Allen V Farrow: HBO docuseries on sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen is a portrait of a family in distress
The first episode of Allen V Farrow covers a wide narrative arc, including Mia Farrow and Woody Allen's relationship, their unconventional family and living arrangements, the discovery of his affair with Mia's adopted daughter Soon-Yi, and the allegations of Allen's sexual abuse of Dylan Farrow, then aged seven.
This article discusses Episode 1 of Allen V Farrow, and contains some descriptions of child sexual abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
A day after the first episode of the new Kirby Dick-Amy Ziering directed Allen V Farrow released, Woody Allen and his wife Soon Yi Previn lambasted the four-part HBO docuseries as a “hatchet job”. They accused the filmmakers of “collaborating with the Farrows and their enablers” to air “categorically false allegations”.
The response is in line with much of the discourse surrounding Allen and the Farrows since August 1992, when Mia Farrow accused Woody Allen, her partner of 12 years, of sexually abusing their adopted daughter Dylan, then seven. At the same time, it emerged that Allen was in a sexual relationship with Mia’s adopted daughter (with her second husband André Previn) Soon-Yi, then 21 to Woody’s 56. Over the years, each side has put forward their version of events, only to have the other contest its veracity; the family has split into factions (Mia and most of her surviving children — with the exception of Moses Farrow — on one side, Woody, Soon-Yi and Moses on the other) as have their supporters and the general public. The factions on both sides of the discourse have claimed the other has a penchant for cherry picking facts or presenting a false idea of what these facts imply; each swears to be in sole possession of the complete truth.
Ziering and Dick were most recently in the news for On the Record, which highlighted Drew Dixon’s sexual harassment allegations against the highly influential Def Jam recording mogul Russell Simmons. Their previous documentaries looked at sexual assault in the army (The Invisible War) and the campus rape problem (The Hunting Ground).
Episode 1 of Allen V Farrow clocks in at just under an hour and includes on-camera interviews with Dylan Farrow, now 35; her brothers Ronan Farrow (the journalist whose Harvey Weinstein expose ran in the New Yorker; formerly named Satchel) and Fletcher Previn; and Mia Farrow. Family friends like Casey Pascal and Priscilla Gilman (the longtime girlfriend of Matthew Previn, the oldest of Farrow’s brood) also provide their statements on screen, while Dylan’s sister Daisy Previn has recorded an audio interview.
The episode begins with Dylan, talking about how Woody Allen has “run amok for 20 years” while she was growing up and this is her chance to set the record straight. Dylan has been speaking up since 2014, when she asked — via an open letter, and a later column in the LA Times that laid out an account of the abuse she says she experienced as a child at Woody Allen’s hands — why Hollywood stars continued to work with him. An NBC interview followed. However, this is the first time she has dwelt on that period of her life, and her relationship with Allen, at such length.
We see Dylan looking through a thick photo album, leafing through pages and pages of images of her as a child: with Mia on a film set, with her siblings. Some spaces in the album are empty; they bear faded glue marks — remnants of photos that were removed. Others have been strategically clipped: Dylan as a baby being held up by someone who clearly wore black, large-rimmed glasses.
Home videos show Dylan swimming in a pool with the man she called Daddy — Woody Allen. Other footage and archival photos show her gathered up in his arms. Her brother Fletcher tells a story of how Dylan once left her teddy bear behind at a hotel while the family was vacationing in Europe, and Woody had the beloved toy flown back first class. The picture that emerges is of an overly doting (if initially reluctant to embrace parenthood) dad, except, as Dylan says, there was a lot else going on that wasn't visible.
Dylan, Mia, Pascal, Gilman and Tisa Farrow (Mia’s sister) all reiterate an account of Allen’s behaviour they have held fast to for over two-and-a-half decades now. Together, their statements allege that Allen had an almost obsessive fixation with Dylan (whom he legally co-adopted — along with Mia’s other child, Moses — in December 1991, only one month before his affair with Soon-Yi came to light) and that he engaged in inappropriate behaviour with her, including making her suck on his thumb, cuddle with him when they were both clad only in their underwear, and having his face pressed into her lap. Dylan’s specific allegation about the abuse she says occurred at Mia’s Connecticut farmhouse in August 1992 has not yet been brought forward. However, she describes feeling smothered by Allen’s constant and unnerving attention, his insistence that she spend all her time only with him when he was at Mia’s home.
The episode works its way up to the time when Mia discovered, in January 1992, nude photographs of Soon-Yi at Allen's apartment. (Woody and Mia famously kept separate apartments across from each other at Central Park throughout their relationship.) Their unconventional living arrangements and the fact that Mia’s children were a mix of her biological offspring and those she adopted with André Previn, by herself, and with Allen later co-adopting two of them, meant that there was plenty of obfuscation about what Woody’s prior equation with Soon-Yi was — whether she ever saw him as a parental/authority figure, when their affair began and with what intent, and what the status of his relationship with Mia was at the time he began seeing Soon-Yi.
Depending on which member of the family is speaking, you’re likely to get a differing account of the events that transpired when Mia found out about the affair; what is certain is that Allen’s transgression — which he famously and rather blithely brushed off with, “The heart wants what it wants… [Mia's reaction would have been] more or less the same thing if it had been my secretary or an actress” — devastated Mia and some of Soon-Yi’s siblings, and triggered a crisis they still bear the marks of.
Episode 1 of Allen V Farrow etches a surprisingly wide narrative arc within its limited runtime: it covers the whole gamut of Mia and Woody’s romance, the shared aspects of their lives (Fletcher Previn notes that even though Woody didn’t live with them, he was at their apartment every morning before the children awoke and present till they went to bed; and while André was Fletcher’s father, he wasn’t present on a day-to-day basis, so Woody was a father figure to some the children — not just Moses, Dylan and Ronan; Daisy Previn mentions that Woody had a space created for the children at the back of his apartment, where they might bunk down while visiting him); Woody's conflicting feelings about co-parenting the children; the “method and madness” of Mia’s diverse family; Dylan’s growing withdrawal as a child. Also laid out are the numerous red flags which snowballed into the traumatic and destructive events that played out in the public eye.
In the absence of Woody Allen’s participation in the docuseries, Ziering and Dick rely on excerpts from his audiobook, Apropos of Nothing (2020). One clip has Woody describing why he fell for Mia — apart from being beautiful and bright, apparently he admired that she was “appropriately libidinous” and always “attentive to [his] needs”. A creative decision to focus on Allen’s status in Hollywood by having film writers and critics chime in on his genius feels a bit off-kilter though; viewers don’t need to be told that he is a gifted auteur, that is not in doubt. It might have been more insightful to delve into the considerable power and influence Allen wielded in Hollywood at the time.
This episode of Allen V Farrow, while having Dylan speak at length, doesn’t cover much new ground in terms of the allegations against Woody, or the evidence for/against them. Most of what has been presented in this episode has been part of journalist Maureen Orth’s coverage for Vanity Fair (in 1992 and then again in 2013). And there is a sort of dissonance created by the use of dramatic music to accompany Dylan’s commentary, and the sweeping visuals of Mia’s Connecticut farmhouse — it just doesn’t sit right with the subject matter. What Ziering and Dick do get right is their portrayal of the painful disintegration of a family, and the wrenching conflict a survivor of abuse might experience, in feeling not only anger and hurt towards their abuser — but also, love.
A reading list to accompany your viewing of Allen V Farrow:
‘Mia’s Story’ — Maureen Orth’s 1992 report for Vanity Fair
‘Momma Mia!’ — Maureen Orth’s 2013 follow up for Vanity Fair
‘How Straight-shooting State’s Attorney Frank Maco Got Mixed Up in the Woody-Mia Mess’ — Reporter Andy Thibault’s profile, detailing Maco’s role in investigating the charges against Allen, appeared in the April 1997 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
‘Introducing Soon-Yi Previn’ — Daphne Merkin’s September 2018 profile, in Vulture/New York Magazine
‘Writer of Soon-Yi Profile Accused of Bias, Has Long History With Woody Allen’ — A story in The Hollywood Reporter, September 2018, carrying Dylan and Ronan Farrow’s response to Merkin’s article.
‘An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow’ — The New York Times, February 2014
‘Why has the #MeToo revolution spared Woody Allen?’ — Dylan Farrow’s op-ed in the LA Times, December 2017
‘The Heart Wants What It Wants’ — Woody Allen’s interview with TIME magazine, August 1992
‘Soon-Yi Speaks: Let’s Not Get Hysterical’ — Statement published in Newsweek, August 1992
‘Soon-Yi: Woody Was Not My Father’ — Interview published in TIME, August 1992
‘A Son Speaks Out’ — Blog by Moses Farrow, May 2018
Allen V Farrow is currently streaming on Disney + Hotstar in India. A new episode is aired every Monday at 8.30 am.
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