• U.S.

Pulp From The Woodpile

3 minute read
Richard Corliss


Knopf; 386 pages; $24

Everything you ought to want to know about Woody Allen you could find in the Playbill for his 1969 Broadway comedy, Play It Again, Sam: “Woody Allen is the son of a Latvian prince. He came to the United States as the result of a pogrom at which he was the only one to show up . . . He is the father of two children, although he denies it.”

In drab fact, Woody Allen is the son of Martin Konigsberg, a Brooklyn butter-and-egg man. He is the father of Satchel O’Sullivan Farrow. He lives with, or across Central Park from, actress Mia Farrow. He was twice married and divorced, and kept significant company with another of his co-stars, Diane Keaton. You know this already, and you won’t learn much more about his sleeping habits here. Eric Lax is no Kitty Kelley; he seems to believe, with Vladimir Nabokov, that “the best part of a writer’s biography is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style.” With Lax providing a sympathetic ear, Allen tells that story in piquant detail, from his early days writing one-liners for gossip columnists, through his stand-up comedy routines in clubs and on TV, to his present lonely eminence as the crafter of a distinctive, often distinguished body of films.

He comes across as your basic nest of contradictions. His very name is a fiction (Woody Allen is the sort of name suitable for a Catskill jester, not a renowned auteur), yet he strips himself naked in every film. A private person with an itch to dine out (at Elaine’s, at the Russian Tea Room), he wants to be admired but not approached. He says he doesn’t read reviews of his work, yet he counts as one of the four most important people in his career Vincent Canby, the New York Times critic whose reviews have exhausted superlatives and sense in praise of Woody. He has few peers at the complex and honorable business of raising a laugh, yet he wants to play in the same league as Bergman, Bunuel, Kurosawa, to create “true literature.” On those occasions when he stops scaling Olympus and makes a popular comedy-drama such as Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters, he feels a little cheap, like the Whore of Mensa (the main character and title of one of his funniest short stories) — as if he has undersold his gifts to win easy acclaim.

He has long realized his tendency to play to the caviar crowd. When he was starting in stand-up comedy 31 years ago, his manager Jack Rollins told him, “You do lines only dogs can hear.” Reflecting on his first, butchered script, for What’s New Pussycat, which became enormously popular, Allen said, “If they had let me make it, I could have made it twice as funny and half as successful.” By this standard, Allen’s Alice (U.S. gross: $7 million) is 40 times as good as Home Alone (U.S. gross: $270 million).

Lax gets all the anguish and accomplishments down, in semismooth prose. Yet the suspicion nags that his highest priority was not to embarrass his subject. Perhaps Woody Allen has lived an exemplary life, but nobility doesn’t make the pages burn, or even turn. One can’t help wishing that, Latvian prince or not, Allen had written his own life. It would have been as different from this reverent read as stand-up is from doze-off.

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