Critic's Notebook: Why I Will Never Watch a New Woody Allen Film Again
As 'Wonder Wheel' hits theaters, one film critic explains how she went from Woody Allen fan to Woody Allen boycotter.
I used to say I was a Woody Allen fan; now I’m done with him. My last Allen film was 2015’s Irrational Man, which I liked, unlike most critics. But I decided very recently, with much struggle, that I no longer want to be part of contributing to his income or promoting his films — to increasing his power. It’s taken me a lifetime to get to this point.
One of my favorite films when I was a kid was Sleeper (1973). My mom was an Allen fan and still is, but she banned him from our household movie nights in the ’90s because of the Soon-Yi scandal. Around Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), my mom stopped holding out. "He's too funny," she said.
The first new film I reviewed professionally was a Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris (2011). As a female critic, it was easy for me to get assignments writing about quirky old movies, but the more established male critics usually claimed new releases. I made my case to my editor and wrote my first review. I worked hard to get into the auteur-appreciating boys' club. I organized and moderated a panel on Woody Allen with some renowned critics. I even named a small indie festival I ran "La Di Da" after Diane Keaton's catchphrase in 1977's Annie Hall. But, like many others, I had to rethink my role as a critic and a fan after “An Open Letter from Dylan Farrow” was published in The New York Times in 2014.
I’ve thought frequently of Farrow in the last few weeks. After the publication of several detailed articles in the Times, The New Yorker and others, we are finally believing women's stories of sexual harassment and assault. But when Farrow wrote about her experience and her subsequent lifetime of trauma, her story was met with some doubt. Why? Because it was first-person instead of third-person? In all these stories, there are usually just two people alone in a room.
A reminder: Experiences of assault are often told by people who have less power than the people they're accusing. These people have little to gain from telling their story but a disruption of their lives, hate mail and a bad reputation. What do their accusers have to gain from denying it? A maintenance of their greater power. Why would we believe these two sides equally? When someone is mugged and points out the man who did it, do we believe the two sides equally?
After Dylan’s piece ran in the paper, Allen spun it, in his own op-ed, into a story about Woody vs. Mia, and portrayed Dylan as a mere pawn in their break-up. It’s an old narrative. As Justice Elliott Wilk wrote in his 1993 custody ruling: "Mr. Allen's resort to the stereotypical 'woman scorned' defense is an injudicious attempt to divert attention from his failure as a responsible parent and adult.”
What more is there to say after Dylan’s own words (which are too painful to revisit, but you can read here)? Still, as a critic, there’s another concern: How can I trust a storyteller who resorts to that old “woman scorned” chestnut? Here’s where I have to note that my past admiration for Allen had several exceptions. I didn’t make too much of the uncomfortable, sexist frissons in his work, since they’re there in the work of essentially every male director I admire. But Allen’s idolatry of “neurotic women” (seen most clearly and without humor in the 1980 Fellini rip-off Stardust Memories) has always rubbed me the wrong way; at its worst, this tendency of his is reminiscent of a classic abuse technique of being drawn to the most vulnerable, the easiest to control.
I believe Dylan, but I also believe Soon-Yi and her charges against her mother, that she felt undervalued compared to her white siblings. This makes Soon-Yi finding the attention she craved in Allen's bed all the more disturbing. As Justice Wilk stated in the same custody case: “Having isolated Soon-Yi from her family, [Allen] provided her with no visible support system.”
I’m embarrassed to say that despite all this, I was still interested in Allen as a filmmaker. I've wrestled with this contradiction for years. Bad people sometimes make great art. But what culture does that create? And how much do we as fans, critics and film professionals contribute to shaping that culture? This is the way it's always been, but does it have to be?
There was another, maybe hypocritical but also critically sound, reason Irrational Man was my last stand. I don't think he has anything more of value to say. He said it all with Irrational Man, the first film he made after Dylan's op-ed ran, though it was written years before. It's an odd, interesting movie about guilt and trauma, in which the lead character (played by Joaquin Phoenix) dies as punishment for his hubris in killing a judge. Most of his late films (since 1992) are either odd, anguished and depressing, or somewhat disassociated. And what's the value in an artist who's disconnected from himself? Very little. But Irrational Man was weirdly open. At the press conference for the film’s Cannes premiere, Allen described the character played by Emma Stone (a college student whom Phoenix’s character, a professor, romances) like this: "The character will have her whole life thinking about such a traumatic experience she had with Joaquin [Phoenix]… When she's in her forties or fifties or sixties, her perspective will change."
In the film, Parker Posey portrays Phoenix’s neurotic former lover, someone who tells everyone about his crime, but isn’t believed since she’s thought to be acting in revenge after being dumped for a younger woman. If seen through a biographical lens, the film doesn’t quite show Allen’s remorse, but rather a shocking honesty. A different kind of candor was on display a few years earlier in Blue Jasmine, in which the blame for family trauma is placed not on the criminal husband (Alec Baldwin), but on his wife (Cate Blanchett), who chooses to turn a blind eye to his crimes rather than disrupt her lifestyle. I was fascinated by this point of view, but I've had my fill.
Even though the actual judicial system usually fails sexual harassment and assault victims, we are not judge and jury deciding guilt and punishment. But we are the public who gave these men the power that they’ve abused. What we can do is realize how that power helped create these situations. ("I'll take you to Paris.” “You should model or be a movie star.") We have a choice in those to whom we continue to give power. Deciding to support one work rather than another is not an act of censorship. (There is already so much art by women that gets ignored!) Instead it's about making choices, acting consciously, shaping and editing our cultural consumption instead of doing what's always been done. Maybe maintaining a sickening status quo is optional. There are other options, but they require letting go of old habits.
I want a world in which Diane Keaton doesn’t need a Woody Allen to get across her style and humor, to win an Academy Award. Because aren’t the best Allen films — Annie Hall, Sleeper, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) — actually Diane Keaton movies? Annie Hall is Allen's masterpiece by a wide margin, but according to multiple sources, Keaton wasn't Allen's first choice for the title role. He originally wanted to cast Kay Lenz (from Clint Eastwood's 1973 pic Breezy), but her boyfriend, David Cassidy, objected. It's worth noting that Lenz was in her early 20s at the time, while Keaton was seven years older.
Allen instead offered the role to his ex-girlfriend Keaton, obviously an inspiration for the character, who brought even more of herself than written, with her eccentric clothes and mannerisms. Originally, Hall was one of three relationships featured in a sprawling film (titled Anhedonia) that included a murder mystery, a meeting with the Devil and a basketball game with philosophers. But editor Ralph Rosenblum noted in his 1979 book When the Shooting Stops... The Cutting Begins: "It was clear to Woody and me that the film started moving whenever present-tense material with him and Keaton dominated the screen, and so we began cutting in the direction of that relationship." And so Annie Hall, including its novelistic structure, was born.
Allen has said recently that he doesn't think Annie Hall is anything special and seems surprised by its popular and critical appeal. It didn't turn out the way he envisioned. At the time it was released, he said: “It was originally a picture about me, exclusively, not about a relationship.” So then who is the author of Allen's masterpiece? Rosenblum? Keaton? Now I question what invisible systems of power led me to say that I like Woody Allen movies, instead of saying that I'm a Diane Keaton fan.