Scarlett Johansson doesn't owe political correctness to her fans regarding Woody Allen; all she owes us is good films
‘Whom to believe?’ is the question that can trip up the best of us. And Scarlett Johansson chose to believe Woody Allen. It's her choice.
Last week, LA Times published an article with a cheeky-but-clever tweet that read, “And now a moment of silence for Scarlett Johansson’s publicist.” It would be an odd sentiment, if not for Johansson’s latest pronouncements. As the world’s highest-grossing actress, with three highly anticipated releases in the coming months, there’s never been a better time to be Scarlett Johansson.
Jojo Rabbit, an anti-hate satire set in World War II just had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and won its director Taika Waititi the TIFF Ebert Director Award. Marriage Story, a tragicomedy, was screened at the Venice Film Festival and TIFF, and is headed to New York Film Festival and BFI London Festival next. Both movies are widely being regarded as Oscar baits for 2020. And finally there’s the long-promised and much-delayed Black Widow, ScarJo’s standalone superhero film from the Marvel stable.
Why, then, is LA Times commiserating with her publicist? It’s because of a contentious interview ScarJo recently gave to The Hollywood Reporter. When asked about her relationship with disgraced filmmaker Woody Allen, who stands accused of raping his then 7-year-old adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992. Johansson not just confirmed that she would “work with him anytime”, but went so far as to say, “I love him” and “He maintains his innocence, and I believe him”.
It’s an eyebrow-raising sentiment at the best of times, but it could possibly be career-torching in a world still reeling from the revelations that were washed ashore by the tsunami that was MeToo. As the movement inches towards its second anniversary in the US this October, ‘believe women’ is a credo and a mantra that’s been all but tattooed — with reason — on our collective consciousness. For far too long, men have evading scrutiny or consequence, hiding behind the shields of due-process and lack of evidence. Most accusations of sexual violations ultimately boil down to a weary he said/she said narrative, leaving the audience to arrive at their own version of a subjective truth.
It’s laughable to suggest that the statement was an unplanned slip-up or the result of being caught in an unguarded moment for ScarJo. Considering that Allen has had a significant part to play in elevating her to her current position as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars — he has directed her thrice, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008, Scoop in 2006, and Match Point in 2005 — she has to have anticipated for the grenade that would be launched at her, sooner or later.
And she chose to say it anyway. Coming from one of the original donors and supporters of the Time’s Up legal defense fund, it was bound to make headlines and draw swift criticism. Unsurprisingly, Dylan Farrow immediately made her displeasure known, tweeting, “Because if we’ve learned anything from the past two years it’s that you definitely should believe male predators who ‘maintain their innocence’ without question. Scarlett has a long way to go in understanding the issue she claims to champion.”
It’s impossible not to wonder about Johansson’s motives. The path of least resistance — and least controversy — would demand that she, like so many others before her did, publicly distance herself from the once celebrated director. Greta Gerwig, Colin Firth, Timothee Chalamet, and several others have all expressed regret about working with Allen and vowed not to, in the future. Not like Allen has much of a future left in Hollywood, at the time being.
It’s no secret that Woody Allen is persona non grata in Hollywood. He’s been that way for a long time now, but his pariah status was emphasised with renewed vigour after the MeToo storm hit Hollywood with a vengeance in 2017. His last film A Rainy Day In New York is yet to find distributors in the US and UK after Amazon terminated a four-film agreement with him, when accusations against him resurfaced. He’s currently locked in a $68 million-lawsuit with the studio. The manuscript of his memoir hasn’t found any takers among publishers either.
Given their current stations in life, there’s little that ScarJo stands to gain from a continued professional association with Allen. Is it possible then that her support is rooted in a bone-deep conviction, or knowledge — is there a way to separate the two unless you’re an eye witness? And how can one bear witness to an event one believes never happened? — of Allen’s innocence. As an important celebrity, expected to make all the right noises and not hold problematic beliefs, is she even allowed to?
It’s a cruel — or poetic, depending on what you believe — twist of fate that one of the principal performers in the theatre of MeToo in Hollywood is Ronan Farrow, Allen’s biological child with Mia Farrow, an ex-girlfriend, the adoptive mother to his current wife Soon-Yi, and the woman with whom he co-adopted Dylan, who has, for over a quarter of a century maintained that Allen raped her. The mind spins at how every layer of this sordid tale is more sinister than the previous.
It’s easy to hate Allen — what kind of man, at the age of 56, starts an affair with the 21-year-old daughter of his partner, after all? Then leaves nude polaroids carelessly lying around his home, almost as if he was willing Mia to find them? Not the kind we understand to be good or upstanding. The Soon-Yi and Allen pairing may have stood the test of time — they’ve been together for almost 30 years, and married for 22 of them — but it’s hard to shake the disorienting feeling that it started as an eroticised daughter fantasy for him. Allen almost makes the listener want to take sides. To cast him in the role of the old man with a sick perversion for preying on young girls. The man who could rape his own daughter and then insolently claim that he should be anointed the poster-boy of MeToo.
Last year, India had its own MeToo reckoning. Popular and influential names from practically all industries tumbled out of cob-webbed closets. Many names were difficult to come to terms with — I’d been friends with some, admired others as colleagues. A close friend’s name was thrown up as well. As a witness to the events that had transpired — and its resolution — I found myself uniquely placed to defend them. I was hauled over the coals for my efforts, branded a traitor and cut from the same cloth as those who victim shamed and blamed simply because the accused is known and dear to them.
The experience brought me perspective. I learned that in the tearing hurry to believe women, and to tear down the accused, we’ve (hopefully unknowingly) carpet bombed any hope of a sane, unhysterical, and nuanced examination of a matter. And “this didn’t happen” is often misunderstood for “my person didn’t do this”.
These are choppy waters to navigate, undoubtedly. ‘Whom to believe?’ is the question that can trip up the best of us. And it is, ultimately, about who you choose to believe. Sometimes, the evidence is overwhelming — like in the case of Harvey Weinstein or Leslie Moonves, or, closer home, MK Akbar and Vikas Bahl. In other cases, like Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow’s, each contradictory account is equally convincing. Do you believe the version Mia and Dylan have been repeating for the last 25 years, lent credibility by Woody and Soon-Yi’s faintly incestuous coupling? Or does Moses Farrow’s detailed blog about Mia’s abusive upbringing and gaslighting ways steer you towards Woody’s insistence that two government agencies have cleared him of wrongdoing, and nobody he’s ever worked with — since or before — has ever accused him of impropriety?
Whatever our personal convictions about Woody’s paedophilic tendencies, our best shot at surviving these mad times of Internet-fuelled outrage and swiftly handed out punishments is that we — all of us, even the celebrities we want to appoint as the gatekeepers or our conscience — be allowed the dignity to ask questions, seek answers, and formulate beliefs, even if they don’t always reflect our own. Demanding that Scarlett Johansson toe the line and cut every “problematic” tie is forcing the movement to turn into a monolith. That scares me, and it should you, too.
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