Biographies & Memoirs



WOODY ALLEN IS the most open and articulate of directors, but interviews with him involved conditions. There was always the stipulation that the piece be embargoed in New York. During some of the 1980s and 1990s I was syndicated in the New York Daily News or the New York Post, and that meant they couldn’t run the interview, possibly because he was giving an exclusive to the New York Times. I was happy to talk with him at all, especially since our conversations seemed to stray from the movie at hand into the larger realms of life, death, and the meaning of it all. “I don’t care about my lifework for a second,” he told me once. “When I die, I don’t care what they do with it. They can flush it down the toilet. There’s that delusion that it’s going to have some meaning to you when, in fact, you’ll be a nonexistent thing; there’ll be not a trace of consciousness. So it becomes completely irrelevant, what happens after your death. Totally. It doesn’t mean a thing.”

That was in 1994, when he had made Bullets Over Broadway. In 2011, when he was at Cannes with Midnight in Paris, he was still saying he didn’t expect any of his films to be remembered. The first time I spoke with him, in 1971, he told me there wasn’t a day when he didn’t give serious thought to suicide. I asked him again every time I saw him, until 2000, if that was still true. It always was.

To talk with Woody was like catching up with your smart college roommate every time you went to New York, and he reminded you that he had gone ahead and accomplished all the things you had talked about in school. He has averaged a film a year for more than forty years. Some were great, all were intelligent, none were shabby. He compared his work habits to those of Ingmar Bergman, whom he admired above all other directors. Like Bergman, he wrote his own screenplays. Like Bergman, he worked over and again with many of the same collaborators. Like Bergman, he could persuade pretty much any actor to work for him at far below their going rate. Like Bergman, he usually had distribution lined up before shooting even began. And they both worked with small budgets that gave them artistic freedom.

He thought of Bergman as a genius. He told me the American cinema had produced only one genius, Orson Welles. “Godard is supposed to be a genius,” he told me dubiously one day. I told him I had witnessed the table napkin at Cannes upon which the producer Menahem Golan wrote out a contract with Godard, misspelling Godard’s name while promising him a script by Norman Mailer and a cast including Orson Welles as Lear and Woody Allen as the Fool.

“Norman Mailer wrote the screenplay?” Allen asked. “Well, there was no screenplay at all the day Godard shot me. I worked for half a day. I completely put myself into his hands. He shot over in the Brill Building, working very sparsely, just Godard and a cameraman, and he asked me to do foolish things, which I did because it was Godard. It was one of the most foolish experiences I’ve ever had. I’d be amazed if I was anything but consummately insipid.

“He was very elusive about the subject of the film. First he said it was going to be about a Learjet that crashes on an island. Then he said he wanted to interview everyone who had done King Lear, from Kurosawa to the Royal Shakespeare. Then he said I could say whatever I wanted to say. He plays the French intellectual very well, with the five o’clock shadow and a certain vagueness. Meanwhile, when I got there for the shoot, he was wearing pajamas—tops and bottoms—and a bathrobe and slippers, and smoking a big cigar. I had the uncanny feeling that I was being directed by Rufus T. Firefly.

“Do you know how Bergman spends his day, now that he’s in retirement? He wakes up early in the morning, he sits quietly for a time and listens to the ocean, he has breakfast, he works, he has an early lunch, he screens a different movie for himself each and every day, he has an early dinner, and then he reads the newspaper, which would be too depressing for him to read in the morning.”

There were differences between Bergman and Allen. Bergman lived most of the year on the Swedish island of Fårö. Allen has a horror of leaving Manhattan. He told me once about spending the Fourth of July in New York although Mia Farrow had a house in Connecticut. “The country has insects and animals and ominously alarms me,” he said. “I loved having the neighborhood to myself.” Only a New Yorker could think of having New York to himself.

“In my movies in the country, I wanted to portray the country the way I want it to be, with golden vistas, and flowers, animals, moon, stars, a perfect setting to deal with problems of love and romance. I saw it as a chance to get in some of my philosophy, that there’s more to life than meets the eye, that an intellectual rationalist is also an animal who lusts after women and is not above drawing blood in the throes of passion. He can explain the cosmos, and his friend the doctor can play God and watch people die, but all of these men are… wistful. Wistful, because they haven’t met the right woman yet.

“But I hate the country! This Fourth of July weekend, when everybody else has gone out to the country, I worked. I went to see Poltergeist at Eighty-Sixth and Third Avenue and I walked around the empty streets. The country is great as it appears in one’s fantasies, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, with all the little forest spirits, but when I go to the country to shoot a movie, we have to have a nurse for snakebites and poison ivy. They have gnats and mosquitoes. It’s awful.”

But when you were making A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, I said, you had to put up with the country?

“Not at all. I drove back to New York every night and stayed in my own bed. Oh, I can take a little of the country. Sometimes I reluctantly visit Mia in Connecticut, but I always come back the same day. I would never think of staying overnight.”

In other words, your view of Central Park is about as sylvan as you like to get?

“I like the view just from the window, through glass. I like it best in the winter. I’m not crazy about the green of leaves. At the beginning of our film, when we shot the montage of the leaves and the ponds and the little deer running past, I was hiding behind the camera.”

When you were a kid, you never went to the beach?

“I got sun poisoning. It was terrible. I preferred staying home in Brooklyn and playing baseball in the streets. I was a very good athlete, good at baseball, football, from growing up in the streets, but I didn’t get to like nature that way. I think we all miss the point that when Shakespeare was talking about summer, he was writing from a land where summer was a lot more like spring is here. He didn’t know about dust and ticks. I personally prefer grey, overcast days to sunny ones. That’s one reason I don’t like it in Los Angeles. I really can’t stand the climate.

“Mia’s country house is a real Chekhovian setting: a little cottage, a little lake, very Russian. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a little Russian family drama to set there. I finally did it, but by the time the screenplay was ready the weather had changed, and so we had to build the sets in Astoria Studios here in New York. Hannah and Her Sisters, that was the perfect setup. We shot a lot of it in Mia’s apartment, and all I had to do was cross Central Park every day. Bergman shoots right in his own house, and on his island. I’d shoot in my house, but I live in a co-op apartment, and it’s against the rules.

“Shooting in Mia’s house led to a very strange experience for Mia. She told me she was in bed in her bedroom, looking at Hannah and Her Sisters on the TV set at the end of the bed. She realized she was looking at a scene in the movie that showed the same bed and the same TV set, in the same room.”

That would have been in the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, it became known that he and Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn were in love. There was a scandal. “The heart has its reasons,” he said, using the words of Pascal. In 1994, I met him in his screening room but avoided mentioning the scandal. There are times when I think I must be a lousy journalist, an anachronism in the age of relentless gossip. I avoid asking interview subjects about their private lives. If they bring up a subject, I’m interested, but I dislike gossip. He brought it up himself.

“I thought the whole business was foolish,” he told me. “I thought it was going to blow over in two days; I never even took it seriously when it first happened. Apart from the horribleness of not being able to see my children, those of us in the inner circle—myself, my sister, my close friends—found it almost amusing.

“But from a total nonevent, a multimillion-dollar industry grew. I mean, magazines all over the world, newspapers, television—lawyers were hired, private detectives were hired, more lawyers were brought in, psychiatrists were brought in. It was incredible. And nothing had happened. I certainly wasn’t going to participate in the craziness. I worked, I never missed an evening with my jazz band, and I conducted my life normally. For me, one thing had nothing to do with the other. The legal battles I’ve been in were basically fought by my lawyers. There was nothing I could do about it.”

I was afraid at the beginning, I told him, that maybe it would turn out like the Fatty Arbuckle case—where whether he was guilty or not, people simply couldn’t find him funny anymore. I wondered if after all the controversy people would never be able to laugh at a Woody Allen picture again.

“Yes, people said to me, ‘Are you worried about this having an impact in your career?’ But from where I sat, it couldn’t have an impact. Am I going to be less popular? I wasn’t popular when people thought I was popular. I never had a big audience to begin with. And it never mattered to me. If people said to me tomorrow that I couldn’t make a movie again because no one would come, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.”

He was looking into the middle distance, seeing possibilities that had perhaps occurred to him more than once.

“I almost had a secret hope that maybe this would change my life in a way I didn’t have the nerve to do. They’d say I could never make a film again. And I could wake up in the morning and think, ‘Oh, great, that option is closed to me. I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to feel guilty that I’m not making films.’ And I could write for the theater, which is something I like, or even stay home and write a novel.

“But I never thought I was in the position of Fatty Arbuckle. I mean, he was a tremendous star. When you’re a writer, you have control over your own fate. I mean, it would not bother me in the slightest if I’d awakened this morning and stayed in my apartment and was working on my typewriter or lying on the bed writing a book.”

In 1998, Barbara Kopple made the documentary Wild Man Blues, about Allen touring Europe with his jazz group. Soon-Yi was always at his side. The movie wasn’t about their relationship, but it helped me to understand it. In life, Woody played his usual role of the dubious neurotic, and Soon-Yi was calm and authoritative, a combination of wife, mother, and manager. She seemed to be good for him. She seemed more like the adult in the partnership. At one point, she advised him to be more animated when he appeared onstage with his band. “I’m not gonna bob my head or tap my feet,” he says. “They want to see you bob a little,” she says, and he gets defensive: “I’m appropriately animated for a human being in the context in which I appear.” But at the next concert, he bobs a little.

In 2000, he came to speak at the University of Chicago. They were by then married. He said: “Soon-Yi bought me this sweater. This marriage has been great for me. If anyone had told me I would wind up married to a much younger Asian woman, with no interest in show business, I’d have told them they were crazy. All I would go out with were little blond actresses, or women who did something in show business. Suddenly I find myself with a woman whose interest in life is teaching learning-disabled children, who is not interested in show business, who is much my junior and doesn’t know many of the references from my life experience. She’s a wonderful person and makes me very very happy. It’s interesting how little you know about yourself as you go through life. I think, my God, why didn’t I meet her sooner, I would have had so many more years of happiness.”

There was something poignant in that. It reminded me of a time years earlier when we had met in his apartment on the Upper East Side, overlooking Central Park. We talked and drank tea. When we were finished he said he wanted to show me something. He took me into a room with books on the walls and a simple desk and chair facing the window. On the desk was an old portable typewriter.

“My parents bought me that,” he said. “It’s the only typewriter I’ve ever had. I’m used to it. I sit down there and write every movie. I could never use an electric typewriter. The thought makes me shudder.”

Personal computers were unknown in those days. I don’t really want to know if Woody Allen uses one now. When I think of him and his typewriter, I remember a story McHugh told me once about an old Irishman who bought new shoes. He wore them down to the pub and his friends asked him what he was sporting on his feet. “A fine new pair,” he said. “These will see me out.”

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