What Do We Do About Woody Allen? Or: How Do We Love a Bad Man's Good Movies?

One sordid detail dominates all the tributes and obits to Phillip Seymour Hoffman -- that sickening image of a syringe unceremoniously stuck in his arm.  How grotesque, how debased, how unfitting of this man who elevated his craft, redefined the scope and depth of "character acting," transformed himself into lauded role after role -- the Olivier of supporting casts.  But it's what we keep picturing when we think of him, isn't it? The sick, sad little syringe that took down the great man.

In the wake of PSH's passing, I wanted to consider the effect of an imperfect personal life on the legacy of a great artist -- should the fact that our beloved PSH was a drug addict take away from his career or his legacy?  I think most of us would agree that it should not; that private struggles and missteps and failures should be separated from art and work.  There are countless examples of addicts and alcoholics and divorcees and cheaters and bad parents who nonetheless make wonderful movies and shows and stars.

But what about artists who commit worse crimes, crimes like murder and rape?  How do we handle the sticky situation of hating the person and loving the movies?  How do we reconcile Roman Polanski, the poster-child of sleazy talent, an accused rapist and murder suspect, with his near-perfect 2002 WWII film, The Pianist?  (Polanski, who won the Academy Award for Best Director that year, couldn't attend the awards show in person due to a pending arrest warrant in the U.S.; his award was accepted in abstentia by American sweetheart Harrison Ford and was received by a standing ovation from the entire theater.)  How do we hold up these truths -- justice on one hand; art on the other -- and have any idea how to process them?

A more personal struggle for me has been the lifelong scandal surrounding Woody Allen.  Allen is an ensconced comedy great, a mastermind of the 20th century as a both a stand-alone stand-up comic and as a filmmaker; a genius as a writer and an actor.  No fewer than a half dozen of his extremely prolific works are treasures of modern cinema: most of us film-snob-types stand behind 1977's Annie Hall as his magnum opus (it's the only Allen film included on the straight-laced American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Films list).  But 2011's tender, nostalgic, magical Midnight in Paris is my pet favorite, and this year's Blue Jasmine was refreshing and resonant and nearly flawless.

Owen Wilson, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein in Midnight in Paris
But that's Allen's art-life.  In real life, Allen is a self-absorbed, manipulative monster whose alleged sexual abuse of his adopted children, and his affair with and eventual marriage to his 19 year-old step-daughter, is stuff of sordid tabloid lore.  My reaction to his conduct as a humanist and a feminist is that Allen should be stripped of our fandom and denied our respect, that he should be shamed, spat upon, derided, divorced, disowned.  He's a criminal and a misogynist and a pedophile and an unapologetic abuser.

But guiltily, horribly, I admit: I paid to see both Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine in theaters, and again to rent and re-watch them later.  They're beautiful, fragile, brilliant, well-written, well-made films that I sought out and enjoyed and recommended to friends.  What does this say about me, and my principles, and my weaknesses?

Yesterday, Dylan Farrow -- daughter of Allen and Mia Farrow, Allen's ex-girfriend whose penchant for adoption introduced Allen to his stepdaughter-turned-wife, Soon-Yi -- published "An Open Letter" to Allen in the New York Times asking this very question.  Dylan has repeatedly and fruitlessly accused Allen of sexually abusing her as a child.  And, yesterday, while we all mourned and processed the news of PSH's drug overdose -- that unalterable needle sticking out of his arm -- Dylan asked:
What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?
How do we respond to this?  Alec Baldwin reacted much like we'd expect him to -- a series of curse-riddled tweets in the vein of this one: “What the f&@% is wrong w u that u think we all need to b commenting on this family’s personal struggle?"  Cate Blanchett, front-runner for Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, gave a measured, non-committal response, "It’s obviously been a long and painful situation for the family and I hope they find some sort of resolution and peace."  Largely, though, the Twitterverse has rallied behind Dylan.

Just a scene from Take the Money and Run
But, will sympathy for Dylan's story at all impair Allen professionally?  Will it risk Blue Jasmine's Oscars?  Does Dylan's brave first-person tale spell, in the words of the Wall Street Journal's Tom Gara, "the end of Woody Allen?"  Or is it another in a long line of tabloid stories that never seem to catch up with Allen's legend?  What justice is there for Dylan in a world that, with full knowledge of these accusations, bestowed Woody Allen with a Cecile B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award just last month?  How do we love the work and hate the man without hurting the victim?

I don't know the answer, and I'm pretty torn up about the question.  Time Magazine's Peggy Drexler stands by the professional/personal divide, arguing that Allen's film awards should be unimpinged and unimpugned by his "allegedly" awful conduct.  But reading her stance made me feel all icky and sleazy and rape-apologist-y.  Drexler used the trend of celebrity bad behavior as a justification, discussing (as I did) celebrity drug use and violence, and remarked: "[t]o declare Allen unfit to receive an award for his art because of Dylan’s allegations is, furthermore, to issue judgment on Allen’s particular transgression as somehow worse than any other. . . ."  But, like, isn't it?  Isn't molesting a child worse than using drugs or getting into a bar fight?  She goes on to say, "[m]olesting a child is awful stuff. But so is beating your wife."  Dear God, is that the best argument we've got?

The rape-culture counterpoint is well-stated here.  And I have to admit, I internalize and understand the argument against Allen so much more than I understand the notion that some impermeable wall exists between the person and the profession, especially where something as personal and raw as Allen's movies are at issue.  But, I can't stop myself from loving the result of all this horror -- I'm glad Midnight in Paris exists in this world, and I'm glad I've seen it, and I'm not going to promise I'm never going to watch it again.  So how to we go forward like this?  How do we root for Cate Blanchett and boycott Allen?  How do we teach comedy classes and ignore his influence? How do we celebrate great cinema and dismiss him? I don't know, yet.  Do you?
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June 2, 2015 at 10:39 PM delete

One of the things that makes Allen's work fascinating is that he shows, and personally portrays, manipulative, narcissistic abusers. And he does it, as best I can tell, with honesty and integrity: he shows how bad they are even while you feel sorry for them. Annie Hall is the best example (although Crimes & Misdemeanors also rates a mention): Alvy belittles Annie, demands that she cater to his whims, stifles her choices, friendships, talent, and career, and fantasizes murder when she finally leaves him. And then we go to Alvy producing a play where an Annie-manque character submits to the Alvy-character...and immediately, an older Alvy says shamefacedly that it was his first play...but even the 'wiser' Alvy still can't articulate what he did wrong in the relationship. Look at me closely, Woody Allen is telling us: when I'm charming, I'm lying about my sins. Don't trust me. What I'm getting at here is that Woody Allen is an important artist precisely because he shows us abuse from the abuser's point of view, without forgiving it. So don't feel embarrassed for loving his work, but do love it with a critic's eye.


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