Pity poor Marion Meade. The capable biographer of such figures as Dorothy Parker, Buster Keaton and Eleanor of Aquitaine has chosen her most intractable subject in Woody Allen. As she ceaselessly reminds the reader, Allen not only failed to authorize the book, he went out of his way to try to squelch it.
What’s more, Meade argues, practically stamping her foot with agitation, “his most marvelous accomplishment was ‘Woody Allen,’ an extremely intricate, layered work composed of autobiography, masterful marketing, and good old-fashioned show business.”
Show business? Say it ain’t so. You mean Allen’s on-screen persona and his off-screen troubles don’t mesh? Shocking.
The sense of disappointment and disapproval in Allen the man compared with Allen the entertainer makes “The Unruly Life of Woody Allen” an exasperating read. By focusing on the events of the early 1990s involving Allen, Mia Farrow and his step-daughter and now wife Soon-Yi, Meade struggles to make the case that Allen doesn’t deserve all the money and acclaim — that misogyny, stunted adolescence and crude manipulation should not be obscured by the comic’s kvetching charms.
But Meade’s attack fizzles, due to the lack of serious consideration about an artist’s moral compass. Rather, the author provides a laundry list of foibles and neuroses, many from second-hand sources.
A more rewarding approach would have involved contextualizing Allen’s personal transgressions. How do they stack up with other historical cases such as the anti-Semitism of composer Richard Wagner or the racism of film pioneer D.W. Griffith?
To Meade, Allen is typical of Homo Celebritus, a modern species possessing one central, maddening contradiction. “Having spent their professional lives trying to attract attention, they suddenly wish to be left alone,” she carps.
But instead of trying to account for Allen’s Garbo-esque tendencies, Meade lets them fuel this vituperative rant. Her lack of access frees her to launch wave after wave of charges supported by fragmentary quotations cribbed from such venerable sources as Mirabella, the New York Post or Internet chat rooms. The book offers little new information to anyone who’s paid attention over the last decade. The best sources — court records from Allen v. Farrow — remain sealed.
As suggested by chapter titles “The Coiled Cobra,” “Dirty Laundry” and “The Cost of Running Amok,” Meade’s bio is little more than a vitriolic attempt to topple Allen from his perch in the film pantheon.
What she fails to graspis that many of Allen’s most die-hard fans wouldn’t dispute any of the labels she hangs on him. But they also put them aside as soon as the opening credits roll.