"Woody Allen: A Biography," by John Baxter. Carroll & Graf. 492 pages. $27.
Woody Allen, the most non-reclusive recluse in New York, presents a rumpled, diffident taunt to biographers. His official (and uncritical) story has already been written by Eric Lax; anyone else audacious enough to want to write about the writer-director's life is greeted by a non-communicative subject and an impenetrable bubble of paranoia from his friends and colleagues.
So John Baxter, who has written biographies of Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, among others, is to be commended for trying to bring some balance to a record that heretofore has veered between the sycophancy of court reporters and the hostility of New York tabloids.
Baxter has combed the published record, Allen's own movies and the memories of those brave souls who would talk to him, to produce an exhaustive -- and often exhausting -- life story of a man who has made a career of insisting that his work has nothing to do with his life. Baxter begs to differ as he recounts Allan Stewart Konigsberg's unhappy Brooklyn childhood, his early career as a gag writer for Buddy Hackett and Sid Caesar, his uncomfortable but eventually successful gig as a stand-up comic, and finally the creation of the nebbishy, temperamental auteur we know as Woody Allen. Throughout this development, Baxter insists, Allen mined his own life and psyche for material, a fact made bitterly clear in his most recent dyspeptic films.
Baxter contends that Allen's work has one theme, that of "the outsider unable or unwilling to understand what he's told or, if he understands, to act on it." He makes the case in thorough -- often tiresomely so -- synopses of Allen's films, from "Take the Money and Run" to "Deconstructing Harry." Throughout this 27-film oeuvre, the master of Iddish humor has continually returned to the cardinal theme of his alienation from those who love him, whether they're the demanding fans in "Stardust Memories" or the shrieking harridans of "Deconstructing Harry."
Baxter has a tendency to digress into numbing analyses of early television history and Borscht Belt comedy, and his formulaic juxtapositions of Allen's life and films become tedious. But the author does produce some fascinating material about Allen's calculated construction of the Woody persona, and how far the hapless, sexually neurotic loser is from the actual man. (To address the 400-pound gorilla in the room: Baxter takes a cool view of Allen's much-publicized romance with Soon-Yi Previn -- now his wife -- and thankfully refuses to moralize. But he also carefully documents that Allen's cruelty to women and his involvements with teen-age girls started long before Previn came into the picture.)
The portrait of Allen that emerges here is that of a selfish, shrewd man who has indulged his neuroses and sacrificed real intimacy for the only thing that means anything to him: his work. No surprises there. "Woody Allen" will reveal little to the director's fans, who have always known that to learn about the man, one need only watch the films. Luckily for them, Allen provides such an opportunity once a year.
Ann Hornaday is film critic for The Sun and before that for the Austin (Texas) American Statesman. She has written on general cultural subjects for the New York Times, New York magazine, the New York Daily News and others. She has also critiqued films for Premiere, New York magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.