Saying Goodbye to Manhattan (and Woody Allen)

Manhattan Title Card

This is a piece about Woody Allen. But first, let me start with a little context.

I was living in New York on September 11, 2001. My experience on that day isn’t terribly interesting or original; I lived in Brooklyn at the time and was stuck in a subway when the planes hit. I emerged from murmured rumors on the train to chaos and panic in the streets. I went in to work, wandered around in a daze, and tried to go donate blood only to find lines literally around the block and overwhelmed nurses unable to cope with the flood of people.

At the time I worked at a performing arts center in Brooklyn, managing a repertory movie theater. About eight months later, when we were putting together the programming calendar for September 2002, the 11th was looming before us. What do we do? Close? Show a documentary? Host a fundraiser? After long discussions, we decided that the cinema would host a free screening for anyone who wanted to come in. Once we had the plan, we quickly agreed that there was only one appropriate film: Manhattan. Woody Allen’s 1979 film about a man’s conflicted desires for an age-appropriate (but emotionally immature) woman and a much younger (but emotionally older) young girl begins with one of the greatest montages in cinema history, a vivid tribute to New York City itself.

This isn’t hyperbole. I remember watching it in film school as a teacher showed it to demonstrate that you can make art even with the simplest tools. Over stunning black and white shots of New York City, we hear Allen’s voice dictate the beginning to a book he’s writing, while Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” plays. It’s funny, charming, self-deprecating, and sheer perfection. I would argue that it’s the single greatest scene in any of Allen’s movies and standing in the movie theater on September 11, 2002, watching this scene with a full house was a transformative experience. We all wept, not cried, but wept, tears streaming down our faces as one. At the culmination of the sequence, when Gershwin hits his climax and Allen says “New York was his town. And it always would be,” the theater broke into applause. It was the power of movies and collective art at its finest, a truly transformative experience. It was a much-needed catharsis, and one of the most moving experiences of my life.

And yet, despite that beautiful memory, I’ll never watch that movie again. Because I can’t bring myself to watch any of Woody Allen’s films anymore.

For the past twenty years, being a Woody Allen fan always came with a caveat. The Mia Farrow/Soon Yi business in 1992, sadly, turned out to just be the start of a strange and ultimately horrifying saga.

I’m not going to go into great detail with all of the allegations made against Allen. But for the purposes of this article, here’s a quick summary:

  • Manhattan is supposedly based on Allen’s relationship with actress Stacey Nelkin, whom Allen allegedly began dating when she was 17.
  • In 1992, Mia Farrow discovers nude photographs of her adopted daughter that Allen had taken. Soon-Yi was 20 at the time, although I’m not sure if her age when the photographs were taken has been established. Either way, Allen & Farrow’s relationship  (they were never married) ends and Allen begins dating, and ultimately marries, Soon-Yi.
  • At the time of their separation in 1992, Allen & Farrow had joint custody of their children, but Farrow was awarded sole custody, with the judge claiming that Allen’s behavior toward their adopted daughter Dylan was “grossly inappropriate” and that abuse could not be ruled out. This Vanity Fair piece is a great summary.
  • In 1993, after a protracted legal battle, the case against Allen was dropped after the charges of abuse were inconclusive.
  • In 2014, Dylan Farrow came forward in an open letter to say that Allen had sexually abused her. Some members of her family came to her defense, others said that the memories were implanted.
  • Just this week, in 2015, Mariel Hemingway says in her autobiography that Allen tried to seduce her after the filming of Manhattan in 1979. She was 17 when the movie was being filmed, and she says she later had to turn Allen down when he offered to take her to Paris when she was 18 and he was 44.

So what do we have here? Allegations. Will any of them be proved, and will Allen ever serve any time? I highly doubt it. But what does it take to defend Woody Allen? Much like the Bill Cosby scandal, you can either assume that, in multiple situations over many years, women are lying or have “implanted memories” or “just want attention” or any one of a thousand other things that men say to discredit women who are reporting sexual abuse. You can believe that this is a vast, well-orchestrated conspiracy.

Or you can believe that one man sexually molested and/or acted inappropriately towards numerous women & children throughout his lifetime.

What’s easier to believe? Certainly it’s plausible that one of the world’s most beloved entertainers, a man with almost limitless financial support and celebrity, could get away with these things in court. Sexual violence against women is, sadly, nothing new. Artists have been guilty of it for centuries. But there’s something that makes Allen stand out here.

One of my favorite artists (albeit in a very different field) is James Brown. He was nothing short of a genius, one of the most talented men who ever lived, and someone who lived to see the work he created change the face of music. I think a case could be made that James Brown is the most influential musical artist of the 20th century.

And yet he beat women. He beat his wife, and almost certainly abused many others.

That’s not a fact I enjoy, nor one that I find it easy to make peace with. There are times when, listening to his music, I’m struck by this contradiction. But here is the thing that I (perhaps unfairly) cling to in the dynamic of Art vs the Artists: James Brown didn’t make a career out of songs about beating women. His songs are about love, sex, black power, freedom, independence, and a thousand other things. You can engage with his art and not be reminded of what a despicable person he was.

Whereas a vast majority of Woody Allen movies, including several of his major works, involve an older man lusting after (and usually ending up with) a younger woman. Allen’s work takes what he is accused of and shoves it right in our face, making it impossible to ignore. By my count sixteen of his feature films depict a middle aged or older man who either lusts for or is coupled with a younger woman. And what some might see as an indictment of this behavior (and that’s being generous), becomes more like a celebration when taken collectively in film after film. One of Allen’s published short stories (now impossibly uncomfortable), even features a man who falls in love with a young woman, then falls in love with her mother, then back with the daughter again.

As Mariel Hemingway came forward with her story earlier this week, we can see that this is no mere wish fulfillment onscreen (i.e. Allen casting Helen Hunt as a romantic interest for himself in Curse of the Jade Scorpion). I can no longer understand Allen’s defenders who can, with a straight face, say that he did nothing wrong while at the same time celebrating his major works that deal with the exact same issues he’s accused of. As a reminder: in Manhattan, Mariel Hemingway’s character  (whom Allen’s character is sleeping with) is established as a 17 year old high school girl. What Allen’s character is doing is not only questionable & unacceptable, it’s illegal. And yet the end of the film presents it as a tender “what could have been” moment.

And let’s make no mistake: I love Woody Allen movies. At his best he’s not only funny but brilliant, perceptive, cinematic, and his movies are works of art. He singlehandedly brought post-modernism and self-reflection into mainstream American cinema, changed the course of modern humor, and helped champion the cause of international cinema.

But I can’t watch his movies anymore. I had been feeling uncomfortable for a while, really ever since I read about the Soon-Yi incident in high school, but like so many people, when confronted with a shocking act of behavior by a man towards a woman or a girl, I chose to forget about it. It wasn’t actually that bad, I told myself, it’s just shitty. Incredibly shitty, but you like the art, not the artist, right?

Yet as more details became clear about the accusations of Dylan Farrow, and the more I sat with how uncomfortable his movies make me, the more I realized that I’m done. A few years earlier I had stopped watching Roman Polanski films, for similar reasons.

To put things in context, Polanski did have an unbelievably tormented life. A survivor of the holocaust, his wife & children killed by the Manson family; that kind of horror is too much to contemplate. Yet not only did Polanski drug and rape a thirteen year old girl, he also fled the country when he learned of the possibility that a judge might not let him off easily. Polanski can no longer enter the US and has a standing order of extradition against him which dictates where he can live and where he can shoot his movies (there are currently some extradition proceedings going on which will probably amount to nothing). And yet Polanski still enjoys funding for his films and Hollywood stars agree to work with him. Why, I can’t imagine.

Polanski and Allen are different in that the charges against Polanski aren’t disputed; he was guilty and fled the country, whereas Allen has had his day in court and the case was impossible to prove (as is unfortunately common in many childhood sexual abuse situations). And to be fair, it is possible that Allen has never behaved untowardly, has never taken advantage of a younger woman, and has never sexually abused his adopted daughter.

But it’s not likely. We all know it. And I can’t watch his movies anymore, because these pieces of autobiography start to feel like an admission of guilt.

It truly saddens me to know that I won’t see the splendor of Manhattan again. Or the Marshall McLuhan gag in Annie Hall. Or Dianne Wiest’s stunning performance in Hannah and her Sisters, or even the egg salad recipe gag in What’s Up, Tiger Lily?.

This isn’t a call for a boycott; I’m not asking people to stop watching Woody Allen movies simply because I wrote something. And I’m not trying to pretend like I’m better than anyone or have claimed any moral high ground; I legitimately want you to think about and consider this issue for yourself. The Vanity Fair piece is a good read, but what’s hardest to read, yet to my mind most essential, is the open letter from Dylan Farrow herself, published here in the NYTimes. Is it one-sided? Yes. Is there any way to know if it’s true? No. But the details all ring true, and Farrow has so much to lose and so little to gain by coming forward.

Here’s a significant, horrifying excerpt:
[W]hen 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. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies.

Two different girls, over the span of thirteen years, both promised trips to Paris and starring roles in movies. This, more than anything else, is why I can’t watch Woody Allen films anymore. 

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