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Woody Allen turns 80 on Dec. 1 and David Evanier has a present waiting for him in Woody: The Biography.
Anyone looking for jaw-dropping revelations about the director/actor/ screenwriter/playwright/comedian’s personal life — and, in particular, his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, his extended war of words with Mia Farrow and allegations of child abuse by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow — will be disappointed.
“This is not a blow-by-blow or a standard critical biography,” writes Evanier. “I want to add what has been missed about his work while sketching in some essential brushstrokes of his life and career.” And in that respect, with the addition of new material including interviews with artistic collaborators as well as friends and family, Evanier (a former fiction editor of The Paris Review) succeeds.
It’s the first biography in more than 15 years of the Oscar-winning artist who has given us more than 45 films, from such classics as Annie Hall, Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose to the 21st century hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. And the Woody Allen seen here is, more than anything else, a man whose work is his lifeline.
“Even when he was in relative limbo,” says Evanier, “his productivity never flagged.”
Evanier necessarily examines the central themes of Allen’s work and connections to his life: Judaism, psychology, sex and infidelity, Manhattan (forever idealized) and Hollywood (forever demonized), unspooling scene after scene to make his case alongside reviews and commentary from such critical titans as Pauline Kael and John Simon. (Evanier often quibbles with them and even with Woody.)
Still, the author’s tendency to fawn and go easy on Allen in uncomfortable ways detract from the work overall. (“He managed to get an enviable marriage,” he concludes of Allen’s controversial union with Soon-Yi, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter.)
It’s safe to say Evanier doubts the accusations leveled by Farrow, Allen’s one-time partner. “While the story Mia Farrow told of his molesting Dylan was never proved, there were many who believed it was true,” he writes. “Inferring from the ample evidence of his protagonists’ fondness for young girls in his films, they overlooked the right of the artist to fantasize in his art and chose unfairly to conclude that he was therefore capable of monstrous acts in his private life.”
Evanier does add some valuable color and insight in particular to Allen’s early life in Brooklyn, where the mischievous icon-to-be practiced magic, pulled a few less than ethical slight of hands, and did what he had to do to get the girl (including “bird-dogging” or stealing his friend’s dates).
To his credit, Evanier makes it clear that Allen (bornAllan Stewart Konigsberg) “has absolutely not cooperated with or authorized this book.” In fact, in a September 2013 email to Evanier, Allen wonders how “yet another book about me would serve any constructive purpose,” adding, “If I am wrong…tell me what I am missing.”
You can’t blame Woody for wondering.
But Evanier’s intent, clearly, is to ensure that Woody Allen, whatever our discomfort and lingering questions about him, gets his due.
“If Allen,” concludes Evanier, “did not have one transcendent work, as he contends — and I think he has many — his record of consistent memorable films would accord him a permanent place as one of the great directors of all time.”
Woody: The Biography
By David Evanier
St. Martin’s Press, 400 pp.
2.5 out of 4 stars
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