The most essential, important viewing of the year so far concerns one of the most hotly litigated celebrity cases in modern American history — with the national media, the celebrity-industrial complex, and the public at large giving benefit of the doubt to one person.
The wrong one.
“Allen v. Farrow,” a four-part documentary series premiering Sunday night on HBO, is a story that could only be told in the #MeToo era. Much early criticism holds that the series is one-sided, but that elides a pervasive, decades-long truth: The dominant narrative has been created, spun and cemented by Woody Allen himself.
The triumph of this series is its methodical disarticulation of Allen’s version of events — what I, and countless others, would call his fiction.
At the crux of the series is Dylan Farrow’s consistent and unchanging accusation that Woody, her father, sexually assaulted her in the family attic in 1992 when she was seven years old.
Allen and his defenders have long claimed this accusation was not just a lie, but a scheme cooked up by Dylan’s mother Mia, who — think about whether this storyline would fly today — was motivated by jealousy and rage over Allen’s sexual involvement with Mia’s 20-year-old daughter Soon-Yi, an involvement that likely began when Soon-Yi was 16 years old.
At the time, Allen was 42.
So the famously press-averse Allen, in a sudden barrage of press conferences and interviews, argued in sum and substance: “Mia’s crazy! Yes, she discovered nude pictures I’d taken of Soon-Yi, but so what? So what if I’m having sex with Soon-Yi? It’s not like I’m her father, or her father figure, even though I take her out and give her special attention and am father to three of her younger siblings and have been romantically involved with her mother for 12 years. This is all totally normal. Mia’s the irrational one, so hysterical and out for revenge that she made our seven-year-old daughter believe I molested her.”
Again: Would such convoluted and misogynistic claims ever fly today? Would a famous, wealthy, powerful middle-aged man be permitted to deflect a highly credible claim of child abuse by hiding behind an “affair” with a young girl who, for all intents and purposes, was his step-daughter — Dylan’s own sister? To commit — in my opinion — one form of incest, if not another?
Looking at Allen’s contemporaneous “60 Minutes” interview as it appears in the documentary is enraging: Here is reporter Steve Kroft regarding Allen with bemusement and familiarity rather than say, I don’t know, journalistic impartiality, nodding along as Allen offers this strange and chilling defense: “If I wanted to be a child molester, I had many opportunities in the past.”
As this documentary makes clear, that incident with Dylan was an escalation of previous unwanted behavior by Allen.
The case built by filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering is brutal, devastating and convincing. Multiple witnesses to Allen’s escalating obsession with Dylan speak here, including family friends, babysitters, and Farrow’s sister Tisa, who recalls a summer day when the children were running around naked, Allen applying sunscreen to little Dylan.
“His hand went down between her buttocks and kind of lingered there and suggestively — I have to say suggestively, because that’s what it was — went between her buttocks’ cheeks with his finger and then came back,” Tisa says. “And Mia saw it too and snatched the sunscreen away.”
But no one is as compelling and believable as Dylan herself. Now 35, she speaks calmly, clearly and consistently about what Allen did to her, how it progressed, and how she was so little she didn’t know for sure what he was doing was wrong, even though she felt it was.
“I worshipped him,” Dylan says, so when Allen began “directing me on how to suck his thumb, telling me what to do with my tongue,” she thought: Maybe this is how dads are with their daughters. Same when he began cuddling with her in bed, both of them only in their underwear.
“I remember his breath on me,” Dylan says. “He would just wrap his body around me very intimately.”
Family friend Priscilla Gilman testifies to seeing Allen getting out of that bed in his underwear. She also says she saw Dylan sucking Allen’s thumb, Allen claiming that “this calms her down.”
Over time, Dylan says she tried to hide from Allen, describing him as a stalker.
“He was always hunting me,” she says, and no shortage of witnesses agree. The third episode contains a somehow forgotten contemporaneous TV news report: Parents at Dylan’s NYC Episcopal school were so alarmed over Allen’s presence, constantly positioning himself outside her classroom to watch her, that they complained.
And there’s more, so much more: The tens of thousands of documents studied by the filmmakers; the false narrative that there was never enough proof to prosecute Allen for sexually abusing Dylan (there was, but possible psychological damage to the child dissuaded the state’s attorney, who appears here); the child sex abuse expert who tells us that most 7-year-olds, unlike Dylan, would have no knowledge of such acts as inserting a finger into a vagina or the anus; the home movies and memorialized interviews in which 7-year-old Dylan tells the same story over and over again, never deviating but evincing shame, guilt, and asking not to talk about it anymore; and the telephone conversations between Woody and Mia, each secretly taping the other, including one in which Mia begs Woody to answer one question: Where was he that summer afternoon in 1992, when he and Dylan went missing for 20 minutes at the house, no one able to find them — those 20 minutes in which Dylan says he assaulted her?
‘When the time comes,” he says, voice remarkably low and steady, “ . . . all about that eventually.”
If that doesn’t sound like an innocent man to you, you’re not alone. Jennifer Sawyer, one of the social workers assigned to Dylan’s case by the Yale New Haven Child Sex Abuse Clinic — which quickly destroyed all notes related to this case — said that she not only believed Dylan but that she thought the girl had more to disclose.
As for that other canard of Allen defenders, that the judge in the Woody-Mia custody hearing — oh yes, Woody Allen turned around and sued Mia for custody of Dylan and two other children — found no evidence that Allen abused Dylan, not so.
Judge Elliot Wilk found that Allen’s behavior towards Dylan was “grossly inappropriate” and that “measures must be taken to protect her.” Allen has consistently denied all allegations of ever abusing Dylan.
Ever unruffled and impervious to shame, Allen promptly called a press conference, declaring the ruling “tragic for the kids.”
Over the past few months, we’ve seen an array of famous men revealed as monsters hiding in plain sight: Johnny Depp, Marilyn Manson, all with no daylight between their outsized public personas — ones so cartoonish we are left to think they must be put-ons — and their dangerous private selves.
So too is the case with Allen, as this documentary makes clear. He was, of course, protected by many things: A pre-Internet world, a yet-to-be atomized news media dominated by male elites, and a system that didn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, let alone believe Anita Hill or Juanita Broaddrick — in other words, a society that still minimized or outright dismissed women.
Mia isn’t perfect. It’s clear that the Allen-Farrow household could be unwieldy, both logistically and emotionally. But we should be sufficiently evolved to acknowledge that Mia doesn’t have to be perfect for Allen to be guilty.
And in that retrograde climate of the early 1990s, there was nothing considered strange about a revered writer-director whose most common themes were romances — predations, in today’s parlance — between middle-aged men, characters often played by Allen, and much younger women and girls, some only 17.
Documentarians Kirby and Ziering ably prosecute Allen as yet another free-roaming monster through an examination of 1979’s “Manhattan.”
Still regarded as one of Allen’s masterpieces, we are now asked to re-examine the opening scene: Four people seated around a dinner table at Elaine’s, two couples, three of the diners in their forties, the other a girl of seventeen.
The girl was played by Mariel Hemingway, herself then just 16 years old to Allen’s forty-two. She was, in real life, a virgin. “I was scared,” she said in 2015, of having to kiss Allen, anxious for weeks, relieved once it was over even though Allen, Hemingway said, “attacked me like I was a linebacker.”
In the film, Allen depicts Hemingway’s character as the seducer and the pursuer, Allen the reluctant and level-headed adult. In fact, Allen’s character keeps trying to back away and let Hemingway’s down easy, telling her she should date boys her own age — a strategy he’d later deploy, the documentary claims, with Soon-Yi.
What has since come to light, and is still all-too-forgotten, is that Allen based Hemingway’s character on his real-life teenage girlfriend at the time, who appears here. What society normalized then, Christine Englehardt tells us, has haunted her all her life.
In 2002 Woody Allen, who openly loathed the Oscars and spent decades snubbing ceremonies that kept awarding his works, deigned to appear. After all, he owed so much to his enablers in the industry, those who not only kept on starring in his movies but defended him publicly. On this night, they gave him — as they would child rapist Roman Polanski one year later — rousing applause.
As recently as 2014, after yet another Oscar nomination for Woody Allen, Dylan drafted a first-person essay, one rejected by editors at the L.A. Times and New York Times — another decision that would be questioned today.
Dylan’s essay castigated Hollywood for assuming a mantle of disinterest, for claiming that the matter would forever be a mystery or, as Cate Blanchett put it, a family issue (Allen got her that Oscar, after all), for adding to an existing personal torment that manifested in an eating disorder, cutting, a fear of men.
“All but a precious few,” she wrote in part, “turned a blind eye. Actors praised him at awards shows. Networks put him on TV. Critics put him in magazines. Each time I saw my abuser’s face — on a poster, on a T-shirt, on television — I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.”
Meanwhile, Allen — granted a rebuttal on the New York Times Op-Ed page — laments, as only he can, his steady excision from the culture. Consider this gripe, rendered without irony: “I was cut out of a documentary about the Carlyle hotel!”
What better summation of what matters to Woody Allen?
Now happily married and a mother herself, Dylan’s struggle is hardly over. Keenly self-aware, she acknowledges she will struggle with the abuse, and the subsequent break-up of her nuclear family, for the rest of her life. It is clear she suffers from PTSD, and when her husband recounts the moment he first learned of what Allen had done to her — that he unwittingly triggered a memory while they were intimate — Dylan begins shaking.
At first it seems a mystery to her, why her body is reacting this way. She’s not cold, she says, even as her jaw shakes uncontrollably.
“It’s a lifelong sentence,” Dylan says, and now, we not only believe that she believes this happened — we do. We must. Not even Woody Allen could direct such a performance.