As more and more survivors of assault and coercion step forward to attack the culture that silences women, it becomes clear we’re going to need to think about how we remember some foundational works of film and the men who made them. This article is the second in a series where we examine the cultural impact of entertainment industry titans and then grapple with the allegations that have had them expelled from public life.
Woody Allen is still here, quoth some retrospective article once a year, every year, since about 1990 or so. And he is. This year he released Wonder Wheel, largely to critical indifference or disdain. It’s a movie set in 1950s Coney Island, and focuses in part on an older woman (Kate Winslet, who I guess passes for a fading beauty?!) growing hysterical over the attention a curvier, younger woman is getting from the men in her life.
Allen is something of a curiosity to a cinephile of my age—those of us who grew up just as the Boomers were making their shift toward becoming majority Reagan Republicans and all their outsider post-war art lost its edgy sheen and started to look like a desperate attempt not to grow up, ever. There’s something perfunctory about Allen’s work, something that feels dashed off, like whatever he says or does can’t possibly not be good enough to exhaustively chronicle. Like the Updike omnibus my father handed me, Allen’s work is a hole whose depth I readily acknowledge while also professing no desire to plumb. We are not going to discuss any of that here, beyond acknowledging that scholars of cinema will pick over his body of work long after we’re all dead.
Instead, I’d rather discuss the contention that he sexually abused his daughter and what it means as we enter the 25th year of knowing about that.
“I was immune.”
“I was immune, yes I was. You can see I worked right through that, undiminished. Made films all through those years and at the same rate I was making them. I’m good that way. I am very disciplined and very monomaniacal and compartmentalized.”
—Woody Allen talking about that time he got caught banging his wife’s adopted daughter, in a 2016 interview with the Hollywood Reporter
The Allen-Farrow family tree has several branches, but to vastly simplify for those uninitiated in this sorry story, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow have three biological children with one another, including daughter Dylan Farrow and son Ronan Farrow. It can also be argued they had a number of adopted children, but it might be a bit much to say they had them “together.” As a 1993 custody ruling notes, repeatedly, Woody Allen thought little of these children Mia Farrow had adopted with a previous husband.
The entirety of the 33-page ruling is available at the end of the article linked below, and it’s a damning read before it ever gets anywhere close to the real allegations themselves. Allen was more than just reticent about Farrow’s adopted children; according to the court’s findings he more or less refused to live under the same roof as the kids, forcing her to run back and forth between two households. He didn’t dress them, didn’t know the names of their pets or teachers or doctors, didn’t know about their grades in school.
Some time in 1992, right around when Woody Allen was probably directing Shadows and Fog or Husbands and Wives, he is alleged to have taken his then-seven-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow, up to an attic, where various testimonies have claimed he was discovered touching her in a sexual manner. This came after he had already been banned by Mia Farrow from being alone with the child, and not long before he was discovered—and there is no nice way of putting this—banging his wife’s 20-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn.
There have been, over the years, lots of articles that have inaccurately stated he was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing by an investigation into the incident with Dylan. He really wasn’t: The Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Child Sex Abuse Clinic did submit a finding that Allen was not guilty of wrongdoing, but it was thrown out by the Connecticut prosecutor who commissioned it and by the judge in the aforementioned custody case. No notes from the investigation survive, and the doctors who purported to have entered into that investigation did not actually see Dylan at any point during it.
With Farrow essentially kicking him out of her family’s lives, Allen decided to sue for custody of the children he barely cared for and hardly knew.
His response when asked by the court why he should be granted custody was a rambling non sequitur which consumed eleven pages of court transcript. If that paraphrasing seems harsh, I can quote the court’s ruling directly, which calls Allen’s response “a rambling non sequitur which consumed eleven pages of court transcript.”
It also dives into the entire mess with Soon-Yi, to whom Allen remains married all these years later. The court found that Allen basically never admitted to and did not seem to realize that any of his actions might be, you know, wrong.
“He showed no understanding that the bonds that the bonds developed between adoptive brothers and sisters are no less worthy of respect and protection than those between biological siblings,” the judge wrote, adding later that Farrow’s principal shortcoming in her own attempts at parenting was her continued relationship with him.
The Cinema of the Self
“I never, ever, ever read anything about myself. Not my interviews, not stories about me. I never, ever read any criticism of my films. I scrupulously have avoided any self-preoccupation.” —Woody Allen
Born in 1935, Allen is a different generation of filmmaker than most of the men who have a stranglehold on the box office or the other traditional signifiers of power in Hollywood. He is a man whose projects supposedly drip with prestige. You want to be in his films and don’t say no to the opportunity if you’re offered a role. No other director really makes films like his, either, whether it’s strange satire like Bananas or life-and-love Oscar bait like Midnight in Paris. Personally, I’m not a fan of his movies, but I understand why there are millions who are. That’s not what gets under my skin about the man.
What does, what is so ultimately infuriating about Allen, is that he proves all the bitter truisms about the invulnerability of Hollywood royalty, and of powerful men. The courts weren’t able to conclusively prove he did the vile things of which he’s accused, but it all but called him a callous, vindictive, dismissive prick who sees nothing whatsoever wrong with the power dynamic inherent in seducing and then siring children with your wife’s adopted daughter. The dream factory didn’t even skip a beat giving him more money, and still hasn’t, despite his track record seeming to get spottier and spottier.
Allen professes not to ever watch his own films and not to read any articles about himself, calling himself not at all self-preoccupied. In light of the fact he recently went on the record saying he hopes the current #MeToo environment doesn’t lead to a “witch hunt,” I’ll readily admit that he has absolutely zero self-awareness, but to say he has no self-preoccupation is just rich.
He really cannot see that his 50-year career is filled with proxy characters and focused on the strange hang-ups particular to him alone. Good movies or not, what does that say about him? And what does it say about us that we keep watching?
A rundown of facts surrounding the incident in question can be found here.
To read the entire 33-page custody ruling referenced above, click here and see the end of the article.
Kenneth Lowe walked out of Curse of the Jade Scorpion. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues Magazine and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow him at his blog. He airs his own solipsistic neuroses on Twitter.