When an idol falls, a larger-than-life statue of stone erected by a previous generation, already weathered by age and winds, and cracked, and cocooned in ropes and grappling hooks; when this idol falls, even innocent bystanders may be hit by flying shrapnel. And so it is with the eternal question: Is it still “appropriate” to worship Woody Allen?
And this is not a flippant question. It’s one that comedy and film fans have had to wrestle with for over two decades. And until recently, the “right” answer was to ignore the question, to pretend it didn’t exist, and hope that by ignoring it, it went away and died on its own.
It would seem that, if you have a working Internet connection and the time to read this blog, then you already probably watched this year’s Golden Globes, followed the Mia Farrow Twitter drama, formed an opinion, and wrote a comment on one of the insta-opinion pieces that popped up within the hours that followed.
I’ve always been worried about the health of these gawkerite writers; they seem so able to whip up genuine outrage within seconds of an event that one wonders if they live their lives constantly teetering on the edge of a heart attack. Or perhaps they’re just wildly, emotionally unstable, an army of psychodynamic adult children who finally have an audience that, in previous generations, would have been thwarted by petty standards in journalism or writing ability.
In any case, the whole event is sad. Woody Allen was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, and a singing and dancing Diane Keaton accepted on his behalf. A would-be charming moment in the flurry of fluff that is televised awards-giving, designed to be consumed, forgotten, and expelled in pellet form in a half-second clip in an “in memoriam” reel.
Instead, Mia Farrow, Woody Allen’s one-time partner and leading lady, and Ronan Farrow, the sole issue of their union (or perhaps not), took that moment on Twitter to remind the audience following along at home, of an awful moment of awful behavior in Woody Allen’s history.
As a nerdy, odd-looking, ugly preteen and teenager, a true geek, who preferred reading Vonnegut to attending gym class, who had no idea what music was in the Top Ten but could quote entire episodes of Monty Python and The Prisoner, watching Woody Allen was a revelation, an epiphany in the truest definition of the word; a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something. A revelatory manifestation of a divine being.
Here was a guy like me, just like me. A Jewy New Yorker from the outer boroughs, told by all the world that he’s an oddball, a schnook, a loser. Not just smarter than everyone around him, but wittier, and funnier, and quicker than everyone, too. And despite all of his flaws, and maybe even because of them, he outwits everyone and gets the beautiful girl.
And not just in the movies, but in real life, too; Woody Allen the Character was written and directed in Woody Allen Movies by Woody Allen the Successful Artist who was really dating all the beautiful women in Woody Allen the Man’s movies. If the Woody Allen brand was intertwined with the Woody Allen character was intertwined with the Woody Allen real person, all three combined to create a new kind of hero. SuperNerd.
And while other movies I watched as a child, like Revenge of the Nerds or Police Academy or Meatballs or even slobs-versus-snobs classics like Stripes and Caddyshack, showed misfits succeeding in spite of their social handicaps, holding them up for a bit of a laugh as they also held them up to be empathized with, Woody Allen was alone in saying, “No, it rocks to be the weirdo and loser, because at the end of the day, he’s the guy who is on top of everything.” I just about wore down our VHS dub of Bananas one year, and rented films like Sleeper and Annie Hall over and over, because they were funny as hell, and because they gave me hope, and gave me a role model at a time when I had very few.
And I do mean “role model” in the most literal sense. At a point, ten years ago, when I was super lazy about my standup, when I barely qualified as being a standup comedian, it was reading Eric Lax’ biography about Woody Allen, that really kicked my ass to put work back into my craft.
Like many young people who get into standup, I assumed that natural talent and a preternatural sense of entitlement would give me a career, a sense which was strongly counterbalanced by my sense of resentment against my peers who seemed able to get their careers in order.
It was reading about all of the work that Woody Allen put into his work that got me going again. Reading about all of the work that Allen put into his act, from the writing to the crafting the persona, to the PR work he did (he got his start writing bon mots for a PR agency to put in its clients’ mouths for the gossip columns; it’s no accident that Woody Allen the brand is intertwined with all of his other public facets).
It made me sit down and write and get ambitious with my work. I listened to the classic Standup Comedian compilation, and then hunted down the earlier individual albums that it came from.
(A perfect standup bit.)
I listened to how the jokes were structured, and reverse-engineered his writing process. I’ll write a boring essay about my boring writing process some other time. Needless to say, the earliest fruits of this labor were two jokes that I spent time crafting; a pair of longer bits that combined one-liners into narrative flows.
One was a whole bit that conflated the travails of the New York Mets with an advertising campaign for The Olive Garden, a bit that I am now rewriting in the hopes that it can be salvaged for how outdated all the references are. The other is a bit about karate that I did on a special (start watching at 2:55).
None of this excuses the crimes that Woody Allen is accused of. In the early 1990s, when Woody Allen split with his long-time partner and muse Mia Farrow, and began publicly conducting a romantic relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, it came at the tail end of an intense, and emotionally exhausting period of tabloid journalism, the dizzying likes of which we may never live to see again.
In a city coming off a 20-year period of corruption and decay and crime and filth and fear, the local papers did more than reflect the fractured mood of the times, they served to intensify it. From Tawana Brawley to Amy Fisher and the Buttafuocos, the tabloids did more than report the story; they fed the story, led the story, and helped take a bad situation and make it worse.
If ever an industry deserved to be set back and brought to its knees by the advent of the Internet, it was New York City’s world of print journalism.
In any case, the Woody Allen affair became one more gut punch, one more awful story to be absorbed, discussed on morning radio, and spit back out. Woody was accused of starting an affair with Soon-Yi when she was 14 years old, but (especially in retrospect) one can rationalize it; they both deny it and now they’re in love and now they’re getting married. Mia Farrow wants him to go to jail for molesting their daughter, but everyone says that’s the just the bitter ravings of a woman scorned, and we all know how that goes, especially a publicly-humiliated woman in a bitter divorce.
And so, nobody went to jail and nobody was formally accused of a crime. And so the world goes on, and other public outrages pop up, and Bullets Over Broadway was a return to the funny Woody Allen we all wanted anyway.
And Roman Polanski was proved to have drugged and raped a teenage girl, and the world winked as he fled overseas, and when he won an Oscar, many of the same Internaterati who are now shaming Woody Allen then turned a blind eye.
But there is no burying the past, there is only covering it and hoping the cruel winds don’t blow the protective layer away. Future generations will be able to whitewash these mens’ films. We of the present will have to live with the context in which they live their lives.
Especially my heroes, the artists of the Baby Boom who were not only human, but defiantly so. And so, part of accepting the genius of Bob Dylan is accepting the failed (and secret) marriages. Part of understanding the dark magic of Richard Pryor is understanding the depths that drug addiction takes you to. And all the premature deaths of the rock royalty can be written off as the price paid for a life lived so beautifully and filled with so much pleasure. But Woody Allen, and the crimes of which he’s accused…
I’m actually putting off even writing this part! Well, enough procrastination. During the 2014 Golden Globes, when a singing and dancing Diane Keaton presented Woody Allen lifetime achievement award, amidst the social media whoops of “You go girl!” and “Diane Keaton’s so beautiful!” and “I want her suit!”, Mia and Ronan Farrow dropped twin bombshells, reminding the world that Woody Allen not only had an unpleasant divorce 21 years ago, but that his daughter accused him of taking her to a secluded spot and molesting her.
This comes a few months after Vanity Fair conducted an auspiciously-timed followup to an article from 21 years ago, interviewing Farrow and her family, about the Allen affair.
And so this all brings me to question: What happens when your hero is the Minotaur? When your god is not merely human, but harboring a Cthulhu-type multi-tentacled demon from another dimension? Can I ever truly enjoy a Woody Allen film in peace, or attend another revival screening? (Already, the Soon-Yi affair made Manhattan, a highly-autobiographical film about a Woody Allen type orchestrating a love affair with a teenaged Mariel Hemingway, uncomfortable viewing.)
The slender reed to which I cling is this: It was never proven true in a court of law. Which is not to say that I am calling the Farrows liars; quite the opposite. This isn’t about them, this is about me and the fact that a man that I spent a large chunk of my life patterning the other large chunk of my life after, may not just be a man of flesh and blood, but a man who has committed one of the few crimes that all of the civilized world agrees is unforgivable.
I wish that I could say that I could be a quote-unquote “decent human being” and never watch a Woody Allen movie again, or listen to his standup again. I wish I could say that. But it may not be true. I may not be strong enough to deny myself things that have given me so much pleasure my whole life.
I also wish that I could be clinical enough to separate Woody Allen the man from Woody Allen the artist. But Woody Allen the savvy marketer has made sure that that’s somewhat impossible. In the process of separating the two, I may find it easier to tear myself apart.
In any case, I am aware that I am the least of the (alleged) victims in this whole, tragic affair. I’d like, I’d really like, to say that all of this nonsense is none of my business, but we live in a world where it’s appropriate for the players in a messy business to take their case directly to the public, without contacting lawyers. And so, I am now, by supporting Woody Allen’s artistic endeavours, implicitly implied in his alleged crimes.