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Cancelling Woody Allen's entire back catalogue in revenge for his moral failures would be to spite ourselves

Paul Whitington


Highly criticised: Woody Allen

Highly criticised: Woody Allen

Woody Allen with Soon-Yi Previn

Woody Allen with Soon-Yi Previn

Getty Images

Bitter split: Woody Allen with his family in 1988 including (from left, Fletcher Previn, Mia Farrow (holding Dylan), Moses Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn

Bitter split: Woody Allen with his family in 1988 including (from left, Fletcher Previn, Mia Farrow (holding Dylan), Moses Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn

Allen with Mia Farrow visiting Rome in 1983

Allen with Mia Farrow visiting Rome in 1983

Sipa Press/REX/Shutterstock

Highly criticised: Woody Allen

In his memoir Apropos of Nothing, released last week after a staff protest necessitated a rapid change of publisher, Woody Allen makes a quip about his low opinion of humanity. "Being a misanthropist," he writes, "has its saving grace - people can never disappoint you." Ah, but they can, Woody, they can.

Up until four or five years ago, Allen was the eminence grise of American comedy, a man with a shady personal past, no question, but also one of the truly great screenwriters, a former stand-up with a fine line in relationship comedies who, as he turned 80, was still pumping out a film a year, some of them, like Blue Jasmine (2013), of Oscar-winning quality.

Now, his late purple patch is well and truly over. He's a pariah, struggling to get backers for his films, pilloried online by the #MeToo movement, but does he deserve it? It depends who you ask.

In his book, he mounts a vigorous, jokey and sometimes passive-aggressive defence of his reputation.

He recalls, affectionately and otherwise, his parents Nettie and Martin Konigsberg, who "disagreed on every issue except Hitler and my report cards" and "stayed married for 70 years - out of spite, I suspect".

He pinpoints the origins of his existential despair. "My own speculation centres around the fact that at five or so, I became aware of mortality and figured, uh-oh, this is not what I signed on for. I had never agreed to be finite."

He talks about friends, people he worked with, about his young life in Brooklyn. And of course he talks about the elephant in the room: the break-up of his relationship with Mia Farrow as a consequence of his relationship with his adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and Farrow's subsequent assertions that he had molested another adopted daughter, Dylan.

His description of Mia Farrow is carefully constructed, and damning. It was her "drop-dead punim" (a yiddish word for face) that first attracted him. She was "bright, beautiful, she could write, could draw". She also had seven children, but Allen asserts that while all this boho chaos seemed charming at first, it and Farrow's beauty blinded him to the fact that she was, according to him, mentally unstable.

He talks about problems in Farrow's background, a sibling suicide, another brother convicted of child abuse. All of this dysfunction, Allen reckons, Mia visited on her ever-expanding brood.

"Mia enjoyed adopting," he writes, "loved the excitement, like one buys a new toy. She liked the saintly reputation, the admiring publicity, but she didn't like raising the kids and she didn't really look after them." He cites some pretty damning parental neglect.

Sportingly, he forgives her anger over the discovery that he was sleeping with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. At the time, Allen was 55 and Soon-Yi was 21.

"I understand her shock, her dismay, her rage, everything," he says. "It was the correct reaction." Big of him. But it was Farrow's rage, he then asserts, that led her to accuse him of molesting seven-year-old Dylan.

In Apropos of Nothing he asserts, as he always has, his innocence: "I certainly didn't do anything improper to her". He had, he claims, a strong parental bond with Dylan, and was very upset that he was subsequently not allowed to see her.

But he is philosophical: "Why is it when attacked I rarely spoke out or seemed overly upset? Well, given the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe, what's one little false allegation in the scheme of things?"

That allegation was twice investigated by New York State, and twice dismissed for lack of evidence, but its cordite whiff has never quite dissipated, resurfacing epically to dovetail with #MeToo courtesy of a two-pronged attack by Dylan Farrow and Allen's exceedingly estranged son Ronan Farrow.

All of that is old ground, but even if you put the Dylan allegation to one side, along with the Soon-Yi affair, Allen's general attitude to women in his book is unsettling. He seems incapable of mentioning a female without rating her appearance. As a young man, he recalled chasing "delectable bohemian little kumquats" around Manhattan. While filming Casino Royale in 1960s London, "one could stroll on the King's Road and pick up the most adorable birds in their miniskirts".

Christina Ricci is "plenty desirable", Rachel McAdams "looks like a million bucks from any angle". And recalling working with the 19-year-old Scarlett Johansson, he says "before you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones... she was sexually radioactive".

At this stage, even dyed-in-the-wool misogynists have become adept at covering their tracks, but Allen seems completely tone-deaf in this regard. Allen might not come out of his own autobiography too well, but that doesn't make him a bad artist. Only a child or a dim-witted zealot judges art on the basis of its creator's personality. Take Balthus for example, the Polish-French painter whose obsession with pre-pubescent females has raised many hackles: he might have been a creep; he was also a genius.

Cancelling Woody Allen's entire back catalogue in revenge for his moral failures would be to spite ourselves. His early comedies, like Love and Death and Sleepers, are at times sublime; the mid-period comic dramas like Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters are hugely accomplished. And perhaps paradoxically, he's written lots of great roles for women.

There's one film of his, though, I might find hard to watch again. Manhattan is often cited as one of his very best films, a brilliantly written relationship comedy set in 1970s New York and following the romantic fortunes of Issac Davis, a Jewish writer and Woody proxy. He's middle-aged, neurotic, and spends most of the film loving and leaving a 17-year-old high school girl called Tracy.

"Hey, the little girl is fine!" he insists at one point to Diane Keaton, who plays a confident older woman who is Issac's equal in every regard. But she will never seem as attractive as the pliant, compliant teenager, to whom our 'hero' ultimately returns.

I used to watch that film and admire it. Now I can't help remembering that the scenario was based on a real relationship Allen had with a young actress called Stacey Nelkin whom he met on the set of Annie Hall. He was 42, she was 17.

Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen, published by Arcade, is available on Kindle, £15.49, and in hardback, £25

Belfast Telegraph