Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Dinner With Woody

The novel I’m currently working on has led me to contemplate the phenomenon of celebrity: one of my characters, Betsy Bonaparte, was catapulted into the public eye after her marriage to Napoleon’s youngest brother in 1803. In a way, she was the Paris Hilton of the early 19th century: young, beautiful, fabulously wealthy, and famous for being famous. (She also had a formidable intellect, but that’s not what she was famous for.) Complete strangers felt free to speculate about her private life, and even to write raunchy poetry about her when she appeared in public in a scandalously flimsy dress–sort of a 19th-century version of the Paris Hilton pornographic video episode, if anyone remembers that at this point.

The other evening I had a brush with celebrity myself. Not with Paris Hilton, but with someone who’s figured far larger in my own psyche. On the way to a benefit performance and dinner at the Metropolitan Opera, my hostess–a relative of mine–casually mentioned that I would be seated next to Woody Allen at dinner. My husband would be next to his wife Soon Yi.

WHAT?? For the next five and a half hours–through the cocktail reception and the four and a half hour performance–I suffered low-level panic. What could I possibly say to him? How could I keep him entertained? I knew he was famously reclusive, and I had the feeling he wasn’t the type to suffer fools gladly.

What is it about the prospect of encountering a celebrity that frazzles us so (or me, at least)? Part of it, I think, is the disconcerting feeling of seeing someone who looks so familiar but whom you’ve never actually met in the flesh before. During the performance, seated right behind Woody and Soon Yi, I kept thinking that they looked exactly like themselves (although Woody’s hair is grayer than I remembered). It was eerie, like seeing a painting come to life.

The other thing is what I might call the knowledge imbalance: when you meet a celebrity like Woody Allen, he knows nothing about you, but you already know a lot about him. Or I did, anyway. I asked my 18-year-old daughter if she knew anything about Woody and Soon Yi, and she had no idea. But I remember vividly the shock of finding out about their relationship, back in 1992: how Woody’s companion of 12 years, Mia Farrow, had discovered nude pictures of her 22-year-old adopted daughter, Soon Yi, in Woody’s apartment; how he subsequently admitted to an affair; how, during the bitter custody battle that followed, Mia accused Woody of molesting their 7-year-old adopted daughter. The week the Soon Yi story broke was the one and only time I’ve actually purchased a copy of People magazine.

So I don’t usually follow these sorts of celebrity scandals–not closely, anyway (I’ll admit that I do on occasion leaf through People magazine in the supermarket checkout line). But this was personal. I grew up on Woody Allen. I felt like I knew him, maybe because he bears a resemblance to my Uncle Morris–and because his New York Jewish sensibility struck a chord. I haven’t loved all of his movies–some I’ve downright disliked–but there are concepts in life that I find I can only express through the prism of a Woody Allen movie ("Zelig-like," is one adjective that comes to mind, along with the joke from Annie Hall about the guy whose brother thought he was a chicken–"We’d turn him in," says the guy, "but we need the eggs"). I had a certain image of him, and it didn’t correspond with the reality of a 56-year-old man having an affair with a girl who was in effect, if not in the eyes of the law, his own stepdaughter.

This was obviously one topic I wasn’t going to bring up at dinner (when my husband asked what he should talk to Soon Yi about, I told him, "Just don’t ask her how they met"). But what made the knowledge imbalance even worse was that whether I brought it up or not, Woody would know that I knew. That awkwardness would hang in the air, as it always must when Woody Allen meets someone new (unless that someone was, like my daughter, still a baby when the scandal broke). It was implicit in the moment of introduction, when I said my name, and Woody said, unnecessarily, "Woody."

After we were installed at our table, I was relieved when the woman sitting on the other side of Woody proceeded to engage him in a lengthy conversation. But eventually it was my turn. Actually, finding something to talk about was somewhat easier than I’d imagined. I asked him a few questions about his work, but he also talked about how much he’d liked Washington (where I live) when he came here to do standup in the sixties, and how he can’t go to the opera because he can’t stay up that late.

He was pleasant enough, but I had the distinct impression that he would have preferred to be elsewhere–probably in bed, asleep. Unlike some of the other celebrities in attendance, who had posed on the red carpet in their Yves St. Laurent outfits (the company was a sponsor of the event), Woody was there to see the opera–he’s a genuine fan. The other stuff–the paparazzi, the dinner conversation–was just something he had to put up with. He didn’t ask me anything about myself, but then, I didn’t expect him to. That’s part of the celebrity imbalance: I knew all about him (or thought I did), but he didn’t know anything about me, and didn’t particularly want to. My role, as I saw it, was to make his experience as painless as possible.

That weird false familiarity that surrounds a celebrity–the feeling that you already know this person even though you’ve never met–is heightened in Woody’s case because his off-screen persona is so similar to his on-screen one. At times I had the surreal feeling that Woody had either just stepped out of one of his movies, or I had just stepped into one (kind of like Mia Farrow’s character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, to use another Woody Allen metaphor). When our main course arrived–retro-comfort-food meat loaf with a hard-boiled egg in the middle–Woody stared at it glumly and then never touched it. A bit later the chair of the event took the podium and mentioned that she had chosen the menu to cut costs, in recognition of the economic crisis (never mind that it was described in the program as "Kobe Beef Meat Loaf"). Woody murmured, "So she’s the one I should complain to." He could have been Alvy Singer, or Virgil Starkwell, or any of his other on-screen alter egos.

Throughout the conversation, I had a sort of double vision of him: he was–perhaps surprisingly–just an ordinary human being, doing ordinary things; but he was also a celebrity, someone whose life I knew way more about than I should have. When he mentioned that one reason he needed to get to bed early was that he took his daughters to school in the morning, I thought: how sweet, how normal. But at the same time I couldn’t help wondering if he’d ever done that for the three kids he’d had with Mia–one biological, two adopted. I doubted it. Hadn’t he refused to marry Mia, hadn’t he even maintained a separate apartment throughout their relationship? How did those three kids feel now about his apparently idyllic relationship with their sister, and the two little girls who were at the same time their half-sisters and their nieces?

But if you just looked at the two of them, Woody and Soon Yi, the way you’d look at any couple you’d just met, there seemed to be nothing odd about their relationship, apart from the 35-year age difference. When Woody decided it was time to go, I saw him give Soon Yi the same gesture–raised eyebrows, lowered chin–that my own husband has given me, for the same reason, on countless occasions. They seemed affectionate, companionable, happy. Who am I to judge them? Who am I to think I know all about them?

Some would say that celebrities have no right to complain about intrusions into their privacy. They’ve invited attention, the argument goes, and they have to take the bitter with the sweet. Certainly that’s true in some cases. Betsy Bonaparte, for example, could easily have worn more clothing and attracted less attention, and she chose not to. But in other situations it’s not so clear. Don’t celebrities have the right to fall in love–and act upon that feeling–without undergoing intense scrutiny, even when they violate society’s conventions? When Betsy’s marriage fell apart very publicly, did she deserve the scorn that some heaped upon her? Did Woody and Soon Yi?

But I guess it’s naive to expect that the public will ignore such goings on. After all, I didn’t exactly ignore the Soon Yi episode myself, and I’m writing a whole book about Betsy (although in my opinion the fact that she’s been dead for over 100 years absolves me of any responsibility to respect her privacy or refrain from judging her). Not to mention the fact that I’m writing this blog post now.

I guess the bottom line is that, while I continue to see Woody and Soon Yi as celebrities–and while I’m not about to forgot everything I’ve read about them–having had an actual brief encounter with them, I also can’t help but see them as human beings. Maybe it’s the fact that Soon Yi laughed at one of my jokes, or that Woody seemed genuinely interested in some of what I had to say; maybe I’m just flattered that they deigned to pay any attention to me at all. And maybe I’m impressed that, after enduring abuse that would send most people permanently underground, they’ve simply gotten on with their lives. I may never understand what happened between them, but I’m no longer feeling equipped to condemn it. Really, it’s none of my business.

[N.B. -- Woody mentioned during dinner that the producers of the movie My Dinner With Andre originally wanted him to play the role ultimately played by Wallace Shawn--but he declined because he didn't think he could memorize all those lines. Hence the title of this post.]

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