Yesterday I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on her NPR program, Fresh Air. The show was a re-broadcast of an interview originally aired last June. Although I loved the early Woody Allen films, I've become less enamored of his work over the years and, I must admit, I've been affected by the lurid accounts of his marriage to Soon Yi, the adopted daughter of his former lover, Mia Farrow. The scandal made me think less of the man and less of his films, too.
So, it was with surprise and pleasure that I heard Woody Allen speak for himself. I think it's the first interview I've ever heard him give. He sounds like the Woody of films—the slightly whiny voice, the Brooklyn accent. But then the resemblance becomes more tenuous.
Allen, it turns out, isn't as neurotic as his film persona. It could be that decades of psychoanalysis have done wonders. Still, the childhood he describes isn't nearly as tortured as you might expect from his films. I imagined that Allen grew up in a Brooklyn tenement in the shadow of a Coney Island roller coaster, like his character in Annie Hall. But in fact, Allen fondly remembers spending his childhood in a lovely, safe, tree-lined neighborhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, an area replete with ball fields, playgrounds, and numerous movie houses.
Nor were Allen's childhood dinners like those recollected by his character in Annie Hall. Far from the loud, argumentative affairs suggested by the film, Allen mostly ate alone and liked to read comic books while he ate. Allen says he enjoyed the opportunity for mealtime solitude in his crowded home, which was shared with aunts and uncles. His mother would make him an early dinner, then eat a bit later herself, sometimes with her sister. When Allen's father arrived much later from work, his mother would serve him dinner, too.
One of the surprises of the interview is Allen's assertion that he's far from the intellectual that others make him out to be. Rather, he says, "I'm the guy that you see in his tee shirt with a beer watching the baseball game at night at home on television." Talk of sports is interspersed throughout the interview. Though Allen liked his solitary dinners as a child, he loved to play stick ball with the neighborhood kids. He wasn't a loner. And perhaps the biggest shock of all is the news that Allen was a good athlete, always picked first to be on a team, winner of track medals, gifted enough to dream of playing professional baseball.
Sometimes, I'm reluctant to learn too much about creative people, lest I find the artist as a person much less interesting than his or her work. But hearing Woody Allen speak about himself was a revelation. It was also an invitation to enjoy his films as fiction without worrying about not understanding their intellectual subtext. After all, I have it from Allen himself that he's no intellectual.
For those who are interested, here's the interview.