Clueless Biographer’s Bile-Baxter to Allen: Drop Dead!

Woody Allen: A Biography , by John Baxter. Carroll & Graf, 492 pages, $27.

To those of you leery of back-jacket “advance praise,” let me say straight off that British biographer John Baxter’s nearly 500-page deconstruction of Woody Allen amply lives up to the adjectives that adorn its hindquarters. “Often hilarious”? You betcha! How else to describe Mr. Baxter’s strenuous exercises in overinterpretation? (“Pervaded as it is by a sense of personal helplessness and inadequacy, Sleeper also offers an insight into Allen’s psychology.”) Is this new bio really a “bracing corrective to the usual … studies”? Yup!–though the studies Mr. Baxter seems most intent on “correcting” are atlases and geographical surveys. He informs us that rich and famous people like Mr. Allen live on “Central Park East opposite the Metropolitan Museum” (when they’re not relaxing in posh “South Hampton”); East 79th Street is “just off Sixth Avenue”; and The Bronx, Mr. Allen’s birthplace, is “that windy borough east of Manhattan.” Is Woody Allen: A Biography really “compulsive reading”? Mm- hmmm ! My editor compelled me to read it. (I should add, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was paid to do so.)

Mr. Baxter’s book is one of two biographies of Mr. Allen coming out this winter; in February, Scribner will publish The Unruly Life of Woody Allen , by Marion Meade (whose other subjects, I couldn’t help noticing with a tiny anticipatory frisson , run the gamut from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Madame Blavatsky). The crucial difference between these and Eric Lax’s excellent–if, admittedly, authorized–1991 life of Mr. Allen is, of course, that Mr. Lax’s book was published before that fateful day in January 1992, when Mia Farrow discovered that her lover was snapping “classic ‘split-beaver’ shots” of her adopted daughter. The likelihood that you’ll want to pick up either of the new books will probably be directly proportional to your desire to possess, in a single official-looking, predigested volume, the contents of the innumerable newspaper and magazine articles that have chronicled Mr. Allen’s erotic, familial and marital adventures since then.

Pre-1992, his life was a standard great American success story, Brooklyn Pop-Entertainment Division: ugly-duckling childhood spent avoiding parental bickering to $10,000-a-week standup gigs by age 28. Mr. Baxter traces Mr. Allen’s ascendance in ample if often indiscriminate detail: Thirty pages on the making of What’s New Pussycat? seems a bit much, especially when there are half as many on important films like Annie Hall and Interiors . Perhaps because he’s writing the first biography of Mr. Allen that includes the grisly and (we thought at first) anomalously tawdry post-1992 era, Mr. Baxter goes out of his way to emphasize what he sees as a unifying thread of bad moral character running from the Brooklyn years straight through to the height of the actor-director phase. Needless to say, he singles out Mr. Allen’s treatment of the fairer sex as a harbinger of things to come; at times, you can practically hear him pursing his lips in disapproval. Mr. Allen’s divorce from second wife Louise Lasser, the author grimly reports, was effected with “indecent” haste–whatever that means.

The constant tut-tutting about every aspect of Mr. Allen’s life, artistic as well as personal–Mr. Baxter manages to find a telltale “cold-blooded quality” in, of all things, Annie Hall –is too bad, because the author, an old hand at Hollywood bios (he’s “done” Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini and Steven Spielberg), knows how to whip up the amusing trivia: Who knew that Vivian Vance, Lucille Ball’s TV sidekick and the star of Mr. Allen’s 1966 play Don’t Drink the Water , was contractually obliged to stay 20 pounds overweight during the run of I Love Lucy ? It would have been fun to have more of this, but instead you get character assassination of the 5-year-old Allan Konigsberg, about whom, the author triumphantly declares, the boy’s own mother said, “something went sour.” Reading that, I couldn’t help wondering how much contact Mr. Baxter has had with Jewish mothers.

Mr. Baxter’s lousy geography is, in fact, a nice symbol for his fragile grasp of pretty much everything else about New York–especially Jewish New York. (Very early on, he wrings his hands over what he apparently sees as the terrible conundrum presented by the filmmaker’s given name, Allan Stewart: “Why,” the author agonizes, “two Scots names? Nobody is any longer sure.” Scots? Scots ? You mean those aren’t Jewish names?) Matters aren’t helped by the portentous, block-that-metaphor prose (“stranded by the receding high tide of leisure spending …”); the deadening penchant for idle pedantry (do we really need the Latin names of the trees that surrounded P.S. 99 in Flatbush?); and a dangerous tendency to combine the purest conjecture with slippery-slope logic in order to produce “deep” psychological and esthetic insights. One typical example: Unfounded speculation as to whether Mr. Allen might have visited a prostitute in the 1950′s leads to a confident assertion about the filmmaker’s “attraction to the idea of paid sex” and, thence, to a lengthy discussion of the profound significance of prostitutes in his films.

At least until you get to the Soon-Yi, Mia, classic-split-beaver stuff, Mr. Allen’s alleged flaws are pretty much those you’d expect in a canny, extremely successful, hardheaded professional, a self-made man who’s confident of his own talent and impatient (and rude) with professional–and personal–connections who can’t meet his idiosyncratic standards. This is the “real” Woody Allen, Mr. Baxter suggests, and the author goes so far as to distinguish this Mr. Hyde throughout his narrative from his more sympathetic, Dr. Jekyll half–the half Mr. Baxter calls “Woody Allen,” the famous screen persona we all love, the masturbation-obsessed, thanatophobic everyman, a cowardly, girl-crazy ” nebbish with uncombed collar-length red hair and an obvious bald spot.”

The author isn’t the first to distinguish “Allen” from “Woody Allen.” Looking back, it’s tempting to see the explosion of vituperation that greeted the 1992 revelations about Mr. Allen’s private life as an expression of something deeper–something that had nothing to do with sexual mores and taboos; something that was a lot like betrayal, and hurt. Hurt, because we all suddenly realized that “Allen” wasn’t, in the end, “Woody Allen”; that maybe “Woody Allen,” whom we liked to think was us , was after all a fiction. Mr. Baxter cites with approval a French taxi driver on the subject of Mr. Allen’s popularity: “Well … look at him…. He’s short. He’s bald. He’s ugly. He can’t get laid. He’s just like me.” As usual, the author’s cultural tone-deafness, his ignorance of his subject’s turf and milieu, lead him woefully astray. The whole point of “Woody Allen” was, in fact, the opposite: He was short and bald(ing) and plain and did get laid–by an army of ravishing partners in a host of films, from the ditzy Annie Hall to the nymphomaniac wonderbra-ed countess in Love and Death to the angelic Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan .

Mr. Allen created in “Woody Allen” a character no self-respecting Manhattanite could resist believing in: the average-looking guy who watches Holocaust documentaries and cites Sartre and thereby gets the girl. Then Soon-Yi happened. “Allen,” you realized, was capable of moral and sexual grotesqueries that “Woody Allen” just joked about. Precisely because of the way you’d been able to identify with him, you felt snookered.

Had Mr. Baxter immersed himself in more than a bunch of newspaper clippings and transcripts of interviews with minor figures and people with whom Mr. Allen doesn’t talk anymore, he’d have picked up on some of this; he’d have figured out a meaningful way to connect the scandalous stuff that makes books like this fun (and makes them sell) with the broader cultural stuff that makes them worth taking seriously. But he’s way out of his element–he’s somewhere east of Manhattan, in the windy Bronx, poring over the famous headline that read, according to him, “President to City: Drop Dead.”

The subtitle of Mr. Baxter’s book could well have been “Baxter to Allen: Drop Dead.” Why did he bother to write (copiously) about someone he clearly doesn’t like–or, for that matter, understand? As you slog through this tawdry book, you realize that the author’s anger and bile are secondhand, generic–default mode for celebrity biographers, the dirtmongers whom Mr. Allen crudely mocked in his grim, self-pitying Celebrity . The rest of us can be excused for having confused “Allen” with “Woody Allen,” but Mr. Baxter positively relishes the Jekyll-Hyde model: He needs adorable, helpless, schlumpy “Woody” to beat up cold, mega-rich, hardheaded “Allen.” It’s a cheap trick. No serious biographer would use persona to beat up personality, just as no serious reader would be so foolish as to judge a book by its cover.