Two days before the February 23rd premiere of Allen v. Farrow, the four-part HBO documentary exploring the child sexual abuse allegations against the famed filmmaker, the Los Angeles Times ran a review by television critic Lorraine Ali under a headline proclaiming it “the nail in the coffin of Woody Allen’s legacy.” This no doubt describes one of the goals of the documentary, which was made by directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick and producer/investigative journalist Amy Herdy as both a brief for the prosecution and a Farrow family hagiography. Ali and other sympathetic reviewers have described it as “devastating,” “horrifying,” and “damning.” And indeed, the documentary, whose final episode aired March 14th, may well sway casual viewers who are unaware of what it leaves out. But it is very unlikely to change any minds among those who have followed the case.
Before I discuss the film, a word about the story behind this article, which was originally supposed to run in late February. Like other interested journalists, I had requested—and was promised—access to an advance screener. Then, on February 24th, an HBO publicist emailed to say: “Sorry I spoke too soon. Based on your past writings on the subject, we’d prefer you see the final [version], not works in progress. Please note it will take some time before we receive the completed series. We’ll be in touch.”
I had, in fact, written several articles in 2014 and 2018 not only examining the allegations against Allen (and concluding they were likely unfounded) but warning about the dangers of the #BelieveSurvivors mindset on which much of the anti-Allen sentiment was based. I seriously doubt that the HBO publicity team’s unwillingness to allow me a prescreening had anything to do with any deficiencies associated with their “works in progress.”
A few words are also in order about the makers of Allen v. Farrow, who, as Variety puts it, “have made a career out of interviewing sexual abuse survivors in documentary form.” Until now, their best-known product was a 2015 documentary on campus sexual assault called The Hunting Ground, which received glowing praise from media and politicians but also came under some withering criticism. Nineteen Harvard law professors, including noted liberals such as Charles Ogletree and Laurence Tribe and feminist scholars such as Janet Halley, issued a harsh statement about the film’s treatment of the sexual-assault case against Harvard Law School student Brandon Winston, which ended in acquittal. Attorney and journalist Stuart Taylor was equally scathing about the film’s “railroading” of former Florida State University football player Jameis Winston (no relation), who was cleared in three separate investigations. (The two men The Hunting Ground portrayed as rapists, despite their exoneration, both happened to be black. You’d think this would set off alarm bells in the age of intersectional social justice, but no.)
Taylor dug up a revealing detail. While seeking an interview with Jameis Winston’s accuser, Herdy wrote in an email to the woman’s lawyer, “We don’t operate the same way as journalists—this is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side.”
That same modus operandi is evident in Allen v. Farrow—right down to the timing of interviews. Brandon Winston claimed in 2015 that he was contacted by the filmmakers when the film was basically completed and so there was no chance that his side of the story would get a fair hearing. Allen and his wife Soon-Yi Previn say this is the same maneuver that got pulled on them when the HBO documentary was set for release.
* * *
The broad outline of the Allen/Farrow saga is well known. In January 1992, Mia Farrow discovered that Allen, her partner of over 12 years, was sexually involved with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. (Allen was then 56, Farrow 46; the Korean-born Soon-Yi’s exact birth date is unknown, but she was about 21.) Amidst the drama, Allen was accused of molesting his and Farrow’s adopted daughter, seven-year-old Dylan, during a visit to Farrow’s Connecticut home on August 4th, 1992. After a media circus and a ferocious legal battle, no charges were filed; but Allen lost his bid for custody of Dylan as well as his biological son Satchel Ronan Farrow. He went on to marry Previn. Following this initial furor, the story lay largely dormant for two decades, until 2014 when Dylan and Ronan Farrow resurrected the sexual-abuse accusation—which gained strong traction in the age of #MeToo, causing more and more Hollywood figures to shun Allen.
Allen v. Farrow is intended to complete the cancellation, not only by painting Allen as a monster and turning the focus on Dylan’s pain, but by suggesting that Allen’s work is irrevocably tainted by his evil: His alleged violation of a child, we are meant to understand, serves as a sort of moral proxy for an artistic oeuvre that insidiously rationalized its creator’s supposedly predatory fixations.
Defenders of Allen’s innocence point out that he was exonerated in two investigations, in Connecticut and New York. The film sets out to discredit those investigations with evidence that includes newly unearthed case files as well as videotapes of seven-year-old Dylan talking about the alleged assault (in which she says Allen penetrated her “private parts” with his finger).
The report by the highly regarded Yale-New Haven Sexual Abuse Clinic, which concluded that Dylan was not sexually abused, is dismissed as the product of a “runaway investigation” (according to former Connecticut state attorney Frank Maco) and pro-Allen favoritism. The outcome of the New York investigation is blamed on pressure from a city government anxious to protect a famous filmmaker who generated both revenue and prestige.
The second assertion relies on the claims of Child Welfare Administration worker Paul Williams, who was assigned to investigate Dylan’s accusations in August 1992 and found them credible. In early 1993, there were media reports that Williams was taken off the case because he resisted high-level pressure to bury it. (For what it’s worth, Allen’s attorney Elkan Abramowitz, who read Williams’s files, said he was reassigned because people he interviewed complained that he was “rude” and biased against Allen. Williams was later fired but sued and got his job back; he still works for the agency and refused to be interviewed for the documentary, though his lawyer does not mince words.)
All of this would seem quite incriminating to anyone who came to this subject without any background information. But those of us who’ve done our homework will know that Williams’s allegations of top-down pro-Allen pressure prompted an official inquiry by the New York City Human Resources Commissioner, which presumably found no wrongdoing. You’d think the filmmakers might have mentioned this. But they didn’t.
Later, in October 1993, the New York State Department of Social Services closed its own investigation, finding “no credible evidence” of abuse. Is all this supposed to be part of the conspiracy—or, as Kirby Dick puts it in a Daily Beast interview with the filmmakers, “cover-up again, and again, and again”?
Allen v. Farrow seeks to boost Williams’s credibility by noting that he was honored by the Child Welfare Department as “Caseworker of the Year” in 1991. Yet it omits the fact that during the Allen/Farrow custody trial, New York State Supreme Court Justice Elliott Wilk—no friend to Allen, as the litigation history makes clear—rejected the request by Farrow attorneys to recognize Williams as a child sexual abuse expert. Williams’s testimony also proved erratic, featuring an out-of-the-blue claim that during a meeting he had with Allen’s lawyers, one of the attorneys issued a denial of teenage incest between Allen and his sister—an allegation that no one had ever made.
Williams’s case notes also comprise the source for one of the documentary’s supposed bombshells: the claim that at least one of the two Yale-New Haven Clinic social workers who interviewed Dylan, Jennifer Sawyer, believed the girl had been sexually assaulted. According to Williams’s notes on their telephone conversation: “Ms. Sawyer indicated that she has plans to continue meeting with Dylan, as she is of the opinion that the child has more to disclose. With respect to the veracity of the disclosure, Ms. Sawyer indicated that she believes Dylan.”
That sounds pretty damning—until you look at the context. The film does not mention when this conversation took place. However, a photocopy of Williams’s typewritten notes displayed onscreen shows that the next entry is dated October 9th, 1992. Dylan was interviewed by Sawyer and her colleague, Dr. Julia Hamilton, nine times between September 18th and November 12th; the third session was on October 2nd and the fourth on October 9th, indisputably after Williams’s own conversation with Sawyer. Thus, when Williams spoke with Sawyer, no more than three of the nine interviews—and perhaps fewer—had been completed. The most likely explanation for this would-be bombshell is that Sawyer simply changed her mind after doing the bulk of her interviews, not that she was somehow strong-armed into endorsing a report whose conclusions she did not accept. (Sawyer is still practicing in Connecticut, but declined to be interviewed for the documentary. Dr. Hamilton, who died in 2011, had a stellar career that included serving as co-director of the Yale Medical Center Child Abuse Program since 1980. Neither woman is known to have ever suggested that she dissented from the conclusions of the official report.)
The film faults the Yale-New Haven report over several other issues. Some handpicked child abuse experts say that interviewing a child nine times about a sexual assault represents a shocking departure from standard practice (even though Farrow’s expert witness—child psychiatrist Stephen Herman, briefly seen in the film—did not suggest at trial that there was anything inappropriate about the repeated interviews.) The Yale-New Haven team is also criticized for labeling Dylan a fabulist based on innocuous but misinterpreted statements, such as talking about a “magical hour”—a term that Dylan and others say she had picked up in her cinema-saturated milieu as a reference to early evening when the light is best for filming.
Lastly, the fact that the Yale team destroyed all the interview notes after completing the report is taken to mean that it is self-evidently unreliable, with hints at something underhanded. “Ultimately, no contemporaneous record exists of what the social workers thought or observed when they interviewed Dylan,” says the voice-over narrator in episode three. And yet, in the next and final episode, the film inadvertently reveals that the still-sealed full Yale-New Haven report does include detailed records of each individual session—not quite “contemporaneous,” but closely based on the notes. (The portion posted online a few years ago is just the first two pages summarizing the conclusions.)
Ironically, this material is disclosed as part of what the filmmakers intended to present as strong evidence against Allen: records showing that, contrary to claims by Team Woody, the toy train set Dylan Farrow describes watching in the Connecticut-house attic during the alleged sexual assault was real, and that she had mentioned the train to “key investigators” in 1992. The excerpts displayed onscreen include snippets from the Yale-New Haven report. But aside from mentioning a toy train, they contain other fascinating tidbits in the surrounding text.
For instance, it seems that Dylan’s reference to a “magical hour” had nothing to do with the twilight. At least twice, she indicated a wish to end the session by telling the investigators that “we were now back in New Haven and it was the end of the magical hour.” One could argue that such apparent fantasy play, perhaps a coping mechanism for stress, shouldn’t damage the credibility of a child’s statements about sexual abuse. And yet an episode from another session makes it easier to understand why the social workers felt that Dylan’s tendency to blur reality and fantasy was a problem. After describing the contents of the attic including the toy train, the report says, Dylan launched into a “lengthy, very dramatic story that took place in the middle of the night,” in which “Satchel had gone to the window out of their bedroom and seen a man gently, quietly tiptoeing across the lawn to the roof… He then went up on the roof and sprinkled white sugar on the roof.” (The text cuts off at this point.) The report notes that Dylan’s presentation “made it difficult to ascertain whether or not she believed the story to be true.”
What we see of these records also seems to support the Yale-New Haven team’s conclusion that Dylan’s story was undermined by serious inconsistencies. Sometimes, she says Allen led her into the attic and told her to “just play with the train set” while he touched her. (“It got very boring,” she comments at one point.) On at least two occasions, she says he came up behind her when she was already in the attic playing with the train.
While none of this conclusively exonerates Allen, it does tend to bolster the Yale-New Haven findings.
As for the existence of the train, it’s not quite the smoking gun the filmmakers want it to be. Would its existence, as Allen v. Farrow suggests, discredit the account of the pro-Allen Farrow sibling, Moses Farrow, who wrote in 2018 that “there was no electric train set in that attic”? One of Allen’s staunchest defenders, documentary filmmaker Robert Weide, argues that the operative word is “electric”: Dylan has described an electric train that “traveled in its circle around the attic,” while the toy train track shown in the police drawing is just four feet in diameter, and there is no indication that it was electric. (Weide also points to trial testimony by Farrow-friendly nanny Kristi Groteke, who said that a large “train car” for children to ride in, with a plastic track, was stored in the attic’s crawl space and sometimes taken out for play elsewhere in the house.) Either way, the issue of the train does not seem dispositive: whether or not Dylan was molested in the attic, it’s quite possible that she saw some kind of toy train there and misremembered it as a large electric train set.
Thus, the actual new evidence unveiled with such fanfare in Allen v. Farrow is at best a wash, and arguably leans toward the Allen side if one bothers to look past the cherry-picked portions of the photocopied pages from various investigators’ reports that are presented to viewers as highlights.
And then there are the grainy video clips—shot by Mia Farrow over two days after the alleged assault—in which an angelic-looking seven-year-old Dylan talks about being violated by her father.
They are painful to watch, whether or not one believes the accusation is true. But are they convincing? Everyone aware of the case already knew this video existed. Very few of us are qualified to evaluate a child’s account of sexual abuse. As a layperson, I can only say I got the same sense of “rehearsed” quality or performance that was mentioned by experts in the Yale-New Haven report. Indeed, Dylan Farrow’s statements in the film as an adult feel much more “real” and gut-punching.
There is also the issue of Farrow’s behavior in recording this tape, in which she can be heard off-camera badgering Dylan to “tell me again what happens.” Even the Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert, a reviewer so sympathetic to the Farrow side that she feels “a little guilty” about remembering the omitted details favoring Allen, admits that she finds this troubling—especially since, elsewhere, the film stresses how harmful it is to repeatedly question a child about sexual abuse. Gilbert doesn’t mention that, in much of this footage, Dylan appears to be nearly naked.
The videotapes may not prove Allen’s contention—regarded as plausible by the Yale-New Haven team—that Mia Farrow coached Dylan. But they certainly don’t do a lot to disprove it.
* * *
The relevant details omitted from Allen v. Farrow could fill many pages. The most significant ones concern evidence supporting Allen’s claim that the accusation of sexual abuse stemmed from Mia Farrow’s anger at his sexual relationship with her adult daughter.
The film, generally reverential in its treatment of Mia Farrow, drastically sanitizes her reaction to the revelation of that relationship (via nude Polaroid photos discovered at his apartment). Farrow depicts herself as shocked and distraught but understanding and forgiving toward her daughter, though she regretfully admits to hitting Soon-Yi after catching her on the phone with Allen. (Soon-Yi has spoken of much more serious physical abuse.)
The film sidesteps, among other things, a particularly memorable detail of the Allen/Farrow drama: In February 1992, she sent him a grisly valentine card with a photo of herself and the children, with skewers driven through the children’s chests and a knife, its handle wrapped in a photo of Soon-Yi, driven through her own. (Farrow later explained that the card was not meant to be threatening but to graphically show how much he had hurt them all.)
Also missing: any mention of Dr. Susan Coates, the psychologist who worked with both Allen and Dylan from 1990 until late 1992. Or at least, any mention of her name: She figures briefly toward the end of the first episode as an unnamed “therapist” or “clinical psychologist” who counseled Allen and Farrow on Allen’s “inappropriate” behavior with Dylan (more on that below).
Why does Dr. Coates get the “She Who Must Not Be Named” treatment? Most likely because her view of the case diverged inconveniently from the Allen v. Farrow narrative.
For one, Dr. Coates believed, like members of the Yale-New Haven team—and Dylan’s own therapist, Dr. Nancy Schultz; the Allen/Farrow ménage had a notoriously large army of analysts—that Dylan lived in her own fantasy world and was an unreliable witness. (Herdy told the Daily Beast that Dr. Coates and Dr. Schultz were left out because their notes reflect “concern for a young girl who was becoming increasingly shy, withdrawn, and sad, and that was looked at through the lens of therapists back in the early ‘90s,” apparently a time of great ignorance, when child sexual abuse was practically unheard of.) But Dr. Coates also had disturbing things to say about Mia Farrow’s behavior prior to the abuse allegations.
At the custody trial, Dr. Coates testified that Farrow’s volatile state made the psychologist fear for both Farrow’s and Allen’s safety; and that she counseled Allen (wisely) to keep away from the Farrow home in Connecticut. She also recounted, reading from contemporaneous notes, a bizarre telephone conversation on August 1st, 1992 in which Farrow raged about Allen’s continuing involvement with Soon-Yi, called him “satanic and evil,” and begged Dr. Coates to “find a way to stop him”—but also brought up the possibility of marrying him. A few days later, Farrow called again, this time to report that Dylan was complaining about sexual abuse by Allen. Dr. Coates said she was “puzzled” by Farrow’s calm demeanor in that latter conversation.
One could argue that Dr. Coates may not have been objective (Justice Wilk thought her judgment may have been colored by loyalty to Allen, her paying client). But to simply omit her account is nothing short of intellectually dishonest.
Another notable absentee in the documentary is nanny Monica Thompson, who testified that Farrow pressured her to support the child-molestation charge, coached Dylan while filming, and seemed “happy and excited” when Dylan repeated her accusations to her doctor. In the Daily Beast interview, Herdy dismisses Thompson as untrustworthy because she admitted lying to the police about a meeting with Allen’s lawyers, and because Allen was paying her salary. And yet Herdy apparently had no such qualms about the biases or credibility issues surrounding sources plucked from Team Mia.
Herdy also told the Daily Beast that the filmmakers “didn’t have the time and the space to put everything in,” and had “tried to stay focused on the most pertinent facts.” But this seems a laughable excuse, considering that “pertinent facts” take up, at best, a third of the total running time in Allen v. Farrow. Plenty of space, however, is allotted for extended disquisitions on older-man/young-woman pairings in Allen’s films; Dylan Farrow’s emotional meeting with Maco, the now-retired former Connecticut state attorney; a detailed chronicle of Allen’s post-#MeToo downfall; plus many lingering shots of the Farrow estate and nearby pond.
Perhaps the film’s most glaring omission is an incident in mid-July of 1992, shortly before the claimed abuse supposedly took place, when Allen attended Dylan’s seventh birthday party in Connecticut and stayed overnight. In the morning, he found a note from Farrow—who was still distraught over the recent discovery that Allen had resumed the affair with Soon-Yi and annoyed at his “hovering” over Dylan at the party, e.g., helping her blow out the birthday cake candles—pinned to the door of the guest bathroom near his room. It read:
Child Molestor (sic) at Birthday Party!
Molded then abused one sister
now focused on youngest sister
This episode is significant for several reasons. It shows that Farrow called Allen a “child molester” prior to the alleged sexual assault, projecting his sexual relationship with Soon-Yi onto his paternal relationship with Dylan. It suggests that others around them were probably predisposed to do the same: “The view of Mr. Allen as an evil and awful and terrible man [who] had molested Soon-Yi and was a potential molester of Dylan permeated the household,” Dr. John Leventhal, the head of the Yale-New Haven clinic team, testified at the custody trial. (This may well explain why a family friend’s babysitter, who saw Allen kneeling on the TV room floor facing a seated Dylan, allegedly with his head in her lap, found it alarming enough to alert her employer; the friend’s call prompted Farrow to question Dylan.)
Finally, the note strongly bolsters Allen’s argument that it would have been suicidally reckless for him to commit the assault imputed to him at that particular time and place—in a house full of people already primed to consider him a suspect in that very crime.
* * *
While these and other potential defense exhibits are scrubbed from Allen v. Farrow, damning details to support the prosecution are piled on with no corroborating evidence. For instance: Mia Farrow asserts that a “very famous psychiatrist” who lived in her building, Dr. Ethel Person, called her one day to tell her that she had observed the way Allen had “greeted” Dylan, then five years old, and that “there was something off.” She also claims it was at Dr. Person’s suggestion that Allen “agreed to see a person she recommended”—i.e., the unnamed Dr. Coates.
This detail impressed a number of reviewers, some of whom repeated it as fact. (“A renowned psychoanalyst first warned Mia about Woody,” said a section heading in the Rolling Stone review of the docuseries.) And yet something about this dramatic reveal didn’t seem right to me. As far as I knew, this was the first time Dr. Person, who has been conveniently dead for nine years, had been linked to the Allen/Farrow saga in any way. What’s more, court documents including the 1993 child-custody ruling by Justice Wilk offered a very different account of Dr. Coates’s involvement. According to those documents, Dr. Coates initially started working with two-and-a-half-year-old Satchel Ronan in June 1990 after Farrow and Allen sought help for his behavioral problems, including failure to bond with his father; then, the psychologist requested that both parents participate in Satchel’s treatment. A few months later, they asked her “to evaluate Dylan to determine if she needed therapy.”
I found no mention of Dr. Person in any prior account of the Allen/Farrow story. What did turn up was a passage from Mia Farrow’s 1997 memoir, What Falls Away, which tells a strikingly similar story—only with Dr. Coates herself (also unnamed in the book) in the role of Dr. Person: “A psychologist who was already helping another child in the family (Woody believed everyone would benefit from therapy) witnessed only one brief greeting between Woody and Dylan, but it was enough for her to mention it to me, and express her concern that Woody’s attitude was ‘inappropriately intense…’”
Another variant on the same story appears in the Mia-friendly Mia and Woody: Love and Betrayal by Groteke, the nanny (published earlier, in 1994, and co-written with People magazine writer Marjorie Rosen). Groteke writes that “Mia told Dr. Coates that she worried about Mr. Allen’s behavior toward the child” at the time of Dylan’s evaluation, and Dr. Coates herself later expressed concern herself when she was at Farrow’s apartment and saw Allen greet Dylan with what looked like romantic passion on her return from school.
The only part of this supported by the court record is that Farrow did, in fact, voice concerns about Allen’s behavior with Dylan to Dr. Coates at the time of the evaluation. In her trial testimony, Dr. Coates stressed her opinion that this behavior wasn’t sexualized: “I did not see it as sexual, but I saw it as inappropriately intense because it excluded everybody else, and it placed a demand on a child for a kind of acknowledgment that I felt should not be placed on a child.” (She also emphatically denied that Allen was in therapy with her for any aspect of his behavior.)
In the documentary, however, Farrow summarizes Dr. Coates’s opinion with a new and creepy twist: “The therapist told me that the behavior was inappropriate but that it wasn’t sexual—it could be perceived as sexual by others, by me and even by the child, but that it was not sexual” (my emphasis). Yet this sensational detail—that Allen’s behavior with Dylan could be “perceived as sexual”—never came up in Dr. Coates’s trial testimony and was never mentioned in Justice Wilk’s ruling.
Meanwhile, the grown-up Dylan Farrow recounts a hair-raising episode of physical abuse which she says left her terrified of her adoptive father. One day during a family meal, she says, Allen got “progressively agitated” because she kept teasingly calling him “Woody” rather than “Daddy,” until he finally lashed out: “He grabs me by the back of my neck and shoves my face down into my plate of hot spaghetti.”
This shocking allegation did come up before. Dylan made it to the Connecticut police—after months of investigation, on December 30th, 1992, when she also claimed that she once saw Allen having sex with Soon-Yi at his apartment. Justice Wilk mentioned these allegations in his summary of the facts, but never brought them up in explaining his decision, which suggests he didn’t consider them credible. The records offer no specifics of what Dylan told the police about the spaghetti incident in 1992. But her story in Allen v. Farrow clearly suggests that it happened in front of her mother and siblings (“we were all sitting at the dinner table”). Then why does no one else mention witnessing this brutal assault? And is it supposed to have happened before or after December 1991, when Farrow described Allen as “a loving, caring, attentive parent to Dylan” in an affidavit supporting his formal adoption of the child?
Today, Dylan claims that the alleged sexual assault of August 4th, 1992 was the culmination of a long pattern of creepy and stalkerish sexualized behavior by her father. “He was always hunting me,” she says in the film. “I was always in his clutches.” She says that he not only cuddled her in bed clad in his undershorts but would “wrap his body around me very intimately”; not only let her suck his thumb, as Mia Farrow had claimed earlier, but gave her detailed instructions on how to use her tongue. Sickening if true; but are these real events, or grotesquely embellished versions of normal (if “intense”) father/child interaction, distorted by a conviction that Allen is a sexual predator? The documentary touts clips from Farrow home movies in which some very ordinary scenes of Allen and Dylan are given sinister overtones via slow motion and ominous music. But in the end, they are just ordinary scenes of a little girl and her father. She never shows any unease or shrinks back from his “clutches”; at one point, sitting next to him wearing just a pair of panties, she pats him affectionately and unselfconsciously on the knee.
Allen v. Farrow also insinuates that Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi is indicative of a predilection toward sex with minors, by pointing to supposed evidence that it began earlier than he’d claimed, when she was still in high school. Not mentioned: the fact that even at the time, Soon-Yi was (by best estimate) 20 years old. There’s a brief interview with model Christina Engelhardt, who started a sexual relationship with Allen in 1976 when she was 17 to his 41, and saw it as “magical” then but has since come to see it as damaging. (Two years ago, Engelhardt told Hollywood Reporter that despite reassessing her teenage romance post-#MeToo, she still refused to “indict” Allen. It’s unclear whether she has now changed her mind.) Not mentioned: Allen’s other teenage girlfriend from the 1970s, actress Stacey Nelkin, who not only strongly supported him when the Farrow child-abuse allegation was revived in 2014 but claimed that during the 1992–93 custody battle, “someone from Mia Farrow’s camp” had tried to persuade her to testify, falsely, that Allen had sex with her when she was 15.
Meanwhile, Vox film writer Alissa Wilkinson is trotted out to make the argument that Allen has used older-man/younger-woman pairings in his films “to make his predation okay.” Exhibit A is the 1979 classic Manhattan, in which Allen’s alter ego character, 41-year-old Isaac, is dating a 17-year-old. But the indictment seems to spread to the entire body of Allen’s work:
You get the feeling watching Woody Allen’s films that he’s trying to make us acclimated to the idea of these kinds of relationships… in a sense, grooming us. It’s something that he does repeatedly… the same kinds of big age gaps in relationships show up and so when you see it over and over it kind of attunes you to thinking this is normal.
Wilkinson is seconded on screen by Washington Post writer Richard Morgan, who suggests that obsession with “very young women” dominates Allen’s work, and that, while there may be other plot elements, “it’s basically always an older guy trying to deal with this younger woman.”
But that’s absurd, on several levels. For one, Allen hardly invented the May-December pairing in Hollywood, in real life or onscreen. Farrow herself married 50-year-old Frank Sinatra when she was 21. Louis Malle’s well-received Pretty Baby, released a year before Manhattan, showed a middle-aged man in a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old prostitute. And it’s not just Hollywood: When future Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau (father of Justin) met the woman who’d become his wife, she was 18 and he was 47. Yet until their marriage fell apart in the 1970s, during his tenure as PM, it was held up by many as a storybook romance.
What’s more, Wilkinson’s and Morgan’s characterization of Allen’s work is not only tendentious but downright false. Many of the clips that supposedly illustrate their thesis are taken out of context, and some feature women who aren’t exactly starry-eyed ingenues—such as a 42-year-old Mia Farrow in September (1987), with 55-year-old Denholm Elliott. (The clip shows him asking if the age difference is “awkward” for her; but it’s unreciprocated love, very tangential to the film’s main plot.) The clip from Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) shows Anjelica Huston, then 48, with 61-year-old Martin Landau. The clip from Another Woman (1988) is a brief flashback in which the heroine (Gena Rowlands), a philosophy professor in her 50s, recalls her relationship with her mentor as a graduate student.
There are also two clips from Husbands and Wives (1992), the final Allen/Farrow collaboration and an eerie art/life collision. Completed while their real relationship was imploding, it casts them as spouses whose fictional marriage is about to break down. One clip shows Allen’s character, Gabe, a literature professor, in a romantic moment with a student (Juliette Lewis); the other shows his friend Jack (Sydney Pollack), whose marriage is also on the rocks, with a much younger girlfriend. What actually happens in the film, though, is that Gabe’s flirtation with the student stops at a kiss, while Jack’s romance quickly sours and his feelings for his estranged wife Sally are rekindled, especially when he learns that she’s seeing another man. In the end, Jack and Sally reconcile, while Gabe’s wife Judy leaves him and ends up with Sally’s ex-boyfriend—played by Liam Neeson, eight years Farrow’s junior. Here, as in most other late Allen films, middle-aged women are seen as interesting and sexually desirable. And when the theme of an aging man’s attraction to a young woman does appear, it is typically treated as either a wistful fantasy or a brief interlude.
* * *
One can dislike Woody Allen as a person and/or a filmmaker for plenty of reasons. I think he is brilliant at his best (as I was reminded while rewatching a few of his films for this article). But he also can be obnoxiously self-indulgent, his neurotic self-deprecation often streaked with self-righteousness. (This element is present even in some of his masterpieces, such as Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors, where his characters’ status as professional and sexual losers is presented as a badge of virtue.) This self-indulgence is even less pleasant in real life: It’s hard to disagree with Justice Wilk when, in his scathing custody ruling, he described Allen’s conduct in the split with Farrow as “self-absorbed, untrustworthy, and insensitive.” While Allen was never a father figure to Soon-Yi Previn (Allen v. Farrow founders in its attempt to show otherwise), his choice to embark on what he initially saw as a sexual romp with his longtime partner’s adopted daughter—and his children’s de facto sibling—was certainly reprehensible. His apparent failure to give any thought to how that affair could affect the children was, at the very least, appallingly self-centered.
None of that, however, makes Allen a child molester. Notably, despite the widely publicized accusations against him, given fresh impetus amidst the #MeToo movement, no new alleged victims have come forward—despite the fact that true pedophiles almost invariably leave a long trail of abuse (or at least accusations of abuse) throughout their lives.
Meanwhile, Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, with whom he has two now college-age adopted daughters, seems shockingly normal despite its tawdry beginnings. (One of the documentary’s more bizarre flights of innuendo is the suggestion that Allen pretended to be in love with Previn to divert attention from the child-molestation story; considering the two are still together 29 years later, that would have to be the world’s longest diversionary tactic.)
Nor do Allen’s very real flaws mean that Farrow is the sainted mother canonized in the film. It’s hard to know what to make of the accusations of physical and psychological abuse levied against her by Soon-Yi Previn and, more recently, Moses Farrow. These claims have been backed by Thompson, but indignantly denied by Dylan, Ronan, and other biological and adopted children, as well as friends and relatives. (There seem to be no neutral observers here, only participants in a hugely complicated drama.) Farrow’s anger at Allen after her discovery of the affair was certainly understandable; but she, too, seemed to give little thought to how her own behavior would affect her younger children, with whom she promptly shared the news of Allen’s betrayal. At the custody trial, the head of the Yale-New Haven investigating team noted that Dylan had been preoccupied both with her father’s relationship with Soon-Yi and with the woes of “her poor mother,” including the loss of roles in Allen’s films.
All this adds up to a fascinating and disturbing story. But the makers of Allen v. Farrow are interested in propaganda, not storytelling. Mia Farrow, who had her own high-powered attorneys (including Alan Dershowitz) is depicted as Allen’s terrified and downtrodden victim; any suggestion of wrongdoing on her part is framed as misogyny. (While the film suggests that the early 1990s were mired in the patriarchal Dark Ages, Justice Wilk—whose wife was a feminist attorney and advocate for abused women and children—also chided Allen and his lawyers for invoking stereotypes of the “scorned woman.”) A small study of 27 cases is cited as evidence that abusive fathers often gain child custody or unsupervised visitation because the motives of complaining mothers are viewed as suspect; no mention is made of a large Canadian study showing that more than half of child sexual abuse reports linked to parental separation are unfounded and nearly one in five are maliciously fabricated.
The overriding idea of the film is that if we refuse to “believe the survivor” and thus shun Allen, we are impeding Dylan Farrow’s ability to heal. This is a new genre: the documentary as emotional blackmail.
For what it’s worth, I believe that Dylan Farrow is in genuine pain. I also believe that whatever really happened in August 1992, she is genuinely convinced that Allen molested her. But while she is outraged by the suggestion that her memories may not be trustworthy, false memories do exist: virtually all the children conscripted into the day-care sexual abuse witch-hunts of the 1990s still believe, as adults, that the abuse was real. Dylan Farrow deserves sympathy. She does not deserve unconditional belief.
After Allen v. Farrow, a number of publications have made a point of referring to Allen as “the disgraced filmmaker.” In a saner climate, the only filmmakers “disgraced” by this documentary would be the ones who made it. Today, times being what they are, even Allen supporters such as Diane Keaton have been lying low. And yet even Allen detractors ruefully acknowledge that the documentary won’t “stop Allen’s career” for good.
There is no doubt that part of the goal of Allen v. Farrow was to finish off both Allen’s career and his legacy by presenting a definitive guilty verdict in the court of public opinion. The filmmakers, aided by a mostly uncritical press, have undoubtedly won over a large segment of the public—those who come to this subject for the first time through their HBO subscriptions, or who aren’t inclined to question “survivors.” But for those of us who are familiar with the story, or who take the trouble to check it out, the effect is the opposite. If making the case against Allen requires his cultural prosecutors to weave this kind of intellectually dishonest, emotionally manipulative, selectively edited account of the underlying drama, then the case for acquittal becomes stronger, not weaker.
Fortunately, Allen—whose 49th movie, Rifkin’s Festival, with Wallace Shawn and Gina Gershon, opened at a film festival in Spain six months ago—does not seem fazed by his public ignominy. Whether or not he ever makes another film, I hope he lives long enough to outlast this cultural moment, and survive the mob with his legacy intact.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.