“There is no guarantee that yet another book about me would serve any constructive purpose. All the facts about my life have been written about and rewritten about and my work has been dissected in books and articles all over the world for years.”
Woody Allen wrote those words to author David Evanier in response to a request to meet in 2013. It’s the kind of reply one would expect from the notoriously private filmmaker, a man who religiously skips Academy Award ceremonies and rarely grants interviews. But what he says is also valid: Numerous books, multiple documentaries and infinite analyses of Allen’s work and relationships have already been published or broadcast. What else is left to say?
Evanier, former fiction editor of the Paris Review and author of previous books about Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett , feels there’s still plenty left to say. Which is why, even without Allen’s cooperation, he delivers “Woody,” a thorough account of the writer-director’s life and influences that, while written with great passion for the subject’s filmography, doesn’t unearth anything terribly earth-shattering.
Given Allen’s polite refusal to participate in the book, Evanier constructs his narrative based on conversations with various longtime friends and associates, as well as previously published works about this uniquely prolific, revered and polarizing figure. At the age of 80, with more than 50 sometimes sublime, sometimes wildly misjudged films to his credit, as well as numerous widely scrutinized relationships in his past, Allen contains multitudes, as most people know.
Well, guess what? This biography confirms that Allen contains multitudes. Evanier presents this quintessential native New Yorker as a loner who can be terribly shy but who also possesses unwavering self-confidence and has always maintained unrelenting focus on the things that interest him, from learning magic tricks as a boy to doggedly cranking out new screenplays as an adult.
While moments from Allen’s own life have often bled into his jokes and movies, “Woody” emphasizes that it’s a mistake to assume the Allen persona — the wry joke-teller on ’60s and ’70s talk shows or the simpering neurotic from “Annie Hall” — reflects the real Allen. He “pretended” to be “a loser, a nebbish, the guy who fails at everything,” Evanier writes, but that “wasn’t really him. It never had been.” He played up those qualities because they resonated with audiences, and, as a result, Allen “made millions, got the girls, maintained a self-discipline that enabled him to churn out an endless stream of work, and forged an amazing career that would withstand any setback.”
Evanier frequently strikes these adulatory tones. As he makes his way through the Academy Award winner’s body of work, he is prone to rhapsodize at excessive length about the films he considers to be Allen’s masterpieces. The section on “Manhattan” (1979), for example, devotes an entire meaty paragraph to cataloguing every location in its love-letter-to-New-York opening montage: “Washington Square, the Empire Diner, Grand Central Station, laundry on clotheslines hanging from a tenement building,” etc. But this book is not purely a work of sycophancy, and its language is just as blunt about Allen’s failures: “ ‘Interiors’ is practically unwatchable. It is dead on arrival,” Evanier writes of the family-dysfunction drama that followed “Annie Hall.”
“Woody” also digs into the scandals that swirled in the wake of his split from Mia Farrow, including Allen’s romance with Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, who is 35 years his junior and has been married to him since 1997, and accusations that he sexually molested Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter with Mia Farrow. That whole sordid mess gets rehashed: the details of the allegations, Allen’s insistence of innocence, the ensuing court hearings, and the media debates that flared up again last year after the New York Times published an open letter from Dylan Farrow describing the impact her father’s alleged abuse continues to have on her life.
Evanier makes a strong case that Allen didn’t molest his daughter — he was never prosecuted — but also undermines it somewhat by approaching the topic with an obvious bias against Mia Farrow. During a chapter devoted to Dick Cavett, Evanier asks the former talk-show host and longtime friend of Allen, “As to the whole business with Mia — is she crazy?” Cavett responds: “I don’t know what to say. I think what you have there is an example of pathological vengefulness.”
One of the most fascinating and troubling things about Allen has always been his relationship with women, both on- and off-screen. The book touches on this, acknowledging his real-life propensity toward younger women and praising the filmmaker for continuing to write juicy female characters, but also noting that some consider those characters victims of the male gaze. There’s much, much more that could be said about this, but “Woody” opts not to go there. Instead, it celebrates Allen’s genius and resilience. If yet another Allen biography gets published someday — and considering that he keeps making movies, that’s certainly not out of the question — maybe what it needs is something that only a small handful of the many books and articles about him have managed so far: a woman’s take on his rich, complicated life.
Jen Chaney is a pop culture critic and writer and author of the book “As If!: The Complete Oral History of ‘Clueless.’ ”
By David Evanier
St. Martin’s. 397 pp. $27.99