The line between art and artist: The Woody Allen problem for all of us

It is impossible to read Dylan Farrow’s account of what she says Woody Allen did to her as a child without feeling queasy.
What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? 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 details are nauseating. But that’s to be expected – child abuse is dark and disquieting. But it’s that first line that is surprisingly vexing because it turns watching and liking a Woody Allen film into an ethical consumption choice. And it has polarized his audience completely.

WoodyAllen

Woody Allen

One side says it’s all about the art and not about the artist behind it. The importance of being Milan Kundera, or at least the importance of his books, should not be affected by allegations he ratted on a dissident to the Czech secret police back in 1950. Enid Blyton’s beloved children’s books about Five Find-Outers and Toyland should not be matched up against her personal failings as a mother. On the Waterfront is no less a classic for its director Elia Kazan’s role in naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee trying to rid Hollywood of Communist influences. That purge ruined the careers of many of his peers but the Academy still gave him an honorary Oscar in 1999.

The other side insists the artist cannot duck moral culpability. Nicholas Kristof who has used his friendship with Mia Farrow and her son Ronan, to give Dylan’s allegations a bully pulpit in The New York Times has accused the Golden Globes of taking sides in the debate by choosing to honour him with a lifetime achievement award.
The standard to send someone to prison is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but shouldn’t the standard to honor someone be that they are unimpeachably, well, honorable? Yet the Golden Globes sided with Allen, in effect accusing Dylan either of lying or of not mattering. That’s the message that celebrities in film, music and sports too often send to abuse victims.
Both stances are problematic in their black-and-white rigidity. As Kristof admits, Woody Allen has never been convicted and should be presumed innocent. The presumption of innocence is critical even if we instinctively believe the victim is not lying. So is Kristof justified in lending his New York Times megaphone to launch what is effectively Dylan’s call for a sort of cultural blacklisting of Woody Allen – a trial by media because it’s too late for a trial by court?
What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?
Dylan’s anguish is raw and her frustration palpable. But it’s unfair to call for a sort of organized cultural boycott on the basis of what are ultimately unproven allegations. The fact is the Golden Globes were unlikely to have given Woody Allen that award if he had actually been convicted of child sexual abuse.

Michael Maiello, obviously a Woody-phile, writing for DagBlog says this is really belated payback for the fact that people were creeped out by Allen’s relationship with 19-year-old Soon-Yi Previn while still being her adoptive mother Mia Farrow’s partner. “The ‘creep’ factor is what gives currency to child abuse allegations that were not pursued by prosecutors more than two decades ago.”

But Woody Allen’s supporters are being disingenuous as well when they hide behind his craft as if the creator does not matter. In that case, Apple should also not be held to account for labour practices in its iPhone and iPad factories in China as long as the devices work like a dream. Even an actor or writer’s proven acts of criminality or moral failings should not be held against them as long as it does not affect their work. By that logic it should not matter that a drunken Mel Gibson launched into an anti-Semitic tirade.

But actors know full well that the private-public dividing line is never that bright or clear. That’s why they try to be both hyper-visible and hyper-bland in public life. When Salman Khan called Narendra Modi “a great man” who did not need to apologize for the 2002 riots, Muslim clerics promptly called for a boycott of his films. That came on the heels of his dance number at Saifai for the Samajwadi Party accused of criminal neglect of communal riot victims. Actors cannot have it both ways. As Lakshmi Chaudhry writes on Firstpost Salman thinks “he can gleefully rake in the money on carefully timed blockbuster Eid releases — including Wanted, Dabangg and Bodyguard — and blithely dance on the graves of riot victims which likely included many Muslim fans who stood loyally by him during his worst PR disasters."

The revelations about Kundera provoked so much outrage because he wrote not detective thrillers, but about Communism, totalitarianism and dissidence. And the revelations about what he might have done in 1950 risked tainting everything he did afterwards with a charge of hypocrisy no matter how beautifully the sentences were constructed. Woody Allen, too, does not make Fast and Furious thrillers. He makes films about human relationships, with a lot of autobiographical touches, often inviting us to identify with his neurotic slightly confused on-screen protagonist. Now that persona, for those who believe Dylan’s painful account, is tainted because Woody Allen put Woody Allen, the man, into his films. Now he cannot separate himself from his creation so neatly.

There’s no easy answer to this quandary about what constitutes the line that separates the artist from the art. When Nick Nolte kept sitting while others gave Elia Kazan a standing ovation during his Oscar he was clearly protesting Kazan, the man who named names. When Meryl Streep stood and applauded she was paying her respects to Kazan, the director. That does not mean Streep betrayed those who suffered during those purges any more than it means Nolte was being over sensitive.

In fact, Dylan’s adoptive mother Mia Farrow should, of all people, know how tricky it is to take such a black and white stand.

Woody Allen is accused of child sexual abuse. He has not admitted to it or been convicted of it. Roman Polanski admitted to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Mia Farrow who acted in his Rosemary’s Baby has never spoken out against him. She even flew to London to testify on his behalf in his libel suit against Vanity Fair.

Ultimately for all of us it comes down to personal choice. It depends on each of us whether Dylan’s revelations colour the way we view Blue Jasmine or Annie Hall. A sort of sanctioned Hollywood boycott of Woody Allen actually allows us to evade the discomfort of exercising that tricky ethical choice because we can follow the herd.

For those of us in India, Woody Allen has actually made it a little easier. By deciding that his Blue Jasmine should not be released in India because of our annoying on-screen anti-smoking messages, Allen has inadvertently let us off the hook.

We can choose to watch the pirated version, says a friend, smug in the knowledge that not a penny will be going to Woody Allen.