Wednesday Book: Portrait of a troubled artist

WOODY ALLEN: A BIOGRAPHY

BY JOHN BAXTER, HARPERCOLLINS, pounds 19.99

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...