There are differences, of course: Philip Roth is a Newark native who now lives as a virtual recluse in the Connecticut woods. Woody Allen was raised in Brooklyn, lives in a penthouse on the Upper East Side, and mixes with musicians and starlets. Roth went to the University of Chicago and was writing film criticism for the New Republic by age 24. Allen was kicked out of NYU and CUNY and never finished college. Roth is tall, dark, and handsome. Allen is none of these.
But the similarities (summarized neatly in Marion Meade’s excellent biography, The Unruly Life of Woody Allen) have always been striking: Both exploited Jewish backgrounds and Jewish neuroses to comic effect. Both subsequently faced accusations of what Roth has called “betraying Jewish secrets.” Both have been fantastically prolific—one published his 25th book this summer, the other releases his 31st film this week. Success came early to both: Goodbye,Columbus won the National Book Award in 1960, when its author was 27. That same year, the 25-year-old Allen earned $1,700 a week—$9,300 in today’s dollars—as a writer for TheGarry Moore Show. Still, neither artist came into his own until 1969, when Roth published his first masterpiece, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Allen directed his first film.
There’s more: Both pillaged their lives for material, taunting and tricking their audiences into trying to separate fact from fiction, and their themes have often overlapped—most famously, those involving sex, shiksas, and psychoanalysis. So, on occasion, have the story lines, both fictional (as in 1972, when Roth published a novel in which the protagonist found himself transformed into a giant human breast, and Allen directed himself being chased by one) and factual (the Woody Allen sex scandal—beginning with the seduction of Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen’s longtime companion, Mia Farrow, and ending in a sordid laundry list of accusations and counteraccusations, court battles and press conferences, memoirs and films-a-cléf—was in many ways a dry run for Roth’s breakup with Claire Bloom).
Here, too, was the publicist’s war, the wounded memoir, and the (barely) fictionalized counterattack, and the names often seemed interchangeable: Roth’s description of Eve Frame, the Bloom character in I Married a Communist, applied equally well to Farrow: “A lonely actress in her forties … and she’s needy, and she’s famous, and she surrenders to him. Isn’t this what happens? Every woman has her temptations, and surrendering is Eve’s.” Bloom’s description of Roth’s life—”the life of a bitter, lonely, aging ascetic with no human ties”—brought Allen’s to mind. And Farrow’s outrage at Allen’s affair with her daughter was mirrored in Roth’s attempted seduction of Rachael Hallawell, a friend of Bloom’s daughter and “almost a daughter” herself.
But Farrow’s thoughts on incest didn’t prevent her from embarking on an affair with Roth: The two had started dating in 1995, and (to crib a heading from Bloom’s book) it’s here that the fun really began. The same year that Farrow published her memoir, What Falls Away, Allen released Deconstructing Harry—a vulgar film in which Allen played a novelist who savages friends and family members by turning sordid details of their lives into thinly veiled fictions. Allen drove the point home by casting Richard Benjamin—who, Meade points out, played the hero in film adaptions of both Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint—to play the novelist’s alter ego.
Still, given the vicissitudes of the past 10 years, it’s startling to consider what Roth has accomplished: two PEN/Faulker Awards, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal for fiction. Last spring, New Yorker editor David Remnick published a long, thoughtful, flattering profile. This summer, Time called him “America’s finest living novelist.” The awards rolled in, the accolades mounted, and Roth, who’d batted about .333 as a novelist in the first three decades of his career, kept his head down and produced, at a frantic pace, one masterpiece after another.
Allen, meanwhile, produced a line of artistic and commercial flops; confessional rants about what rights the artist’s ego affords (Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, and Mighty Aphrodite, which Meade dubs the “Hooker-Fellatio Trilogy,” as well as Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown) and films culled from desk drawers and the cutting room floor. Manhattan Murder Mystery, which reunited Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, is a subplot cut from Annie Hall. Sweet and Lowdown is a reworking of The Jazz Baby, a script written long before Allen had the clout to direct “serious” films.
Allen’s last two films, Small Time Crooks and Curse of the Jade Scorpion, have dealt directly with criminal transgression under the guise of farce and fast-talking screwball comedy. (Both films, and especially the latter, signaled a slight improvement.) Still traces of the old guilt—and old equivocation—kept surfacing. Curse of the Jade Scorpion, in which Allen plays an insurance detective who commits a series of burglaries while under hypnosis, then tracks himself down, is typical: As with Allen’s real-life protestations that, since he’d never married Farrow and never adopted her daughter, his affair with Soon-Yi hardly constituted incest, his investigator is technically guilty of the burglaries, but morally and legally in the clear.
If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it has to do with the way equivocation on Allen’s part, and the lack of it on Roth’s, sabotages the former and elevates the latter. As David Edelstein pointed out in Slate’s review of Deconstructing Harry, “Roth might well be a lousy human being, but no one could mistake him for being an oblivious one.” And while Communist is one of Roth’s weaker books, it pulls no punches: Bloom’s memoir accuses him of trying to sleep with his daughter’s friend? He’ll admit to it and do her one better by having the fictional alter ego consummate the seduction. “Isn’t this human?” Roth writes. “Did he kill a woman? Did he take money from a woman? No. So what’s so bad?” Bloom accused Roth of being Machiavellian? Well, “if he’s Machiavelli, then he’s Machievelli. Everybody run for cover.” The list goes on; the novel is a point-by-point rebuttal of Bloom’s memoir, and since Roth is by far the more gifted author, wickedly so. After all, as a character in Communist says, “how could she publish this book and not expect him to do something?” Roth wrote a weak book? At least he got it out of his system. Never having owned up to much, Allen’s been unable to put his past to rest.
A few years before his scandal, Allen released Crimes and Misdemeanors, the last of his serious, Bergman-influenced films. It told the story of Judah Rosenthal, a New York doctor (married, incidentally, to a character played by Claire Bloom) who kills his mistress when she threatens to expose the affair. The rest of the film concerns the moral crisis—copped, more or less, from Crime and Punishment—brought on by Judah’s guilt and temptation to confess. It’s a temptation Judah overcomes, stifling in the process what good there was in his character. The film ends on a double note of happiness (Rosenthal and his wife walking off into the sunset) and gloom (Rosenthal’s worst fears about the justice vis-à-vis the universe realized). Unlike Allen’s other serious films, Crimes and Misdemeanors was a commercial and critical success. Perhaps sensing that he’s no longer in a position to descant on grand moral themes, Allen hasn’t made anything like it since, and there’s no indication that he ever will again.
A long time ago, Allen joked about cheating on a metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the boy next to him. Back then, it seemed fair to suspect that the boy he had in mind was Roth. Roth, at least, seems to have thought so—he’s said to have long despised Allen, not least for supposedly cribbing ideas from his fiction. Allen, for his part, returns the sentiment. But perhaps if he’d bothered to look into Roth’s soul again, he’d have learned something useful: Even lives destroyed by lies and deceptions, elisions and equivocations, can be repaired. But art—even art that deals, as Roth’s and Allen’s do, with lies and deception—should strive to be honest.