragged to the door. “We’ll be right back,” she tells the waiter…Now, being hustled through an ensemble of garbage cans, I am pushed into what is a dark, secluded outdoor spot in midtown Manhattan…We make love and not too long after I am sitting over my portion, a beatific smile on my face, her cheeks rubicund with fulfillment. Women like that do not grow on trees.

But imagine if they did, you know, literally; autumn’s would be something, huh?

However, all good things come and come and come to an end. In Paris to film Casino Royale, things fall apart not long after he and she sit down for dinner at a restaurant with the Burtons. Cleopatra calls him “a pockmarked Jew” and Mark Anthony ripostes about her excessively expanding girdle, “and they’re doing this all for the benefit of me, a total nonentity.”  Later, while he’s playing  five-card stud with Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin — the cast from The Dirty Dozen in town for some shooting — his apotheosis is out finding a new sexual orbit.  He couldn’t keep pace.  Things got rancorous; she got demanding (“I refer you to Shakespeare’s Fifty-Seventh Sonnet”). They remained good friends.

Later, he hooks up with Diane Keaton, who dressed “as if her personal shopper was Buñuel.”  She becomes an important role player in a series of some his most successful movies that followed, including, of course, Annie Hall (the title of which, Allen says, evolved from AnhedoniaSweetheartsDoctor ShenanigansAlvy and Annie…I decided on Annie Hall, using Keaton’s birth name). Well, La-Tee-Da, indeed.  The Oscar-winning Annie Hall was full of great writing, acting and directing. There was McLuhan scene, but there were so many other great ones:  there’s the early classroom scene where Alvy explains his “healthy sexual curiosity” as a 6-year old; there’s Alvy snarking as he and Annie people-watch; and, there’s Alvy’s reference to politicians being one rung below child molester.

Allen’s life and career are arguably at its heights by the time Manhattan is released in 1979 to great applause.  The story involves a character, Isaac (Allen) who is in love with Mary, a pretty divorcée (Keaton), while also dalliancing with a 17-year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).  He dumps Tracy, telling her she should go to London and be with boys her age, so that he can shck up with Mary. But she’s interested in someone else, and dumps him, upon which he tries to hypocritically resume his predatory designs on Tracy — just as she’s leaving for the airport — only to be rebuffed by the teenager.

A year later, he began dating Mia Farrow.  He writes, “She turned out to be bright, beautiful, she could act, could draw, had an ear for music, and she had seven children. Tilt.” The same expression Allen used to describe what happened when his father’s life of ‘getting action’ stopped abruptly when he fell for his mother, ‘Groucho Marx’.  Tilt. It gets messy quickly in this quarter of the book, as Allen spends pages and pages of knocking Mia Farrow’s character, explicating the charges of child molestation she publicly aired against him, shortly after she discovered erotic photos of him with another of adoptees, Soon-Yi (to whom he’s married), and defending himself, bringing in a vast array of actors to be the McLuhans of his message.

Frankly, the narrative goes downhill rapidly, as Allen understandably employs his keen and acerbic wit to analyze Farrow’s psyche.  When Allen brings up her role in Rosemary’s Baby and then alludes to her testimony in support of Roman Polanski’s character in his own child molestation case, I lost interest in this petty play for my sympathetic reader-response. Doesn’t mean I don’t believe him; doesn’t mean I do.  But the reader interested in this messy moral goss is well-advised to decide for him or herself after reading readily available appropriate court transcripts, as well as a Yale New Haven investigation that includes interviews with Dyan Farrow, the child Allen allegedly molested. Make up your own minds.

But one under-reported angle that holds a lot of weight for me is Ronan Farrow’s alleged sober observation of Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi: “He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression.” Tilt.

The last quarter of the book picks up pace and spirit again. There are moments when Allen seems to employ gratuitously provocative descriptions of people, such as his quick sketch of Scarlett Johansson:

She was only nineteen when she did Match Point but it was all there: an exciting actress, a natural movie star, real intelligence, quick and funny, and when you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones. Not only was she gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive.

Well, I agree, but I’m not a director under fire for wolfing at young women.

There are an assortment of tidbits worth reading, however.  For instance, he tells us that he almost landed Jack Nicholson for Hannah and Her Sisters, but had to settle for Michael Caine, after Jack found himself obligated to star in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, with daughter Anjelica.  He notes, “The end result was Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award that year for Best Actor and Michael Caine for Best Supporting.”  Allen tells us, he almost starred opposite Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre, but that Shawn Wallace took over at the last minute, because “I just didn’t have the professional dedication to memorize the long speeches.”

The best bits of this section are his brief anecdotal descriptions of his intersections with legendary directors: Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. “Bergman invited me to his island a few times but I always ducked it,” he tells us. “I worshipped the guy as an artist, but who wants to take a tiny plane to a Russian-owned island where there’s just sheep and get yogurt for lunch? I’m not that dedicated.”  A great “language barrier reef” kept him from understanding Truffaut when they passed “like ships in the night,”  and he played phone tag with Fellini. He adds wistfully, “They’re all gone. Truffaut, Resnais, Antonioni, De Sica, Kazan. At least Godard is still alive, but he always was a nonconformist.”

As for his own legacy, let it be known, he writes that he regrets he “never made a great movie” and that “apart from not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses, I simply went about my business and worked. I worked while stalked, vilified, and smeared.”  You could do worse than to go out, mistaken for Groucho.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.