A few thoughts on the whole Woody Allen situation.

A few thoughts on the whole Woody Allen situation. February 3, 2014

For over two decades now, my official second-favorite film of all time has been The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). An image from the film’s final scene is embedded in the banner at the top of every post on this blog. Thirteen months ago, I selected this film for a screening and discussion group at a film festival in Texas. Six weeks ago, on Boxing Day, I even got to see the film on the big screen for the first time ever — a 35mm print, even! — as part of the VanCity Theatre’s year-long Woody Allen series.

So I’m something of a fan — not just of this particular film, but of Woody Allen’s films in general, at least for the first two decades or so of his directing career. In truth, the last film directed by Woody that I really enjoyed was Bullets over Broadway (1994), and the last film to star him (or at least his voice) that I really enjoyed was the DreamWorks comedy Antz (1998). Since then, it has seemed to me that most of his films recycle themes that he did a better, more interesting job of exploring in his earlier films; and it has sometimes seemed to me that the moral urgency he brought to films like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) has given way to a more cynical complacency in similarly-themed films like Match Point (2005).

But even my enthusiasm for his earlier films has waned somewhat. Around the turn of the millennium, I bought a bunch of Woody Allen films on DVD — including nearly everything he directed in the 1970s and 1980s — and when I watched them all together, I was struck by the way his dialogue frequently consisted of characters describing each other. Whether funny or serious, his films did not show so much as they told. And this realization has tainted my view of his films ever since.

Not The Purple Rose of the Cairo, though. That film is just brilliant. Funny, creative, romantic, bittersweet, magical, and strikingly profound. In the words of its main character, it’s “deep, and probably complicated.”

So when Dylan Farrow, one of two children adopted by Woody and his then-muse Mia Farrow, began and ended her recent open letter — in which she accused her father of molesting her 22 years ago — by asking the question, “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?”, I not only knew my answer right away, I also thanked heaven that The Purple Rose of Cairo was filmed before Dylan had even been born.

There is nothing particularly new about Dylan’s allegations, beyond the fact that she is making them publicly herself; until now, other members of her family had transmitted them. (She also goes into more detail than I have seen before, but then, I haven’t trawled through the court transcripts from 20+ years ago.) So why is she giving them new life now? I have a few thoughts about that, but first, about the allegations:

The first thing I want to say is that I don’t doubt for a second that Dylan believes every word she says. Someone clearly traumatized her all those years ago, when the allegations were first made during a particularly heated custody battle between her mother and her father, the latter of whom had just left the mother for one of the mother’s other (and much older) adoptive daughters. Dylan was only seven at the time, and has had to live with the memories of that experience ever since.

But memory itself is a complicated thing. John Dominic Crossan devotes several pages to the subject in The Birth of Christianity, and notes several ways in which things that did not actually happen can sometimes become lodged in a person’s brain as “memories”. One study he cites looked at how students were asked three times, over two and a half years, to describe how they first heard about the Challenger explosion (the first questionnaire was filled out the day after the explosion itself). The study found that the memories were very much in flux immediately after the event, but then stabilized — and that the confidence with which someone claimed to remember something often bore no relationship to the accuracy of the memory itself. At the end of his survey, Crossan concludes: “I do not think that eyewitnesses are always wrong; but, for example, if eyewitness testimony is a prosecution’s only evidence, there is always and intrinsically a reasonable doubt against it. Always.”

So in light of all that, I cannot simply take the allegations against Woody Allen at face value, not unquestioningly, especially when I read things like this:

On April 20, 1993, a sworn statement was entered into evidence by Dr. John M. Leventhal, who headed the Yale-New Haven Hospital investigative team looking into the abuse charges. An article from the New York Times dated May 4, 1993, includes some interesting excerpts of their findings. As to why the team felt the charges didn’t hold water, Leventhal states: “We had two hypotheses: one, that these were statements made by an emotionally disturbed child and then became fixed in her mind. And the other hypothesis was that she was coached or influenced by her mother. We did not come to a firm conclusion. We think that it was probably a combination.”

Leventhal further swears Dylan’s statements at the hospital contradicted each other as well as the story she told on the videotape. “Those were not minor inconsistencies. She told us initially that she hadn’t been touched in the vaginal area, and she then told us that she had, then she told us that she hadn’t.” He also said the child’s accounts had “a rehearsed quality.” At one point, she told him, “I like to cheat on my stories.” The sworn statement further concludes: “Even before the claim of abuse was made last August, the view of Mr. Allen as an evil and awful and terrible man permeated the household. The view that he had molested Soon-Yi and was a potential molester of Dylan permeated the household… It’s quite possible —as a matter of fact, we think it’s medically probable—that (Dylan) stuck to that story over time because of the intense relationship she had with her mother.” Leventhal further notes it was “very striking” that each time Dylan spoke of the abuse, she coupled it with “one, her father’s relationship with Soon-Yi, and two, the fact that it was her poor mother, her poor mother,” who had lost a career in Mr. Allen’s films.

And it is because the nature of memory is so malleable — especially, one would think, in the mind of a child — that I also think it was deeply irresponsible of Nicholas Kristof, an old friend of the Farrow clan who posted Dylan’s letter to his blog, to write in his accompanying column that people who praise Woody Allen’s films are “accusing Dylan either of lying or of not mattering.” Nonsense. It is possible — not easy, to be sure, but certainly possible — to believe that Dylan matters and to believe that she is not lying and that her allegations against her adoptive father are not true.

And that’s before we get to the question of whether it is possible to praise an artist for his work while remaining agnostic on allegations that have arisen from the artist’s personal life. Kristof writes: “The standard to send someone to prison is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but shouldn’t the standard to honor someone be that they are unimpeachably, well, honorable?” There is no question that what Woody did by leaving Mia for her daughter was very very wrong, but, well, as Rod Dreher points out, very few artists would ever be honoured for anything if being “unimpeachably honorable” were the standard that they all had to live up to. Mia Farrow reportedly remains on friendly terms with her Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski, and he actually pleaded guilty to statutory rape in the late 1970s — but he continues to make films that win critical acclaim and even, in 2003, an Academy Award for Best Director. Should Woody Allen be held to a higher standard than Polanski simply because he has been accused of something but not found guilty of it?

So why are these old allegations back in the news now? Why did Mia revive the allegations in Vanity Fair in October, paving the way for her son Ronan’s tweets in January and, now, Dylan’s open letter? Two possible reasons come to mind.

First, Mia Farrow’s brother — Dylan and Ronan Farrow’s uncle — was himself convicted of child molestation and sentenced to prison for the crime last year. If Mia truly believes that Woody Allen is also guilty of that crime, then it must deeply upset her that her brother was caught and punished while Woody was not.

Second, and more importantly, after years of toiling away in obscurity, Woody Allen has been on something of a career upswing over the last several years, starting with the aforementioned Match Point. Just over two years ago, Midnight in Paris became the top-grossing film of his entire career — though Box Office Mojo estimates it ranks a still-respectable 7th place (out of over 40 films) when you adjust the figures for inflation. And now, Woody Allen and two of the actresses in his latest film, Blue Jasmine, have been nominated for Oscars — and Cate Blanchett, in particular, has been winning awards all over the place for playing the title character. Hence, the Golden Globes tribute (which Mia Farrow arguably participated in, by approving the use of footage of her from The Purple Rose of Cairo). And hence, the fact that Dylan Farrow pointedly addresses Blanchett by name in her open letter.

What makes this situation even stickier is the fact that Blanchett’s character in the film has seemed, to some observers, to be loosely (but perhaps subconsciously) modeled after Mia Farrow herself. Spoiler alert: Jasmine is a formerly well-to-do woman who lost everything when her husband was convicted of financial misdeeds and killed himself in prison, and the film ultimately reveals in flashbacks that her husband was arrested after she turned him in as an act of revenge. And why did she want revenge? Because he was about to leave her for a much younger woman.

When I first saw the film, I wondered if Woody was trying to feel sympathy for the wronged woman (not unlike how, say, Terrence Malick based To the Wonder partly on his own former marriage and tells the story primarily from the wife’s point of view). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that his portrayal of Jasmine was a rather punishing one. Notably, there is a scene where Jasmine’s son tells her he wants nothing to do with her, because she ruined his life; it was not hard to imagine that Woody, who had lost contact with his own biological and adopted children, was wishing that his children had abandoned their vindictive mother instead.

Now, however, I learn from an article by Robert B. Weide, director of Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012) and one of the Golden Globes tribute’s editors, that one of Woody’s children has actually come back to him in recent years:

Moses Farrow, now 36, and an accomplished photographer, has been estranged from Mia for several years. During a recent conversation, he spoke of “finally seeing the reality” of Frog Hollow [Mia Farrow’s home in Connecticut] and used the term “brainwashing” without hesitation. He recently reestablished contact with Allen and is currently enjoying a renewed relationship with him and Soon-Yi.

So who knows, perhaps that scene in Blue Jasmine was inspired, in part, by the fact that one of the three people who are legally the children of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow has actually, in some sense, taken his father’s side and not his mother’s, now. It certainly adds an interesting wrinkle to the whole story. And now that the other two children have said their piece, I can’t help wondering if Moses will chime in.

Whatever happens, though, there’s no denying that this is an ugly situation, and that Dylan Farrow has been an innocent victim in all this. It’s impossible to say who’s more to blame: Woody Allen has never hidden his interest in younger women (going so far as to cast Mariel Hemingway as his teenaged lover in Manhattan), and a number of his earlier films include child-molestation jokes that may have sounded edgily humorous at the time but leave a sour taste now; as Matt Zoller Seitz has pointed out, even if Woody is innocent of any wrongdoing with Dylan, the presence of these themes makes him a perfect target for these sorts of accusations. And Mia Farrow sometimes seems so desperate to distance herself and her brood from Woody that she’ll say anything; witness, for example, how she claimed in that Vanity Fair story last year that she had been cheating on Woody with her ex-husband Frank Sinatra (who was married to another woman, now his widow, at the time), and that Ronan Farrow, the biological child shared by Woody and herself, might not actually be Woody’s.

Whatever. As Cate Blanchett said the night after Dylan’s open letter went public, I hope the various people involved can find some resolution and peace some day.

And for now, no, the allegations have not disrupted my love for The Purple Rose of Cairo any more now than they did two decades ago. It’s still a brilliant film, no matter what the people who made it did, or didn’t do, when the cameras weren’t rolling.

February 5 update: Moses Farrow has, indeed, chimed in and come to Woody Allen’s defense — and he makes some startling claims about Mia Farrow.

"I'm looking for an English dubbed version of this film, but there's some contradicting info. ..."

The Passion of the Christ is ..."
"Having researched this from top to bottom and front to back, the charges are absolute ..."

A few thoughts on the whole ..."
"We are so happy we have reached you through here and you came to know ..."

Watch: The Savior, possibly the first ..."
"I had not known about this movie except for here. Thanks for posting the English ..."

Watch: The Savior, possibly the first ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Y. A. Warren

    I haven’t watched a Woody Allen movie ever since his relationship with Soon-Yi was revealed. I saw his movies as I then perceived him, as the ultimate narcissist who obviously had very poor boundaries between his sexuality and that of the young children in his home.

  • Cat lover

    Why is it so hard to believe the allegations? Is it that much of a stretch to believe that he is capable of pedophilia? He watched Soon-Yi grow up and then started a sexual relationship with her. It was discovered when she was 19, but when do you think it began?

    Dylan has nothing to gain and everything to lose by making her statement.

    Would you let him around your daughters, if you had any?

    • I’ve heard a few people claim now that Dylan had nothing to gain by making her statement, but that doesn’t seem right to me. At a very basic level, there could at least be some sort of revenge motive: by going public with her claims — claims that have already been made on her behalf anyway over the years by her mother and, now, one of her brothers — she can throw a wrench in her father’s renewed popularity. Plus, if Dylan has spent most of her life having these memories and believing these allegations — if these memories and allegations have, in some sense, defined who she is — then wouldn’t she have more to lose by not making her statement?

      As for Woody and Soon-Yi, if there is one thing everyone seems to agree upon, it’s that Woody showed no interest in Soon-Yi before she grew up. From the Weide article I linked to above: “According to court documents and Mia’s own memoir, until 1990 (when Soon-Yi was 18 or 20), Woody ‘had little to do with any of the Previn children, (but) had the least to do with Soon-Yi’ so Mia encouraged him to spend more time with her. Woody started taking her to basketball games, and the rest is tabloid history. So he hardly ‘had his eye on her’ from the time she was a child.”

  • babsbeaty

    I can’t help but feel we are called by Christ to, if not be on the side of the weak and oppressed, at least give them a sympathetic ear.

    Like so many of the voices defending Woody Allen, this piece relies on Allen’s artistry and Mia’s “sins” as reasons to not believe Dylan. Neither changes the fact that a little girl was traumatized and a woman is still dealing with those scars.

    Can’t we give compassion to the victimized without giving into the knee-jerk reaction to defend the powerful?

    • Cat lover

      Yes. Thank you!

    • I agree that Dylan is traumatized, and I absolutely agree that we need to give her a sympathetic ear. But sympathy and belief are two different things; factual claims need to be assessed on their own merits, no matter how much feeling is put into them. And what do we do now with some of the claims that Moses, the other child adopted by Woody and Mia, has made about Mia? Do we lend him a sympathetic ear? If not, then why not? (It is certainly possible, of course, that the claims made by Dylan and Moses — about Woody and Mia, respectively — are both true.)

      And I certainly never claimed that Woody Allen’s artistry somehow “defends” him from anything! Part of my point here is that the art and the artist are two separate things — even when real life and fiction seem to blur together as often as they do in Woody’s films. (Interestingly, Bullets over Broadway, produced only two years after Woody’s split from Mia Farrow, explicitly challenges the idea that artists can “create their own moral universe.” So this is an issue he has wrestled with.)

  • This blog post shamefully lacks any understanding of cases of child sexual abuse and how adult survivors of such process and understand their traumas. It implies, by doubting Dylan’s memory as a “false” one, that her mother is the abuser in this situation – a claim that has no merit aside from speculative fictions by someone who has a vested, monetary interest in keeping Woody Allen’s name clean.

    What is outrageous about this post is that by using your platform to cast doubt upon a survivor of abuse, you have reinforced a culture in which survivors do not come forward because they fear they will not be believed, which enables abuse to continue. That should give you pause, Mr. Chattaway.

    • Carl Smith

      Why would there not be doubt on these accusations? These charges were found baseless twenty years ago.

    • Obviously someone was abusive. Dylan says it was Woody. Moses says it was Mia. And since I don’t know any of these people personally, I can’t say which of these people is the more credible.

      But what do we do when two people who grew up in the same household make rival, contradictory, competing abuse claims? How can we possibly believe one of them without disbelieving the other, especially when both of them openly challenge the other’s story?

      And if you think Weide is the first person to suggest that Mia was the abuser here, then you clearly weren’t around when Mia and Woody first fought over custody of these kids 20 years ago.

      • I was seven when it happened, so, no, I wasn’t.

        What I do know about is abuse. I spend much of my time working with and advocating for survivors. I’ve spent the last five years of my life speaking to survivors, to therapists, and to advocates. What I do know is how abusers work and how child abuse survivors process and understand their trauma. And I know that “hearing both sides” necessarily means creating secondary trauma for survivors of abuse. Disbelieving survivors when they come from is proven to be a contributing factor in PTSD.

        So, no, Peter, it is literally impossible to take a “neutral” position on this. Copping out by saying “well I don’t know who to believe” harms survivors – especially after you spent a whole piece questioning her testimony (which, newsflash, is often the only evidence available in cases of child sexual abuse, especially in assaults like the one described by Dylan).

        ETA: Also, Moses’ testimony and Dylan’s do not carry the same weight, as you are giving them here. Moses did not experience the abuse that Dylan did. We need to trust the person who actually experienced the abuse.

        Ask yourself why you’re more comfortable with the idea that her mother psychologically abused her than you are with the idea that a famous director, who has documented interest and preference toward young girls, is an abuser.

        • Qtips

          Moses claimed that Mia beat him. Since when is being beaten not considered abuse?

        • Woody Allen has a documented interest in teenaged girls, yes. I mentioned this above. But being interested in girls of marriageable age does not make him a pedophile.

          And I’m certainly not “comfortable” with the idea that Mia Farrow, the star of one of my favorite films of all time, might be an abusive parent. But that’s what one of her sons now claims. He might be right and he might be wrong, just as Dylan might be right or wrong about Woody Allen. But you seem ready to dismiss Moses’ reports of abuse and not Dylan’s. Why is that?

          As for the broader question of whether we should take all abuse claims at face value, without checking into them at all: See the comment I posted elsewhere on this page, noting the studies and anecdotes which demonstrate that it is entirely possible for people to “remember” traumatic things from their childhoods that never happened, especially when they are fed information about their “past” by someone they trust. Where there is room for reasonable doubt, we should not speak with too much certainty.

          See also this TED Talk by memory expert Elizabeth Loftus, author of one of the studies I cited, who begins by talking about an innocent man who was sent to prison because a female rape victim accused him of being the man who assaulted her. Do you mean to tell men like him that they need to suffer because listening to their side of the story would have created secondary trauma for rape survivors? What about the trauma they go through?

          • Here’s a screenshot of part of the custody ruling on June 7, 1993. You can find it on Scribd, posted by HuffPostLive.

            And if you are still disbelieving, then I question whether your skepticism is “healthy” or a misguided unwillingness to face the idea that an artist you like might just be a bad person. Have a nice life.

          • Oh, I’m sure I like a number of artists who are not very good people. I like them for their art, not because I want to live with them. Did you miss the part where I said that Woody leaving Mia for Soon-Yi was “very very wrong”, or the part where I noted how Blue Jasmine is more “punishing” than sympathetic to its Mia surrogate? My estimation of the film slipped a bit when I realized what Woody seemed to be up to there.

            But then, as I spent the first part of this blog post explaining, I haven’t liked Woody’s films all that much for years anyway. Did you miss the part where I said that the “moral urgency” of the films that Woody made before his split from Mia has given way to “a more cynical complacency” in the films that Woody has made since his split from Mia? I think one could make a strong case that the circumstances of his personal life have affected his artistry as well.

            But none of that is relevant here. The key question is whether Woody committed a particular crime. And simply repeating a data point that has already been taken into account — or a 21-year-old opinion about that data point — doesn’t change anything. Indeed, that’s one of my main points here: Virtually nothing that anyone has said in the last few months is new; nearly all of it was said over two decades ago (with the possible exception of Moses’ recent claims of abuse committed by Mia, which you continue to ignore and/or dismiss).

            Certainly you don’t have to be a Woody Allen fan to believe that he’s innocent as far as Dylan’s allegations go. For evidence of that, look no further than Andrea Peyser, who doesn’t seem to have any use for the guy but still thinks Mia and her brood need to “let go” of their anger etc.

  • Bob Lyle

    My favorite Woody Allen film is “Play It Again Sam” and I thank Dylan Farrow for asking that question, twice. I understand she had manipulative intentions — the answer she was demanding was that of course I’d never watch another Woody Allen movie again — 70 percent of the commenters on the NY Times fell for her line. I was put off by it, even at the same time felt horrified when she described what Woody had done. Then she threw Diane Keaton and Alec Baldwin under the bus. What the F. Another action item — though shalt not work with Woody Allen or incrue the wrath of Dylan “Who?” Farrow. Then to read all the defenses of Woody Allen which brought up info I’d never known before, and most importantly — the timeline of the attic incident, and how other people were in the house and Woody wasn’t even living there he was visiting. Then to read Moses Farrow’s description of that day. I’ve come to a strong conclusion the girl is lying. Can’t be sure but seems to be. Her latest response is melodramatic — how her brother deserted Mia???
    My favorite Woody Allen movie is “Play It Again Sam”. Thanks so much for asking.

  • embarrassing

    You just don’t get it do you? The study about eye witnesses is about remembering details and stuff like this. I assume none of the students did actually denied that the challenger did explode?!? eye witnesses are in fact not so reliable when it comes to the color of a car or when they are told to recognize somebody they don’t know and only saw for a short moment. You are just using science without any understanding. It makes me feel kind of embarrassed for you. ^fremdschäm^
    If you want to argue this way try it with the false memory syndrom. but be aware:I’m german and one of my grandfathers first thought all the jewish people had some kind of false memory sydrom too, even this term didn’t exist yet. It’s just so pretty damm convenient sometimes. thank god there were plenty of proof for my grandfather so he had to face the thruth and maybe his own guilt.
    this is not a comparison to the holocaust, that was a genocide. i just think there a sometimes reasons for doubting victim’s memories, and they are often personally even they seem to come along evidence based.

    • Admittedly, I cited the bit about the Challenger explosion because that was the section that I remembered best. (Ironic, I know.) But now that I have Crossan’s book in hand, I see that his chapter on memory is divided into three key sections, not counting the intro and the summary: ‘Fact Becomes Non-Fact’ (this is where the Challenger study comes in), ‘Fiction Becomes Fact’ (where, among other things, he quotes Jean Piaget regarding a visual childhood memory of hers that turned out to be based on a lie that someone else had told her parents) and ‘Non-Fact Becomes Fact’ (where he cites an experiment conducted by Elizabeth Loftus “to assess the possibility of creating in children a whole, traumatic, false memory and having it taken thereafter as fact. . . . In all cases the false memory was accepted as true and embellished immediately with newly invented details”). Obviously, that third section would have been more relevant to the topic at hand.

  • It seems to me that there is a distinction between being an eyewitness to an event (in which case, yes, some details may not be remembered correctly) and being the victim of a crime, committed repeatedly by a perpetrator who is known to you. Dylan Farrow may not exactly remember what Woody Allen was wearing during particular incidents, or even exactly what he did to her on particular occasions, but whether or not he was the one who abused her is a detail that’s pretty damn hard to remember incorrectly.

    • I might think so too, if psychologists hadn’t already proved that it is possible to implant false memories of childhood trauma. See the TED Talk I posted in this comment, e.g. around the 11-minute mark. Or read the attached summaries from Crossan’s book, which I neglected to cite above.

      • Possible doesn’t mean it’s anywhere close to common. And its occurrence is certainly not something a pundit on a blog can determine. That would be an avenue for Woody Allen’s lawyers to explore in a trial, but it seems to me that the likelier possibility is that Dylan is telling the truth.

        • Oh, I agree that bloggers won’t settle this. Nor will commenters. None of us have any idea whose story is more accurate; all we can say with any certainty at this point is that neither story is impossible.

          • That may be so, but the fact is that child sexual abuse allegations need to be taken very, very seriously, Talking as though there’s a 50/50 chance that the child has false memories (rather than acknowledging that it’s a possibility, but a remote one) makes people less likely to genuinely investigate those claims. Also, you’ll notice that the false memory in the example you cited took place when the subject was two years old. It’s much easier to implant false memories of a time most children can’t remember.. Dylan Farrow was 7. Anyway, I’m out. I’ve said my piece. I have no doubt that you meant to act in service of the truth with this piece, but it contributes to a mentality that is very damaging to abuse victims who are trying to decide whether or not to come forward.

          • I agree that the allegations need to be taken very, very seriously, but that sword cuts both ways. As Elizabeth Loftus notes in that TED Talk I posted, people have had their lives ruined because other people “remembered” them doing bad things that they had not, in fact, done. How common these mistakes are is neither here nor there; because we know that they do, in fact, happen, we have to examine every claim of that sort very carefully before we accept it.

            And I cited multiple examples of false memories being implanted in children, not just one; in the Loftus study that Crossan cites, false memories of a traumatic incident that supposedly took place at age 5 or 6 were planted in five people aged 8 to 42. That gets a little closer to the scenario that Woody and his defenders have advocated.