This is an odd book. Making the reasonable decision to begin at the beginning, describing his parents’ lives before his birth and then chronicling his childhood — which he at different times describes as “perfect” and “beautiful,” making it all the more perplexing to him that he should be so grim, pessimistic and misanthropic, even at a young age — as a good athlete obsessed with magic, New Orleans jazz, movies, comedy and crime (when he was a young man, his dad witnessed a mob hit, and Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York was Allen’s favorite book as a kid), Allen then spends most of the book jumping around in time like someone who is constantly being distracted by his own speeding trains of thought. For example, on page 122, Allen mentions Jean Doumanian, his best friend for many years and, with her boyfriend, the financial backer of many of his films, before they had a devastating falling-out about money. Allen writes, “I will tell the story of me and Jean as I go along, and it is a strange one." Then, starting just six pages later, he suddenly tells the whole story. Whatever happened to “as I go along”? Doumanian is rarely mentioned over the course of the subsequent 260 pages, except when Allen and she were together at some event or on a trip. Frankly, I find this aspect of Apropos of Nothing charming, and even fun. It certainly keeps the book from falling into tedium borne out of a strict adherence to chronology. In any case, my guess is that because Allen has always had complete control of his films, he demanded, and got, the same for this book. I wonder if an editor did anything more than accept Allen’s manuscript, read it and then hand it back to him.
Apropos of Nothing is always very funny, as you might expect. In the fascinating Woody Allen on Woody Allen, a series of interviews conducted by Stig Björkman, I remember Allen dismissing any compliment regarding his comedic gifts by saying it always came easy to him. In Apropos of Nothing, he doubles down on that assertion (which seems indisputable). After sending in jokes to New York society columnists and getting published, he was hired as a gag writer for unfunny celebrities: “And so, I went to work five days a week and knocked out about 50 gags a day. It sounds like a feat but if you can do it, it’s no big deal. The subway ride was about 35 minutes, during which I wrote about 20 gags. The rest in the office.” A nice gig, if you’re good at it.
Allen rarely praises his own talent, except when it comes to comedy. He thinks, or proclaims to think, almost nothing of his abilities as a filmmaker, but almost seems unable to avoid the fact that he was born funny and is happy to point out how rare this is (among others, he praises Diane Keaton, Elaine May and his sometime collaborator Marshall Brickman as “authentically funny”). He rarely has anything good to say about his talents as a director, to such a relentless extent that the reader might wish he would give it a rest (I did). While talking to him about Allen recently, my friend Glenn Kenny described this facet of Allen’s personality as “self-serving self-effacement,” which strikes me as exactly right. There comes a point when it’s hard to believe he’s being sincere. This, I imagine, is one of the reasons so many people have objected to the book, although it would take at most a distant second place to Allen’s insistence on describing every woman he ever met as “sexy,” or words to that effect. It’s constant, and depending on your threshold, eventually sort of off-putting (though it’s hard to imagine thinking this is the worst offense described in the book). The truth is, there is a disingenuousness to Apropos of Nothing (very late in the book, Allen describes his lifestyle as “middle class,” a description about which I am dubious), but when the reader, meaning me, reaches the long section about the custody battles with Mia Farrow and the accusation of child molestation, one might begin to understand why Allen is desperate to present himself as a regular, every-day guy. Maureen Callahan, in her barely-a-review, called the book “bitter.” You don’t say.
(One of the many things that can be added to this is the fact that Andre Previn's ex-wife Dory, a singer-songwriter, once wrote a song called "Daddy in the Attic," the lyrics of which describe a situation that somewhat resembles the story Mia Farrow has pitched all these years. The song was released in 1970, the year Andre Previn's marriage to Dory ended, and his marriage to Mia Farrow began.)
Following this section, Allen, rather awkwardly, rewinds in order to briefly describe all of the films he made from Husbands and Wives to A Rainy Day in New York (still not distributed in the United States because of the second wave of awareness of the scandal that came following the #MeToo movement). This is probably the least illuminating part of the book, because he blows through most movies at a rapid pace, boringly complimenting everyone he worked with; though he takes some time to cock a snoot at the actors he worked with during this period who later disowned him. He writes of Timothée Chalamet, who acted in A Rainy Day in New York:
Timothée afterward publicly stated he regretted working with me and was giving the money to charity, but he swore to my sister he needed to do that as he was up for an Oscar for Call Me by Your Name, and he and his agent felt he had a better chance of winning if he denounced me, so he did. Anyhow, I didn’t regret working with him, and I’m not giving any of my money back.
I find this funny, and fair, but it will earn him no new supporters (nor will the sentence “I liked Alan Dershowitz”). But Allen says throughout this section that during the whole time of the original tabloid explosion, he expected common sense to take over. Now that it hasn’t, he believes this book will make no difference whatsoever. The reaction to Apropos of Nothing so far bears this out. And it’s not as though I think Allen escapes the book unscathed: His rebuttal to Mariel Hemingway’s account that he left her family’s home early after he had been invited for the weekend because she, age 18, refused to travel with him to Paris strikes me as not exactly believable. (He claims he couldn’t stand sharing a bathroom with her father and so booked an earlier flight.) And he’s especially weird about his second wife, Louise Lasser, who suffered from bipolar disorder, and whose sexually euphoric highs he writes about as though they were just fun sexy games, rather than part of her illness.
In short, Woody Allen is, from what I can tell, more messed up than he thinks. But being an asshole isn’t the same thing as being a monster.