The Case of Woody: Eat Your Cake and Have None of It
The private, public, and artistic lives of Mr. Soon-Yi Previn.
November 30, 2013 | Cake | December 2013
Woody Allen is an extraordinary filmmaker. The quality and currency of his finest work—Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, Midnight in Paris—vaults him to the front of the pack at the outset of any sensible discussion about the greatest comedy filmmakers of all-time. Woody Allen’s virtuosic talents before (spatially and temporally) and behind the camera are undeniable.
Near-hagiographic praise of Allen’s oeuvre is often tendered, sometimes fairly (“He’s an incomparable talent!”), sometimes sympathetically (“His ongoing struggle to match ‘vintage Woody’ is practically Sisyphean!”), and sometimes absurdly (“Blue Jasmine is alright, but it’s no Alice!”). Allen’s place among the pantheon of filmic funnymen is uncontested and uncontroversial.
But Woody Allen is not a saint. Woody Allen is not a god. Woody Allen is not uncontroversial.
In 1980, Allen began dating actress Mia Farrow. From 1981 to 1992, Farrow appeared in twelve of the thirteen films Allen directed.
People always confuse my movies and my life.
Farrow entered the relationship with six children—three biological sons and three adopted daughters—from her marriage to composer Andre Previn. Farrow adopted two more children (Dylan and Moses) after her divorce from Previn in 1979; Allen adopted both in December 1991. Allen and Farrow’s courtship produced one son (Satchel).
I was not a father to her adopted kids in any sense of the word.
The pair maintained separate living spaces. They did not marry.
I’ve never in my entire life slept at Mia’s apartment.
In January 1992, Mia Farrow discovered several nude snapshots of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi—then about 20 years old—in Woody Allen’s apartment.
Soon-Yi had talked about being a model.
Allen, 56, confessed to a consensual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, legal half-sibling to his three children. For all you folks keeping score at home: That’s a 36-year disparity. Allen had entered Soon-Yi’s life (her exact birthdate is unknown) when she was nine-or-so years old.
The only thing unusual is that she's Mia's daughter.
This is not ethical. For someone with such a penchant for on-screen moralizing, Allen seemed oblivious to the sinister dimension of his conduct.
I didn't feel that, just because she was Mia's daughter, there was any great moral dilemma.
That winter, Allen had driven recklessly. He found himself sliding out of control.
This was not some type of family unit in any remote way.
Woody Allen turned into the skid.
Sometimes equality in a relationship is great; sometimes inequality makes it work.
Allen and Soon-Yi Previn have been married for 16 years. They’ve adopted two children of their own.
I’m in love with her.
After learning of his in-house infidelity, Farrow accused Allen of molesting Dylan, their seven-year-old daughter. Allen vehemently denied the allegations and sued for custody of Dylan, Moses, and Satchel. An ugly saga turned uglier.
I have not molested my daughter, nor would I ever.
Information about Farrow’s damning claims and Allen’s damning tryst with Soon-Yi captivated public attention throughout the latter half of 1992. [In August 1992, Allen defended his actions in an interview—quotations from which are italicized herein—with Walter Isaacson of TIME.] Allen was denied custody but acquitted of sexual misconduct.
How has the dissemination of this information affected Allen’s legacy?
With apologies to Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, Woody Allen had already cemented his standing as the quintessential triple-threat auteur by the time his transgressions (alleged or otherwise) came to light. Between 1965 and 1990, Allen tackled the three-headed monster of writing, directing, and acting—let’s call it the “Hollywood Trinity”—for a whopping sixteen feature films. And though widespread acclaim largely eluded him during the noughties, two of Allen’s last three films—Paris and Jasmine—have been stone-cold good. Allen’s artistic reputation is safe.
Allen’s legacy has been compromised only to the extent that vague and ominous epithets like “beleaguered” and “controversial” may forever haunt his name in print. In hindsight, the Allen-Farrow scandal may have catalyzed the deification of “vintage Woody” by steering critics toward a singular reference point for Allen’s mid-career. It’s starting to make sense: Allen’s directorial career now spans twenty-plus years on either side of 1992.
It seems that the film community has—perhaps consciously, perhaps not—assigned an almost mystical significance to the saga. Scandal—not age, not creative fatigue, not the nineties—thrust “vintage Woody” into his "late" period; its psychological toll must have robbed Woody Allen of his powers.
How should Allen’s troublesome biography color our approach to his filmography? Should we sweep it under the rug—trivializing his wrongdoing such to better enjoy his artistry? Should we boycott his films and distribute “Team Farrow” tee-shirts—trivializing the brilliance of his work such to flaunt our morality? Should we don latex gloves and surgical masks and endeavor to separate man from artist—carelessly bisecting their shared vital organs?
If you, like me, find none of these options particularly satisfying, you’re in luck. In the past, I have been guilty of espousing the “under-the-rug” mentality. I’ve defended or dismissed Allen’s reprehensible behavior when faced with complaints about his creepiness and depravity.
But there’s a healthier solution: Embrace the cognitive dissonance! Allen’s greatest achievements have, like him, been dichotomous: heartrending comedy-dramas, intellectual slapsticks, whimsical tragedies. Allen’s specialty is packing laugh-out-loud moments into prevailingly bleak scenarios. He paints gloomy portraits with a vibrant palette. His principal characters are sometimes less-than-likable, but we root for them—for their self-improvement, maybe—nonetheless.
The plots of my movies don't have any relationship to my life.
Discounting Allen’s reticence to admit it, every artist draws upon his or her experience and emotionality in the execution of his or her craft. Allen’s challenging (and therefore enriching!) films are rendered doubly so (on both counts!) by our judicious consideration of their grounding in their creator’s reality. It is not merely possible but advisable to relish Allen’s work whilst reviling certain of his choices; doing so will facilitate our understanding of both.
You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that.
Except when it isn’t.
My name is Joey Whitaker. I’m a second-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I’m also a human being.