On a bright September day, an unlikely trio met for lunch to discuss art, politics and culture. Having published an unauthorized biography of Woody Allen last year, I couldn’t wait to have lunch with him for the first time. Joining us was famed film critic John Simon, who once called Annie Hall “so shapeless, sprawling, repetitious and aimless as to seem to beg for oblivion.” We met at Sette Mezzo, a favorite restaurant of Allen’s on Lexington Avenue in New York. It was old-school Italian, with Upper East Side elegance and serenity. Waiters in their 60s led me to the table and hovered amiably and discreetly, napkins on their arms, cosseting Allen with protective warmth. The restaurant attracts the rich and famous over-50 crowd, including Martin Scorsese, George Soros and Lily Safra. I once asked Allen’s boyhood pal, Jerry Epstein, now a psychiatrist, why Allen liked the wealthy neighborhoods so much. “It’s a hedge against death,” he had replied.
Here is how the lunch happened: I had knocked on Allen’s door to introduce myself as his unauthorized biographer; we corresponded by email while I was writing the book. Standoffish at first, dismissive of my praise of such films as Zelig and Husbands and Wives, he did, as he indicated he might, eventually “get used” to me, responding to my questions with kindness, directness and care. Those he didn’t want to answer, he ignored.
A misstep that I made in the early days was telling Allen that in my interviews with Simon, he had reevaluated his negative view of Allen’s work and was quite positive about much of it. Simon had sometimes been brutal in his criticism of Allen. He had written of the 1978 film Interiors that “Woody Allen has made his first serious film…and its condition is worse than serious, it’s grave to the point of disaster. Whether it makes you bite your lips in rage or roll over with helpless laughter, you will concede that there is not one real character in it; that almost every line of dialogue is, at best, hackneyed, at worst, ludicrously stilted; and that virtually every shot is derived from some other filmmaker, usually [Ingmar] Bergman or [Michelangelo] Antonioni.”
But Simon had told me that, while Allen may not have produced the masterpiece he was yearning to create, he had made many excellent films. “If you make enough good films,” he said “that will take the place of one or two great ones.” I knew this would be important to Allen, who believed that Simon’s film criticism would endure longer than that of any other critic. “The truth is,” he wrote me, “Simon is one critic who, while being very critical of me over the years, I have still respected and liked personally…he is an interesting, highly intelligent, insightful and entertaining critic to read and in person rather likable despite his withering contempt for imperfection.” When I told Allen about Simon’s about-face, he tersely replied: “I do not believe for a second that he reappraised the work and is full of praise.” I typed up the transcript of my interviews with Simon, which confirmed my account, and sent it to Allen. That was a turning point.
As I approached the table, Allen, wearing a plain brown shirt and corduroy pants, intercepted me, grabbing his lucky fisherman’s hat from the chair before I could crush it. He was smiling. Simon was seated beside him. Allen is 81, Simon 91. They are both youthful. Allen ordered spaghetti—not pasta—and meatballs. Health-conscious as he is, he ate just a few bites.
Sitting with Allen, the first thing you notice is how much he seems like the characters he has played in films for 50 years. It’s the kindly part you are seeing, not the pessimism or neuroticism. He is fully alive to the moment and to those around him, and his intellectual curiosity and engagement are real. He turned to Simon to give him his undivided attention, pouring his tea and suggesting a dessert he knew Simon would want, but wouldn’t touch himself with a ten-foot pole. Allen’s face was as placid as a sheep grazing, nodding his head constantly and saying, “Hmm, hmm” over and over again, a sound you have heard from him hundreds of times in his movies. And on the subject of sheep, Simon said to him, “You and [Orson] Welles are royalty—the others are sheep.” Allen did not respond.
When the conversation turned to Donald Trump, Simon channeled Rowan Atkinson, calling him “a carbuncle on the backside of humanity.” Allen, a strong Hillary Clinton supporter, said, “But I don’t think he’s an anti-Semite. He was very nice to me on the set of Celebrity and no problem at all.”
“Of course he was nice to you,” I said, “He was thrilled to be in your movie.”
Allen seemed to ponder this, and he nodded. He was carrying a copy of James Grissom’s book about Tennessee Williams, Follies of God, which he recommended to me. He noted that John Garfield had auditioned for the Stanley Kowalski role in A Streetcar Named Desire. “An actor is either a natural or not,” he said. “ Marlon Brando was.” I mentioned Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine as an example of his talent for unique casting. “Comedians make very good actors,” he said. I also cited Max von Sydow as memorable in Hannah and Her Sisters and said that he ignited the screen. He agreed and said, “His real name is Carl Adolf, so he couldn’t use it.”
I said that Dick Cavett had told me that Allen, famous for his aversion to hospitals and death, had visited him in the hospital when he was being treated for depression. “Yes,” Allen said, “and when I arrived Dick was all dressed up in a tuxedo, looked great, and was going to a party with other celebrities. He could do this, pull himself together.”
Allen mentioned that the other film critic he admired was Pauline Kael, but that “she had everything but judgment.” We discussed the directors Allen admired most: Vittorio De Sica, Bergman, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini. As to Luis Bunuel and his masterpiece, The Exterminating Angel, he said, “I admire him but I don’t love him. There’s a lack of emotion.”
Allen is very smart in the way that the instinctive artist, not the intellectual, is smart. It’s not the “high art” of his hero, Bergman, nor, for that matter, of John Simon. He places Simon in a stratum above himself. And he has a little of Neil Simon, the show biz technician who cranks out the jokes and wisecracks, in him. His conversation veers from show business to craft to friends like Dick Cavett, Billy Crystal and Marshall Brickman, author of The Jersey Boys and collaborator with Allen. The conversation is not about Friedrich Nietzsche or Fyodor Dostoevsky. I bet Allen is more turned on by Groucho. There is a lot of Allen in Broadway Danny Rose. He comes across as the eternal innocent with his Chai pin, the repository of ancient lost Jewish and Irish vaudeville and the schmaltz of the big-hatted red hot mamas waving white handkerchiefs at the old Sammy’s Bowery Follies, where Allen’s father was a bouncer and bartender—and where my father took me when I was 12 years old. Allen loves that vanished world, and so do I.
Allen, former student of the Hebrew Bible, projects incomprehension of the corruption of the world. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, he examines that moral torpor, that indifference to murder, and he is haunted by the Jewish family values he revisits in that film: “The eyes of God are always upon you” and the moral rigor of Primo Levi. The character of Professor Louis Levy, he told me, was based on a composite of Primo Levi and Martin Bergmann, a noted psychoanalyst and editor (with Milton E. Jucovy) of Generations of the Holocaust. Bergmann plays the character of Dr. Levy in the film.
And if there is one thing that bonds me to Allen more than any other, it’s the words he’s expressed, both in his films and in informal settings, about the Holocaust. “The crimes of the Nazis were so enormous it would be justified if the entire human race were to vanish as a penalty,” he once wrote to me. “There are certain crimes that are simply unforgivable.”
Allen has said that when he read Elie Wiesel’s Night, “Wiesel made the point several times that the inmates of the camps didn’t think of revenge. I find it odd that I, who was a small boy during World War II and who lived in America, unmindful of any of the horrors Nazi victims were undergoing, and who never missed a good meal with meat and a warm bed to sleep in at night, and whose memories of those years are only blissful and full of good times and good music—that I think of nothing but revenge.”
As we were nearing the end of lunch, Simon took out my Allen biography and asked him to sign it. Allen, who claims he never reads anything about himself, stared at the cover picture of himself a moment as if he was seeing it for the first time. He signed it, “To John Simon—Thank you for keeping me and all of us in movies and theater honest. Woody Allen.”