The Dark Bourgeois Heart of Woody Allen

Woody Allen often likens his work to magic, and his haunts in the Manhattan Film Center inside the Beekman apartments feel a little like the magician’s back rooms. They are not Upper East Side interiors one would ever see in his movies, they’re scrunched and the slightest bit shabby, with a sense of underpaid help flying around with the fax machine shoved under the coat rack. On Dec. 2, the day after Mr. Allen’s 62nd birthday, I was shown into a screening room that was also doing double-duty, with record albums on one wall and canisters of film along the other.

“This is where Mr. Allen views his dailies,” Lauren, an assistant, said respectfully. Like, this is where Mr. Houdini breaks in new chains.

I sat in a brown armchair and then abruptly, like a trick, Mr. Allen appeared on the muskrat-colored couch, wearing a tasteful muted palette of gray and olive and black scuffed shoes and, gathering a dark pillow defensively to his stomach, said, “I’m at your disposal,” in a gentle voice.

“Do you have a name for your penis?”

Woody Allen looked aghast.

“What?”

Maybe it was the wrong question to start with. I guess I’d felt justified because it’s a bit from Mr. Allen’s new movie, Deconstructing Harry : At parents’ day in a posh Manhattan school, Harry congratulates his son Hilly on his having come up with a forceful name for his penis, Dillinger. In some way I thought Mr. Allen, who plays Harry, was actually Harry Block, or that he was feisty about this kind of thing, jokey.

But seated across from me now, he seemed white-faced, sincere.

“You know, it’s in the movie. ‘Do you have a name for your penis?'”

He shook his head. “No. But that is the strangest question I’ve ever gotten from a journalist.”

He gave me a gentle smile, for which I was quite grateful. He reminded me of my father, another sensitive, overintelligent, big-nosed, red-rimmed, Adam’s-appley Jew launched on the world from the outer boroughs.

I tried to work my way back by telling him how much I liked the movie. I’d been floored by Deconstructing Harry . It’s a corrosive, adventurous, frenetic, filthy triumph, maybe my favorite of his movies, in which Mr. Allen plays a novelist who is contemptuous of all social norms, from Thou Shalt Not Keep “Hooker Money” in a Wad Near the Door to Thou Shalt Not Sleep With Thy Wife the Analyst’s Patients to Thou Shalt Disguise the People You Exploit for Your Books.

For Harry’s sins, society brings him low. But in the end, he is sanctified by his art. Thinking that Harry cast a Saturnish glow on Woody Allen’s own doings and misdoings, I’d asked for an interview.

Now, as I praised the movie, Mr. Allen merely gazed at me, nodding in his queasy patient way.

“You don’t trust praise,” I said.

“I never believe the communications from other people on my work,” he said. “Years ago, I met Tennessee Williams, very briefly. He called me over to his table and he said to me, ‘You’re an artist.’ Now I had grown up worshipping Tennessee Williams as an artist, I thought that he was just top of the line, and I thanked him and I walked away from the table, and I thought, one of two things, either he’s completely drunk or he’s mistaking me for somebody else, he doesn’t know who I am. That’s how I respond.”

“Where and when was this?”

“At Elaine’s. I was probably 50.”

The meeting with Tennessee Williams went into the category of what Mr. Allen described as “trivial dreams,” dreams of glory he’d had as an adolescent imagining success. Then when he actually experienced success, he understood it was largely illusional. People said they loved movies they didn’t like. Tremendous reviews turned out to provide the most ephemeral elation. Failure turned out to be ephemeral, too. Dinner at the White House didn’t change his life, and long-imagined meetings proved mundane: Hanging out with Groucho Marx, he found that he was little different from a garrulous uncle at a bar mitzvah.

“There wasn’t genius coruscating,” Mr. Allen reflected.

So he’d come to the understanding that all he really cared about was the thing he’d cared about as a boy with crayons and colored paper, having an idea and making the thing, a “decent life … not wrapped up with success or failure.”

“The fun comes from sitting in this room, and actors and actresses come in and we pick the right ones, and then Santo Loquasto will come in with sketches for sets and photographs of locations, and the cameraman and I will see the dailies. And there’s an ongoing wonderful creative process that goes on for a long time, where you work very, very intensely with a group of people and even for the last 10 or 12 weeks, very intensely with a group of actors.”

“Woody-may I call you Woody?”

“Sure.”

“I agree with Tennessee Williams. You’re an artist. Why don’t you use that word?”

“Because there is a line that gets crossed somewhere and it’s not scientifically quantifiable, where a person goes from basically good or decent or able to make a living or talented to an artist. There’s a sudden leap. There are many saxophone players around, and suddenly Charlie Parker.”

“But in Bullets Over Broadway and now in Deconstructing Harry , you’re saying, Lead a bourgeois life and your art will be boring. You have to be ruthless to be great.”

Mr. Allen shook his head.

“I’ve never been one to feel-never-that the artist should be allowed his faults and indulgences because he’s a genius and because he produces art. I’m more the John Cusack character [the bourgeois artist in Bullets Over Broadway ]. In my real life, I feel that I’m not an artist, that I don’t have that level of commitment, and that you see that level of commitment very, very rarely and often it brings with it a terrible, terrible person in life, for example Picasso. You hear all these awful, awful stories about what an awful human being he was to the people that loved him, and you just look past it because he was such a stunner. And, you know, I feel that’s a sad truth about life. People are willing to forgive the real artist anything.”

Now I was confused. I had thought of Deconstructing Harry as Mr. Allen’s argument that he should be forgiven his sins in the bitter breakup of his relationship to Mia Farrow, and all that hazzarai with the children. The heart of the movie is a trip to “Adair University,” an upstate school that threw Harry out years ago but which is now honoring him. Harry makes the trip in a Volvo, accompanied by a black prostitute in pink hot pants and Hilly, the son who his former wife doesn’t allow him to see and whom he’s kidnapped from school. Minutes after his arrival at Adair, he’s in handcuffs.

I’d planned on meeting Harry’s alter ego, the black magician, the meanest man in the world, as Mr. Allen almost titled the picture.

“Harry is saying that the ruthlessness is necessary to the art,” I said.

“It’s an often necessary thing for the artist. But I as the filmmaker or a person in life, or as a nonartist, do not condone it. I have a more middle-class view of it.”

“Really-that surprises me.”

“I do. There have been artists I’m sure who are extremely decent people who never had to exploit anyone. I was reading somewhere about Louis Armstrong, they were saying what a joyful character he was. He enjoyed life, he loved people. He was married to this woman for so many years.”

“Woody, I have to think Louis screwed around.”

“I don’t know.”

“Think of all that erotic energy pouring out into the world,” I said, voice rising.

“He may have. I was only going by the piece I read. I don’t know the details. And I’ve never heard anything negative about him in all my jazz connections.”

Mr. Allen spoke calmly, and I realized I was impatient, maybe even a little angry. Excited by the brilliant movie, I’d come to daddy artist for permission to lead a badder life, to have him tell me to screw people over and have affairs because that is what it takes to be true to your imagination, to understand how it might remake the world. But instead there was this slight and adorable man, even a little repressed in his good blue shirt with the white undershirt peeking out below. His only credo was, work.

“What about the leap I want to make from Harry to your life?”

“It had a mild relation to my life in general in that I’m a writer,” he said. “But it certainly had no relation to events in the last five years, none whatsoever. I never felt also that I had anything to justify to a public. I felt the maligned party over the last years, that people behaved reprehensibly toward me.”

“Woody, you crossed some bourgeois norms.”

“I never thought I did. I always think of myself as basically, and I don’t say this in false modesty, a very middle-class person, you know, a blue-collar worker who works at his craft. I come from middle-class parents, and I lead a basically middle-class life. I work, I don’t burn the candle at both hands, I practice my clarinet diligently like a nice Jewish boy. I go play my jazz, I listen to nice music, I go to the movies for fun, I go to ball games, I do my exercises and my treadmill. I’m not someone who’s out all night indulging, nor have I had a dissipated life.”

He sat forward on the couch.

“I’ve never in my life had a puff of a marijuana cigarette. I’ve never had a pill or a drug or a single puff.”

Well, that seemed prim.

“You’ve certainly made it with some beautiful women,” I said.

“Yes. But not in any illegitimate way. I went out with-who do I meet in my profession? I meet movie actresses and mostly they’re pretty.”

He described his history of marriages and relationships to me in a Who’s Who-y way-“I lived with Diane Keaton for some years in a very nice relationship”-and I wondered what I’d projected on to him because of what he’d projected onto the screen.

“I’m going to go at you in an aggressive way, I’m sorry, Woody.”

He looked at me with a hint of affection. “That’s O.K.”

“When you hold up as a norm that, in your movie, Harry’s bad because his wife is an analyst and he sleeps with her patient, the analogy I make, of course, is to someone who is in your girlfriend’s household whom you formed a relationship with. That crossed what people consider to be appropriate behavior.”

I thought he might bridle. Mr. Allen sat up on the couch with the same sweetly serious expression.

“I understand that,” he said. “But always remember-these were not two people living together. Nobody lived together there. If one knows the situation, one could understand it effortlessly, but from the outside, there are people that think to this day that Mia and I were married, we were living together, and this was my daughter. Mia and I never lived together at any point in all the years that we were married. That’s one thing, and two-“

He used his right hand like a blade on the couch arm, to show where he draws the line.

“The person that I am involved with was in no manner, shape or form related to me. By adoption, by cousin, by nothing. She was living away at college in New Jersey. This was at the close of a relationship that had denigrated for many, many reasons. And if you took it at its worst, you know, here’s a guy that’s sleeping with the analyst’s patient, then you could say, Yes, in the life of a man of 62 years-“

“Oh, happy birthday-“

“Thank you. Taking it at its absolute worst, if you give me nothing to my side, nothing at all, you would say, yeah, there’s a guy who’s led a perfectly decent, honorable working life, and this was something that one shouldn’t do, and you know, Yes! So what! In the course of my life, there is this relationship that I’ve gotten involved with that had a tabooish quality to it. But it doesn’t speak for a way of life. I’m not a person who crosses boundaries, or who continually pushes the envelope-“

Lauren appeared. She had made me promise before we started that I would stop after an hour and a half, and I understood why now. Mr. Allen seemed lonely, easily charmed. Maybe he needed to know that there was intelligent life out there in the universe that understood him.

We kept talking, and he told me that he did not expect everyone to love Harry Block, Harry Block was not everyone’s cup of tea. He had set out to tell Harry’s story, and telling his story meant using words like “cunt” and frank talk about rough sex. People always confused his characters with him. Well, he was not Harry Block.

Well, where did Harry come from?

Harry was just the next idea he had. Still he seemed to know, maybe unconsciously, that people might hate him for telling them about Harry.

“There was a time that I was thinking about the possibility about going back on stage and doing some stand-up comedy concerts,” he said. “But I thought to myself, I don’t know if I could really muster the forgiveness to be able to do it. If you’re a stand-up comedian, you come out on stage and you yourself talk to a hundred or a thousand people and you’ve got to feel a desire to entertain them. To want to pleasure them, to want to give them a good time for an hour and a half, that I don’t know if I’ll ever get back.”

So that was why he had the pillow clutched to his stomach the whole time. And I knew who he meant, all the people who loved him and now judge him. I thought of the character in Harry called Beth Kramer, an affluent mother played by Mariel Hemingway. At parents’ day, she overhears Harry talking to his son.

“Woody, my favorite scene in the movie is when Harry’s at school and Mariel Hemingway is looking over her shoulder at him, and she’s so bourgeois, you know, she’s dead in the eyes, and Harry is telling his son, ‘We don’t know if there’s God, but there are women.’ Then I said to myself, I don’t care if he’s bad, he sounds my heart.”

“I had a line in there that was cut out. We were arguing, and she said, ‘I don’t find that appropriate.’ I was thinking, ‘Appropriate, that’s a word that is on everybody’s lips these days.’ They should have an appropriate police that come in. And that’s what it is, the sense that there is an appropriateness and some people know what’s appropriate, they’ve defined it and they’ll tell you if you’re not being appropriate. Their appropriate is always what they deem is appropriate, whereas Harry is speaking to his kid with total honesty.”

Mr. Allen smiled, and it struck me that at some level, as another American artist once put it, he knew that he had made a wicked book, still he felt pure as a lamb. Because that is the black magician’s realm, telling truths about the human heart. The mistake is expecting anyone to love you for it.

“In the car I gave him some other lessons in life we had to cut,” he said, walking me to the coat rack. “‘When you get a paper at the corner, never take the top paper, that’s very important.’ I also taught him, ‘Never believe the friend who fumbles for a check, because he who wants to pick up the check does it.'”

With that homely advice more suitable for Jewish mothers than my own planet of wild-eyed luftmenschen , Woody shook my hand and went into the cutting room to work on his next movie. I walked out onto Park Avenue at 63rd Street and didn’t look up till I was at 11th Street. I was in a haze, thinking about the space Mr. Allen had dug out for himself in the world, a bunker protected from everyone’s opinion, from fulsome Tennessee Williams and the dead-eyed Appropriate Police and the people that hate him because of whom he sleeps with, and from his own superego, too.

Do you think he made that space so he could be bad? You’re wrong; he did it for a better reason, so he could do his work.