Profile: Funny guy takes a fall

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The Independent Online
HOURS after Woody Allen had lost his battle with Mia Farrow for custody of their three children, he was sitting in his Manhattan apartment considering what he always considers after a big event in his life - how it all affected Woody Allen. 'I've always been a reclusive, sheltered guy,' he said. 'My privacy was crucial. I was terrified of publicity, wouldn't do much for my own films. I dreaded it. But I learned that I could deal with it, this avalanche of awful scurrilous garbage. Hey, it's not so bad.'

That was the first lesson he saw in the months of sordid public bickering. He had weathered a public storm. Only later did he say: 'Forget about me, look what's happening to the kids, I'll do whatever I have to to make my kids' lives normal again.'

As always with Woody Allen, the great curator and exponent of modern, metropolitan (and male) neuroses, his commitment to his own survival came first. All of us, of course, have an instinct for self-preservation. In some of us - politicians, say, or aggressive business careerists - it may be as strong as Allen's. But for a man who is celebrated worldwide as the epitome of timid, introspective and confused manhood, the truth has come as a surprise for the rest of us. His self-absorption is quite ruthless. And, in complete contradiction to the techniques of pyscho analysis and psychotherapy which Allen, in life as well art, has famously subscribed to, he has always moved forward by never looking back.

He never, for example, watches his films after the final cut. He might find something wrong, and that, he has said, would depress him. He could not bear that. Depression is best coped with by turning adversity into comedy. Here he is in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): 'Millions of books written on every conceivable subject by all these great minds, and in the end none of them knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do. Jesus, I read Socrates, you know. This guy used to knock off little Greek boys. What the hell's he got to teach me? . . . And Freud, another great pessimist. Jesus, I was in analysis for years. Nothing happened. The poor analyst finally got so frustrated. The guy put in a salad bar.'

This sounded fine when Allen was unblemished, when an army of women found him sexy, when the distinction between Allen's film persona and his person was blurred and unexplored. He wore the same baggy corduroy trousers, threadbare sweater and black-rimmed glasses on and off the set. People wondered whether he was the same in real life, but he was so private he never gave them much to chew on. He had two marriages before his 12-year affair with Mia Farrow, but his wives were not stars and few bothered to pry.

Only when his seduction of Mia Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi was revealed and when Farrow charged him with sexual molestation of their adopted daughter, Dylan, was his public given a chance to satisfy their intense interest in his real self. He sued to 'liberate the hostages' - Dylan, plus a jointly adopted son, Moses, and his biological son, Satchel - and the result was devastating to his image as a tormented but generous and caring neurotic. In his scathing ruling on the Woody and Mia case, the judge said Woody was 'self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive', a person who showed no aptitude for parenthood. Worse, he demonstrated no remorse at sleeping with Soon-Yi, and no care for the consequences on the other eight children of Farrow's extended brood. The actor who had given extreme pleasure to millions of people he never knew had also cost a few people close to him excruciating pain.

WOODY ALLEN was born Allan Konigsberg in Brooklyn in 1935. He changed his name to lighten his image when he took a job as a joke writer; 'Woody' had 'a slightly comic appropriateness'. His parents were first-generation Jewish Americans. His paternal grandfather, who was from Russia, did quite well until the Depression. He wore fine clothes and had a box at the Metropolitan Opera. His mother's parents were from Vienna. When Allan was born, times were hard. His father had a variety of jobs, running racing bets, cabbing, working in a poolroom. Allan went to local schools and was a bad student.

It was clear he was bright though not (his later public image) the swot who got pushed around. He was easily bored, often played truant and defied authority. He was a loner, not handsome, but neither was he ugly; not tall, not short. He was scrawny rather than skinny and, again contrary to his later image, he was a good athlete and baseball player, and he enjoyed boxing.

The cinema was always his big thing. He saw Snow White aged three and was captivated. In an age without television, but with two or three movie theatres per block, he could escape from his drab and crowded home to the plush velvet seats, the chandeliers and the fantasy world of film. He turned adversity into comfort and comedy by closing the door on the real world and dreaming of people in big cars, white suits and penthouses.

Instead of maths he learned the clarinet, which he plays regularly even now at a Manhattan jazz club. He learned magic tricks and sometimes thought of being a gambler, a cardsharp and a hustler. He became a passable poker player. That character would later appear in Take the Money and Run, his first director-writer film in 1969. At other times, he thought of becoming a detective, or an optometrist. He started a course at New York University in Greenwich Village, but was kicked out after a year for bad grades. He took a job as joke writer for newspaper columnists, and moved to Hollywood, still writing gags.

To impress the arty girls, he read Faulkner and Hemingway and found he liked them, though not Fitzgerald. 'Then I started reading plays,' he told his biographer Eric Lax. 'The things those women read and liked led them inevitably to Nietzsche and Trotsky and Beethoven, and I had to struggle to stay alive in that kind of company.' But his overweening desire was to be a comic. He loved to make people laugh. In Hollywood, Danny Simon, the brother of the playwright Neil, was a great influence. He once said: 'Everything I learned about comedy writing I learned from Danny.'

HE BECAME a stand-up comic at the Village Gate, a job that depended for success on the reaction of his audience. No laughs, no job; like it or not, he had to care about audience reaction. One of his routines was the damaged pet shop of his youth, where you could get a bent pussycat, a straight camel and dogs that stuttered. He thought his funniest line was about how his parents were so poor they could afford only an ant that he named Spot. There was not a squeak from the audience - at first. Months later he tried it again, and it became one of his most applauded lines. In 1962 he got his first important review in the New York Times which called him 'a Chaplinesque victim with an S J Perelman sense of the bizarre and a Mort Sahl delivery'. One of his earliest fans was Jack Benny. Woody Allen was creating his persona from what the people demanded. 'My character was assigned to me by the audience,' he said later.

The transition to films came in 1962 as writer/actor in What's New Pussycat, and then as a director, too. The traditional Jewish humour of his comic acts spread to his films - Take the Money and Run and Bananas, and later in Love and Death and in the Academy Award-winning Annie Hall where he was the hapless guy who can't get the girl. He parodied Italian movies in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex. He wrote and directed; he became an all-rounder, an auteur, with a special deal with financiers and distributors of his films that gave him total artistic freedom providing he stayed within budget. He took criticism personally, and a theme of alienation ran through the films. Annie Hall (1977) was followed by the gloomy Interiors (1978), which the critics panned. He began to examine fundamental questions of good and evil. 'It's very important to realise that we're up against an evil, insidious, hostile universe,' he says. 'It'll make you ill, and age you and kill you.' He became obsessed by death, but still joked about it. When asked if he wanted to achieve immortality through his work, he replied: 'No, I hope to live on in my apartment.'

Mia Farrow was not an obvious choice for a Woody Allen love affair. He listed their differences many times. She didn't like Manhattan, he adored it. She loved the country, he hated it. She didn't like sports, he loved them. She liked to eat in, early, he liked to eat out, late. She liked simple, unpretentious restaurants, he liked fancy places. She couldn't sleep with an air conditioner on, he couldn't sleep without one. She loved pets and animals, he hated them. She liked to spend most of her time with children, he liked to work and limit his time with them.

'IT'S NO accomplishment to have kids, any fool can do it,' he said before he had his own. Around the time that his son, Satchel, was born he was asked if he would be a good father. 'Excellent, excellent, absolutely great. Why not? I'm kind and sympathetic and amusing. I play music. I like baseball if it's a boy, and I, you know, like ballet if it's a girl.' In another interview he was less effusive and said he got along 'Fine, fine'. He called parenthood 'a pleasurable dimension', an oddly measured phrase.

Then out of the blue came Allen's seduction of Soon-Yi, the college student and adopted daughter of Farrow's marriage with Andre Previn. It was followed by Farrow's charges of his sexual molestation of Dylan, and then by the crushing court case. The funny boy from Brooklyn who couldn't change a lightbulb, let alone a typewriter ribbon, and spent his day avoiding elevators and taking his temperature, had exposed his moral compass for all to see.

Nothing can erase his achievements in the cinema, but in future his audiences will not make the mistake of confusing on-screen and off-screen characters. They will know that cinematic lovability does not necessarily equal human decency. In the end, he forfeited the mystery of himself and confirmed his isolation from human intimacy. He revealed the real Woody Allen.

(Photographs omitted)