Seriously flawed artists: The case of Woody Allen


Nobody’s perfect. The fact that actors and writers and other artists may be personally flawed does not usually cause a problem with appreciating their work because we have learned to (mostly) separate the work of the artist from the person of the artist, so that praise for the artistic work does not mean we like or approve of the artist or the lives they lead.

But in some cases that detachment is hard to maintain when the offense is so egregious. Take the case of much-acclaimed director Roman Polanski. He was accused of raping an underage girl and fled the country rather than stand trial. [Update: See the correction to this statement by noastronomer.] He never returned. It is hard to shake off the feeling of disgust that he managed to escape justice for such a serious offense. But should that color one’s attitude towards the films he makes? People who are great admirers of an artist’s work may have an instinctive desire to want to think of him or her as innocent since otherwise they may appear to be condoning reprehensible behavior. This may be why serious allegations against a lot of artists seem to disappear from public consciousness.

What is more disturbing in these accusations against celebrities is that there seems to be an instinctive bias against the accuser and sympathy for the accused. In the case of Roman Polanski, many Hollywood celebrities called for a pardon. That is wrong. We cannot let the quality of the artistic output mitigate or excuse or cover up the enormity of an artist’s actions. This rallying around their famous colleague may arise from a sense of self-protection, the fear that if one is a celebrity one can be a target for malicious reasons from people who are either jealous or wanting to gain publicity or money or revenge.

The recent case of Woody Allen came to the fore when he received a lifetime achievement award from the Golden Globes. It brought back the well-known story of how Allen and Mia Farrow began dating in 1980 but in 1992, at the age of 56, he left Farrow and took up with her 21-year old daughter Soon-Yi Previn, adopted while she was in an earlier marriage to Andre Previn. Allen and Soon-Yi Previn got married in 1997.

I knew about that case but there also emerged a story that I had not been aware of and that was that in 1992 Allen was accused of sexually assaulting then 7-year old Dylan, the daughter that he and Farrow adopted. The prosecutor had apparently said back in 1992 that he had the evidence to take the case to court but decided not to because of the trauma that would be inflicted on the child. Jessica Winter reviews the details of that case. This story exploded into the media this month when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published an open letter by Dylan Farrow.

I must say that I was surprised that this story, so much worse than the one about Soon-Yi, seemed to have been largely ignored until the Globes award. Maureen Orth’s shocking article in a 1992 issue of Vanity Fair about the Dylan Farrow case seemed to have disappeared from the radar.

Woody Allen is not the only beneficiary of such media amnesia. Tom Scocca writes about how the multiple drugging-and-sexual-assault accusations against Bill Cosby seem to appear briefly and then quickly disappear because “Basically nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator. It was too much to handle.”

The allegations against Allen are awful and undoubtedly color the way one views both Allen and his work. But in the absence of certainty either way, where does that leave us? We cannot shut these people out of our lives because their artistic creations keep them in the spotlight. Cartoonist Matt Bors illustrates the dilemma.

Matt Bors Woody Allen

Abuses that take place within families, especially when they involve young children, are notoriously hard to get at the truth. We may never definitively know. Of course, this is the age of the internet and Allen’s past writing have been pored over to reveal any clues to his psyche and they do seem to reveal a disturbing pattern. Ashley Miller has tried to thread her way through that minefield (see here and here) by arguing that while we may never know the truth, we can believe one party or the other based on what we do know and in this case, Dylan Farrow seems the more believable.

Similarly Kathleen Geier, a self-confessed former Woody Allen fan, has a good article that looks at the role that media gatekeepers play in protecting the reputations of the powerful against charges made by relative unknowns and says that “The more well-acquainted people are with the details, the worse Woody looks.”

Kelsey Miller writes about how she grew up as a devoted fan of Woody Allen films and was also surprised recently to hear of the Dylan Farrow story and how it has led to conflicted feelings about how to deal with artists and their creations.

Am I weak for hanging on to my well-worn Annie Hall DVD? If Dylan was my sister or my friend, I know I’d throw it away in a heartbeat. Can you love a piece of art, knowing the artist who created it is an imperfect, perhaps even evil person? What about Roald Dahl, a public anti-semite? Or Walt Disney, whose own questionable past was called into question just last week? Are we going to deny our children Matilda or Mary Poppins? After all, what good could it possibly do at this point?

So, can we still love the work of Woody Allen? For me, the answer is an uneasy “yes.” Because, I do. To say I’ll stop would just be another lie in a situation already mired in falsehoods and overlooked facts. So, I think we can still love the work of Woody Allen, but under one condition: This part of his story is told. No more burying the bad beneath the slightly less bad. And, certainly, no illusions that the whiny, hypochondriac charmer onscreen is anything more than a character he created. I believe Alvy Singer is an underdog. I believe Woody Allen is a child-molester.

William Warwick writes a moving first-person account about his own sexual abuse as a child at the hands of his father and says that it is a mistake to view such people as monsters because that obscures the reality.

If Woody Allen is now written into history as a monstrous child molester, child abuse is more likely to continue. Because if we are unable to stomach the fact that Woody is not a monster but a human being who did something monstrous, we will continue to stoke the fires of archetype, perpetuating the notion of the picture-perfect pedophile, the one whose evil shines through like a 100-watt black lightbulb.

It is truly disturbing to think that the nice neighbor or friend or relative is a child abuser. But we should not let our incredulity cause us to summarily dismiss the claims of the victims either. These situations are unbelievably messy and hurt everyone but trying to simply ignore or repress them seems hardly the right way to go about addressing the problem.

Comments

  1. colnago80 says

    Another far lesser known case involves the former child actors, Billy, Lauren, and Michael Chapin, all of whom were allegedly sexual abused by their father.

  2. wtfwhateverd00d says

    You do yourself no favors as a champion of intellectual honesty by not linking to Allen’s response, Bob Weide’s analysis, or Moses Farrow’s statements in defense.

    Bob Weide The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/01/27/the-woody-allen-allegations-not-so-fast.html

    Woody Allen Speaks Out
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/opinion/sunday/woody-allen-speaks-out.html

    Dylan Farrow’s Brother Moses Defends Woody Allen
    http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20783306,00.html

    “My mother drummed it into me to hate my father for tearing apart the family and sexually molesting my sister,” Moses, 36, tells PEOPLE in the magazine’s new issue. “And I hated him for her for years. I see now that this was a vengeful way to pay him back for falling in love with Soon-Yi.”

    Another excellent analysis is by Robert Franklin of National Parents Organization:
    https://www.nationalparentsorganization.org/blog/21577-woody-allen-responds-to-child-sexual-abuse-claims

    Your post (as is Miller’s) shows a great deal of naivete about what happens during acrimonious custody battles. (Miller’s naivete is demonstrated with her apparent belief a “custody battle” only begins once legal papers have been filed.)

    You should probably have also discussed False Memory Syndrome, Parental Alienation, as well as how 7 years old are not reliable recorders or reporters of events.

    http;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_memory_syndrome
    http;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eyewitness_memory_(child_testimony)
    http;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parental_alienation

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-the-eyes-have-it/
    Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts
    Eyewitness testimony is fickle and, all too often, shockingly inaccurate

    Weide’s analysis, Allen’s account, Moses’ statement point out the many disparities, and logical inconsistencies in the case against Allen and demonstrate this is almost certainly a classic case of parental alienation.

    FWIW, I have a hard time distinguishing artists from their personal behaviors. Artists that are assholes don’t need my praise or appreciation of their works. There is plenty of art in the world and they can fuck right off.

    You’ve had much better posts….

  3. jamessweet says

    Nice post. I was thinking of saying something about the line “I believe Alvy Singer is an underdog. I believe Woody Allen is a child-molester.” — but the William Warwick thing you followed it with said exactly what I wanted to say.

  4. says

    In Britain there is an absolute epidemic of cases of various sorts of abuse coming to trial (or at least being investigated) since the death of Jimmy Saville (though I never did like him).

  5. colnago80 says

    Of course, talented artists being less then nice persons is nothing new. The composer Richard Wagner was a thoroughly nasty individual who was nevertheless a great composer of operas.

    http://goo.gl/JYyIn6

  6. noastronomer says

    “[Polanski] fled the country rather than stand trial”

    Actually Polanski negotiated a plea deal, plead guilty to one charge and served 42 days at Chino State Prison but fled before final sentencing when he heard that the judge was planning to renege on the plea deal. Which may or not have been true. So Polanski is a convicted rapist/child molester.

    @richard

    As a young teenager in England when Jim’ll Fix It was on the air, Saville always made me shudder.

    Mike

  7. kraut says

    “The composer Richard Wagner was a thoroughly nasty individual who was nevertheless a great composer of operas.”

    This is just an opinion I definitely do not share. Bombast, bombast….his music is the expression of the man, as nasty as he was.

  8. says

    You do yourself no favors as a champion of intellectual honesty by not linking to Allen’s response, Bob Weide’s analysis, or Moses Farrow’s statements in defense.

    Ashley Miller does a pretty good job discussing Allen’s defense, and Mano links to it avove. YOU do yourself no favors by pretending Mano is ignoring anything. (And Allen doesn’t do himself any favors either — as others have noted, his defense makes him look MORE guilty, not less.)

  9. Jared A says

    I’m not a very big Woody Allen fan which may be why I was all ready to believe the allegations against him. I find the fact that he started a relationship with the (adult) daughter of his girlfriend gross (though by all accounts she is a smart, self-aware lady so if she says she is happy I don’t get to judge). Yet when I actually got around to learning the details about the child-abuse case I was surprised.

    Based on her letter, Dylan Farrow clearly is the victim of parental abuse, but there are two accounts. Either she was physically abused by Woody Allen up until late in the custody battle or she was emotionally abused by Mia Farrow starting some time in the custody battle on throughout her childhood.

    Rape culture protects rapists by not listening to victims when they report abuse. What we’ve learned is that if we do actually listen to the allegations there is clear physical evidence backing up the claims. We’ve learned that defeating rape culture is understanding that rape allegations are usually not a he-said/she-said thing, that we need to listen to the victim right away and gather evidence. In this particular case that is exactly what happened, but the authorities found that not only was there no evidence, there was strong evidence of fabrication of evidence.

    Recall that both parents are wealthy, privileged celebrities, so the idea that Allen was successfully leveraging his PR apparatus to affect the prosecution office while Farrow was not seems unlikely. In fact, the prosecutor clearly wanted to bring charges but could not due to the lack of any evidence.

    I’m open to being proven wrong, as I said I was initially very willing to believe that Allen was guilty, but I see only one scenario that is consistent with the facts. It really looks like in this case the actual abusive parent was Mia Farrow.

  10. Jared A says

    As an addendum, I guess what I really want to say is that I’m not comfortable coming to either conclusion. The conclusion in #10 seems more likely to me at this time, but the amount of solid evidence is so small that I don’t think it is right to express much certainty.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    Jared A @10:

    In fact, the prosecutor clearly wanted to bring charges but could not due to the lack of any evidence.

    No. As Mano pointed, and as stated here, the prosecutor felt he had probable cause to file charges, but declined to out of concern for Dylan.

  12. says

    …the authorities found that not only was there no evidence, there was strong evidence of fabrication of evidence.

    Citation required, you lazy sod.

  13. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Rob @12, and yeah, Maco was almost disbarred for making that statement because it’s such a hail mary pass, desperate, and unethical.

    Imagine how many prosecutors would make similar statements if it was considered ethical.

    I only declined to prosecute due to concern for X, but the guy is really guilty.

    That’s not how prosecution or guilt works and nor should it be. It’s shameful really.

  14. Jared A says

    @12, @13 In my own experience I have had childhood memories that have been proven to me to be utterly fabricated. It was fascinating to learn how that could happen at the time. It also predisposed me to a particular interpretation here, so I should have just kept those opinions to myself.

    So let me say I’m sorry for my above comment. I’m looking at it now and I’m saying something I don’t want to have said. Originally I meant to be pushing along what judge wilk had written, so instead of trying to repair my own comment, I’d rather just recant entirely and recommend reading what the judge wrote, because I thought it was reasonable.

    As for the citations, the point about there being evidence of fabrication (I shouldn’t have said strong evidence), that came from Weide’s piece. The prosecutorial misconduct thing I took from this, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/24/nyregion/panel-criticizes-prosecutor-in-inquiry-on-woody-allen.html but it is possible I misunderstood what it is saying. I thought the prosecutor was disciplined for making those statements.

  15. says

    Thanks for this thoughtful article, Mano, especially for the link to William Warwick’s piece. I’ve had the unhappy experience of a family where parents were almost constantly vying for influence over their children, and make no mistake, it’s devastating for the kids involved, even without one of them committing sexual abuse. This makes me uneasy with the whole discussion about the Farrow/Allen story, especially when I see many people not just take seriously Dylan’s accusations (which is necessary if we respect her and want the truth) but also accept everything Mia Farrow said at face value. Which is another can of worms.

    @ wtfwateverd00d #4:
    The link to the Parents organization blog is interesting, but there’s at least one factual error: Mia Farrow did claim earlier that Woody Allen was “obsessed” with Dylan (the girl was about 3 years old) and thought it was borderline sexual in nature (“you fondle her, you look at her when she’s naked”). Which tells us how she perceived things at the time, not what happened. It’s a fact of the world that some parents are jealous of their spouse’s relationship with the kids, and see everything in the worst possible light. And we know there were tensions between Mia and Woody already, because he only wanted to see Dylan among her children, and was not even interested in Ronan, the boy she had with him. Meanwhile, she was seeing another man, her ex-husband Frank Sinatra, who now she says may be the father of Ronan. Not exactly a good atmosphere, and it doesn’t look good either for either Allen’s character or Mia Farrow’s soundness of judgement. Did I say can of worms?

    @ Raging Bee #8:

    You’re right that Allen’s answer doesn’t make him look good. Which doesn’t tell us much about what happened. Just as we shouldn’t expect victims to be perfect in order to listen to them, we should be wary of judging a person’s veracity by their niceness, or lack thereof.

    @ Jared A #10:

    We’ve learned that defeating rape culture is understanding that rape allegations are usually not a he-said/she-said thing, that we need to listen to the victim right away and gather evidence. In this particular case that is exactly what happened, but the authorities found that not only was there no evidence, there was strong evidence of fabrication of evidence.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your first sentence, but in that particular case, by all we know (and we have the judge’s conclusions in full) gathering evidence went awry. Between the mother making a tape of her child’s testimony over several sessions, and the clueless psychiatrists who interviewed her again and again in the course of three months, there was every reason not to trust any of it. The team of experts concluded that the girl’s testimony had a “rehearsed quality”, but the judge disagreed and found them not believable. Make of that what you want! And let’s not forget that whatever really happened to Dylan Farrow, the whole process was clearly revictimization. That’s not how professionals proceed today.

  16. says

    …we should be wary of judging a person’s veracity by their niceness, or lack thereof.

    I’m judging Allen’s veracity by the misstatements of fact that Ashley pointed out in his denial.

    Which tells us how she perceived things at the time, not what happened.

    So you’re telling us Farrow doesn’t really understand what she was witness to? Is that the dodge you’re going with? Do you have any evidence to prove she’s either insane or lying?

  17. Jared A says

    @16 Yes, you’re absolutely right to criticize that. I really wrote it prematurely. I set out to concentrate more on the victimization stuff, but foolishly edited that out in lieu of some speculations based on circumstantial evidence.

  18. says

    @ Jared A #15:
    You had a good point in your original comment about both parents in that case being rich, privileged celebrities. Many commentators insist on Allen’s status and seem to forget that Mia Farrow was an A-list actress with powerful friends herself, and in the custody battle the judge did rule for her.

    There’s this urge to draw lines, even to throw away the works with the artist, that I find unnerving. Maybe, as Ashley Miller wrote, neutrality is not an option, but that’s only really true for the so-called gatekeepers: judges, doctors, social workers, potential employers, and of course for the friends and family of the people involved, who have to make decisions about letting their kids go to the house of person X, or wether so-and-so is a potential baby-sitter. In the present case, the children involved have indeed been separated from the alleged perpetrator by the decision of the judge. They are now grown up and make decisions for themselves. Dylan Farrow was able to tell her story in a major news website. Her brother Ronan is already a media celebrity in his own right. Mia Farrow is a high profile advocate for children’s rights. (Good thing, by the way, she’ll help orphans better that way than by adopting them herself!) They have a voice and use it powerfully. I don’t think the opinions of any random blog commenter matter a lot compared to that!

  19. Pen says

    I suppose the realistic question is ‘Should I or shouldn’t I watch Allen’s films?’ but the theoretical question lurking in my mind is ‘Would I or wouldn’t I leave him alone with my child?’ And the answer to that is a resounding NO.

  20. smrnda says

    A case of artistic ability becoming pretty much a license to get away with murder – Jack Unterweger was an Austrian serial killer who killed prostitutes. While in prison, he became a poet and attracted the attention of some Austrian intellectuals and artists who wanted to get him out of jail. So, he gets out, and kills some more, and eventually killed himself while awaiting trial.

    When I read about Unterweger, I wonder how the Austrian artistic folks would have responded to a person who killed an Austrian artist, instead of say, a prostitute. Obviously some artists actually seem to believe they ought o be exempt from ordinary concerns of right and wrong.

    **On Allen’s films, I’m not that into his work, but there are people who disgust me enough as people that I won’t view, listen or read what they produce. I’ll admit that this is something I do out of a more visceral disgust and that I don’t have any well thought out criterion for who steps over the line or not. I perhaps find his work a bit more disturbing because I recall that in one film, the Allen character was being criticized for having exposed his child to sexually explicit language and materials at a young age, and juxtaposing that with real life makes him almost seem to be *justifying himself* or at least having no shame.

  21. colnago80 says

    Re Kraut @ #7

    Wagner is one of those folks about whom there is no middle ground. He is either considered one of the greatest composers who ever lived or an overrated no good bum. Not being a musicologist, and not being a fan of grand opera, I am not in a position to pass judgement. I will say that many of his operas are still performed in major opera houses like the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, etc. more then a hundred years after his death, which may indicate something. For instance, a performance of an opera by one of his rivals, Meyerbeer, who was very popular at the time, is a rare event.

  22. estraven says

    I have a friend who pleaded “no contest” to charges of sexual molestation. To this day, I don’t know if he is guilty, or if he is, of precisely what.

    I wrote to him during his dozen years in prison, though. Because that wasn’t all there was to him. I knew him, and still know him, as a talented, intellectually curious, and generous person.

    Few people can understand why i didn’t drop him as a friend. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just needed to be a friend to him, and I still treasure his friendship. He has never spoken of the details of his case and I cannot ask.

    I know that most people consider this weird.

  23. says

    d00d: Proyect’s article was debunked in the comment immediately following the one you cite. Also, here’s a rather asinine non-sequitur at the beginning of that article that (IMHO at least) pretty much kills the author’s credibility:

    At the time I scratched my head and wondered why a powerful and charismatic actor and director would cheat on his long-time companion and get involved not only with someone who was young enough to be his daughter but also the daughter of that very woman he was about to dump. It reminded me that the “talking cure” was not only unscientific but a waste of money.

    He’s puzzled over Woody Allen’s actions, therefore “talking cure” is a waste of money? Seriously? That’s the kind of BS that tells me I don’t have to read any further.

  24. says

    PS: I read a few more paragraphs of that Proyect article, and it’s just more non-sequiturs and diversions into tired-assed axe-grinding attacks on East Coast liberals in general. If you want to say something insightful about Woody Allen’s conduct, you’ll have to do a LOT better than that.

  25. Mano Singham says

    I don’t think you are wrong in not dropping him as a friend, as long he understands that you disapprove of his actions. If every one of his friends thought that they should drop him because of his actions, then the only ones who would still be friends are those who approve, thus reinforcing his behavior.

    Friendships involve being able to be willing to do the hard work of trying to bring that person back to accepted norms of behavior, despite your moral disapproval of specific acts. If that person rejects your efforts and willfully continues to do the same thing, then you can drop him.

    It is different thing with people whom we don’t know.

  26. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Bee, I never said I agreed with Proyect, I said it was an interesting perspective. And it is for many reasons.

    The guy blogs at what was it “The unrepentant Marxist”? That’s pretty unique these days in and of itself.

    While his post is actually filled with literal ad homs at Orth in terms of attacking her character and not her argument, he actually scores some major hit points against her credibility by describing the times she has gotten her reporting factually wrong.

    But it is an interesting site overall. One of those people you may not agree with but have to respect as someone who at least know very well what they are talking about, unlike so many people who rant about subjects as experts though they’ve only just heard about it.

    At the time I scratched my head and wondered why a powerful and charismatic actor and director would cheat on his long-time companion and get involved not only with someone who was young enough to be his daughter but also the daughter of that very woman he was about to dump. It reminded me that the “talking cure” was not only unscientific but a waste of money.

    That’s not non sequitur, that’s a poke at Allen who the famous neurotic who makes therapy the focal point of so many of his films as well as a poke at therapy. Allen (and presumably Farrow) have been in therapy so long and have spent so much on it you would have to think if it doesn”t work on them, what hope does it have for the rest of us.

    Glad it worked for you!

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