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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
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.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits