Wednesday Book: Portrait of a troubled artist

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The Independent Culture


WOODY ALLEN has often protested that his screen persona is not to be confused with his real character, any more than those of other comedians like Charlie Chaplin or Bob Hope: "I thought there was something wrong with the culture for wanting to think that," he told an interviewer. "You don't want to think that John Wayne goes around with two six-shooters. That's silly to me."

Who's being silly? After all, it was Allen who gave his film Annie Hall its star Diane Keaton's real name. Who shot Hannah and Her Sisters in Mia Farrow's apartment, using Farrow's own children? The characters Allen plays habitually share to various degrees his well-publicised childhood, his milieu, his cultural and sexual predilections, his women and his hang- ups.

In complicated, elusive ways, Allen seemed different from other film stars, more open and intimate with his audience. This explained both the fervency of his admirers and the particular fury felt when he abandoned the mother of his child for the teenage stepsister of that child.

What other star would inspire a biography like this one, so grimly determined to catalogue all the discrepancies, failures and hypocrisies? Some of these, admittedly, are worthy of his own withering comedy. His scruffy clothes are actually hand-made at fabulous expense. He is a supposed recluse who eats out every night and used to be driven around Manhattan by a chauffeur in a cream-coloured Rolls-Royce. He only washes every three days because he fears that natural anti-ageing oils will be rinsed away. He scrutinised Mia Farrow's grocery bills, lest he inadvertently pay for breakfast cereal consumed by those of her stepchildren that he didn't care for.

It would be difficult to deny that there is a ghoulish interest in what John Baxter has come up with in his trawl through cuttings, books, and interviews he has conducted himself. But would any of this come as a surprise to an attentive viewer of Allen's films? The inability to commit to relationships, the neuroticism and self-centredness, his ambiguous feelings about his own fans, his uneasiness with mature women and attraction to young girls are all there to be seen in the films. The only shock may be how rawly accurate they were.

For all his detailed, interesting accounts of the films, Baxter misses the extraordinariness of the career as a whole. Most screen comedians have short careers and are effectively finished by middle age. Allen has now been a major figure in the film industry for almost 35 years. Since he won the Oscar for Annie Hall in 1977, he has written, directed and often starred in 21 feature films (plus the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of New York Stories and a TV version of his play Don't Drink the Water). No other Hollywood film-maker can even begin to compete with this record.

More than this, he has done it entirely on his own terms. Characteristically, John Baxter accuses Allen of both courting fame and arrogantly ignoring audiences. Like too many current critics, he has difficulty in separating artistic achievement from success or failure at the box office. On the other hand, Baxter seems to consider Allen's relative financial success in Europe (which has frequently compensated for failure in America) as somehow inauthentic.

Baxter virtually jeers in the book's final pages, describing the financial crisis of a few months ago which forced Allen to dismiss many of the collaborators he had kept on contract for two decades. As if the real miracle was not how such a personal film-maker had kept such a team together for so long...

Allen's output has been extremely variable, ranging from the depths of September to the heights of Manhattan or The Purple Rose of Cairo. But he has never made a film cynically, in the way that Steven Spielberg made The Lost World. Even when his ideas don't quite come off - as with the Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite - there is a pleasure in seeing something that hasn't been smoothed out by too many meetings and memos from executives. And I'm glad to hear that Allen does not allow his actors any input at all into their roles.

Much of this goes for the "damaging" biographical detail as well. Woody Allen probably isn't as nice as John Baxter and I are to our partners and children. But how does Baxter think that you write, cast, shoot, star in and edit a film - not just once but every year? If this is nastiness, I wish that Orson Welles, Preston Sturges and other Hollywood casualties had had some of it.