My conflict is between what I really am and what I really would like myself to be,” Woody Allen tells Eric Lax toward the end of Lax’s reverent, quote-filled Woody Allen: A Biography. That’s a revealing remark, since it simultaneously gives away the basic formula for all comedy (reality as banana peel), the basic formula for Woody Allen’s comic character (self-invention plus self-sabotage), and the basic motive behind the serious turn in his filmmaking (he would like to be someone other than a character who would like to be someone other than himself). The Woody Allen character, established in his brilliant stand-up routines and early films like Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), and Play It Again, Sam (1972), struck a popular chord, and he became the insecure successor to Chaplin’s plucky underdog. But you can see why this well-read and reflective man wants to distance himself from the ingratiating silliness that role often required of him. ”The degrading things I had to do when I started,” he complains while watching tapes of some inane appearances on television in the ’60s. ”Now I’m trying to do Dostoevski, trying to live down this shit.”
Allen arrived early at his sense of misdirection when, while growing up as Allan Konigsberg in 1940s Brooklyn, he discovered movies, notably movies set in Manhattan penthouses and nightclubs, and he decided he had been dropped on the wrong side of the East River. In spite of the constant quarreling of his financially insecure parents (”They did everything but exchange gunfire”), he seems to have had a happy childhood based on baseball, magic, jazz, and friends won through his precocious sense of humor. But he was happiest alone, especially when playing hooky and taking the subway to the ornate Manhattan movie palaces where he discovered his idea of cinematic perfection (Double Indemnity) and Bob Hope, whose skirt-chasing, wisecracking, cowardly character was the first inspiration for his own comic persona. While still in high school he began getting his jokes into the tabloid gossip columns, and soon he was a TV writer who wanted to be a stand-up comic, a stand-up comic who wanted to be a movie actor-director, a movie actor-director who wanted to be a great gloomy European.
Anyone who has seen the superb parodies and sketches Allen wrote for The New Yorker (such as ”Notes From the Overfed”) or the 1975 film Love and Death knows that Allen’s work has always had its death-haunted, God-hunting, Dostoyevskian undercurrent. At its best his humor evokes the unsettling absurdism of Kafka and Ionesco as much as the pure nonsense of New Yorker predecessors like Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman or the farces of the Marx Brothers. But when he has set this existentialist impulse loose in serious films in the manner of Ingmar Bergman and other European directors, the results have been mixed, though honorably against the Hollywood grain. His genius for parody seems to reappear unintentionally in the form of stilted dialogue, schematic structure, and labored symbolism. The audience, however edified, is likely to think wistfully of the jokes of yesteryear, just as readers of this book, plowing through passages on Allen’s directorial techniques, are likely to think wistfully of his celebrated moose routine, reproduced earlier in the book from his stand-up material.
Lax, who wrote a 1975 book about Allen (On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy), defers to the filmmaker’s reticence about his private life, although Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, and Mia Farrow are all present and more or less accounted for. This book is more benediction than criticism, but Lax makes a cogent case for Woody Allen’s high-art ambitions, which have been most nearly realized so far in complex comedies like 1979’s Manhattan and 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen’s own favorite). The question of whether his penchant for the tragic will lead to greatness or simply complete its own banana-peel-launched comic trajectory remains, I think, up in the air. B