Woody and Us

If it wasnít a perfect moment, at least it was a touching one. Woody Allen received a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. Allen, who has never accepted any of his Oscars in person, wasnít there. Diane Keaton, Allenís frequent collaborator and a legend in her own right, accepted on his behalf. She gave a funny and moving speech, crediting Allen for writing quality roles for women. For a moment it seemed like maybe Allen could move completely into the ďAmerican Film TreasureĒ role where we all celebrate his body of work. Then Dylan Farrow changed all of that. In an open letter to the New York Times the adoptive daughter of Allen and Mia Farrow accused Allen of molesting her when she was a little girl. She recounted, in brutal detail, exactly how Allen carried out the abuse. Whether one believes Dylan or not, she proved that nothing with Allen will ever be easy or simple.

Itís hard to believe that the Woody Allen persona has been around for over 50 years. Through his writings, stand-up career, talk show appearances and then his films, the persona he crafted: the witty, neurotic, self-involved, insecure, cowardly New Yorker, became firmly entrenched in American culture. It became as instantly recognizable as Chaplinís Little Tramp, John Wayneís tough cowboy, or the wisecracking anarchist of Groucho Marx (whom Allen always admired.).

As a filmmaker, Allenís enjoyed a thoroughly unique career. Heís had full creative control of every film he has directed since 1969, even though heís rarely had the financial success usually needed for that kind of authority. Allen clearly fits the auteur mold, writing all of his films. His films have a distinct look, feel, and language that are clearly his own. From the first few seconds of the opening credits you always know itís a Woody Allen film even before his name appears. Heís also been remarkably prolific, usually averaging a film a year.

One cannot help but admire the quality Allen delivered consistently in the Ď70s and Ď80s. His early movies such as Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper, and Love and Death, are among the funniest ever made. Then Allen evolved his wit and insights into stories focusing on relationships, identity, guilt, loneliness and religion. Annie Hall remains the gold standard for films about the birth, life, and death of a romance. Allen was always up for experimenting, weaving old newsreel footage into his faux-documentary Zelig, and having a movie character literally come off of the screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo. He seemed to have a gift for creating complex and compelling characters that were still figuring out how to relate to the world. True, they were predominantly white upper-middle class New Yorkers, but their stories and their struggles were always engaging. Maybe thatís because Allenís films never talked down to the audience. He treated them as intelligent adults.

During that time Allen also developed a certain mystique. By the mid Ď70s he had stopped appearing on talk shows, he stayed away from high-profile events (including the Oscars), and only rarely gave interviews. Allen came across as a man who did not care what people thought about him. His personal life was off-limits. Now that seems a very long time ago.

That mystique came crashing down with his breakup with Farrow and his relationship with Soon-Yi, Farrowís adopted daughter. Suddenly the revelations and allegations had everyone peering into both Allenís personal life and his films for clues. The same traits that were endearing before became creepy and unsettling. People who were once fans now claimed they would never see his movies again.

Allen dealt with the controversy by simply going back to work. His output in the Ď90s and beyond did not always measure up to the standards he set earlier. The quantity was there, but the quality came and went. Still, he always made films his way. Actors loved working with him and would do so for much less than they normally earn. Every so often he could still turn out a gem, such as Match Point or Midnight in Paris.

Meanwhile, with each passing day the scandal faded into the background and it became easier to just focus on Allenís creative life. In 2002, he appeared at the Oscars for his first time, not to accept an award but to celebrate New York movies post 9/11. The media and public response was exuberant. He was a prodigal son who came home. Documentaries and retrospectives acknowledged the prior controversy but started to portray it more as an obstacle that Allen overcame than extensive harm that he caused.

That begs the question about whether our perceptions of Allen are really about him or are more about what we want from our icons. Ideally we want them all to be wonderful people. But, if they have had a scandal, we can accept it if it fits the ďBehind the MusicĒ paradigm. An artist succeeds and becomes famous. The artist is almost ruined by some self-destructive behavior. Then the artist overcomes the demons and succeeds again. It doesnít matter if that narrative really fits, as long as we believe it. Look at the tributes to Michael Jackson after his death. Look at David Letterman receiving the Kennedy Center Honors. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger again starring in major movies.

We may want to put aside what Allen might have done, but Dylan Farrow wonít let us. If what she is saying is true, then itís not the distant past for her, and certainly not something Allen overcame. People who were abused as children suffer from their victimization every day. They can get treatment and lead productive lives, but what happened never goes away.

What did happen? On the one hand Allen was never even charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. On the other hand the same holds true for many other child abusers, especially if they are rich or powerful. Weíve seen so many examples from the Catholic Church, and more recently Penn State. My mother used to work with both men and women who as children were abused by Rabbis. They were all ignored or forcibly quieted. It can take a long time for the truth to come out.

A search for facts finds them in short supply. Witnesses claimed to have seen inappropriate behavior by Allen towards Dylan but no one witnessed abuse. The Yale-New Haven Child Sex Abuse Clinic examined the case and found that Dylan was not abused, but those findings have been regularly challenged. The Connecticut state prosecutor assigned to the case claimed that there was probable cause to bring a case against Allen, but did not do so. The presiding judge in the custody battle between Allen and Mia Farrow found that ďMr. Allenís relationship with Dylan remains unresolved. The evidence suggests that it is unlikely that Mr. Allen could be successfully prosecuted for sexual abuse.Ē But he disagreed with the conclusion that there was no sexual abuse. The judge added that ďMr. Allenís behavior toward Dylan was grossly inappropriateĒ and ďthat actions must be taken to protect her.Ē See the custody suit here. (pdf, 33 pages).

So, in the eyes of the law, Allen is entitled to his presumption of innocence. But Iím inclined to believe Dylan because of the details she cited and because she would have little to gain by making up these stories. Iím glad she came forward, because, if she is telling the truth, her doing so takes much courage and it may help others do the same.

The sole undisputed truth here is that only Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow know for sure what happened. That mystery, that doubt, is just enough for me to continue to watch Allenís movies. Or maybe itís an ability to compartmentalize that Iíve developed over the years. The latter is certainly what kept me going to Roman Polanskiís films even though he admitted to molesting an underage girl. I can appreciate the talent, and the artistic vision separate from the manís character. But I can certainly understand those who say they would never want to do anything to support Allen, even indirectly. Frankly, it would be tough for me to argue.

Even after all of the examinations we are left with many questions and few answers. The latest controversy is a reminder that a public persona, no matter how well crafted, can be far away from the real person. Itís also yet another sign that in the film world, as in the real world, life often doesnít play out the way we want it to.

Adam Spector
April 1, 2014

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