Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lawyers, Guns and Woody: A Family and Film Post-Mortem

Nancy (played by Sheila Sullivan): “My lawyer will call your lawyer.”

Allan Felix (played by Woody Allen): “I don't have a lawyer. Have him call my doctor.”—Woody Allen, Play It Again, Sam (1969)

Earlier this week marked the 45th anniversary of the premiere of Play It Again, Sam, which represented Woody Allen’s only appearance as an actor on a Broadway stage. I thought that the lines in the comedy that established the template of his character on film in the early 1970s—inept, timid, helpless with women, and all the more endearing for all of that—would appear ironic in light of his more recent rocky love life. But I never thought that a line on the law might become newly relevant. As it happens, neither a lawyer nor a doctor can cure what ails him now.

Warren Zevon fans know the line that follows the reprise of his 1970s gonzo song, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”:  “The shit has hit the fan.” For Allen, no other line captures the true nature of his wrangling with former lover Mia Farrow

In the early 1990s, a one-word tabloid headline—inevitably, “BANANAS”—was perfectly adequate in summarizing how Allen was discovered to have taken naked photos of Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn; how Allen, who had never married Farrow, went on to wed Soon-Yi; and how, amid the resulting suit and countersuit over custody of children Dylan and Satchel (later Ronan), child-molestation accusations were hurled against the filmmaker.

The latest upheaval, however, is of an entirely different magnitude. Just a few months before a musical adaptation of his 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway appears on the Great White Way, only three weeks after a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes presented by frequent co-star Diane Keaton, Allen now faced something different: a party not heard from two decades ago. Adopted daughter Dylan Farrow alleged, in an open letter to The New York Times (published by family friend and that paper’s columnist, Nicholas Kristof), the nature of the abuse suffered at his hands when she was seven years old.

That wasn’t the only aspect of the situation that was new. This time, the child, now grown, put on the spot those who had gone on to work with Allen more recently. It made many people mighty uncomfortable.

Cate Blanchette, by all accounts a lovely person, looked distinctly pained when asked about being called out on her working relationship with Allen, and, as you might expect, spoke of the family’s “long and painful situation.”

Alec Baldwin, also true to form, was more vitriolic, in a tweet to a fan pressing him for a response: “What the f@% is wrong w u that u think we all need to b commenting on this family’s personal struggle? You are mistaken if you think there is a place for me, or any outsider, in this family’s issue.  USA is supposed to be THE place where you get a fair trial. Can a fair trial be conducted w everyone’s tired opinions on the internet? Americans have fallen victim to a sanctimony about things they know little about. You don’t ‘defend’ either party. You defend due process.”

Despite the difference in tone, the Blue Jasmine co-stars shared a subtext: Leave me alone, okay? This is a family matter. This is way too complicated for me, an actor, to make judgments.  As if reading their minds, an artful flack at Sony Pictures Classics, the distributor of Allen’s recent well-received films Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, noted in a press release: “This is a very complicated situation and a tragedy for everyone involved.”

“Complicated.” Hmmm…for all their undoubted intelligence, these individuals, like so many of their other brothers and sisters in the profession, simply don’t understand that the word “complicated” does not apply to Allen’s situation. Nor do a couple of other “C” words. Really, there is only one that, indisputably, works.

But let’s consider first why “complicated” doesn’t apply. Complicated is onetime Los Angeles Dodger great Steve Garvey getting two women pregnant while marrying a third. (It's also irresponsibly stupid, but that's another matter.) In the case of many people who are getting divorced, complicated might involve two people, already with families, engaging in an extramarital affair. In terms that the Woodman might understand, taking up with a sister-in-law—as Michael Caine’s character did, in Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters—is very complicated. (I bet he would agree that the same description might apply to Mia Farrow’s close relationship with ex Frank Sinatra, which—judging from her recent Vanity Fair admission that son Ronan might “possibly” have been the singer’s offspring—crossed the line into intimacy, nearly two decades after their divorce.)   

Crass doesn’t even describe the actor-hyphenate’s relationship with the Farrows. That adjective best applies to a one-liner in his nightclub days about Harlene Rosen, whom he had divorced: “My first wife lives on the Upper West Side and I read in the paper the other day that she was violated on her way home—knowing my first wife, it was not a moving violation.”

Even the word criminal, used by both Allen’s allies and critics, isn’t relevant—at least, not now. Even if Allen did molest Dylan Farrow two decades ago, the statute of limitations has expired, so he currently faces no criminal liability from that act or any others of a similar nature occurring before it.

No, I’m afraid that the appropriate word for Allen’s predicament--his conduct, really--is creepy. I’m not even talking here strictly about the age difference between Ali, 57 years old at the time, and Soon-Yi (somewhere between 19 and 21), when their relationship was disclosed. (Among movie moguls and captains of industry, a much younger woman attached to an older woman is known as a “trophy wife.”) 

No, Allen had an affair with, then married, the adopted daughter of his longtime lover and mother of two other children he had adopted with Farrow. Even Los Angeles Times writer Robin Abcarian, who several weeks ago cautioned against a rush to public judgment about the case, also exactly summarized what Allen had done in this instance: “That is moral, if not legal, incest.”

(Or, as Phil Hartman’s Frank Sinatra told Dana Carvey’s Woody Allen, in a great Saturday Night Live skit about the affair at the time:  "Listen here, Wood-man: I know how it feels to want to trade up, but you gotta keep your hands off the kinder!")

Allen, famously in psychoanalysis for 30 years, stopped going after his marriage to Soon-Yi. Evidently, all that time on the couch never made him aware that sleeping with (and wedding) the adopted daughter of your lover is, as the judge deciding the custody battle between Allen and Farrow wrote, “grossly inappropriate.”

All Allen seems to have learned is a statement he issued when news of the affair broke: “The heart wants what it wants.” It is, of course (a phrase used by the filmmaker, in his open letter to the New York Times last week denying Dylan Farrow’s accusations), not his heart that was primarily responsible for the unresisted impulse to sleep with a woman who, by age and relationship, could not have been less appropriate for him.

In Allen’s 1988 Bergmanesque drama, Another Woman, the cardiologist Ken responds to a wife’s accusations of adultery on two separate occasions using the exact same, almost practiced speech: “I realize that you’ve been hurt, and if I’ve done anything wrong I’m sorry. I accept your condemnation.”

Screenwriter Allen condemns Ken as self-involved and heartless. In fact, whatever the truth about Allen and Dylan, his own role in tearing apart the Farrow family is not less so. Count the casualties: Soon-Yi, cut off from her family; brother Moses, who has taken Woody's side in the fracas; Ronan, no longer speaking to the man he regards (correctly) as his father and brother-in-law; and Dylan, either a pawn in a lover's quarrel (Allen's version) or a victim of horrible abuse (Dylan's and Mia's). In fact, Allen doesn’t accept any responsibility for the turmoil and hurt his lack of impulse control has caused over two decades. 

Two years ago, asked during a round of interviews for Midnight in Paris about his past notoriety, he responded, “What was the scandal? I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now. There was no scandal, but people refer to it all the time as a scandal and I kind of like that in a way because when I go I would like to say I had one real juicy scandal in my life."

In a way, it is understandable that so many people have continued to work with Allen over the past two decades. They can say, truthfully, that he was never charged with molesting Dylan (though the district attorney in the case has stated that this was due at the time to the massive difficulties involved with having the child testify). It is also the case that one would never work on a film or play again if one found objectionable any of the following as co-workers: not just child molesters, but also wife- and husband-stealers, raging drunks, drug peddlers, bodyguards and private investigators who act like organized-crime associates, financial chiselers, producers whose self-importance exceeds their duties, and bullying directors, any one of whom is likely to be associated with a production of any size. In fact, the only thing that might make people treat you like a disease carrier in Hollywood is if you make movies that lose a ton of money--a fate that Allen has avoided.

But Dylan Farrow, in effect, has not only called out all those who have worked with Allen, but all those (including myself) who have continued to watch his films. We may have been troubled, even shocked, at the time, but nothing was ever proven, all the facts in the case seemed to fade away, and, like a Presidential scandal of that decade, many regarded this as a "personal" matter from which everyone would be better off if all would just "move on." 

Now the allegations have been given greater force. Some fans who continued to patronize his films might snub his work completely from now on. Others will be more reluctant to part with their cash on such a man.

Possibly two of the darkest works in Allen's considerable filmography, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, involve men who seemingly get away with their offenses--not just in the eyes of the law, but even from a god whose existence they cannot recognize. They are left, in the end, with a private emptiness. Perhaps, despite the late-life acclaim and public denials of anything wrong, Allen feels the same moral vacuum. 

You wish, at the final credits, that it could all be resolved with "I've Heard That Song Before," the bouncy entry from the Great American Songbook that he used in Hannah and Her Sisters. But I'm afraid that, for the duration, we'll be left with the storm und drang of Zevon, in the cacophony of tweets, journalists, critics, publicists, and lawyers. 

No comments: