The marriage between Woody Allen and his public has been pretty rocky. "Woody Allen," Eric Lax's all-but-authorized biography (Knopf, 377 pages, $24.00) gives Woody's side.
The best part of "Woody Allen" is the beginning, the story of a brilliant, young show-biz pheenom working his way into television in the fifties. Through interviews, Lax shows a spry and prodigious jokewriter on the way up. By the end of the decade he had joined Sid Caesar's staff, supplying the comic with a steady ration of material -- "feeding the monster," as the comic writer's lament goes.
In the sixties, through sheer force of will, Woody Allen made himself into a standup comic, then emerged as that true rarity, a funny prose humorist. Finally, the success of his television and film performances as a neurotic shnook brought true every writer's dream: to direct movies while retaining complete artistic control.
The Woody Allen monster was as demanding as any. His early comedies (What's Up Tiger Lily?, Take the Money and Run, and Bananas) were uneven and amateurish but had a throwaway brilliance that presaged the gagfilled Airplane! movies, as Woody himself points out. He did not direct the film version of his stage play, Play it Again, Sam (1972), perhaps his nebbishy character's most perfect incarnation. He was at his most sympathetic in Sleeper (1973), maybe his best comedy.
Such youthful exuberance depreciates. Love and Death (1975) was, fortunately, the last pure Woody Allen comedy. The jokes are forced and his propensity for cadging Bob Hope-takes, unbearable. It was clear he needed a new kind of vehicle.
He chose urban realism (or did it choose him?). Annie Hall (1977) was everyone's idea of a perfect blend of bitter and sweet -- though Woody now compares it unfavorably to Tolstoy. On the other hand, a preachiness crept into Manhattan (1979), the first of his films to manifest a shallow bitterness which soon became characteristic.
Eric Lax's 1975 book about Woody Allen, "On Being Funny," was a kind of collaboration. This time, Woody patiently granted Lax four years' worth of access, a favor Lax repays by defending Woody's serious films. This book might be called "On Not Being Funny."
Lax's retrospective laurel-trimming and Woody's newfound gracious acceptance of his comedic success seem to indicate that Woody -- always a shrewd publicist, and a good poker-player, too -- hasn't missed the opportunity to fashion the kind of answer to his critics he can't make any other way.
Throughout, Lax jumps from past to present, drawing parallels. This lends "Woody Allen" a breezy, rambling quality, but it also underscores the contrast between Woody's artistically successful past and a present in which his work wavers between a decidedly mixed critical reputation and limited box-office appeal. Lax tends to be protective and apologetic on his subject's behalf: "With his success in other areas, he can't make gradual progress in a new field: He must create full-blown dramatic successes to be taken seriously. His solemn films are judged against his comedies, not against themselves, and so there is little tolerance for interesting failures or provocative near misses; neither is there broad credit for successes."
Nevertheless, the sense is more of opportunities missed than taken. Critics have taken Woody Allen to task for making the kind of dreary, arid, academic films that give alienation a bad name. It's hard not to see Woody Allen's growth into serious directorhood continuing some of the worst traits of his writing and acting. Lax points out a lifelong ambivalence about the audience which began with his -- justifiable -- sense that press agents weren't right about which of his jokes were funniest, and developed into downright hostility towards nightclub crowds during the painful development of his standup act, and finally sprouted into prickly fruition in Stardust Memories -- which was really his own belated sixties revolt. Since then he has cultivated a studied indifference to his audience.
He is likewise ambivalent about "intellectuals," whom he's despised for years, yet whose approval he covets -- Groucho's old joke. Woody's own pretensions emerged in the fifties: an NYU dropout, he turned to books as a way to impress what he calls "a Jules Feiffer type of girl." ("When I also found they weren't interested in me because I was a lowlife culturally and intellectually, I had to start trying to make some sort of effort to explore interests that they had. . . .") His cultural name-dropping began as an anti-intellectual, S.J. Perelmanesque disjunction (but without the latter's erudition or subtlety: "Guy DeMaupassant Rabinowitz") -- which was funny as a kind of hamische mockery of hip, until it grew labored and undid his New Yorker writing. As his aspirations grew serious, he became genuinely captivated with art and artists; now the namedropping, once a laugh, is unconscious self-parody -- as when he scatters a pedant's grocery-list of names of poets, novelists, and composers in just the way other directors place brand-name products.
The attempt to broaden his scope has perhaps also underscored the weaknesses of his writing. (Woody rewrites his movies at the editing console; there seems to be more uncertainty in his screenplays now that he has dispensed with writing collaborators.) He has tried to assume the role of ethical philosopher, but more than one critic has diagnosed passive aggression instead. Another Woman, for instance, has touches of the elephantine whimsy which have become Woody's trademark -- especially the gimmick of characters conducting imaginary conversations, the trick he discovered in Play it Again, Sam and has never given up -- but these can't dispel a sense of Woody using the creepy eavesdropping subplot to punish the Gena Rowlands character -- and by extension, his audience -- for her empty, pretentious life.
As a movie star, Woody Allen was many things: Jew, schlemiel, the original politically correct heterosexual -- and, as he showed in Stardust Memories, the target of adulation for a horde of losers. Underneath all this, of course, is an uncomfortable man. Eric Lax's book makes clear just how much shame Woody Allen feels about his acting, as when Lax makes him sit through tapes of his television appearances in the sixties. Watching himself is clearly an ordeal, a sort of aversion therapy. Of a turn he did on Candid Camera, Woody says, "The degrading things I had to do when I started. . . . I did the show for pure career enhancement. Now I'm trying to do Dostoevski, trying to live down this shit." A Tonight Show appearance is "disgusting. . . . I hate it now." Perhaps his shame accounts for his films' shallow obsession with guilt.
Throughout "Woody Allen," he reminds us that since he was a child, he loved movies as an escape. The films he's made are a flight from the past, but also an odd working-out of his conflicts. Woody's hostility towards Jews has been pointed out before: what many find more offensive than his careerlong use of Jewish shibboleths for taglines -- words like "hasid," "rabbi" dot his punchlines -- is his constant, stock depiction of certain extremely grotesque New York Jewish types. Any doubt about his malice was removed by his inserting a blind rabbi (Sam Waterston) into Crimes and Misdemeanors -- a gesture of penitence, unconscious or not. In light of his discomfort with things Jewish, his fascination with white Protestant ascendancy -- the Waspy characters of some of his later films, his preoccupation with Scandinavian existentialism -- is just embarrassing.
There is a telling moment in "Woody Allen" when Woody recalls his displeasure at hearing that some big movie-business names had enjoyed one of his films: He recalls saying to Mia Farrow
"'I know I must be doing something wrong if [Crimes and Misdemeanors] is being viewed in some Hollywood character's screening room and a group of people there are saying, "It's his best film," when many of the things I attack are what they stand for.' If it really was a wonderful film, I feel it wouldn't get that interest."
This is certainly a queer stand for a film director. Does Woody want his films to divide his audience? Is he so certain about his sense of mission that he feels the world ought to destroy him? Perhaps the truth is that he was right in the first place: that the very popularity of his films is proof that his moral zeal is ill-advised -- he is doing something wrong, and that as far as moral malaise goes, his films are more symptom than remedy.
And yet, like a true artist, Woody Allen is still capable of astounding all his detractors. There is much to like in his films of the mid-eighties, but Zelig (1983) is a genuine classic. Whether it derives its resonance from its being a kind of musing on assimilation in general -- down to Zelig's conversion to fascism -- or just on the basis of its brilliant technique, everything is right about this film. It's precisely this capacity to reward which makes us still -- well, tolerate Woody.