The Unruly Life of Woody Allen

The Woody-Mia-Soon-Yi saga, which erupted into tabloid headlines and late-night monologues in August 1992, was more than your average celebrity soap opera. The relationship had lurid undertones of incest, innocence betrayed, and berserk revenge. It had pornographic Polaroids and a valentine with a real dagger through the heart. It had a murmuring chorus of psychiatrists in the background and a locust-like swarm of lawyers in the foreground. It was standard Manhattan neurotic intrigue turned into melodrama, grand opera, the epic poem of our therapeutic culture.

So it’s probably inevitable that biographer-novelist Marion Meade, in The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, an evenhanded, prodigiously researched biography that addresses Woody’s entire life and career, devotes more than a third of its pages to the scandal and its aftermath. Otherwise, as she shows, his life has been relatively un-unruly — the same breakfast (Cheerios) and lunch (tuna-salad sandwich) for 45 years, the same preppy corduroys and tweeds, the same dogged clarinet practice and disciplined work habits.

The scandal resonated, Meade thinks, because Allen’s fame and fortune were built on extracting comedy from the insecurities, identity crises, family and marital vendettas, death-obsessed depressions, and adolescent limbo of his endearing comedic alter ego. His characters struck a chord because they appeared at a time when the whole American culture seemed to be coming down with a similar case of nerves. When in 1992 the familiar Woody Allen collided with an unfamiliar Woody Allen, fans were put in the position of solemn shrinks, unable for once to laugh along with the comedy of anxiety.

Meade gives a brisk but nuanced account of Allan Konigsberg’s Brooklyn childhood, warring parents, daily escapes into movie theaters, precocious humor (writing jokes for Broadway columnists while still in high school), and his self-invention as a comic character with inspiration from Bob Hope and Mort Sahl. Woody emerges as a perpetual fugitive from himself — a comedy writer who wants to be a stand-up comic, a stand-up comic who wants to be a film actor-director, a film actor-director who wants to be a Bergman-esque European.

But Meade is in a hurry to get to the scandal, and when she gets there, she’s less sensational or partisan than she might have been. The one conjecture that made the tabloids before publication was that Soon-Yi, mistakenly portrayed as dim and naive during the media feeding frenzy, shrewdly and ambitiously pursued Allen. Although she had apparently come to hate her adoptive mother, Soon-Yi, according to Meade, took a page from Mia Farrow’s own book, which involved attachments to older, successful men. She began asking him about basketball; the rest is history. Meade traces Allen’s pursuit of youthful innocence in film (Manhattan) and life (an affair with a 17-year-old in the late 1970s when he was 41), pointing out the irony that in Soon-Yi he got a tough, dominating woman who somewhat resembles his peppery mother, and he seems happy about it (he’s even quit therapy).

Meade is often perfunctory about the movies and other work. Though she acknowledges his virtues as an artist—in particular, she gives him credit for his independence and his stubborn refusal to compromise with Hollywood or even his own fans—she isn’t quite aware that she’s telling a traditional artist’s tale. Along with the blessing of having a distinctively skewed vision of life, of course, comes the curse of having a skewed life. B

The Unruly Life of Woody Allen
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