new york times magazine
WOODY & MIA
A lunch at Lutèce, a slow courtship - the rest is movie history.
February 24, 1991
By Eric Lax


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A lunch at Lutèce, a slow courtship - the rest is movie history.

"IT'S NO ACCOMPLISHMENT TO HAVE OR RAISE kids," Woody Allen often used to say. "Any fool can do it."

Then in the fall of 1979 he met Mia Farrow, who had seven children. Mia, he now says, "introduced me to a whole other world. Yet the two of us have so little in common that it always amazes us. We're always marveling on why we threw in our lot together and stayed together as long as we have.

"I could go on about our differences forever: She doesn't like the city and I adore it. She loves the country and I don't like it. She doesn't like sports at all and I love sports. She loves to eat in, early - 5:30, 6 - and I love to eat out, late. She likes simple, unpretentious restaurants; I like fancy places. She can't sleep with an air conditioner on; I can only sleep with an air conditioner on. She loves pets and animals; I hate pets and animals. She likes to spend tons of time with kids; I like to spend my time with work and only a limited time with kids. She would love to take a boat down the Amazon or go up to Mount Kilimanjaro; I never want to go near those places. She has an optimistic, yea-saying feeling toward life itself, and I have a totally pessimistic, negative feeling. She likes the West Side of New York; I like the East Side of New York. She has raised nine children now with no trauma and has never owned a thermometer. I take my temperature every two hours in the course of the day."

Allen is constantly amazed at Farrow's ability to do such things as run a tractor and paint houses when he can't handle the simplest mechanical chores. (When he was writing comedy routines for television in the 1950's, he invited another writer to dinner every three or four months, not because they were such good friends but because Allen couldn't change a typewriter ribbon and the man could.” After the meal I'd say, 'Oh, by the way, can you change this?' I could never do any of that stuff.")

"I can only think that what made us throw in our lot together," he says, "is that the two of us met slightly later in life and that we both have our own developed lives."

When they met, he was 43 rears old and a critical and commercial success. His 1977 film, "Annie Hall," had won him Oscar nominations for best director, best actor and best original screenplay, a triple play managed only once before, by Orson Welles for "Citizen Kane." Allen won all but best actor.

She, 34 and divorced for nearly a year, was working on Broadway in "Romantic Comedy." (During her marriages, first to Frank Sinatra and then to André Previn, the composer and conductor, she was encouraged not to work) One evening, Michael Caine and his wife came to a performance and afterward the three went to Elaine's for dinner. Allen was there at his usual table; Caine stopped to say hello and introduced Farrow.



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Allen and Farrow on the set last month.

SHE HAD ACTUALLY MET ALLEN IN PASSING at a party in California several years earlier and they once corresponded, she to tell him that she enjoyed "Manhattan" and he politely to thank her. She had never seen him as a standup comedian, which he was in the early 1960's, but she knew of him as a director, having also seen "Annie Hall." Then in April 1979, she noticed a picture of Allen on the cover of this magazine. He had on a scruffy sweater and was holding an open umbrella over one shoulder. She found the picture appealing and read the profile inside, concluding that he was "neat." She tore off the cover and stuck it in her Random House Dictionary. (About seven years later - by then she and Allen had been together for about six years she came upon the picture and had it framed. "I'm not in the habit of saving pictures like that, but I was a little lonely at the time and he had such an interesting face. It was a long winter," she adds, shrugging.) Some weeks after their encounter at Elaine's, Alien sent her an invitation to his New Year's Eve party ("I think practically everybody in New York got one," she says). She went with Tony Perkins, who was in the show with her, and his wife. Allen pays attention to the smallest details of the few big parties he gives - he stewed over the paper stock of the Cartier invitations for this one. But he is an almost invisible host. He likes to fill a grand place like the Harkness House, a mansion turned for a time into a ballet school, with hundreds of guests but he doesn't like to work the room. He greets everyone as they arrive. "If it's me meeting people at the door, I have no entry phobia. The burden is on them." Then once the throng is assembled, he more or less fades into the woodwork.

Farrow had a good time at the party but only a few words with Allen. Afterward, she sent him a note of thanks and a copy of Lewis Thomas's book of essays "The Medusa and the Snail." Allen had his secretary, Norma Lee Clark, call her (“Gracious person that I am”, he says) to thank her and suggest that they have lunch sometime. In the spring of 1980, he invited Farrow, again through his secretary, to lunch at Lutèce. (Farrow later made a needlepoint sampler of the date and event -April 17, 1980- that hangs on the wall outside his bedroom.) More dinner invitations followed, always through Allen's secretary. During the first several months of this routine, Alien never phoned Farrow. He prefers not to speak on the phone to anyone unless he has to, and being invited through an intermediary didn't bother her. "She never mentioned it," Allen says.

It was a slow courtship. "We would have dinner," Farrow says, "and we're still having dinner."

Both knew they were embarking on an improbable relationship. The daughter of the actress Maureen O'Sullivan and the director John Farrow, Mia Farrow grew up in theatrical communities in Beverly Hills, Spain and England - a world that Allen knew only from the movie magazines he read when he was growing up in Brooklyn, the son of Martin Konigsberg, a jack-of-all-trades, and his wife, Nettie, a bookkeeper.



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Farrow and Allen on the set of their forthcoming film, at a studio in Astoria, Queens. Allen does all his shooting within driving distance of Manhattan.


In the beginning, each even found the other's name difficult. "What should I call you?" she asked him. "I'd be pleased if you'd call me Woody," he told her.

"It felt awkward at first," she says. "It’s such an extreme name, too. I know he thinks my name is awkward to say. He rarely calls me Mia." (Christened Maria de Lourdes Villiers Farrow, she couldn't pronounce Maria when she was a toddler and called herself Mia.) "I hear him refer to me as Mia, and sometimes if he has to get my attention, he'll call it, but he doesn't often say it."

Despite the vast differences in background and upbringing, each likes the family of the other. Her mother and sisters appear in his films. "Everybody loves Woody's father," Farrow says. "His father's all around town. He knows so many people. We saw Kitty Hart one night," she continues, referring to Kitty Carlisle Hart, the head of the New York State Council on the Arts. "She knew his father" (from his days as a jewelry engraver). "Woody was amazed. His mother has a rich vocabulary and she's fun to listen to. She's really colorful. His whole family strikes me as exotic because their world is so alien to me." ("Exotic?" says the narrator in Allen's short story "Retribution." "She should only know the Greenblatts. Or Mr. and Mrs. Milton Sharpstein, my father's friends. Or for that matter, my cousin Tovah. Exotic? I mean, they're nice but hardly exotic with their endless bickering over the best way to combat indigestion or how far back to sit from the television set.")

For the first few years after their friendly dates turned into serious ones, Allen would get up in the morning, give Farrow a call, and then work while she attended to the children, of whom there are now nine. She and Previn had three sons (Matthew, Sascha and Fletcher); then they adopted three orphan girls - two Vietnamese (Lark and Daisy) and one Korean (Soon Yi). After their divorce, she adopted a Korean infant (Moses Amadeus Farrow), who has cerebral palsy. In 1985, Alien and Farrow adopted a newborn girl from Texas (Dylan O'Sullivan Farrow). Two years later, they had their own son (Satchel O'Sullivan Farrow, named after Satchel Paige, the baseball pitcher and a hero of Allen's; the last name was chosen because the couple didn't want one Allen among two Farrows and six Previns).

Around 7 P.M., Allen would pick up Farrow for dinner or the opera or a show or a movie, then take her home. Very often on the weekend, she would bring a few kids and stay at Allen's. Now and then he would go to Farrow's country house in Connecticut but only for very limited periods.

"I am two with Nature," Allen wrote early in his career. In fact, looking out from his apartment over Central Park is about as much Nature as he can stand.

"Woody has no tolerance for the country," Farrow says. "Within half an hour after arriving he's walked around the lake and is ready to go home. He gets very bored. He swears he once got a tick standing by the front door. He was the only one to get one. I didn't actually see the offending tick. He discovered it after he went back to New York. I assume he's correct although he doesn't know much about bugs. He's been seen in a beekeeper's hat at my place when it's gnats time. He'll put it on and seriously stroll by the lake in it. Of course, he never goes in the lake. He wouldn't touch the lake. 'There are live things in there,' he says." Allen's avoidance of rural water extended to a scene in "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" in which he and Farrow fall in a lake (actually their doubles do). Rather than soak himself with the stuff for the shot of the two of them coming out of the lake, he had himself doused with bottles of Evian water.

Allen and Farrow very much lead their own lives, while continuing a relationship that is the longest either has had. By any standard, it is not a conventional union. They are not married, neither do they live together; their apartments face each other across Central Park. When they began to date, they would wave towels out the window as they spoke on the phone, delighting in saying they could see the other. Her apartment - which in addition to nine children and a nanny is home to two cats, a canary, a parakeet, several chinchillas and assorted tropical fish - was used for her scenes in "Hannah and Her Sisters," which Allen directed in 1986.

"It's sort of like just enough," Allen explains one day in his Fifth Avenue apartment, a duplex penthouse with country furniture and a wraparound view of Manhattan and all of Central Park. "Perhaps if we were to live together or if we met at a different time in our lives it wouldn't work. But it seems to be just right. I have all the free time I want and it's quiet over here, and yet I get plenty of action over there. I think it's because we don't live together and that she has her own life completely and that I have mine that we're able to maintain this relationship with a certain proper tension. If we got married years ago and lived together, maybe now we'd be screaming, 'What have we gotten into?' These things are so exquisitely tuned. It's just luck."

Few married couples seem more married. They are constantly in touch with each other, and not many fathers spend as much time with their children as Allen does. He is there before they wake up in the morning, he sees them during the day and he helps put them to bed at night. As each has been married and divorced twice, experience has taught them that legalizing a relationship doesn't necessarily make it last, and Mia Farrow is fond of quoting a joke about the much-married Alan Jay Lerner. "Marriage is Alan's way of saying good-bye."

They both also seem to have what they want. Farrow is a full-time mother and has a satisfying career. Allen who, according to friends, spent considerable energy in his earlier marriages and relationships educating his partner and being needful of her attention - has, in Mia Farrow, found a balance with a wholly contained woman.

In many ways, his latest movie, "Alice," is a paean to her. In it, Alice Tait (Mia Farrow), a faithful Catholic in her youth who has been married for years to a wealthy New Yorker, finds out through the medium of various magical herbs that an acupuncturist prescribes for her that she could behave in wholly un-Alice ways -conjure up an old lover, have an affair with another man, aspire to be a writer. She also discovers that her husband has long been unfaithful to her and that her life, crammed as it is with the extravagances of the idle rich of Manhattan, is silly and empty. Even though the effect of another of the herbs makes any man who sees her fall in love with her, she realizes she wants nothing to do with any of them. Instead, reminded of her faith as a child and of the desire she had then to serve others, she abandons her life of ostentatious luxury and comfort. What Alice becomes is not unlike what Mia Farrow is.

WOODY ALLEN makes an average of a movie a year, and for him filmmaking is an exhausting, depressing process. Little things drive him crazy. During the filming of "Alice," Mia Farrow took a walk in the park, and her red coat came open, revealing the white dress beneath. That ruined the esthetics for him. He reshot the scene again and again, until he knew he had what he wanted. But if at the end of the day he knows a shot is less than what he was trying to do, he doesn't sleep well. "All this obsession," he says, "it isn't perfectionism - it's obsession, compulsion - and all of that is no guarantee that the film is going to be any better." A work life of such intensity doesn't allow for many distractions. Since the spring of 1980, in fact - the time he began to see Mia Farrow regularly- Allen has pared his life down to the essentials. His long-term lease of an editing and screening room in Manhattan made it possible for him to do the assembling of his films in one spot. No longer willing to travel to make his movies, he does all his shooting within driving distance of Manhattan. When he isn't at work, he's with Farrow and the children or reading or practicing his clarinet. He takes no vacations apart from the occasional two-week trip to Europe with Farrow and the children, during which he invariably does some writing and gives interviews in connection with a current film.

For Allen, it has turned out that any female character he can think up, Mia Farrow can play. In the 11 films he has made over the last 11 years, she has, among other roles, been a prim psychiatrist whose love transforms a human chameleon afraid to be himself ("Zelig"); a squeaky-voiced 40's cigarette girl with ambitions to play Chekhov ("Radio Days"); a mobster's moll with an accent that would stop a subway train ("Broadway Danny Rose"); an ethereal free spirit who looks like the soloist in the heavenly choir but who has a past as long as Route 66 ("A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy"); a Depression-era dreamer who finds escape in the movies, not to mention love with a stranger who steps off the screen and into her arms ("The Purple Rose of Cairo"), and an inadvertent heartbreaker ("Crimes and Misdemeanors").

Farrow is not the first woman Allen has been seriously involved with who has appeared in his films. Louise Lasser, his second wife, starred in two; Diane Keaton, in five (six, if you count "Play It Again, Sam," which he wrote but did not direct). Neither is Woody Allen the first movie director to combine private and professional lives. Charlie Chaplin did it. So did Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullman; Federico Fellini with his wife, Giulietta Masina; Blake Edwards with his, Julie Andrews. In no instance, however, has a collaboration ranged so widely and through so many films.

Allen relies on Farrow as a sounding board for the titles of his films and for the nuances of the characters he conjures up. He solicits her reactions to the filming and editing of his pictures. She has also suggested some of the characters she has portrayed. For example, they were eating in a favorite Italian restaurant when she saw a woman in dark glasses with blond hair piled on her head. She turned to Allen and said, "Gee, I would like to play a woman like that once." From that came her role in '"Broadway Danny Rose." (She, once made this comment to Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune critic, about her alleged fragility: "Maybe it's my physical look that confused people. I was very thin. I know people think of me that way. That's why I kept my sunglasses on in 'Broadway Danny Rose,' because I know my eyes are a giveaway. They're not tough, but I'm sure I am underneath.")

Allen and Farrow have acted together in six of his films. Hollywood has spawned a number of on-and-off-the-screen legendary couples: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. While Woody Allen and Mia Farrow may be the younger counterparts of these famous twosomes, they seem intent on being untheatrical -in their disregard for fashionable attire, in their unusual living arrangement, in their combining busy film careers with a large family.

Farrow's range as an actress continues to grow. She is regularly offered parts in other films, and says she would accept a truly spectacular role, but she is happy just doing her film a year with Allen. Other than a cameo appearance in the 1984 movie "Supergirl," as Supergirl's mother, she has not acted in a film for anyone else since she and Allen linked up.

"She's an extraordinary actress," Allen says. "And she's solid like a rock. She shows up and can always do it. If you ask her to play nasty, she does it. If you ask her to play something sexy, she does it. And she's real sweet. She'll come to the set and quietly do her needlepoint, and then put on her wig and dark glasses or whatever, and just scream out the lines, and stick a knife in your nose - and then go back to sewing with her little orphan children around her."

Farrow's first movie for Allen was "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," which was filmed in the summer of 1981. He had just finished the script of "Zelig" and was faced with two weeks of waiting while the budget was worked out. Then he thought to himself, "While I'm waiting, why don't I write something?" What he refers to as "this little summer pastiche" occurred to him.

"I thought it would be fun to get some people in a country house and just celebrate summer -make it very beautiful, with butterfly nets and badminton courts and picnicking." It was set up as a sort of subproject for Allen to shoot while also shooting "Zelig."

That little summer pastiche was a horror for Farrow, who felt she had the part only because she was involved with Allen and was "paralyzed with insecurity." She recalls: "I could barely get through the day and I got an ulcer in the process." (She redeveloped her confidence in time for "Zelig.")

"I think it's harder acting with someone you have an intimate relationship with," she says. "It's inhibiting, and that's what you have to fight. If Woody and I were in rehearsal for a play, it would be different than filming spontaneously. Then we would build a reality apart from others that would always be there for us to go to; you create this sort of island. But as we don't do that in films, I have to be a little more resolved in pulling away from our personal relationship.

"There is one other thing, too. Woody is also the director and so I know he is evaluating my performance at the same time he's acting with me, something quite apart from our relationship. I also know he's this director with a laser view, not only of what I'm doing but of his own performance and everything else that's going on in the scene, and I have to relegate that to the background."

Allen did not quite understand her predicament. "I tend to be maybe a little abrupt sometimes," he said after the film was finished. "So I calmed her but I was not completely sympathetic, because I didn't realize the dimensions, the gravity. I knew she'd be wonderful in it. It never occurred to me she'd disappoint me. So I didn't think to myself, 'Oh my God, darling, are you upset?"

What made it even more difficult for Farrow that first time around was the lack of directorial guidance. Actors who have had no experience with Allen are almost always surprised by the absence of rehearsals before he shoots a scene. Even actors who have made films with him are sometimes surprised, but what Allen relishes is the spontaneity of their performance.

Essentially, Allen writes his movies as he makes them. For example, Hannah was a character Mia Farrow never understood, not at the start and not at the finish. Neither she nor Allen could ever figure her out. They could never decide whether Hannah was indeed a lovely, nice person who was the bulwark of the family or whether Hannah had a darker side. "At times, I didn't think she was nice, and at other times I did," Allen says. "Mia was always looking to me for guidance and I could never give it to her. I could just say to her, 'Well, play this scene and let me see as you play it instinctively and maybe I can change something.' But I'm in the dark a lot of times that way." 

Allen says his style is more to correct than to direct: "I try not to tell the actors anything at all and just have them do it, because they're all very good. If they do the part wonderfully from the start, the best thing a director can do is get out of their way and let the vitality come through. But in a sneaky way, I'm doing something, and if needed, I help guide them to the best reading I can."

Other than that initial awkwardness when she first appeared in one of his films, Farrow has become the quintessential Woody Allen character actress. "Woody's instinct for what is correct is unerring," she says. "He sometimes doesn't even let you finish the sentence if it's incorrect. The truth can only fit through a very narrow pass for him. Sometimes a scene can go for 40 takes. Another time you'll be astonished because he does only one take of a very long scene, and you think, 'Are you sure? Did I say all the words?' And if that's the only scene you're doing with Woody, you'd think it's slipshod or something. I've seen other actors go, 'Is that right?' But they don't realize, you have to trust him. He has a great feel for what is true."

WOODY ALLEN had been successful for so much of his life that individual accomplishments mean less to him than they might to someone else. Recalling the huge popularity of "Manhattan" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," he said: "You get up that day and the papers say the picture's great and people are in lines in front of the theater, which you don't see unless you bother to go look at them. I've done that in my life, when I first started, but I haven't done it since 'Sleeper.' The truth is, nothing happens. The movie's playing different places and people are seeing it. But I still have to go home and practice the clarinet."

That angst, which runs as a subtext through all his movies, permeates his life.

In 1985, he and Farrow met Vladimir Horowitz and his wife, Wanda, at a dinner party hosted by Kitty Carlisle Hart. Wanda Horowitz is a direct woman. "Mr. Woody Allen," she said when they were introduced, "you look the same as you do in the movies. No worse, no better." And the concert pianist, it soon became evident, shared many of Allen's odd sensibilities. "I like him because he's crazier than I am," Allen said not long after they met.

He should know. This is a man who ate the same dinner every night for the six months he was in Paris for the filming of "What's New, Pussycat?" Horowitz ate the same dinner every night for years, one almost identical to Allen's standing order: soup, sole, boiled potato, asparagus vinaigrette, crème caramel. Nonetheless, Horowitz shared Allen's passion for great restaurants. So on the occasions when it was Allen's treat, his assistant would call the eatery they were going to and leave word that Horowitz was partial to certain foods. Then over dinner, Allen would send his driver out to get the first edition of the next day's New York Times because, Allen says, Horowitz "had to have it every evening. While at dinner he thought about it from the start of the meal."

Horowitz died in 1989 at the age of 86. When Allen and Farrow heard the death announced on television they were "not exactly stunned but Mia and I were saddened. Within a minute we agreed to call Wanda. Then one of the kids ran into the room. The cat had jumped up on the kitchen table. We hurried to get the cat off while the other kids came marching in demanding dinner. Suddenly the enormity of the passing of a human life was becoming history. The more pressing trivialities of life interfered. Mia was immediately the hard-pressed mother, grabbing the cat and ladling out the pasta. 'See how life goes on? she said to me. It's a concept that causes me great trouble when I stop to think about it, which is often."

Eric Lax is the author of 'Woody Allen: A Biography," from which this article is adapted. The book will be published in May by Alfred A. Knopf.

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