Woody Allen

Anyone who reads a biography of Woody Allen almost certainly wants to know if the man is anything like the characters he portrays in his movies. Judging by the evidence here, the general assumption that the two are identical is not far off the mark. On and off screen, there is the same the obsessive morbidness, the tortured shyness, the constant self-doubt—only Allen rarely jokes about it.

Lax attempts to show the man behind his often chilling front, but Allen remains forbidding despite his comic genius. An artist with the highest possible standards, he focuses completely on his work. Allen’s perfectionism, combined with his own sense of imperfection and self-absorption, results in an uneasy and distant relationship with those around him, especially actors. But always involved in multiple projects, Allen seems too busy to care, and he is hardest on his own work. He revises constantly, reworking the material while making his films and then re-shooting scenes (and all of SEPTEMBER) when he doesn’t like what he sees in the editing room.

With the same determination to perfect himself, he has eliminated all the inessentials from his life. Then he pursues the essential single-mindedly, whether it is to master the clarinet or rival Bergman’s films, and to family and friends he is unfailingly devoted and loyal. Only with those closet to him do his shyness and drive relax enough to let the more appealing side of his nature show.

After covering the early years in a straightforward manner, the book becomes more of a portrait than a biography. Lax organizes these later chapters thematically, presenting Allen as stand-up comic, playwright, writer, and filmmaker. The organization is loose and rambling while the writing sinks too often to the adulatory level of a press release. Even the many admissions of Allen’s shortcomings derive more from his own obsessive self-denigration than the author’s critical sense. Still, Woody Allen is an artist intriguing enough to shine through the book’s many weaknesses.