David Evanier’s portrait of Woody Allen will be largely familiar to readers who have followed Allen’s career closely, though it also contains much that will be controversial. He devotes ample space to exploring the similarities and differences between Allen’s actual personality and the familiar stereotyped persona he was known for, especially early in his career — the neurotic, anhedonic schlemiel who could barely make toast, much less a movie, and would have a hard time summoning up the courage to say hello to such shiksa goddesses as Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. Evanier’s Woody Allen is not the nebbishy Fielding Melish of Bananas but the Alvy Singer of Annie Hall—self-assured, sexually accomplished, and scornful of pretension. Above all, Evanier portrays Allen as a serious artist and intelligent — but far from intellectual — man of the world.
Evanier treats the basic facts of Allen’s life in a straightforward manner. Readers will welcome his treatment of Allen’s relationships with his father and with Jack Rollins, the manager who pushed Allen into becoming an artistic force and whom Evanier sees as the model for Allen’s fabled talent agent, Danny Rose.
The most fiery controversies in Evanier’s book will arise, inevitably, from his discussion of Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow, including his affair and eventual marriage to Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and the more serious charges that Allen had molested his and Farrow’s daughter, Dylan, as a child. Evanier presents convincing evidence that in both cases Allen was far more sinned against than sinning. He sees Farrow as a preternaturally unstable woman and Allen as a man who lacked the skills (and perhaps the desire) to navigate the treacherous waters in which he found himself. But the reader may well feel that a less zealous fan would have presented a more balanced account.
Despite the promise implied by the definite article in its subtitle, Evanier’s book is far from a definitive biography of Woody Allen. It is, rather, a breezy, anecdotal appreciation of Allen’s life and career. Evanier’s book has the virtue of being more recent — and therefore more complete — than more formal biographies that have gone before, but it relies heavily on those works and other secondary sources. As Evanier himself makes clear, Allen never authorized or formally cooperated with his effort, but neither did he try to discourage it.
Evanier’s appraisal of Allen’s body of work, which he regards far more highly than Allen himself does, may also raise some eyebrows, but this is to be expected in a book like this. Broadway Danny Rose and Crimes and Misdemeanors are certainly important films, though the portentousness of Crimes and Misdemeanors may mark it as less mature than the consistently underrated Hannah and Her Sisters. But it is hard to swallow Evanier’s listing of such trifles as Alice, Mighty Aphrodite, and Deconstructing Harry as among “Woody’s Best.”