Tuesday 19 March 2019

Is this the end of the line for Woody?

Abuse allegations the filmmaker has been ignoring for years are finally being listened to, dominating any coverage of his new film, writes our film critic

In the spotlight: Woody Allen addresses the media in 1992, in the wake of the abuse allegations
In the spotlight: Woody Allen addresses the media in 1992, in the wake of the abuse allegations
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Woody Allen releases a new film this week. It's a typically nostalgic, love-obsessed comic drama and stars Kate Winslet as an unhappily married 1950s Coney Island waitress who falls for a dashing lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake. Normally an Allen film would be something of an event: though he's not as high-profile as he was in his 1970s heyday, much of his later work has been well received, and big-name actors and actresses have queued up to work with him.

Not anymore, perhaps. In these parts, Wonder Wheel was ushered out apologetically with a press screening two days before its release, while in the US most reviewers have spent as much time discussing historic abuse allegations as they have Allen's film. For almost three decades, he's been allowed to blithely ignore the allegations laid at his door by his former partner Mia Farrow and her adopted daughter Dylan and continue pumping out a film a year.

In that time, he's won Oscars, been feted as a darling in Venice and Cannes, and worked with some of the best actors and actresses in Hollywood. But the #MeToo movement is felling all trees, even the biggest ones, and in January of this year, Dylan, who's now 32, repeated her allegations against Allen during a lengthy interview on CBS This Morning. She's made them often before, but this time, in a changed climate, she was listened to.

Suddenly, actors who'd worked with Allen began publicly regretting having done so. Colin Firth, Marion Cotillard, Greta Gerwig, Joaquin Phoenix, Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Hall were among the big names keen to distance themselves from the writer/director, with Chalamet and Hall offering to donate their earnings from his next film, A Rainy Day in New York, to a women's charity.

That film is due out in August, and some are speculating that it could be Allen's last. He's 82, but has a fierce work ethic, and as both his parents lived to be near 100, one could have imagined him ploughing on for perhaps a decade to come. But now it's hard to see where he's going to find backing for his movies, or actors to star in them, because it looks like Woody has finally become a fully-fledged industry pariah.

It might seem astonishing, in this day and age, that his career survived the original scandal in the first place. Back in 1992, the acrimonious end of his relationship with Mia Farrow made headlines across the world. She'd found out that Allen had been conducting a relationship with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, a former Korean street child. Allen was in his mid-50s when they became intimate, Soon-Yi, 17 or 18. "The heart wants what the heart wants", Woody said by way of explanation, but that glib phrase hardly seemed adequate to the circumstance.

Things got much worse when Farrow alleged that he had sexually abused her seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan while visiting her second home in Connecticut in the summer of 1992. The alleged incident took place in an attic, and Dylan's siblings would later allude to other incidents of inappropriate behaviour on Allen's part. He strenuously denied the allegations, which were investigated but dismissed for lack of credible evidence, though there were strange loose ends, such as the fact that the medical team that examined the claims destroyed all their notes.

Meanwhile, Allen and his legal team had vigorously sought to paint Mia Farrow as vindictive and spiteful. He had many friends and admirers in the film industry and the media who came to his defence. And really, it was hard for people to believe that someone whose films had been so central to the late 20th-century American experience could really have done something as awful as that.

He won an ugly PR battle on points, and moved blithely on to his next film. Some mud stuck, but surprisingly little, and after a rocky period creatively in the 1990s, he returned to form in the mid-2000s and became the director of choice for a new generation of actors. But something had changed: a shadow had fallen over his work, his jokes seemed more contrived, and one wondered sometimes if one really ought to be laughing at them.

It was all a far cry from the nerdy brilliance of his youth. Born Allan Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn in 1935, he'd started writing jokes for comedians while still at high school, and learnt the comic trade writing material for The Tonight Show and Sid Caesar. He later became tired of pumping out jokes for other comics, and decided to try stand-up himself.

In his most overtly autobiographical film, Annie Hall, he refers to the chronic stage fright he suffered when he began performing, but the nervous, bookish persona he adopted was partly an act. His apologetic delivery suited his material perfectly, and what brilliant material it was. "I cheated in my metaphysics exam," he confessed to his audience, "I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me". He boasted about having taken a speed-reading course: "I read War and Peace in 20 minutes - it's about Russia". He was very proud of his gold watch - "my grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch".

His jokes were better than anyone else's and, inevitably, Hollywood came calling. In 1965, he wrote the screenplay for What's New Pussycat? a broad comedy about a neurotic ladies' man and his devious shrink. Allen took a small part in the film alongside Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers, but so detested watching someone else badly direct his ideas that he decided to try making films himself.

Starting with Take the Money and Run in 1969, he directed, wrote and starred in a series of winningly silly broad comedies that evoked the sparkling wit of his heroes the Marx Brothers as well as the graceful slapstick of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Diane Keaton became, for a time, his girlfriend, and for a longer time, his resident leading lady: they proved a peerless comic team in films like the futuristic farce Sleeper and Allen's brilliant pastiche of the Russian literary canon, Love and Death.

His 1977 romantic comedy Annie Hall was inspired by his relationship with Keaton, and managed to capture the emotional confusion of the generation that had come of age in the 1960s. The frank discussion of sex and sensuality was something new, and the film was a huge hit, winning Allen a much bigger audience and Best Picture and Director Oscars at the 1978 Academy Awards. He stayed away, of course, which made it all seem even cooler.

Mia Farrow replaced Keaton in Woody's ensemble in the early 1980s, but the hits just kept on coming, and she proved herself a versatile and accomplished actress in Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Radio Days.

When I was young, I was in awe of Allen's wit, intelligence and sheer originality. Because of him I was drawn to the films of the Marx Brothers, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini. He had an aphorism for every occasion, and for me could do no wrong. Which is why, when the guano hit the fan in the early 1990s, I found it very hard to accept that his little feet were made of clay.

It was easier to believe that Farrow was a crazed showbiz harpie than to accept that Woody might just be a creep. So, like many other diehards, I assumed the worst allegations were merely a consequence of a brutal celebrity divorce, and moved on.

But the signs were there if one wanted to see them. Allen's 1979 film Manhattan centred around a romance between a 42-year-old former stand-up comedian and a 17-year-old schoolgirl, and was based on a real relationship Woody had had with Stacey Nelkin.

In a 1993 interview with Time magazine, Allen discussed his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn , saying: "I didn't feel that just because she was Mia's daughter, there was any great moral dilemma. It was a fact, but not with any great moral import - it's not like she was my daughter."

It's not easy to accept, but all those great films Allen made are becoming harder and harder to watch.

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