The rare gift of making people laugh isn't enough for Woody Allen

May 19, 1991|By Neil A. Grauer

WOODY ALLEN: A BIOGRAPHY. Eric Lax. Knopf.

377 pages. $24. Laughter, wrote Christopher Fry, is the "surest touch of genius in creation."

That is not enough for Woody Allen.

As Eric Lax, a longtime friend, makes clear in this first full-scale biography of the writer-comedian-filmmaker, Mr. Allen is dissatisfied with his success as a humorist and creator of funny films. He disparingly calls his jokes "verbal cartoons"; dismisses his hilarious stand-up routines of the 1960s and early 1970s as "nauseating," "loathsome" and "disgusting"; and complains that by becoming an extraordinarily popular film comedian, "I succeed at my second choice."

Although Mr. Lax writes that Mr. Allen plans to make more comedies and perhaps even a musical, he quotes a former Allen associate as predicting that Mr. Allen will finish his life making serious movies.

That is sad; sad not because Mr. Allen's "ambition has always exceeded his current success," as Mr. Lax puts it, but because Mr. Allen seems to overlook that comedy and laughter are profoundly mysterious, as inexplicable and serious as life and death, the somber subjects that preoccupy him. Being a great comic is no mean achievement -- even if Mr. Allen believes that being one "was always to him only a step on the way to other achievements."

Mr. Lax proclaims, a bit portentously but probably with reason, that a century from now, "when historians write their books on films in the last third of the twentieth century, Woody's will surely be among the handful that stand out." These cinematic scholars of the future may, as Mr. Lax implies, concentrate on the Allen movies that are social observations and "novels on film," not on the comedies that Mr. Allen feels seek "laughs, not thought."

Yet it is an equally good bet that film historians -- and the general public -- a century hence also will watch Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy films, too. They've already been watching them for more than 50 years. That is because they are funny, pure and not-so-simple.

This book details Mr. Allen's extraordinary odyssey from being a supplier of quips for Earl Wilson, a once-famous New York nightclub columnist, to being what film critic Vincent Canby calls "America's most authentic, most serious, most consistent film auteur." Along the way, Mr. Allen flunked out of New York University (he got a D in film production); performed magic at a rundown Catskills resort; worked in early TV by writing gags for ++ Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Baltimore's Garry Moore and his personal idol, Bob Hope. Mr. Allen insists that close students of his comedic performances will see that he clearly is imitating Mr. Hope's screen persona of the '30s, '40s and '50s -- "vain, a womanizer, a coward's coward, but always brilliant."

Mr. Allen also idolizes such humorists as Robert Benchley, James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, and one wonders if he would consign them to "the children's table" for the sort of work he now considers mere "light entertainment" when he creates it. He painfully acknowledges that his constant "conflict is between what I really am and what I really would like myself to be. I'm forever struggling to deepen myself, to take a more profound path. . . ." He now is a devotee of Dostoevski, Camus, Kierkegaard and Nikolai Berdysev, a Russian Christian existentialist. Mr. Lax readily admits the irony: "For a man who sharpened his mind on comic books and grew into one of the funniest people on earth, these may be strange heroes and even stranger influences."

Mr. Lax, who wrote an earlier book on Mr. Allen and the art of comedy, has had unparalleled access to him for more than 20 years. The behind-the-scenes insights that this close association has afforded, and the extensive knowledge Mr. Lax displays of the entire Allen cinematic canon, from "Take the Money and Run" in 1969 to "Alice" in 1990; his two Broadway shows; his nightclub act; and his New Yorker articles, will make this biography an indispensable source for the more detached biographers who are likely to follow.

It is also a feast for Allen fans, even though it sometimes suffers from Mr. Lax's presumption that every reader will be as immersed in the Allen oeuvre as he is.

When writing history or biography, a wise historian once advised, abandon chronology at your peril. Unfortunately, Mr. Lax has a tendency to hop around a lot, sometimes wrestling with his account of Mr. Allen's multifaceted career as if it were a giant wad of chewing gum.

Mr. Lax clearly anticipated this criticism. He contends that in order to see how Mr. Allen creates his works, "it is not necessary to trace his pictures chronologically." Perhaps, but it would have helped.

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