An Imbalance of Power: The Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow Controversy
Woody Allen has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay this year for Blue Jasmine, his 16th nod in the category. He’s been nominated for the award more than any other writer in the history of the Oscars, and has won three times, for Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Midnight in Paris. Allen is 78 years old. His adopted daughter Dylan Farrow is 28. On February 1 she posted a long, poignantly written open letter to Allen on the New York Times website saying that Allen molested her in the family’s attic when she was 7 years old. The molestation accusations are not new; they first surfaced in 1992. But Dylan Farrow had not spoken about it on the record publicly until last year’s Vanity Fair profile of Mia Farrow by Maureen Orth, and this is the first time she has ever written about it. The letter is concise and harrowing. She addresses Allen’s collaborators, asking them point-blank how they would feel if Allen had molested their children. She asks of the woman who delivered Allen’s Cecil B. DeMille Award: “You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?”
What is the reputation of a great artist worth? It’s a question that has come up a lot recently, bringing with it a bunch of other existential questions, the kind that might be debated in a Woody Allen movie. Is the value of art ever not subjective? Should a person’s personal life affect how you feel about their work? Can we really separate the art from the artist? R. Kelly’s most recent album and the accompanying wave of critical praise surrounding it spurred Jessica Hopper to publish a Q&A in the Village Voice with Jim DeRogatis that detailed DeRogatis’s reporting on the sexual abuse allegations against Kelly from 15 years ago. But although Kelly was reevaluated, with music writers vowing to think twice before they gave him another rave, people seem less eager to denounce Allen. This seemed pretty racist to me. After all, the indie rock world’s romance with Kelly had always been fraught with a lot of weird tension about race, with Kelly uncomfortably painted by the white music press as a genius buffoon. I believe that R. Kelly is every bit as much of an artistic genius as Woody Allen, that his longevity on the charts belies a masterful understanding of music, structure, and yeah, lyrics. I also think he is a sexual predator and a monster. It is disgusting that he got off in 2008 using the “Little Man defense” to discredit a 27-minute sex tape that clearly showed him peeing on a 14-year-old victim. The jurors blamed “a lack of evidence.” Stories about Kelly’s history of behavior are not hard to come by. He’s known to hang out at Chicago high schools to pick up girls.
Public reaction to the Dylan Farrow story has been split along battle lines. Allen’s defenders believe that Dylan Farrow is lying and was coached by Mia Farrow at age 7 to tell a story about how Allen molested her to damage him and throw favor toward Mia in their contentious custody battle. Following that line of logic, Dylan has kept up this lie for 21 years, but may not even know she is lying because Mia somehow “brainwashed” her and implanted this false memory. If you believe Dylan, she was molested by her adoptive father figure when she was a young child after a series of escalating incidents in which he pushed the boundaries of her comfort with his physicality. Dylan writes: “He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic.”
Allen denies any of this happened. Dylan stands by her childhood memory, with all its specifics and details. There is something about the Woody Allen case that seems to make some people recoil, as if the very idea is so distasteful it shouldn’t even be discussed. To Dylan Farrow, “Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.” She asks us to “imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter,” her bleak joke being that of course that world exists, and she lives there.
In the 2013 Vanity Fair article, Farrow describes a time in college when a student wearing a shirt with Allen’s face on it prompted her to start violently throwing up. Allen has never been convicted of anything, nor has he ever been charged. In 1993 the Yale–New Haven Hospital Child Sexual Abuse Clinic reached the opinion that Dylan Farrow had not been abused, but during the trial later that year where Allen tried to gain custody of his children back from Mia Farrow, the Yale–New Haven doctors could not produce the case’s notes for the court.
Sources familiar with Allen’s relationship with Dylan attested to Maureen Orth in 1992 that Allen was “completely obsessed” with Farrow’s adopted daughter. He “would monopolize her totally, to the exclusion of her brothers and sisters, and spend hours whispering to her.” Was it normal fatherly affection or something more sinister? Allen had exhibited “abnormally intense” interest in Dylan, according to the appellate court opinion in the custody trial Allen had brought against Mia Farrow. Allen’s legal team’s timeline purported that the accusations about Dylan were a direct result of Mia finding out about Woody’s affair with Mia’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, but their timeline is contradictory with Mia’s. According to Orth, Allen was already in therapy for his behavior toward Dylan before Mia found nude photos he had taken of Previn, who was 21 to Allen’s 56 at the time. When Allen was confronted about the pictures, Allen said it was because “Previn had talked about becoming a model” and asked him to take pictures of her.
Orth says sources told her that Allen openly preferred Dylan to any of the other children in the Allen-Farrow household. Friends noticed how “Woody, wearing just underwear, would take Dylan to bed with him and entwine his body around hers; or that he would have her suck his thumb; or that often when Dylan went over to his apartment he would head straight for the bedroom with her so they could get into bed and play.” The first alarm was sounded by Mia’s mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, and sister Tisa Farrow, who found some of Allen’s behavior suspicious.
Allen’s team has consistently pushed the idea that Mia Farrow is acting out of jealousy and some kind of scary womanly rage. The push to make Mia Farrow seem irrational is eerily reminiscent of what her character goes through in Rosemary’s Baby. Dylan Farrow lives in a world where people have consistently told her that her experiences didn’t happen, that her own memories don’t count. It’s what the system told her when she was 7, and now it’s what Allen’s defenders are doing again. Allen denied he had ever abused Dylan, and claimed it was part of a smear campaign meant to make him look like an all-around deviant pervert after Mia found out he’d been taking naked photos of Soon-Yi. Granted, lusting after his partner’s adopted daughter was already making Woody look like a deviant pervert. But his reputation survived, and the public chose to sweep it under the rug for another two decades, until the Vanity Fair profile of Mia dredged it up again.
At the Golden Globes, Allen was given an honorary award. He didn’t show up, but Diane Keaton gave him a long, loving tribute and sang a maudlin little song. It’s the sort of thing that would normally seem charming, but in the moment suddenly felt only sinister. Hollywood has a long history of protecting powerful men from the consequences of their own bad behavior. Three out of Charlie Chaplin’s four wives were teenagers when they wed: a 16-year-old (Mildred Harris), a different 16-year-old (Lita Grey), and a 17-year-old (Oona O’Neill). According to his friend Harry Crocker, Chaplin preferred teens because they are “so feminine at that age — so wholly, girlishly young.” Roman Polanski has never expressed remorse about raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977, and the judge in his trial noted that his victim was “sexually experienced” and “looked older than her years.” (Mia Farrow recently refuted the rumor that she is friends with Polanski, as though that would make the charges against Allen too hypocritical to stand.)
Last week the Daily Beast published a piece by Robert B. Weide titled “The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast.” Weide defended Allen based on his own interactions with him, painted Mia Farrow as unstable, and publicly revealed Dylan Farrow’s new name. “Not So Fast” seemed like an especially ridiculous headline because it had taken more than two decades for the allegations of Allen’s child molestation to be discussed openly again. Weide’s article was tone-deaf in a number of ways. Whether Mia Farrow has her own psychological issues has nothing to do with Dylan’s credibility. Dylan can speak for herself. Defending someone accused of a heinous crime with the platform “He’s always been cool to me!” is not an effective argument. Abusers don’t abuse everyone in sight, nor do they necessarily pick the most obvious targets. Abuse of power is extremely complex.
Hollywood’s obsession with youth often extends in particular to its female stars, who are cast by overwhelmingly male directors. On average, actresses’ salaries peak when they are 34, while male movie stars do not make their highest salary until age 51. This has been a constant in Hollywood for so long it seems invisible sometimes, but its obviousness is important. The men get to keep getting older; the women have to stay the same age. One of the reasons people have so vehemently denied the Woody Allen charges is that Allen has always been praised as a man who writes great roles for women. It doesn’t compute — he respects women, doesn’t he? He’s not the kind of gross creep who just casts variations of the same hot young blonde over and over, right? Then again, weren’t we not supposed to conflate art and artist?
The exceptions to the rule about actresses are touted as though they are symbolic of the whole industry, but even Meryl Streep knows she is a token. Streep played one of Woody’s indelible intellectual women in Manhattan, but she is not among his defenders. In 1980, she told Ladies’ Home Journal, “I don’t think Woody Allen even remembers me. I went to see Manhattan and I felt like I wasn’t even in it. I was pleased with the film because I looked pretty in it and I thought it was entertaining. But I only worked on the film for three days and I didn’t get to know Woody. Who gets to know Woody? He’s very much a womanizer; very self-involved. On a certain level, the film offends me because it’s all about these people whose sole concern is discussing their emotional states or their neuroses. It’s sad because Woody has the potential to be America’s Chekhov. But instead, he’s still caught up in the jet-set crowd type of life, trivializing his talent.”
By now, Allen’s cinematic reputation is burnished in gold. Even another The Curse of the Jade Scorpion could not undo the praise heaped on the perfectly adequate Midnight in Paris. Allen’s influence is baked into so much of pop culture. His movies are such a formative influence on American independent film. It’s not surprising people are taking the allegations so hard or so personally. They are worried that their entire postadolescent character has sprouted from a rotten seed. Imagine hearing someone say that your lovable, respected, hilarious relative whom you have always heroized is actually a child molester.
How you feel about Woody Allen’s work is up to you. Nobody is going to guilt you if you continue to love Manhattan. But let’s not pretend that the allegations against Woody are completely implausible for the sake of preserving our own innocence about a beloved artist whom millions of people consider their favorite director. Whether you believe Dylan Farrow or Allen, it’s not in poor taste to air it out in public. There is not even new information here. Just new angles on old information, filled in with more detail by Dylan herself. Her letter is extremely specific in its detail. There is nothing erotic about it. She is describing a torture scene.
These are serious allegations and they should absolutely be taken seriously. I’m not sure what Dylan Farrow has to gain from speaking up in this situation other than peace of mind. It’s not about money, or taking down the empire of a Great Man. It’s about power imbalances between adults and children, old men and young women, men and women in general. It’s about whose voice gets listened to in a conversation, whose experience is considered more valid and why. “I know it’s ‘he said, she said,’” Dylan told the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof. “But, to me, it’s black and white, because I was there.” She wants to inspire sexual assault victims to come forward. “I was thinking, if I don’t speak out, I’ll regret it on my death bed.” Ultimately it really is just “he said, she said” and you can believe what you want to believe. The Mariel Hemingway character arc in Manhattan isn’t evidence. Neither are the guys who commit murders and get away with it in Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point. If you believe Dylan Farrow, you believe she is describing exactly what happened to her.
Two of Allen’s associates have made statements in response to Farrow’s open letter. Allen’s attorney Elkan Abramowitz writes: “It is tragic that after 20 years a story engineered by a vengeful lover resurfaces after it was fully vetted and rejected by independent authorities. The one to blame for Dylan’s distress is neither Dylan nor Woody Allen.” Meanwhile, publicist Leslee Dart stated that “Mr. Allen has read the article and found it untrue and disgraceful. He will be responding very soon … At the time, a thorough investigation was conducted by court appointed independent experts. The experts concluded there was no credible evidence of molestation; that Dylan Farrow had an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality; and that Dylan Farrow had likely been coached by her mother Mia Farrow. No charges were ever filed.”
Tuesday morning, Abramowitz told Today that Allen’s “reaction is one of overwhelming sadness because of what has happened to Dylan.” What happened to Dylan, according to Allen’s lawyer, is that she was coached by Mia into believing she was abused by Allen. Abramowitz claims Dylan doesn’t realize that “the idea that she was molested was implanted in her by her mother. That memory is never going to go away.” How exactly Mia could have “implanted” such a vivid memory in her daughter’s mind is not explained. Abramowitz goes on to say that Dylan is confused. “In my view, she’s not lying. I think she truly believes this happened. That’s what the vice of this is. When you implant a story in a fragile 7-year-old’s mind, it stays there forever. It never goes away.”
A few hours before Abramowitz’s appearance on Today, Mia Farrow released her own statement, via Twitter: “I love my daughter. I will always protect her. A lot of ugliness is going to be aimed at me. But this is not about me. It’s about her truth.” Abramowitz also told Today that Allen won’t be suing Dylan for defamation, and that the molestation case has been closed for 20 years. “The case is over. There is no case. The fact that it is being brought up now is suspect. The timing is suspect.” Because it’s all a conspiracy to bring down Allen’s chances at another Oscar? According to Abramowitz, that’s part of it. “I think that it’s a continuation of Mia Farrow’s desire to hurt Woody Allen. And Woody Allen is now riding fairly high. He got the Golden Globe for lifetime achievement, which he totally deserved. And I believe it revived the anger that she has toward him.” But Dylan Farrow is not a child, she is a grown woman whose intentions cannot be conflated with her mother’s. And no matter how awards season plays out, this story is not going to go away.