Woody Allen: a life of jazz, laughter, depression —and a few misdemeanours

As Allen completes his 47th film, two new biographies pay tribute to his genius as a director on the eve of his 80th birthday

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

Woody Allen: Film by Film Jason Solomons

Carlton, pp.256, £25, ISBN: 9781780976730

Woody Allen: A Retrospective Tom Shone

Thames & Hudson, pp.287, £29.95, ISBN: 9780500517987

Woody Allen (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg), the prolific, Oscar-winning auteur, New Orleans-style jazz clarinettist, doyen of New York delicatessen society, moralistic nihilist and icon of nebbishes everywhere, will be 80 on 1 December. He says he hopes to sleep through the occasion, but he is already completing next year’s film, his 47th, and preparing a series of programmes for television. In the meantime, here, in homage, are two magnificently illustrated catalogues raisonnés.

Both books incidentally tell the story of his life, including the time when he courted his former partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and caused all media hell to break loose. He survived disapproval by working, married the girl in 1997, and they still live happily together.

He was born in the Bronx and brought up in Brooklyn. His father was a taxi-driver, bartender and soi-disant jeweller, and his mother worked in a flower shop. She took her son to the cinema for the first time at the age of three, to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which combines the essentials of romantic drama — beauty, fear and comic relief. He was immediately so attracted to the screen that he reached forward, as though attempting to touch it. Years later, of course, he succeeded in a big way.

According to Radio Days, a nostalgic portrayal of Allen’s early boyhood, when his whole extended family listened to the radio night and day, his affectionate but irritable father and mother and their rabbi competed for the privilege of smacking his head. He was a highly intelligent, unenthusiastic scholar. Expelled from New York University, he began selling gags to newspaper columnists and comedians on radio and in nightclubs. The writing came easily. He soon found jobs performing his material, and by 17 he was making more money than his parents combined.

‘Jokes saved my life,’ he told Jason Solomons, the distinguished film critic, in an interview at this year’s Cannes film festival, which is reproduced in full in this book. Allen needs all the psychological relief that jokes can provide. He is tormented by a constant neurotic awareness of the inevitable loneliness of death — an acute form of hypochondria, the substratum on which all his other ideas are based, even if only by implicit contrast.

Solomons, in his analysis of Play It Again, Sam, quotes a fictitious young woman’s interpretation of a Jackson Pollock abstraction, coinciding with Allen’s own perennial vision of everything. She says:

It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

Ever since he changed his first name after Woody Herman, a clarinet player in the swing era, Allen has spent much of his life distracting himself from morbid brooding by means of sex, jazz, laughter and directing and acting in films, especially as they have enabled him to work with good-looking, intelligent women. His career has been sustained by his original imagination, willingness to take creative risks, unflagging industry and the fact that so many leading actors are eager to appear in his films, even at lower than usual pay. His own experience of marital dysfunction enables him to write dialogue of appallingly funny fidelity to men and women in fraying relationships.

Jazz has always meant a lot to him. When his band was playing in Michael’s Pub in Manhattan, I once had the opportunity between sets to tell him his last solo reminded me of Johnny Dodds, a compliment rewarded right away with an invitation to Allen’s private screening room. Solomons approvingly notes Barbara Kolle’s documentary Wild Man Blues, showing Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band touring Europe, accompanied by Soon-Yi, in 1997, the year of their wedding. His musical performances are exuberant, his thanks to audiences modestly diffident.

He wrote his first screenplay in 1965, for What’s New, Pussycat?, whose storyline was directed by the producer’s whims. The result disappointed Allen grievously. From then on he has insisted on directing his own scripts without any interference from investors and distributors. His early independent productions, such as Take the Money and Run and Bananas, may be regarded as mere comic-book juvenilia, but are spiced with sophisticated allusions. There are Buster Keaton slapstick elements in Sleeper, but, after all, the story was inspired by one of the scientific romances of H.G. Wells.

Solomons and Tom Shone are in harmonious, erudite agreement on the superior technical and imaginative qualities of many of Allen’s best-loved films — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Mighty Aphrodite, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine — and both experts are equally severe in their appraisals of experimental failures apparently influenced by Allen’s admiration of Bergman and German expressionists. Solomons seems particularly appreciative of Allen’s Jewishness, while Shone, after a long, comparably authoritative career as a London film critic, achieved an extra American critical point of view at New York University, where he teaches film history and criticism. The two authors’ best birthday present to Woody Allen is their joint assessment that he is a genius.

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'Woody Allen: Film by Film', £22 and 'Woody Allen: A Retrospective', £26.95 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • sir_graphus

    Oh, he’s no longer making films as good as Manhattan or Annie Hall. There are flaws in all of them, particularly later ones. But has any director made so many films and so few complete duds. Nearly all his films are worth watching. None leave you thinking, that was 2 hours of my life I won’t get back.

    • True: but if I didn’t like a film I wouldn’t waste two hours on it, in any case.

    • LoveMeIamALiberal

      I think all his films are about 90 minutes. One of this charms is he’s never succumbed to the modern conceit that a longer film is more important.

  • Kivi Shaps

    Oh and don’t forget his wonderful life as a pervert.

    • Guest 101

      Some people purchase a bride from places such as Indonesia. Others purchase a child and then later decide to make that child their bride once the age of consent has passed. Is that a perversion or is it the system that is perverted that allows it to happen legally?

    • aspeckofboggart

      Mia, time to move on.

  • Steven Kaye

    One of the all-time artistic greats.

  • carl jacobs

    You mean the guy who kicked his wife to the curb so he could screw his own daughter? That Woody Allen? I suppose if spend your life in a haze of meaningless angst, and think NYC is the center of the universe, you might find his movies entertaining. To me he’s a couple of notches below Roman Polanski on the “How do you get this slime off your hands” scale.

    • thomasaikenhead

      Don’t forget his son, Ronan Farrow who had this to say about his father;

      “He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression.”

      Spot on with the Roman Polanski mention, far too many people in the media fawn over the likes of Polanski and Allen despite their repulsive personal behaviour.

      • carl jacobs

        “Art redeems depravity.” Where that attitude originates I cannot say. But I have some ideas …

        And it’s not even good art.

        • thomasaikenhead

          Well said!

      • LoveMeIamALiberal

        Soon Yi is not his biological child and she was an adult when Allen began the relationship. It’s still odd and creepy but not in the same league as Polanski who would face charges of drugging and raping a minor if he ever set foot in the US.

        • thomasaikenhead

          “Soon Yi is not his biological child and she was an adult when Allen began the relationship.”

          Was she?

          • LoveMeIamALiberal

            Yes, she was born in October 1970. Allen was never her adopted father; Allen and Mia Farrow never even formally lived together. Farrow found out about her daughter and Allen when she came across nude photos of Soon Yi in Allen’s apartment (in 1992). Odd and creepy but read up what Polanski is alleged to have done before drawing any comparisons with Allen.

          • Sue Smith

            These two things are not mutually exclusive; pedophiles are precisely that.

          • johnhenry

            You don’t know when Soon-Yi was born. You say 1970. Others say 1973. Nobody knows for sure. Not even your Woody. Whichever, she could have been 14, 15 or 16 when the polaroids were taken. The fact remains that he was a rich, powerful man in a position to take advantage of her vulnerability. Whether he did or not, I’m now willing to leave to God. Goodnight.

          • LoveMeIamALiberal

            Her WIkipaedia entry gives her date of birth as 1970. Mia Farrow never claimed that Allen started the relationship with Soon Yi when she was under 18, although she did accuse him of abusing one of her other children (an accusation for which the authorities could find no reliable evidence). Farrow seems to have every reason to claim Soon Yi was a child when the affair started given how furious she was when she found out about it, but she didn’t.

          • Sue Smith

            I believe she was about 17.

            This tells us a lot about Allen; that he wants a much younger, adoring and sycophantic female. For many years his partner Mia Farrow willingly took that role. Earth-mother type, surrounded by lots of kids (reminds me of Angelina) and the ‘nurturing’ type.

            For ‘nurturing’ read ENABLING and CO-DEPENDENT.

        • johnhenry

          “It’s still odd and creepy but not in the same league as Polanski…”

          Some say Woody is worse than Polanski who didn’t lust after his own child, biological or otherwise. Woody was in loco parentis to Soon-Yi Previn.

          • Sue Smith

            Spot on.


          • LoveMeIamALiberal

            Some can say what they like, but the facts are that Allen started a sexual relationship with an adult (with whom he still lives) who was the child of his the partner, but not her legal custodian whereas Polanski accepted a plea bargain that he had sex with a 13 year old girl and then fled the country before a potential prison sentence could be passed.

          • Sue Smith

            Why are you defending the indefensible?

            A symptom of our age; moral relativism.

          • LoveMeIamALiberal

            I’m not, I’m pointing out that statutory rape is not the same thing as what can be considered an incestuous relationship between two adults and that the former is reprehensible (and illegal) in a way the latter is not

          • Sue Smith

            They’re both horrific!!

      • Sue Smith

        And that’s one of the reasons no celebrity has very much credibility at all. They live in fantasyland, after all.

    • Sue Smith

      I think there’s quite a lot I can agree with in these comments.

  • Guest 101

    Do you judge the artist’s art by their art or by the artist?

    • carl jacobs

      I judge the art by the worldview it makes manifest. And I wonder how so many people can willfully overlook reprehensible behavior simply because they find significance in the artist’s work. The narcissism is palpable. “Who cares if he is screwing his own daughter? His work speaks to ME!”

      • His wife doesn’t see herself as his daughter, obviously. You ought to care what she thinks, if you care at all. In the vernacular, she’s ‘old enough and ugly enough’ to have decided by now that it was all a terrible mistake, if indeed it was. Instead she has sought nobody else. They are not related and the idea that he was her father was probably always rather a fiction, especially since he never married her adoptive mother and always maintained a separate residence, where he lived. As a woman with one or two erstwhile, somewhat, unofficial ‘stepfathers’ myself, I understand the nature of such relationships perhaps better than you do.

        • johnhenry

          But keep in mind thomasaikenhead’s earlier quote from Woody’s son. Ronan Farrow’s sister is now married to Ronan Farrow’s father. Woody doesn’t care about his family’s peace of mind anywhere near as much as about his own yearnings.

          • Sue Smith

            And he would have been comprehensively brainwashed by his mother, Mia Farrow!!

            They all need their heads banged together, IMO. And where WAS Andre Previn himself in all of this; oh that’s right – off with another women having left his children AT the hands of a pedophile. Did he act when all this came to light? No.

          • johnhenry

            “…he would have been comprehensively brainwashed by his mother…”

            er…you don’t need to be brainwashed to have emotional and moral issues arising from your father marrying your sister.

          • Sue Smith

            Ronan was only a very young child, as I recall, when he made that comment!!

          • Well, that’s life, I’m afraid. He wasn’t prepared to deny himself what he saw as his greatest happiness.

          • johnhenry

            “Well, that’s life, I’m afraid. He wasn’t prepared to deny himself…”

            That’s certainly Woody’s message to the world, but there are still stalwarts (I don’t mean me despite aspiring to be) who put the happiness of others before their own.

          • Hi John. I’m no stranger to self-denial and sacrifice myself, and I can say with hand on heart and with no desire to hurt anyone that I would rather have had what my heart really wanted than otherwise.

          • johnhenry

            Where is your heart is the question 🙂

          • Ah, well at least she got a kiss…

        • Sue Smith

          The relationship was way too close. If it was a school teacher and pupil society would be in convulsions. Allen’s relationship to Soon-Yi was much closer to home than that!! She was FAR MORE vulnerable than a school student is to a teacher.

          • But she married him. And by all accounts is as normal as anyone else with shiploads of money and fame in the family.

        • carl jacobs

          His wife doesn’t see herself as his daughter, obviously.

          Umm … so?

          You ought to care what she thinks, if you care at all.

          No, I shouldn’t, and no I don’t.

          In the vernacular, she’s ‘old enough and ugly enough’ to have decided by now that it was all a terrible mistake,

          It isn’t about what she decides in retrospect. Sexual morality does not begin and end with consent. The relationship is structurally flawed. She can’t make it unflawed by force of will.

          I understand the nature of such relationships perhaps better than you do.

          There is nothing complicated about this relationship. The moral issue is both blindingly simple and blindingly clear. I am not crippled in my ability to assess it simply because I didn’t rip my family to pieces for the sake of my own selfish desires.

          • Have you ever done anything for your own ‘selfish’ desires? And if you didn’t, how painful was it, what did it cost you, and do you in any way feel loss as a result?

    • dwarfpoo


    • Sue Smith

      It must be the former, but since Allen’s work is all about his own angst and insecurities it is almost impossible to divorce “the tale from the teller”.

  • johnhenry

    Not even a ten year old has enough years of life left to justify reading one book, let alone two, about this schlockmeister.

  • johnhenry

    “Ever since he changed his first name after Woody Herman, a clarinet player…”

    He was actually referring to (boasting about) a small part of his body.

  • johnhenry

    “Few married couples seem more married. They are constantly in touch with each other, and not many fathers spend as much time with their children as Allen does. He is there before they wake up in the morning, he sees them during the day and he helps put them to bed at night.

    “When he isn’t at work, he’s with Farrow and the children or reading or practicing his clarinet. He takes no vacations apart from the occasional two-week trip to Europe with Farrow and the children,”

    “Farrow—who, contrary to Allen’s subsequent assertions that their relationship was nearly over by January [1992?] still thought they would be spending the rest of their lives together—made the discovery of Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi when she found a stack of Polaroids taken by him of her daughter, her legs spread in full frontal nudity. Woody would later say publicly that the pictures had been taken because Soon-Yi was interested in modeling. Mia found the pictures while she was in Woody’s apartment waiting for one of the children to complete a play-therapy session with a psychologist.”

    The Vanity Fair piece is one about which I express no personal opinion except to wonder why Woody has not sued to have it taken offline?

  • johnhenry

    Here’s what Soon-Yi sings whilst Woody fingers his ‘clarinet’:

    Why he shakes my ashes, greases my griddle
    Chimes my butter and he strokes my fiddle
    My man is such a handy man (oh yes he is)

    He threads my needle, creams my wheat
    Heats my heater and he chops my meat
    My man is such a handy man

    Now I don’t care if you believe it or not
    He’s so good to have around
    And when my furnace gets too hot
    He’s right there and turns my damper down

    Why for everything he’s got a scheme
    You oughta see that new stuff he uses on my machine
    That man is such a handy man (he’s God’s gift girls)

    Why he flaps my flapjacks, cleans off my table
    Feeds my horses out in my stable
    That man is such a handy man, mmm yeah

    Sometimes he’s up long before the dawn
    Busy trimmin’ the rough edges off my front lawn
    Yeah that man is such a handy man


    Alberta Hunter (RIP)

  • stearl33

    The Jackson Pollack scene from “Play It Again Sam” is one of the greatest and funniest moments on film. Allen’s delivery of the punch line is brilliant, but it is the young actress who makes the scene totally work.