Woody Allen has never been too far from controversy over the past three decades. Earlier this month the 78 year old director, actor and comedian was given the Cecil B DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes ceremony; another career highlight in what has been an impressive return to form by Allen in the last few years. Yet whilst his close friend and muse, Diane Keaton, was honouring the New Yorker’s illustrious, albeit mercurial body of work, his estranged son Ronan Farrow (from his marriage to actress Mia Farrow) ensured that any celebration of Allen would rapidly become shrouded once again by ignominious allegations which suggested that Allen had molested Farrow’s adopted sister Malone in 1992, when she was just seven years old. Farrow took to Twitter to voice his outrage with Allen’s recognition stating: ‘Missed the Woody Allen tribute – did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?’. Though Allen has repeatedly denied these reprehensible claims, and was never convicted of them in court, many believe that the uncertainty as to the veracity of the accusations is enough that the director should not receive such high praise and recognition, and that his work should be boycotted. As was its intention, Farrow’s tweet revived the debate across social media and newspapers regarding Allen and whether the man’s obvious professional talents can be considered independently of his tainted personal life.
Even the most ardent fans of Woody Allen’s films (myself included) would struggle to deny that he was a man of rather perverted nature. His divorce from Mia Farrow in 1992 arose due to his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow’s then 19 year old adopted daughter, whom he married in 1997 having been a father figure for her throughout much of her childhood. Though it is hard to look beyond the sheer bizarreness of their marriage, it would be a step too far to brandish this as an act of depravity on Allen’s part; after all, Soon-Yi was an adult when they began the relationship which has continued for 21 years. It is the far graver allegations of paedophilia hanging over Allen’s head which turn many away from praising or even viewing his works. They feel unable to respect or derive enjoyment from his films whilst believing that they originated from a supposed criminal, as well as that by recognising his high-profile status they contribute to the protection from the law afforded to many celebrities. Their position is of course understandable but it subscribes to the arguably reductive notion that art cannot be appreciated independently of the knowledge of its creator’s morality and ideology. If we limited ourselves to venerating only the works of ‘good’ people, then we would deprive ourselves of many instances of artistic brilliance. Amongst countless examples, Caravaggio’s paintings are stunning and revolutionary despite the fact that he was a murderer; Edith Wharton’s novels are beautiful and affecting even though she was a notorious anti-Semite; and Jay-Z’s music is well-loved regardless of his well-documented past as a drug-dealer. We can still cherish and support their creations without resigning condemnation of their degenerate actions or beliefs. In the same way, I’d argue that Allen’s films are right to be hailed for their richness, disarming wit and poignancy.
It is unsurprising that Allen is held in greater contempt than most (allegedly) felonious celebrities since charges of child-molestation prove to be among the most challenging for people to digest. Yet from observation, people seem to be explicitly enraged by Allen’s unchallenged career than by the likes of renowned director Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist) who in 1977 was (unlike Allen) found guilty of sexually assaulting a minor, and has since then sought asylum in France. Perhaps then, at the heart of many people’s aversion to Allen’s films is the fact that he is the central on-screen presence in the majority of his most famous works. Many will inevitably find it difficult to identify with the affable characters that he plays once they become aware of the actor’s background. The fact that the majority of the characters are abstractions of his own neurotic self also often leads people to conflate the man with the men he portrays. Yet his characters are so funny and charming in their own self-loathing way that I find no difficulty in dissociating them from the depraved image we may have of Allen today. It is only on watching the 1978 Manhattan, which centers around Isaac Davis’ (played by Allen) relationship with a 17 year old girl that I felt somewhat queasy, but it still endures as an exceptional film.
Whilst ‘author is dead’ (in this case director) type theories which argue that one should completely ignore the auteur’s existence and solely focus on the work of art itself in order to appreciate it can tend to seem quite extreme and narrow-minded, they certainly have a validity. The fact that Allen might have done despicable things does not take anything away from the satirical edge of Bananas, the drama of Match Point, the imagination of Midnight in Paris and the simple genius of Annie Hall. The fact that he has not been found guilty of any crime as of yet means that I take no issue in his continuing, rejuvenated career and hope that he goes on making more films of a high calibre. It goes without saying that if Woody Allen was ever found guilty of molestation I would hope to see him be put to justice. But would I stop ranking his films amongst my favourites? Not a chance.