The tangled web of Dylan Farrow v. Woody Allen

Why the sexual assault allegations were never just a family issue

Mark Mainz/AP

Mark Mainz/AP

What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie? Safe to say this is the last question people are pondering amid the toxic debate surrounding resurfaced allegations that the famous director sexually violated his seven-year-old daughter in 1992. And that’s because it was the opening salvo of Dylan Farrow’s harrowing open letter posted on the New York Times website this weekend. Two decades after the alleged assault, which never resulted in criminal charges, Farrow, now 28, confronts her estranged father in a way calculated to be personally devastating to him: she made it professional. Her letter has been criticized for airing such a personal matter in such personal terms. But the opposite, in fact, is true: Farrow shared horrifying, graphic details about the assault, but made it all about business. She removed the line between Woody Allen, artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker, and Woody Allen, alleged pedophile, a man she claims took her up to an closet-like attic and sexually violated her.

Farrow also took on Hollywood for supporting and celebrating Allen’s work over the past two decades. In doing so, she named names—beginning with Cate Blanchett, currently nominated in the best actress Oscar category for her work in Allen’s critically acclaimed Blue Jasmine. Farrow writes: “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?” She also called out Diane Keaton who paid tribute to Allen when he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes in January: “You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?” The intent was clear: to render Allen an industry pariah—or at least a political hot potato—by invoking a 21st-century moral McCarthyism that suggests everyone who has worked with him since the allegations two decades and 24 movies ago is an accessory to his crime. It bristled with the potential threat of moral chill destined to dampen Allen’s box office and future casting calls.

As a way to pierce the mercantile heart of Hollywood, currently caught up in campaigning for the sanctimonious popularity contest known as the Oscars, it was a masterstroke. The company that distributes Woody Allen movies, Sony Pictures, quickly issued a press release to salve the damage and pacify Academy voters, who begin their final round of voting on Feb. 14. In addition to Blanchett’s nod, Blue Jasmine is up in the best supporting actress and best original screenplay categories. The statement referred to “a very complicated situation and a tragedy for everyone involved,” before noting Allen “has never been charged in relationship to any of this, and therefore deserves our presumption of innocence.” The film is a “major achievement” of Allen’s career, Sony’s release said, before pointing out the director didn’t make the movie alone: “Films are major efforts of collaboration. There are scores of artists and craftspeople behind Blue Jasmine.” (Read: even if you think he’s guilty, don’t take it out on everyone else.) Sony also has longer-term profits to protect: the Blue Jasmine DVD has just been released and it’s scheduled to handle distribution of Allen’s next movie, Magic in the Moonlight, starring the aforementioned Emma Stone and Colin Firth.

The fact that Allen’s guilt will never be tested in a court of law (the statute of limitations on the case ran out years ago) and that the truth will never known beyond a few people (Allen denies all claims and calls Dylan’s letter “untrue and disgraceful”) is immaterial in this showdown. Allen, and Dylan Farrow, are being tried in the more brutal court of online opinion, a forum designed to confirm cognitive bias. If you want to read a defence of Allen by a colleague, click here. If you want to read why that account is deeply flawed, read here. If you want to understand why what Dylan did was rare and brave, click here. If you want to hear Allen’s lawyer call Dylan a “pawn” who was coached by her vindictive mother during a bitter custody battle, click here. If you want to see Barbara Walters call her old pal Woody a great father, click here. If you want to see the Farrow family riven by conflict, click here. If you want to believe that we’re watching a calculated media campaign by the Farrow family to publicize Mia Farrow’s human rights work and Ronan Farrow’s career, click here. For an itemization of Allen’s creepy long-time obsession with young women and girls click here. And if you want insight into how celebrities routinely get away with sexual assault, click here.

The allegations, revived by a bombshell Vanity Fair article last fall that saw Dylan speak out publicly for the first time, have been given quantum velocity by the Internet, which wasn’t a factor 20 years ago when the alleged assault occurred. Now the murky, complex and contradictory details of the case have been recycled and itemized, with caustic editorializing—taking down not just Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, but colleagues, reporters, friends. Collateral damage mounts by the day, with social media, that id-impulse playground, the battlefield. Earlier this week, Stephen King made a snide comment about Dylan’s letter on Twitter: “Boy, I’m stumped on that one. I don’t like to think it’s true, and there’s an element of palpable bitchery there.” Within minutes, the hashtag #palpabledouchery was trending—and there was a call for a boycott of King’s novels. Even the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has been dragged into the mess. Already, reports are circulating that the scandal could scorch Blanchett’s front-runner status for an Oscars, which is absurd but how the Academy works. (Not that being a convicted sexual offender precludes winning the coveted gold statuette in Hollywood, a town that feasts on young female flesh. Roman Polanski, was nominated three times, winning once, after he pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl. She would who later write that Polanski drugged, raped and sodomized her.)

Actors dragged into the Farrow v. Allen fray have attempted, in vain, to push the scandal back into the personal realm. Cate Blanchett responded by saying it’s “a long and painful situation for the family,” adding: “I hope they find some resolution and peace.” On Twitter, Alec Baldwin rejected calls for him to comment: “You are mistaken if you think there is a place for me, or any outsider, in this family’s issue.”  But the Farrows v. Woody Allen has never just been a family issue, not 20 years ago and not now. It’s the new American Gothic, a human Rorschach test in a culture that, no matter which side it believes, will never watch a Woody Allen movie in the same way again.

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