I Read Decades of Woody Allen’s Private Notes. He’s Obsessed with Teenage Girls.
By Richard Morgan
January 4, 2018
|(Istvan Orosz for The Washington Post)|
Woody Allen is wrapping up a new movie. Just kidding: He doesn’t make new movies. What he’s editing now, “A Rainy Day in New York,” about a college-age love triangle, could, like any of his movies, instead be titled “A Woman Gets Objectified by a Man.” This, in his view, is the pinnacle of art, its truest calling and highest purpose. Especially when it involves young women who are compelled to lackluster men merely by the gravity of the men’s obsession.
I know this because I’ve seen his whole career up close — going through all of his drafts and scribblings, his psychological and physical cutting-room floor that exists in the 56-box, 57-year personal archives he has been curating since 1980 at Princeton University (which he did not attend). According to the staff at Firestone Library’s rare-books wing, I’m the first person to read Allen’s collection — the Woody Papers — from cover to cover, and from the very beginning to the very end, Allen drips with repetitious misogyny. Allen, who has been nominated for 24 Oscars, never needed ideas besides the lecherous man and his beautiful conquest — a concept around which he has made films about Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Manhattan, journalism, time travel, communist revolution, murder, writing novels, Thanksgiving dinner, Hollywood and many other things — because that one idea bore so much fruit for his career.
[Don’t be so sure Harvey Weinstein is going away for good]
Allen’s archive is a garden of earthly deletes — decades of notes and stories and sketches that the prolific filmmaker exiled, for whatever reason, to the shadowlands in between whole-hearted commitment and half-hearted possession. His screenplays are often Freudian, and they generally feature him (or some avatar for him) sticking almost religiously to a formula: A relationship on the brink of failure is thrown into chaos by the introduction of a compelling outsider, almost always a young woman. Sometimes, this produces a gem, such as “Match Point.” Often it does not. Ellen Page, featured in 2012’s “To Rome With Love,” called working with Allen “the biggest regret of my career.” (I first began reading the archive at the behest of Amazon, for a project that was abandoned. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.)
Allen’s work is flatly boorish. Running through all of the boxes is an insistent, vivid obsession with young women and girls: There’s the “wealthy, educated, respected” male character in one short story (“By Destiny Denied: Incident at Entwhistle’s”) who lives with a 21-year-old “Indian” woman. First, Allen’s revisions reduce her to 18, then double down, literally, and turn her into two 18-year-olds. There’s the 16-year-old in an unmade television pitch described as “a flashy sexy blonde in a flaming red low cut evening gown with a long slit up the side.” There’s the 17-year-old girl in another short story, “Consider Kaplan,” whose 53-year-old neighbor falls in love with her as the two share a silent, one-floor-long elevator ride in their Park Avenue co-op. There’s the female college student in “Rainy Day” who “should not be 20 or 21, sounds more like 18 — or even 17 — but 18 seems better.” That script includes a male college student but gives no description of his age. Another of Allen’s male characters, in a draft of a 1977 New Yorker story called “The Kugelmass Episode,” is a 45-year-old fascinated by “coeds” at City College of New York. In the margin next to this character’s dialogue, Allen wrote, then crossed out, “c’est moi” — it’s me.
His publicist, Leslee Dart, did not reply to several requests for comment on this article. Reclusive by nature, Allen did lodge a complaint about the Weinstein moment, warning the BBC about “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer.” He seems to believe that co-workers wink at each other all the time.
[“I went public with my sexual assault. And then the trolls came for me.”]
He would rather talk about his art and his fiction than his life or his culture. But behold how quickly his writing veers in a draft of “My Apology,” a short story: “Of all the famous men who ever lived, the one I would most like to have been was Socrates. Not just because he was a great thinker, because I have been known to have some reasonably profound insights myself, although mine invariably revolve around two eighteen year old cocktail waitresses and some rope handcuffs.” (In the published version, the object of desire has become a stewardess whose age is omitted.) In another draft, titled “My Speech to the Graduates,” he complains that “science has failed us. True, it has conquered many diseases, broken the genetic code, and even placed human beings on the Moon. And yet when a man of eighty is left in a room with two eighteen year old cocktail waitresses, nothing happens.” A draft of “The Lunatic’s Tale” contains a long section about a man cheating on his wife with a “photographer’s model” before concluding that “the point is, my needs required the best of two women.”
He does not restrict these urges to fictional women. In a fake interview, he writes of real-life actress Janet Margolin, who had roles in “Annie Hall” and “Take the Money and Run”: “Occasionally I was forced to make love to her to get a decent performance. I did what I had to but in a businesslike way.” (Margolin died in 1993.) And here is a riff he wrote to caption an imagined photo of the Spanish socialite Nati Abascal, who worked with Allen in “Bananas”: “Could she act? Yes, I learned and especially in her defense. She blocked my [hand] as I reached for her thigh and brought her knee up sharply into my groin as we discussed show business .?.?. I pulled a contract out of my pocket and we both signed, but not until I told her about the sexual obligation that was a part of the job of any actress who worked with me.” Allen goes on: “I came to appreciate her body for what it was as time went by, namely, a girl’s body .?.?. Soon she got used to my ways. Aware of my position as father figure on the set (a director is just that) I allowed her to come to me with her problems. When she never showed up, I came to her with mine.” A representative for Abascal did not return messages asking what she thought of these musings.
In all likelihood, the Margolin and Abascal bits were intended as parody, but they are grounded in the reality that Allen seems to see the function of women in his life as their begging to be a part of it — even outside the sexual realm. When Coretta Scott King asked him in 1987 to become an honorary director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission, Allen told his assistant, Norma Lee Clark (who scribbled it on the letter): “OK only if they write again to ask.”
But wait: Allen creates wonderful roles for women! Well, sort of. The fact that his work has earned so many women Academy Award nominations and prizes for acting — Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, Mariel Hemingway, Diane Keaton, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Dianne Wiest — is a nesting-doll joke: His trophies have trophies. Allen used Keaton and the others the way Harvey Weinstein used Meryl Streep: an Oscar lure shiny enough to blind aspiring acolytes to his darkness, though some of them recognized that darkness and decided to participate anyway. “He’s never fake and he’s exactly who he is through and through,” Miley Cyrus told Vanity Fair at the premiere of their television project, “Crisis in Six Scenes.” When Billboard asked Selena Gomez, who auditioned five times to join “Rainy Day,” whether she’d contemplated Allen’s past — presumably referring to allegations that he abused one of his girlfriend’s daughters and began an improper relationship with another — before taking the role, she replied: “That’s something, yes, I had to face and discuss. I stepped back and thought, ‘Wow, the universe works in interesting ways.’?” Kate Winslet justified her participation in December’s “Wonder Wheel” by saying: “I don’t know anything, really, and whether any of it is true or false. Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person.”
Allen’s attention to detail is evident throughout his papers — he writes and rewrites, invents and destroys characters, inserts and removes himself from scripts. He pains over inconsequential details: “Shrugs” becomes “laughs” becomes “chortles.” But the incessant fiddling is strangest when it comes to women. In a script called “Cloquet & Brisseau: The Chair,” he turns “good legs” into “great legs,” which become “enormous breasts” and then finally “long, tanned legs.”
Sometimes Allen is in his work, but even when he isn’t, his characters are often obvious stand-ins. In a story that takes place wholly in the mind of a man named Moses Rifkin, he writes: “Unlike the Jewish girl — the shiksa is not guilt-ridden — not a complainer — she is abandoned, fun-loving, and above all promiscuous. The shiksa will perform any sex act.” In “Rainy Day,” Roland Polland, a fictional film director, confesses to a young female college student, “I took no risks because the bitch goddess of success opened her legs in my brain.” But that’s Roland Polland. Not Woody Allen. The “c’est moi” is always crossed out. He is Alvy Singer. He is Moses Rifkin. He is Isaac Davis. He is Sandy Bates. He is Zelig.
In one extremely revealing project that he never made, he seemed to show his real self. “The Filmmaker” is a screenplay co-written by Allen and Marshall Brickman in the late ’60s or early ’70s. It’s about a down-and-out documentarian who has a side gig shooting porn “like Fellini” but only because he is “some kind of film genius who needs the cash.” This fictional filmmaker’s name? Woody Allen. Fake Woody is engaged to Susan, who works at the Museum of Modern Art as a seller of art books. Her job and her interest in music ostensibly make her intellectual — or at least cultured — which seals her fate in his eyes. It’s a cold relationship. One day, while filming at a mental institute, Fake Woody meets Jennifer, “a girl.” She is schizophrenic.
Jennifer: “There’s something about you that I seem to respond to. I suspect that you’re a potential strong person .?.?. very deep .?.?. and that you suffer a great deal.”
Woody: “I — you know .?..”
Jennifer: “Someday you will be a great artist. It’s in your eyes.”
Woody: “You have the best face I ever saw in my life. That’s true.”
He leaves Susan at the altar.
Fake Woody falls in love with Jennifer the only way Real Woody and his co-author know how to write it: at first sight, cosmically, instinctively, overwhelmingly and then — as if it’s flattering — obsessively, in the pattern of that 53-year-old man in the elevator, who ends up sending his 17-year-old neighbor a valentine. The contents of that love note are instructive to Allen’s sense of courtship and, in creative terms, to his sense of how chemistry forms between two characters. It reads, in full: “I saw you only briefly the other day and have not stopped thinking of you. Though we shared a casual and fleeting elevator ride — one floor, to be exact — I fear my life can never be the same. Please meet me for cocktails one night this week. I live in the penthouse. I implore you not to say no. If it turns out for one reason or another you can never share my feelings than [sic] the worst you will suffer is that I will tell you how lovely you are for the duration of a single martini.”
Although the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 in 1986, at any time in Allen’s life it would’ve been illegal for a grown man to offer a 17-year-old a martini. But this is a man who, at 43, awarded himself 16-year-old Hemingway’s first kiss — the actress’s herself, not her character’s — on the set of “Manhattan.” (Afterward, she recalled in a talk show interview, she ran over to cinematographer Gordon Willis and cried, “I don’t have to do that again, do I?”) He is dressing up crime as art. Hemingway declined to comment for this story.
In many ways, Allen frustrates people because he seems to relish dancing on the edge of the outrage. There’s nothing criminal about an 82-year-old’s fixation with 18-year-olds, and it’s not whip-out-your-penis, button-under-the-desk bad. But it’s deeply, anachronistically gross. More than that, he seems not to care about bettering or changing himself in any way. He lives and thinks and creates as he did in the 1970s, nearly a half-century ago. He’s a reminder that our future, however woke it becomes, will not be full of social-justice valedictorians quoting James Baldwin and Roxane Gay. There will be 22nd-century dunces lagging by a half-century or more. Allen is worse than an augury of those trolls of tomorrow; he is a model for them, a validation.
In this #MeToo era, a hackneyed moral argument has calcified for loving the art while hating the artist, and dancing around Walter Benjamin’s idea that “at the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” Allen looms large in those conversations, given the tragic inception of his current marriage, which began when he started a sexual relationship with his then-girlfriend’s teenage daughter (now his wife of two decades). As he later described the affair: “I was paternal. She responded to someone paternal. I liked her youth and energy. She deferred to me.”
Loving the art treats it as a finished product, polished and packaged for the public. But what are the thoughts that go into the art? The emotions? The priorities? The ugliness? All art is partly autobiographical — it comes from inside someone’s mind, inside their soul. Allen’s archive shows what is inside his.