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Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

There might be something, after all, to Woody Allen's insistence that his art isn’t imitating his life: Lately, in fact, it seems to be imitating Philip Roth's.

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Maybe if we were all grown-up and living in France, we could join in the general Woody worship without getting hung up on the great man’s personal issues. So what if Soon-Yi is his wife and his son’s half-sister? That’s none of our business. Such Puritans, these Americans. He’s an artist, a genius, and we should judge him on his body of work, right?

But a relationship with the Woodster is never easy. Even if we’re inclined to be generous about the idea of a Chinatown-style double take (She’s my mother; she’s my sister), in Deconstructing Harry Allen won’t allow us that civility. The film begins with a foul-mouthed wail. “Schmuck bastard!” a betrayed mistress rants at Harry Block, the prostitute-loving, pill-popping, solipsistic writer who is not Woody Allen. It’s a movie flush with female hysteria, each fury apparently representing some part of Woody’s struggle with the now Mia-in-law: the Mamet-style screamer who pulls a gun, the ex-wife, her colder older sister, and the other ex-wife, a psychoanalyst who catches him in an affair with her patient and won’t allow him to see his kid.

But the real brilliance of Deconstructing Harry is in its doubleness, the way scenes are intercut with their fictional representations. And that suggests the other one in the canon who dresses down in Waspy tweeds and cords, who’s also criticized for being a self-loathing Jew and is similarly known for his obsessively sexual, manic psychoanalytic riffs and stinging observations about Jewish-arriviste life: Philip Roth. Could this be a double vendetta? In one of the more startling moves in the romance ecosystem, Roth and Mia Farrow, who are neighbors in Connecticut, are now said to be dating.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Allen used his work to get the last word on the other men in Farrow’s life. At the time, it was suggested that Broadway Danny Rose -- the 1984 film in which Mia embodies an escaped mafia moll -- was Allen’s jab at Farrow’s first husband, Frank Sinatra. (In her memoir, What Falls Away, Farrow writes that when he heard about the Soon-Yi affair, Frank gallantly offered to “break Woody’s legs.”)

Allen’s premise, that Block is a teacher and renowned writer of novels and short stories who sometimes mentors promising young writers, describes Roth’s life, not his own. (Although Woody sure loves to use the word pupil.) The head-spinning layering of fiction and autobiography is redolent of Roth’s work (see Deception, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock, among others). What’s more, Woody cast Richard Benjamin in the movie as the fictional representation of himself, the guy who shtups his sister-in-law at a family barbecue. No actor is more associated with Philip Roth than beetle-browed Benjamin, who played Alexander Portnoy, the original non-master of his own domain, in Portnoy’s Complaint, and also starred as Neil Klugman in the film of Goodbye, Columbus.

Even the style of fictional narrative in Deconstructing Harry mirrors Roth’s literary development. The earliest scenes, of Block as a young shoe clerk, suggest the kind of Bernard Malamud-ian setups that inflected Roth’s early work, a mix of realism and grad-school phantasmagoria. Each layer gets more subtle as the Block character evolves in his own life, so that he’s cheating on a better class of women.

In every interview he gives, Allen takes pains to note that Block is nothing like himself: he has never had any drug addictions, nor suffered from writer’s block, nor had anything resembling a mental breakdown.

True. That was for Roth’s dumped and humiliated ex-wife, the English actress Claire Bloom, to chronicle in her tell-all memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House. Bloom (who has appeared in two Allen movies, notably as the long-suffering wife of the philandering, murderous ophthalmologist in Crimes and Misdemeanors) writes about a period of such profound depression for Roth that he checked into Silver Hill Psychiatric Hospital. She stayed by his side and joined him for sessions with his doctor, but he excoriated her so venomously that she ended up there as a patient herself. The psychiatrist treating Roth, by the way, was named (no!) Dr. Bloch.

William Styron, who has written about his own depression, is mentioned in Bloom’s book for helping Philip get over what he believed was a Halcion-induced episode. Styron also turns up in Mia’s book: it took an act of Congress to allow Mia and André Previn the visa to adopt Soon-Yi; the Styrons got their congressman to sponsor the necessary bill.

The mirror has two faces: Farrow and Bloom essentially describe the same relationship, of the pretty, delicate, increasingly insecure female, worried that she couldn’t function without her partner (despite all her accomplishments), subsumed by the force of the tyrannical, raging male.

In a piece about Bloom that appeared in this magazine in 1996, writer Peter J. Smith quotes her friend Rafael Navarro saying that “Philip always abhorred Woody Allen because of the sentimentality and the vulgarity. The thing about Philip is that he has exquisite taste because he knows when he’s being vulgar. When the affair with Soon-Yi Previn came out he was so full of contempt, full of thunder -- ‘How disgusting,’ et cetera.”

So the mirror also has two phalluses: Bloom discovered after her divorce that Roth had propositioned her daughter’s best friend (“practically a daughter to me”) while the girl was staying in her house. “What was irresistible to Philip,” she writes, “was the opportunity to divide and conquer, to kill three birds with one stone.”

Woody’s jacked-up denials (he never lived with Mia, Soon-Yi is not her biological daughter, he “could have met her at a party or something”) aside, he must know that he ruptured Mia’s family profoundly. And that his marriage to Soon-Yi ensures that he will never have a relationship with his son, Satchel, now called Seamus or Sean. (The name “was better than Ingmar, which was Woody’s other choice,” Mia writes.) And that he managed to do something out of Greek mythology: destroy the boy by marrying his sister. Talk about working the Oedipal issues with Mama Mia.

Roth, 64, and Allen, 62, come from the same generational place: rebelling against the restrictions of lower-middle-class Jewish life, circa World War II, escaping through disciplined, brilliant work, and exulting in the freedom of the sexual revolution of the late sixties.

People now in their twenties and thirties grew up on the back end of that bad- boy-free-love loop, and that’s why they find these great men so emotionally hobbled and creepy. Does Woody see his marriage to Soon-Yi as a move toward propriety? Or is it about settling old scores? Regardless, now he has someone with whom to avoid awards ceremonies in his old age. And he seems to be getting angrier by the day.


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