Film & TV

This Is Not an Apology for Woody Allen, but We Can Still Watch His Films

Director Woody Allen at the premiere Magic in the Moonlight in New York City in 2014. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Judge them on their merits, not his.

Woody Allen, the 83-year-old writer and director with over 60 movies as well as a surprising number of Broadway shows to his credit, is less popular than ever in the era of the #MeToo movement and the — mainly online — leisure sport of excoriating artists who are not quite as morally upright as the legions of the online.

On February 7, Allen was back in the news with the announcement that he is suing Jeff Bezos’s Amazon Studios for $68 million for breach of contract. The e-commerce leviathan no longer plans to distribute Allen’s newest movie, A Rainy Day in New York, or to pursue any other projects with him. In the lawsuit, Allen’s lawyer says that Amazon fickleness was attributable to Dylan Farrow’s quarter-century-old allegations, which have attracted renewed attention in the wake of the Me Too movement.

Twenty-seven years ago, Dylan Farrow, Allen’s adoptive daughter, accused him of abusing her when she was only seven. The allegation remains, unfortunately, largely unprovable, but a pediatrician did not find physical evidence of abuse. Whether Allen was guilty of inappropriate behavior remains ambiguous. Despite the doctor’s assessment, following a custody battle that Allen filed shortly after Dylan’s accusation, a New Haven court ruled that “we will probably never know what occurred on August 4, 1992,” but that “Allen’s behavior toward Dylan was grossly inappropriate.”

What gained little media coverage, perhaps because it was a post on his blog or didn’t reinforce any convenient narratives about Allen, was a long defense of Allen from Moses Farrow, who denies any malfeasance, while insisting that Dylan has been influenced by a vengeful Mia Farrow.

“To the actors who have worked with my father,” Moses wrote, “and have voiced regret for doing so: You have rushed to join the chorus of condemnation based on a discredited accusation for fear of not being on the ‘right’ side of a major social movement.”

It remains unclear whether Allen molested Dylan, so my opinion of him is softer than it would be if I knew he had. But even if he did, the movies that he was involved in — that were a product of the cast and crew as much as of himself — need not be destroyed because of his personal sins.

Amazon is not alone in no longer wanting to associate with Woody Allen. Many people even feel guilty about watching his movies. Last year in the New York Times, in a thoughtful reassessment of Allen’s work, A. O. Scott rejected the idea that Allen himself can be separated from his work; what had been the charm of Allen’s movies was now what indicted them. Scott wrote that “a sensibility that seemed sweet, skeptical and self-scrutinizing may have been cruel, cynical and self-justifying all along.”

Scott also says that “the notion that art belongs to a zone of human experience somehow distinct from other human experiences is both conceptually incoherent and intellectually crippling.” While Scott is correct that art is not in a realm beyond moral judgement, the moral character of Allen’s filmmaking is not what is on trial. There are in his films certain themes, such as his appetite for younger women, that reflect his actual life (e.g., his marriage to the 35-years-younger Soon-Yi), but one cannot use his art as an indication of whether that proclivity of his has strayed into the territory of child abuse.

Being a celebrated director does not make Allen immune from being held accountable for wrongdoing, but his art can’t be squinted at like a cup’s tea leaves from which we can divine evidence of his private moral failings.

Moreover, if we do become unable to separate the merit of art from the artist, we will lose a lot of good art (though definitely some bad, too).

To be unable to distinguish between the artist as a private individual, who is surely flawed, and the art itself as a separate subject of criticism will drastically limit what one can accept as valid art.

Caravaggio may have been a murderer and his paintings are in churches. Now, should we look at his Judith Beheading Holofernes less as art and more as an admission of his own bloodguilt? Matthew Broderick, who played the beloved titular figure in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, killed two women in a head-on car crash. Should we see the juvenile behavior of Ferris Bueller as nothing but a vestige of the fact that Broderick truly is a careless person, who cares more for fun than even others’ lives? This is not to excuse or downplay any wrongdoing, but an actor, director, or artist’s work does not need to be implicated as an accessory to his crimes. Perhaps it is true that the art and the crime are born out of the same impulse or character trait in the person, but if they are, one is a positive expression and one is not.

In fact, many inmates of federal penitentiaries could write more eloquently, sing more melodically, and draw more accurately than many upstanding citizens could. And it would be callous and dehumanizing to dismiss theirs or anyone’s art as unable to be qualitatively evaluated simply because of the artist’s moral flaws.

Although most people are far from perfect, that does not prohibit one from doing and making worthwhile art in the course of a life.

Maya Angelou famously said that as a child she thought “Shakespeare must be a black girl” because his works affected her in a unique and profound way. Her words also highlight the fact that sometimes we place too much importance on who the artist is instead of what he or she produces. Shakespeare’s works didn’t speak less to Maya’s heart, and not because he was a white, British man born in the 1500s. In a similar blind assessment of art on its own merits, if someone awful makes something beautiful, we can still recognize it as beautiful.

The allegations against Allen differ from those against Alfred Hitchcock, for example, whose jealousy and perversion made the process of filming unpleasant. Nobody has accused Allen of emotionally or sexually abusing anyone on set. Yet we are now meant to feel guilty about watching Allen’s movies, while there is a significantly fainter stigma and less public criticism that detracts from Hitchcock and his work.

It makes sense to reject or dismiss art that itself is borne of unpleasant or hurtful circumstances created by the artist, because then it is the art itself that is in question — people should not physically or psychologically suffer unduly for the sake of some director’s presumed genius. But as for a movie that was made under fine conditions, to protest it because of unrelated claims against the director misplaces the blame, to the detriment of justice.

To protest Allen’s movies deflects the discussion to one about them, instead of about him, undermining any attempts to assess the claims against him fairly and then mete to him whatever justice he deserves. The protest is misplaced, especially given that his art isn’t just his — movies are by nature an expansive form, the labor of many people, not just one.

It may be that Dylan’s accusations are true. Maybe Allen is worse than Hitchcock ever was. Perhaps you are already convinced that he’s an obvious creep. But if you think Woody Allen is a criminal, you should work to bring him to justice and hold him accountable, not his art.

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