The Tricky Business of Being a Woody Allen Fan

How is it possible that I can be horrified by his behavior, and still support his career?

Jan 17, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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Like a lot of you, I was curiously riveted by the "American Master" documentary on PBS, about the work and life of Woody Allen. It was cautiously and almost gingerly rendered by director Robert Wiede (best known for his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" work). We get his early, miserable childhood in Brooklyn, his stand-up days and joke writing for Catskills comedians -- his foray into fame, and of course, scandal. And, as we are often reminded, the man plays a mean clarinet.

I know this might make me a suspect human being, but the whole enterprise of talking about Woody Allen films and Woody Allen, the person, reminded me of how much I've separated the two in my head.If you've enjoyed an Elia Kazan film or a Picasso painting, or if you've ever rooted for any sports team whose players have engaged in unethical conduct, you know this particular feeling of conflict.

I don't advocate disregarding men who have repulsive personal lives, simply because they're "artists," but I realized that I will probably never abstain from watching a new Woody Allen film because of my feelings for him as a person, or let it color my appreciation for his earlier work.  How is it possible that I can be horrified by his behavior, and still support his career?

My only explanation is that I have disassociated the movies, even with all of their prurient autobiographical parts, with the more prurient details of Woody Allen himself.

Similarly, I've watched Roman Polanski movies like "Carnage," and not felt sick to my stomach thinking of a young girl in a hot tub at Jack Nicholson's house. I can even munch popcorn and watch "Manhattan" -- where he romances a seventeen-year-old girl -- and not be thinking the entire time, "Gross. This is the road to Soon-Yi."

There's some murky gray area that protects talented people -- artists, especially  -- that uses their strength of their work as a salve for their misdeeds, or dismisses their perversions as eccentricities, and part of me wants to say, a good movie is a good movie, even when made by a douchebag. Another tries to believe there's the media's story, the culprit's story and then the truth.

Take the controversial documentary on Polanski that aired on HBO a few years back. While its goal was ostensibly to paint a clearer picture of a strange and disturbing incident, it was admittedly very pro-Polanski. The details of the event were biased to say that the young girl who Polanski raped (whether or not it was "just" statutory -- which is a horrifying enough qualification to have to make) was a willing participant who was more a victim of a stage mom who willingly left her child in the lion's den.

The film introduced irrelevant details -- like the fact that the victim was not a virgin at the time of her rape -- alongside compelling arguments, like the fact the legal proceedings were marred by the press and a famewhore judge. I watched it with one of my best friends, and got into an all-out drunk argument about whether or not Polanski merited a blanket boycott.

What was made most clear in this documentary is the difficulty of justifying conduct through art, but also the difficulty of dismissing art entirely based on conduct.

Now, Woody's scandal is of a different color than Polanski's. For me, his behavior incurs more of a moral, "How the hell could you do that to a woman you love(d) with her kid?" outrage. His affair with his partner's 20-year-old daughter was supposedly discovered when she found nude photos and confronted him while they filming "Husbands and Wives" together. What followed was a lengthy custody battle for their shared children and allegations of child abuse (which were never proven).

In June of last year, Reuters quoted Allen as saying, "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."

Clearly, I think that's way too easy. But it's how he justifies the behavior to the media.

In the American Master's documentary, he seemed sheepish, but by no means contrite when alluding (very briefly) to the events of the early 90s. He praises Mia Farrow's performances in his films and leaves it at that. Louise Lasser (an early ex-wife) and Diane Keaton (a great love and former muse) have stood by him, and critics have long seen fit to look past the ick factor when assessing his work.

And like, Polanski, Woody Allen kept working, and at some point, the work helped eclipse his personal life. I'm sure plenty of people who see "Chinatown" or "The Pianist" knowing nothing of the headlines that almost destroyed his career. It's possible that fact that Polanski and Allen been so prolific, and that these scandals broke so long ago, may have something to do with why I'm able to watch their films.

So, yes. I still pay money to see the work of men who have unquestionably done terrible things. They've broken the law, hurt a lot of people and certainly have clouded their legacies as human beings. But they're also extremely talented writers and directors who can still command some of film's most exciting performers to work with them on a consistent basis.

Woody Allen's career is an unusual case, since so many of his films are baldly autobiographical. But, much in the same way he's stopped appearing in his own films and opted for younger, likeable "Woody Allen, the Character" stand-ins, so has the spectre of "Woody Allen, the person" -- for better or for worse.