“Rather than live in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment.” The last sentence in Woody Allen’s autobiography: Apropos of Nothing perfectly sums up the tone and intention of this fascinating memoir. The filmmaker’s self-deprecating wit is never too far from the surface, even when he is forced to address murky subject matters with which we are all familiar. But he manages to do it with humour and grace. Accusations are broached in great depth, but this book is much more than Woody Allen addressing a highly complicated and divisive saga, rather it’s a look back at a incredibly interesting life of one of cinema’s most gifted filmmakers in his capacity as a writer, director, actor, and comedian.
Beginning with Allen’s childhood in Brooklyn growing up with his parents (his dad was a cab driver, and his mum, a bookkeeper) who “disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards‘. He credits his cousin, Rita, for introducing him to the movies and she also encouraged the young Allen to listen to the radio where he discovered Cole Porter, Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman. At 11 years of age, a trip to Manhattan with a friend was derailed. The pair were hoping to see a movie, but finding the cinema closed, they discovered vaudeville instead, and after that, Allen returned every weekend to watch the various acts, taking a pad with him to jot down notes.
While still at high school, he began sending jokes off to newspapers which caught the attention of an agent, and soon afterwards he began writing gags for leading comedians of the day. He then majored in film at NYU but was asked to leave after he failed to show up for classes. Stand up followed as did a name change (from Allan Konigsberg) until his first film as a writer in 1965’s What’s New Pussycat.
There are so many funny anecdotes in Apropos of Nothing, featuring everyone from Arthur Miller to Norman Mailer to Tennessee Williams to a particularly hilarious story involving Roman Abramovich. And of course there are numerous fun and endearing stories about Allen’s professional and personal partnership with Diane Keaton, whom he refers to as his “North Star” and “one of his most loyal friends“. Their working relationship reaching its creative zenith in the comic drama Annie Hall (1977), which became a huge hit around the world, and won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress (for Keaton) at the 1978 Oscars.
Manhattan (1979) followed a year later, and there’s a wonderful recollection by Allen of moving into a beautiful townhouse overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, and installing glass doors from floor to ceiling. One day during the shooting of Manhattan, New York city mounted a spectacular firework display. The director immediately rushed to find his cameraman, and from the balcony of his new home, shot the magnificent fireworks footage which has since become immortalised as one of cinema’s great opening scenes to the sounds of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Apropos of Nothing is also a timely reminder that Allen has directed more actresses to Oscar nominations than any living filmmaker: “the best parts about proofreading the galleys were my romantic adventures and writing about all the wonderful women I was passionately smitten with”
With reference to the Amazon lawsuit and Allen’s last film: A Rainy Day in New York, coupled with actors turning him down for roles: “Not working with me had become the thing to do – like everyone suddenly being into kale.”
Film fans looking to Apropos of Nothing for advice on filmmaking or insights into the director’s working practices may be disappointed, as Allen never goes into great detail about his filming techniques but does offer this guidance:
“My advice to young filmmakers who ask me is always: Lay your proboscis on the grindstone. Don’t look up. Work. Enjoy the work. If you don’t enjoy the work, change occupations. Don’t be outer directed. You know what you think is funny, or what goals you are striving for. That’s all you need to know. You have a vision, try to execute it. Simple as that. Judge it yourself. You know if you made the movie you envisioned when you started. If you did, great, enjoy the warm feeling of accomplishment, wink at yourself in the mirror, and move on. If you struck out by your own lights, learn what you can, which is rarely anything in an art form, and try harder next time.”
Allen has been been married to Soon-Yi now for more than 20 years. They have two adopted daughters who are now at college and he seems very comfortable with his life in New York. “I turn out the pages, dote on Soon-Yi, and peel off twenties so my kids can go see movies that are not as good as ones I saw for twelve cents” And he is still playing his beloved clarinet though he admits that his clarinet-playing is so mediocre that his teacher, Gene Sedric, could be considered an “enabler.”
Reading Apropos of Nothing in many ways, is similar to listening to a Woody Allen monologue. Like all great stand ups, he deftly weaves in and out of stories with such mastery and perfect timing, and isn’t afraid to deviate from a subject, smoothly returning to it a few pages on.
One of the great filmmakers and comedy writers of the last 60 years finally has his say, and it was a pleasure to listen.
A Rainy Day in New York will be released in the UK on 5 June, 2020.
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