Stephen McGinty: Woody Allen films unhurt by claims

Annie Hall and Manhattan director Woody Allen. Picture: Getty
Annie Hall and Manhattan director Woody Allen. Picture: Getty
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WOODY Allen’s adopted daughter has reopened the controversy about her alleged abuse as a child by the director. But Stephen McGinty argues even if he’s guilty his films are still worth watching

Last weekend when Dylan Farrow asked the readers of the New York Times: “What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?” she didn’t mean it in a good way.

It wasn’t a casual inquiry cast out across a table at Elaine’s for a bunch of neurotic and erudite diners in their late 30s and early 40s to debate over half-finished plates of linguini.

If it had been, you could have expected a good-natured argument over whether a belly laugh should trump a wry smile? If Bananas had more laughs per minute than Annie Hall and if so was it, by definition, a better comedy, if not a better film?

You might have seen someone argue for the rediscovery of Broadway Danny Rose and insist that Allen’s role as a schmoozing talent agent was the best of his career: “I don’t just see you folding balloons in joints. You listen to me, you’re gonna fold balloons at universities and colleges.”

Would anyone have put their hand up for his Parisian musical: Everyone Says I Love You in which Allen has the courage to croon, or would a lone voice sing in support of Interiors?

We don’t know and, frankly, Dylan Farrow doesn’t care. As soon as she posed the question, she added: “Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me.”

The article marked the first time that Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, had spoken in public about the allegations that emerged during the couple’s highly public and exceedingly acrimonious split in 1993.

At the time Allen and Farrow had separate apartments that faced each other across Central Park in New York. He lived alone. She lived with 11 children, both adopted and the couple’s own.

It was a relationship that worked for a number of years until Farrow discovered nude photographs Allen had taken of her 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn.

The scandal became worldwide news and was seen as life imitating art, in particular the plot of one of Allen’s most celebrated movies, Manhattan, in which he played a 42-year-old writer who falls in love with a 17-year-old, played by Mariel Hemingway.

In fact, it was worse – he fell in love with a member of his own family, morally if not legally or biologically. At the time Allen was directing Farrow in Husbands and Wives. The production was shut down for a few days until the producer persuaded Farrow to return to the set to film one final scene in which they sit on a sofa and Allen reaches out to stroke her face.

I remember watching the scene in a recent four-hour documentary about Allen and wondering what the atmosphere on the set must have been like.

According to an interview Allen gave to 60 Minutes in 1993, Farrow told him after the immediate split: “I have something very nasty planned for you”, and then, later, “you took my daughter and I’m gonna take yours.” Shortly after, the allegations of child abuse were made public.

A children’s court decided that Allen should have no contact with Dylan and while the Connecticut state attorney, Frank S Maco, said he found “probable cause” to prosecute Allen he did not pursue the case as the child was deemed too “fragile” and uncooperative, a decision with which Farrow agreed.

If this was a movie there would now be a fade to black followed by a caption: “Twenty years later”. Woody Allen is now married to Soon Yi Previn with whom he has two daughters and every year for the past two decades he has released a new film, some good (Bullets over Broadway) some bad (Small Time Crooks) and one or two rather excellent (Match Point and Midnight in Paris).

Last November, on the 20th anniversary of the scandal, Mia Farrow gave an interview to Vanity Fair in which she cast doubt on Allen’s paternity of their son, Ronan, whom she now believes was fathered by Frank Sinatra. Dylan also detailed the abuse.

Then last month when Allen was awarded the Cecil B DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes his estranged son, Ronan, tweeted: “Missed the Woody Allen tribute – did they put the point where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age seven before or after Annie Hall?”

Earlier this week, Joyce Carol Oates tweeted: “one might as readily step into the spinning propellors of an airplane as to engage in publicly ‘discussing’ the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen issue.” Yet Dylan Farrow has now insisted we all step towards the spinning rotors. For after laying out her account of what the director did to her as a child, she asked us: “Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?”

She may wish that readers put down their paper or iPad and then sweep her father’s DVDs off their shelves and into the bin or, at least, decide that he is no longer worth watching, but that is not how people respond to art.

Michael Jackson may not have been successfully prosecuted but few may doubt that his relationships with children were unhealthy to say the very least and yet we still love Thriller.

Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin and people still dance to Great Balls of Fire. Philip Larkin was a racist but he wrote poetry that touches one’s soul. Lucien Freud was an appalling father, a satyr who used and abused many women, a bully capable of cruel violence but his paintings say more about the pain of human disappointment than any novel. Awful people can create great art.

When I started reading Dylan Farrow’s article my first thought was: Manhattan. How can anyone not love this bittersweet romantic comedy with its striking black-and-white photography? When I first went to New York in 1990, just before the scandal broke, I spent time trying to find the park bench overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge where Allen and Diane Keaton watch the sun rise. Turns out there never was one. It was a film prop.

Yet the fact is that while Manhattan may be the best-looking of all Woody Allen’s films, my favourite is one largely forgotten, but which I believe is his masterpiece. Crimes and Misdemeanours was released in 1989 and starred Martin Landau as Judah, a successful opthalmologist, happily married but with an unhinged mistress played by Anjelica Houston, who is threatening to tell his wife. His friend, a Rabbi, who is going blind, counsels him to confess to his wife but Judah instead enlists the help of his brother, a gangster who explains that certain problems can be “taken care of”.

He then decides that his undisturbed comfort is worth more than his mistress’s life, but the question is, can he live with the consequences?

In one scene he imagines the discussions round his parents’ Passover dinner table and asks what happens if a man kills someone. His father explains: “Then one way or another he’ll be punished.” His uncle interrupts: “If he’s caught, Saul.” The father continues: “If he’s not caught that which originates from a black deed will blossom in a foul manner.” But his aunt states: “And I say if he can do it and get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free.”

Judah, in time, learns to live quite happily with his actions; we don’t know if the director has made a similar accommodation although he is expected to publish a rebuttal in the New York Times this weekend.

Yet if Woody Allen did behave as his daughter alleges, then he should be prosecuted and convicted – but even then I would argue that his films would still be worth watching.