“What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?”
This usually innocuous question provoked a frisson of uneasiness as the opening line of Dylan Farrow’s open letter to the Hollywood community and the world at large about her alleged molestation by Woody Allen at the age of 7.
The allegations, originally leveled in the early ‘90s during a vicious custody battle between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, resurfaced recently after Allen won a Golden Globes lifetime achievement award. Now the 28-year-old Farrow has opened up for the first time – and unleashed an avalanche of commentary and argument. There are those who argue for Allen’s innocence; others have reached out to Farrow in support; even the Onion commented on the outpouring of emotion provoked by the letter, pointing out that devotees of Allen’s films “are really in a tight spot.”
Allen, now 78, is not the first powerful man to face an unusually unwelcome spotlight in light of molestation charges; he is not even the first beloved film director to do so. Comparisons have inevitably arisen between Allen and Roman Polanski, whose accuser, Samantha Geiner, wrote a book subtitled “My Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski” about her experiences in the aftermath of accusing a celebrity of rape.
But what is it about Allen that really strikes a nerve – nerves, of course, being Allen’s topic of choice throughout his film career – and kicks up such a storm of emotion?
Woody Allen is one of those cultural creators who has spawned, through his work, a cultural archetype that goes far beyond him. The culture writer Chuck Klosterman said it best in his 2004 essay “This Is Emo”:
“Woody Allen made it acceptable for beautiful women to sleep with nerdy, bespectacled goofballs; all we need to do is fabricate the illusion of intellectual humor, and we somehow have a chance… By now, the ‘Woody Allen Personality Type’ has far greater cultural importance than the man himself.”
Intellectual humor is certainly part of Allen’s appeal, and that of his characters. But the basis of that humor is often confessional and self-deprecating. Allen’s characters are compulsively self-critical; in his early film works, in which Allen doppelgangers made frequent appearances, these central characters confess fears, flaws and misbehaviors with abandon. “I’m spiritually bankrupt. I’m empty,” the titular, Allenesque (and Allen—played) character says in 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry.” Another character describes him as “all nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.”
Allen’s very persona, his public face, is about confession. The word “neurotic” – often accompanied by the adjective “lovably” – follows every description of his humor (and the man himself). Allen makes us love him in his films by confessing so relentlessly, creating an instantaneous intimacy that keeps us focused, arrested. Even in more recent films, where Allen has largely retreated behind the camera, characters like Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine show uncanny insight into their own depredations. The final shot of “Blue Jasmine” shows Blanchett’s descent into madness: but in talking to herself, she’s really talking to us, inviting us into the chaos of her consciousness. This is in the underpinning of Allen’s broad cultural appeal: he shows us the fragile, fractured man behind the curtain.
Or so it seemed. Farrow’s allegations make Allen’s relentless confessions seem inadequate. What if all that openness, that willing confession to sin and weakness that’s Allen’s trademark style, is really just a mask of another kind? If the faults Allen has acknowledged in himself —a nd they are myriad, and draw us closer — are just a front for deeper and more monstrous ones, from which we would, inevitably, flinch?
That’s the question Farrow’s letter provokes. In the swirling murk of commentary from every angle, amid accusations of implanted memories or paid-off judicial experts from 1993, it’s hard to draw out any kind of truth. But what’s certain is that this possible betrayal echoes back through the decades of Allen’s work, to the foundations of his public persona and the archetypes he’s spawned.