Woody: The Biography
Woody: The Biography by David Evanier. (St. Martin’s Press, 384 pp. $27.99)
Biographers of Woody Allen face two daunting challenges: interpreting Allen’s lengthy, roller-coaster film career and assessing the allegations that Allen molested one of Mia Farrow’s children when he and Farrow were a couple. In this intriguing but uneven biography, Evanier displays his sympathy for Allen on both accounts.
Perhaps to compensate for Allen’s refusal to participate in the project, Evanier overstuffs his book with reminiscences from those who know Allen. These range from childhood friends in Brooklyn, several who remember Allen as a prankster who was shy around girls, to close friend Dick Cavett. With the help of these interviews, Evanier traces Allen’s rise in show business, from his early days as a comedy writer to his reluctant success as a stand-up comic—Allen was so nervous he often had to be convinced to go up on stage—to his emergence as a filmmaker. Evanier also offers criticism of many of Allen’s films.
There’s no doubt that Allen has been one of the most successful and prolific American filmmakers. He has made 46 films and received 24 Academy Award nominations (he won four), although more times than not he has refused to attend the Oscars. Most critics—and the author cites both admirers and detractors—would agree that Allen has experienced some down periods. Evanier’s list of “some of his best” runs to 17, although even he admits that several, including Interiors and Shadows and Fog, Allen’s homages to his European filmmaking heroes, were below par.
Whatever one thinks of Allen’s films, Allen’s Jewishness is one of the central aspects of his career. Allen sprinkles references to the Holocaust throughout his films, and as Evanier reminds us, Allen was “the first to put his Jewishness onscreen so forthrightly.” Allen’s own persona, which he constructed as a stand-up comic in the 1960s, is “the classic Jewish loser filled with lust, a lust undermined by his own inadequacy with women.”
Allen is, apparently, not so neurotic in his real life and relationships. It is undeniable that Allen’s Jewish legacy looms large; to cite just one example, it’s difficult to imagine Seinfeld without Allen paving the way. But Evanier fails to address how Allen’s popularization of the Jewish nebbish has affected bothhow Americans view Jews and how American Jews view themselves.
How many view Allen as a person was irrevocably altered by the abuse allegations Farrow leveled against him. Soon after, Allen entered into a relationship with one of Farrow’s adopted daughters, the much younger Soon-Yi Previn. Farrow accused Allen of abusing Dylan, another of her children. Unlike Soon-Yi, Allen had adopted Dylan. A court found in 1993 that the abuse charges against Allen were inconclusive, but the story was rehashed in 2014 in a New York Times article.
Evanier is less even-handed when it comes to Allen’s filmmaking. When Evanier writes that Allen is the most “amazing phenomenon in the history of American show business,” even the most unabashed admirers of Allen’s art may cringe.