Can We Ever Watch a Woody Allen Movie Again?

02/03/2014 11:47 AM |

woody allen mia farrow dylan ronan

I like Woody Allen a lot—which is to say, I like his movies. I have 19 of them on DVD, more than those of any other director. And several, like Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters, would surely make my short and long lists of best films. At the same time, it’s getting a hell of a lot harder to stick up for liking the man to the point that you can’t even just try and ignore the accusations against him. It started, or restarted, with the October issue of Vanity Fair, which featured a long piece about Mia Farrow and her children, wherein Mia suggested her and Woody’s son Ronan (né Satchel) could actually be Frank Sinatra’s—that was the tabloid takeaway, anyway. Not picked up as much by other news organizations was the fact that Dylan Farrow, once the seven-year-old target of at-best inappropriate attention from Allen, had finally broken years of silence to speak on the record about what she says was a pattern of sexual abuse at his hands.


When the filmmaker was given a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Golden Globes, Mia and Ronan were aghast at the tributes amid these newly revived revelations. (Vanity Fair had run a lengthy article in 1992 about the allegations, and the story was told in Mia Farrow’s autobiography, but the accusations have largely remained overshadowed by the tawdrier tale of Allen’s affair with and subsequent marriage to one of Mia’s adopted children, Soon-Yi Previn.) Then, over the weekend, Dylan posted an open letter to Allen’s fans through Nicolas Kristof’s blog at the New York Times, detailing the abuse she suffered.

Imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter. Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?

It’s a powerful rhetorical device that puts the culpability on the audience—that because he’s the famous and beloved man we’ve made him, he’s been able to get away with unspeakable acts. At the same time, of course, Allen has denied the allegations; he’s never been found guilty of this crime nor charged with it (though a Connecticut state attorney said in 1993 that he had “probable cause” to prosecute, he declined because Dylan was too “fragile”; the prosecutor was later criticized) and no hard evidence has been offered. This isn’t to say her story should be discounted, just that we should be careful not to rush to judgment. As outsiders, we don’t have reliable reasons to side with accuser or accused aside from general feelings we might have about them: either that Dylan has been manipulated by a wicked Mia Farrow or that Woody Allen is a sick fuck for marrying his adopted daughter so therefore why wouldn’t he molest a small child? (For the record, Soon-Yi was over 18 when her relationship with Allen began, and thus the relationship shouldn’t count as cocktail-party evidence of a history of pedophilia—only, say, of untrustworthiness and gross behavior. She was also not legally his daughter.) Not even Allen has suggested Dylan is lying, and it takes courage for her to go public in our skeptical, often demonizing culture.

The trickiest thing about the situation is that we, the general public, don’t really know Woody Allen at all—though many of us feel like we do. Or, to put it another way, we know Woody Allen, but we don’t know Allan Stewart Konigsberg, the name by which he grew up in Brooklyn and attended Midwood High School. “Woody Allen… is a comic fabrication,” my old Brooklyn College film professor Foster Hirsch writes in Love, Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life, “as much a result of conscious artisanship as Chaplin’s tramp.”

Drawing on his own experiences, anxieties, beliefs and aspirations, and exploiting his own natural endowments and shortcomings, Brooklyn-born Allen [sic] Stewart Konigsberg created someone else…: “Woody Allen,” a comic mask that hides as much as it reveals about his real life counterpart. Allen Konigsberg is playing a shrewd burlesque version of himself, a made-up character that exaggerates and distorts reality. “Woody Allen” is therefore a pose, a masquerade… Who is “Woody Allen” and what is he really like? If Allen Konigsberg has anything to say about it, we will never know.

The lovable Woody Allen character the director has played in so many of his movies shouldn’t be mistaken for an accurate representation of the man who created him: it’s a persona, an illusion, one Allen has maintained by, say, never appearing at awards shows or not speaking to the audience at his weekly clarinet gig. So even the staunchest fan of the work has to admit that it’s certainly possible that, as Dylan writes, “Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me.”

But can’t you be a fan of the films without giving their creator a standing ovation at the Golden Globes? The difference is that between the art and the artist. There’s value in Woody Allen’s films, the same way there’s value in all great films: they make us reassess our selves and our values and can help us to improve ourselves, or at least be more self-aware, or god just not feel so alone. Barring an apocalypse, long after Woody Allen is dead, and his family is dead, and their immediate families are dead, and we’re all dead, his work will likely survive and matter to people as it mattered to us. Great art is worth defending and protecting.

The same isn’t true of great artists, who have a moral responsibility to the world they live in and the people around them. As Kristof put it, “do we really need to leap to our feet and lionize an alleged molester?” We don’t need to defend Allen nor to cast aspersions on his daughter or former partner. Nor do we need to vilify him. We just can’t pretend this doesn’t exist. “I think we can still love the work of Woody Allen,” Kelsey Miller wrote on Refinery29, “but under one condition: This part of his story is told.”

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

9 Comment

  • This is one of the most sensible pieces I’ve read about this extremely troubling cycle of (not actually new but nonetheless disturbing) information. I understand why Dylan wants to speak out about this, and she should. But I do wonder what the intended effect is — and I don’t even direct that question at Dylan, because frankly it doesn’t matter if what she wants or needs to do is talk about this, but rather the writers rushing to back her up. I hope this doesn’t sound callous (an almost sure signpost that what I’m about to say will sound callous), but what are we supposed to do now, then? After the listening, I mean? The case was not pursued in 1992. The Farrows have not gained any new information about it since then. Allen is obviously not going to be prosecuted at this point. It feels like one of the main directives of some pieces I’ve read is: stop liking Woody Allen’s movies! Hate him, beginning now! Ignore him, beginning now! Is that realistic? Is that possible?

    And I find it weird that this was largely sparked by a Golden Globes tribute, of all things, as if that was somehow the most galling of all (if it were an honorary or lifetime achievement Oscar, maybe I’d see it more: there’s so much more visibility with those things. Honestly, does anyone remember who won a Lifetime Achievement award from the Golden Globes two days later?!). Woody Allen, whoever he is, has made movies at a very consistent pace since these events, receiving fairly consistent waves of praise and dismissals, depending on the film. I absolutely understand if this makes the Farrows sick to their stomachs. But it certainly hasn’t reached a fever pitch with an award from the Golden Globes. This has been going on for decades.

    Again, and very very obviously, Dylan doesn’t need my permission to speak up at a time of her choosing. Her speaking up can do some good for other abuse survivors. What Mia Farrow and Ronan Farrow want to have happen now, I’m not so sure.

  • Henry, this article you wrote is completely sensationalist. This was dragged out of the closet by a notoriously nutty Mia Farrow and dredged for any kind of media value to be monetized once again. You have so many of your facts wrong in the article that I just can’t believe your editor even printed it. This is just the lynch mob out to skewer Woody and you got on board with that? Are you high on crack today? Man, I gotta say my respect for you dipped due to this article. Not because I like Woody’s films – but because you jumped on the lynch mob bandwagon and act like this is okay to simply continue the libel that insecure Mia and her desperate-for-the-spotlight son Ronan felt compelled to spew into the spotlight. Most intelligent people found their acting out to be ridiculous and venomous, at best. You didn’t even know that Woody was never Soon-Yi’s adopted father and that it was Andre Previn who was her father. You probably didn’t know that Woody and Mia always had separate apartments, also, and that they were never married. Also, Woody has been with Soon Yi for over 20 years now and they are married. And the evidence was that Ronan and Dylan had been coached by Mia to say things that weren’t true was also left out of your article. Seriously, Henry – this article is just simply irresponsible yellow journalism. Very much McCarthyist in spirit. Wow. Holy crap. (Michael R. – from your FB thread.)

  • This clip from Annie Hall pretty much sums up what Henry Stewart knows about Woody Allen’s personal life:

  • And two crucial articles that support the theory that anyone on this ridiculous bandwagon that Henry is on is merely engaged in libelous character assassination:……

  • What? I’m sorry, but… what? Some troubled woman makes an allegation against a man, so he’s automatically judged to be guilty? Wasn’t this already looked at by the LAW and tossed away?

    Gotta love society these days. You don’t need proof of anything anymore. As long as you’re a man, you’re instantly guilty as charged.

  • Thanks for this excellent piece, Henry. I think you are exactly right about this. If Dylan endured what she says she did, it was a horrible thing, she deserves all our sympathy, and Allan Stewart Konigsberg should never have gotten away with it. But we don’t know for sure what happened. As you point out, there never was a trial (though it sounds like there should have been), so only a handful of people who were intimately involved with the situation know enough about what happened to act as judge and jury.

    More to the point: if we made it a policy to look at/read/watch only works created by artists whose lives we deem virtuous, we’d have to ban many of the best works of art ever made, not to mention a whole lot of perfectly good or entertaining stuff. So who would that hurt? Mainly us, the audience deprived of that art.

    If we imposed such a ban while the artist was still working, it would also hurt the artist, depriving him or her of an audience and an income. But is that really how we want to punish people who have broken our moral code? Aren’t we supposed to be a nation of laws, where people are tried in a court of law and punished with things like fines or jail time or community service or probation? Where is it written that someone who breaks the law should lose the right to pursue his or her career?

    Besides, who are we to judge our fellow flawed human beings? Okay, I’m no longer talking about this particular case now, since I think almost everyone would agree that sexual molesting a seven-year-old is heinous. But think about some of the things artists have had to hide about themselves in the past in order to be accepted by the mainstream, like being gay. Who’s to say that some of the things we would vilify people for now won’t look as arbitrary and unjust in a generation or two?

    I think any movie or other work of art has to stand on its own, judged for what it is, not for the private life/lives of the person or people who made it.

    I think where it gets more complicated than that is that we tend to think we “know” or “love” the people who make art we respond to. But, as you say, that’s an illusion. Woody Allen is no more a real person than the little tramp persona created by Charlie Chaplin — who, by the way, got Lita Grey pregnant when she was just 15 and married an 18-year-old Oona when he was 54.

  • What’s particularly hilarious about this article here in L is that Henry Stewart, who penned this uninformed, cherry-picking tripe, is that he was pre-pubescent when this story first was aired back in the early ’90’s. And to 20-somethings like Henry, this story is breaking news and is his first introduction to what happened a couple of decades ago between Mia and Woody, when they messily broke up. But, as a journalist, that’s why doing research is crucial – or it just becomes lazy and masturbatory and inebriated.

    But that may be a fault of this mile-a-minute pace of Internet gossip – people are constantly talking about things they know nothing about.

  • I love Woody Allen, and at the same time, I can believe that he is out of his mind, and a perv…the source I base that negative on in the memoir from the ’90’s by their kids’ nanny, called ‘Mia and Woody’ (sorry, it might be ‘Woody and Mia’, and I can’t recall the author’s name, but it was really convincing in terms of reporting the alleged abuse, at close range)…my other source is the photo that is at the top of the article here, and EVERY photo I’ve ever seen of Woody with baby Dylan, or even “growing-up” Dylan: she is ALWAYS miserable, crying or about to cry, at the very least visibly unhappy. There has to be a reason for that, don’t you think?