Woody Allen and the Media’s Mob Hysteria

Woody Allen
Michael Stewart/WireImage

What’s my favorite Woody Allen movie? When I was asked, along with several other Variety staffers, to answer that question — long before Dylan Farrow posed it rhetorically to the world — for a 2013 sidebar to my own Allen interview, I picked “Husbands and Wives,” Allen’s raw and formally inventive 1992 drama of two married couples variously parting ways and reuniting amidst a roundelay of infidelities. That movie famously premiered while the director’s separation from Mia Farrow was still playing out daily in the headlines, and had reportedly been shot just as Mia was learning of Woody’s nascent affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.

All of this powered “Husbands” — one of Allen’s rare movies to be released nationwide on its first weekend — to above-average box office, but with all the life-imitates-art parallels in the press, the movie’s actual merits got somewhat lost in the shuffle. There were two Oscar nominations, for Allen’s script, and for the blistering Judy Davis as supporting actress. But look at the film today and it remains a far more bracing thing than most of that year’s higher-profile nominees (including those treacle-fests “A Few Good Men” and “Scent of a Woman”). It’s savagely astute about relationships that have overstayed their welcome, brilliantly acted (not least by Mia herself, and the late Sydney Pollack), and bold in its use of handheld camerawork and an unexplained offscreen narrator who periodically interacts with the fictional characters.

Of course, “Husbands and Wives” could also be the title of another Woody Allen movie perched uneasily between reality and fiction — the one that has consumed untold amounts of real and virtual ink over the past month, beginning with the Feb. 1 Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times that sparked the inferno. There is a husband, Woody, who has now been married to Soon-Yi since 1997; and there is Mia, who has been wife to two men, but never to Woody himself. And there is a daughter, Dylan, whose accusations of fatherly impropriety are far graver and more disturbing than mere spousal infidelity — doubly so if, in fact, they aren’t true.

The tenor of the Allen case has been just this side of Wagnerian, and shows no signs of abatement. Depending on what paper you pick up or which website you click, you can find Allen vilified as a sex fiend and defended as everything from a scapegoat for the Farrow family’s career ambitions to the victim of a far-reaching feminist conspiracy. Whenever some new high-profile forum presents itself, those with axes to grind and crosses to bear are soon to follow. You can also find Dylan Farrow’s original “open letter,” as well as the subsequent replies by Moses Farrow and Allen himself, followed by Dylan’s reply to those replies. And you can find dozens of stories about the insider horse-trading by which those op-eds were accepted or rejected by various media outlets. Even the efforts of Allen’s longtime publicist, Leslee Dart, to counter the initial tide of negative stories itself became a news item.

Because we live in a post-Drudge Report age when there’s no news like someone else’s news, each of these “breaks” in the Woody drama has inevitably spawned dozens of copycat articles in publications (including this one) licking their wounds from not getting the initial scoop: “News Flash! Woody Allen Publishes Op-Ed in the Times! Click Here to Read a Few Choice Quotes Plus a Link to the Original Story That You Really Want to Be Reading!”All of which is still preferable to that true Internet pestilence — the comments sections — where an army of armchair Freudians come to have their say. A great many of these people, operating on little more than gut instinct, are convinced that Allen has committed unforgivable crimes, and most will never be convinced otherwise, no matter what the evidence may ultimately prove.

Allen is hardly the first — or the last — public figure to be judged in the kangaroo court of public opinion, but oh, what a difference the 24-hour news cycle has made. Just imagine what fun the moralizing Twitterverse could have had with the hasty 1924 marriage of Charlie Chaplin, then 35, to 16-year-old Lita Grey, in part to avoid statutory rape charges (he had gotten Grey pregnant); or with Chaplin’s subsequent marriage, at age 54, to 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, to whom he remained married for the remainder of his life and with whom he fathered eight children. Chaplin’s comment in his autobiography that meeting O’Neill was “the happiest event of my life” is echoed in Woody’s remark that Mia’s discovery of his affair with Soon-Yi was “one of the great pieces of luck in my life.” And yet time has been considerably kinder to Charlie than to Woody, whose affair with Soon-Yi never really went away, beating on quietly in the background of his career for these past two decades, and now fully rearing its head once again.

But wait, you say, the latest allegations concern Dylan Farrow and not Soon-Yi. True enough, except that these “new” allegations aren’t really new — they were first leveled in 1991, at the height of Mia-gate, and there has scarcely been a report of the Dylan case that hasn’t invoked Soon-Yi as a kind of past precedent (starting with Dylan’s own accusation that Allen used his affair with Soon-Yi “to cover up the abuse he inflicted on me”). And there may be no single aspect of the Allen case more disturbing than the speed with which many in and out of the media have equated an attraction to young women in their late teens or early 20s (an affliction, if you must, hardly unique to Allen) with a predatory lust for prepubescent children. You can question the propriety of Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, and with his earlier teenage girlfriend Stacey Nelkin, but to say “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” especially when he has not before or since been accused of any similar offenses by any other parties, requires a most insidious leap of the imagination indeed.

As part of the relentless desire to leave no possible angle of this drama unexplored, there have been multiple articles speculating on the potential impact Dylan’s accusations could have on the Oscar campaign for Allen’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine.” More relevant to the discussion, though, is another film in this year’s Oscar race, Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” that takes as its subject a specious allegation of child abuse and how it ruins the life of the accused man. “The Hunt” is fiction, of course, with its roots in a long tradition of cautionary tales about the dangers of mob rule, like Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Le Corbeau” and Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men.” But it is also a story with its tendrils in reality, in cases of both a sexual nature (like the litany of false sex-abuse claims recently detailed by Dorothy Rabinowitz in an excellent Wall Street Journal essay) to the falsely accused Atlanta Olympics bomber Richard Jewell and the alleged Australian child killer Lindy Chamberlain (who spent 25 years after her release from prison trying to have a coroner officially declare that, indeed, a dingo had taken her baby Azaria from an Ayers Rock campground).

None of this, of course, bears any more directly on the Dylan Farrow case than Woody’s relationship with Soon-Yi should, but it is another kind of past precedent, and one that many writing about the current case would do well to bear in mind. Your gut can tell you all it wants about what really did or didn’t happen between Woody and Dylan in that now-infamous Connecticut attic. But if we are to live in anything resembling a civil society, than anyone accused of such trespasses must be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Watching this latest chapter of Woody Allen’s private life play out in public these past few weeks, I’ve shed a tear, not for Woody, but for the increasingly sorry state of American journalism, in which the line between tabloid exploitation and serious reportage has grown so blurry as to become almost invisible, and even the lowest standards of human decency seem to have been sacrificed in the name of increased Web traffic. Once upon a time, it was said that the truth could sometimes be stranger than fiction, but what happens when we can no longer tell the one from the other?