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A Close Second to God : WOODY ALLEN: A Biography, By Eric Lax (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 377 pp.)

May 26, 1991|Susan Isaacs | Isaacs is a novelist and screenwriter

Woody Allen's autobiography! Witty, of course. Vulnerable, too, but perhaps the reader would be able to see, behind the artist's sensitivity, his shrewdness, his tough-mindedness, even his hard-heartedness as he protects and defends his work. The reader might also find out whether the transformation of the parochial Brooklyn Jew into the definitive Manhattan Man was complete, and what makes this jock, pal, husband, lover, father, magician, musician, stand-up comic, essayist, actor, screenwriter and director tick. Wow, what a book!

Except it was a book that wasn't written. Woody Allen, who apparently guards his privacy so zealously that he walks around town with a false mustache, is too guarded to reveal himself in an autobiography, too circumspect to shout: Look at me!

Instead, he had Eric Lax do it for him. Not a bad idea. There have been some first-rate celebrity biographies--Gerold Frank's "Judy," Scott Meredith's "George S. Kaufman and His Friends"--that illuminate the human being behind the artist and interpret the art while still maintaining that there- is- no-business-like-show-business liveliness of spirit.

Unfortunately, "Woody Allen: A Biography" is not in this class, even though the author got a break that few biographers receive: the privilege of spending three years (through the making of five films) with Allen. The film maker, Lax recounts, let him in on "all aspects of his work. . . . He also detailed his childhood and adult life. . . . He would have no control over or approval of the text."

What a boon! No wonder Lax jumped at the offer. Except he did not jump far enough. Throughout this book, the author is so close to his subject, so deferential, that it reads more like the work of an erudite fan-club president than a true biographer. The subject and his lady are "Woody" and "Mia." Chummy. But although first-name familiarity is dandy for friendship, it shows a lack of distance, an absence of perspective.

It is hard not be awed. Woody Allen is more than simply another actor or writer or director. In an industry given to hyperbole, where simple courtesy is labeled saintliness, where everyday neuroses are irrefutable evidence of an artistic temperament, and where commonplace intelligence is called genius, Allen is considered, if not God, at least a Close Second.

More than any other American film maker, Woody Allen is an authentic auteur. And his range: It is so broad that his filmography (which is not included) embraces such disparate works as the rollicking "Sleeper," the romantic "Annie Hall," the endearing "Broadway Danny Rose" and the solemn/comical philosophical inquiry into the nature of evil, "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

However, it is the biographer's job to appreciate, not to venerate; to explain, not to defend. Movie making may be a collaborative art; biography is not. Yet Lax and his subject collaborated--helped now and then by friends and colleagues such as Mia Farrow; Allen's shrewd and devoted producers, Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe; cinematographer Sven Nykvist. If now and then there is criticism, it is muted--and affectionate.

But although Woody Allen may wear a false mustache on his outings, the public knows him: He is the ultimate urbanite who prefers pavement to grass; the faithful film maker whose crew returns his loyalty and works with him in film after film. Lax presents this familiar Allen, and does a good job of filling in the blanks of biographical data.

But is there a tougher truth? It is never sought. The author's sources share his reverence. Sam Waterson recounts with deference the famous Allen directorial style: an antipathy to rehearsals; no explanations of why he is dissatisfied with an actor's performance. "We are accustomed as a class to living in a deluded world where the actor is the center of everything while he is being used. I find Woody's approach so refreshing, even though it is unsettling."

Why not really unsettle? Why not interview Michael Keaton, whom Allen fired from the Jeff Daniel's role in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" after 10 days of shooting?

And women: We hear from Allen's lover, his best friend, his film editor. But what about Allen's first wife, Harlene Rosen? Was she ever interviewed? Did she refuse an interview? (She once sued Allen and NBC for $1 million, claiming his jokes defamed her.) Their entire relationship--including a recounting of Henny Youngman-style wife jokes--is told solely from Allen's point of view.

Readers don't require a Kitty Kelleyesque dishing of dirt; they simply want an understanding deeper than that offered by the predictable He Outgrew Her. But that is all that Allen has to offer, and ditto for Lax. Thus, their joint venture works to the detriment of "Woody Allen."

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