Woody Allen is having a moment—again. His whimsical face (he wears his 80 years lightly) is gracing the cover of this week’s Hollywood Reporter, because his latest film, Café Society, is opening the 2016 Cannes Film Festival on May 11. He’s a deeply shy man, one who is hardly a publicity hound. But with a career that spans six decades, and encompasses both prestigious awards and personal scandal, he has had to accept the fact that he’s a public figure, like it or not. He’s also surprisingly gracious to writers who want to understand what makes him tick.
One such is a friend and colleague of mine, biographer David Evanier. David, who has previously written about Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, and wiseguy balladeer Jimmy Rosselli, makes no secret of the fact that he’s a Woody Allen fan from way back. Hoping to deliver the first serious chronicle of Allen’s life since Eric Lax’s 1991 biography, he wrote Woody, which was published by St. Martin’s Press last fall. David, a serious researcher, has done a masterful job of locating people of importance in Allen’s world, including boyhood chums and the shy first wife he married when he was 20 and she 17. (They used to entertain one another by playing recorder duets.) He also managed to initiate an ongoing email conversation with the man himself, and finally was able to meet him in person.
A writer for Time magazine once hailed Allen’s screen image as that of as “a champion nebbish, one that every underdog in America could—and soon would—identify with. Allen had invented a perfect formula for an anxious new age: therapy made hilarious.” David Evanier, though, emphasizes that the Woody seen on screen is not identical to the writer-director who early on perfected this persona. The real Woody Allen is altogether smarter, shrewder, and trickier than the character he’s known for playing. That’s not to say that his life has been altogether admirable. He has the long-ingrained habit, for one thing, of walking away from people and institutions when he tires of them. This happened with his stand-up career and also with his first wife, Harlene. (In fact, like his character Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, he seems to resist being a part of any club that would have him for a member.) Then, of course there was the awkwardness of his breakup with longtime partner Mia Farrow when she discovered his stack of nude photos of her adoptive daughter Soon Yi Previn. This episode is hardly Woody Allen at his best. But, David provides plenty of evidence refuting Farrow’s claim that her former lover had molested her seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan. Farrow comes off, in fact, as a pathologically troubled woman.
David seems happiest, though, when exploring Allen’s artistic accomplishments. Sadly, despite his enormous talent for making people laugh, Woody tends to disparage comedy as an art form, yearning instead to be known for serious drama. Nor is he easy on himself in general, saying, “The only thing standing between me and greatness is me.” He respects only six of his forty-plus films: The Purple Rose of Cairo, Match Point, Bullets Over Broadway, Zelig, Husbands and Wives, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. David Evanier is far more enthusiastic than Woody himself abut what Woody has wrought. As he writes, “All the time we thought [Woody Allen] was a neurotic mess, he was playing the ultimate magic trick on us. Broken, needy, an impractical dreamer, a shlepper on screen, in life he was the artist who kept going, was never destroyed, who got it all.”