Deconstructing Woody Allen

Mia Farrow and Woody Allen star in Allen’s 1992 masterpiece, “Husbands and Wives.” Courtesy of TriStar Pictures.

Mia Farrow and Woody Allen star in Allen’s 1992 masterpiece, “Husbands and Wives.” Courtesy of TriStar Pictures.

“I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.”—Cecilia (Mia Farrow) in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985)

There’s a scene toward the end of Woody Allen’s 43rd feature, “Blue Jasmine,” in which its titular anti-heroine (played by an astonishing Cate Blanchett) comes face-to-face with her long-estranged adult son, Danny (Alden Ehrenreich). Unable to forgive his mother for her past indiscretions, Danny has chosen to make a new life for himself, settling for a mundane profession far different from that of his money laundering father (Alec Baldwin). When Jasmine learns of his whereabouts, Danny treats her coldly, insisting that she has no place in his life anymore. Indeed, the two characters live in entirely separate worlds—Danny has accepted the harsh truths of reality whereas Jasmine is hopelessly lost in her self-pitying delusions.

Like many scenes in Allen’s oeuvre, this one bears chilling parallels to the director’s own life. The now-infamous letter written by Allen’s long-estranged 28-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow, detailing alleged acts of sexual abuse he committed against her two decades ago, has caused even the filmmaker’s biggest fans to re-evaluate their perspective on his body of work. If Allen (who penned a rebuttal) is indeed found guilty, have his unforgivable crimes somehow invalidated his half-century of toweringly influential, largely beloved, often brilliant contributions to the cinematic art form? Absolutely not. Great art is always destined to transcend the reputation (and outlive the life) of its creator. Have they cast his films in an unsettling new light? Yes, but I’d hardly consider it new.

Throughout his entire career, Allen’s own psychological hang-ups, insecurities, obsessions and nagging weaknesses have taken center stage in film after film, so much so that the director has often been criticized of repeating himself. His compulsion to make one film a year speaks not only to Allen’s ever-present fear of death, but his love of basking in the fantasy of artifice. His refusal to watch his films as soon as they’re completed suggests that Allen can’t stand to look at his own past, for fear of micro-analyzing his shortcomings. And yet, Allen’s films are awash in nostalgia from the moment their opening credit roll blares a long-forgotten tune seemingly snagged from a dust-covered turntable. It’s nostalgia for an era that exists only in the wistful minds of dreamers like the Depression-era film lover in “Purple Rose of Cairo” or the starry-eyed writer in “Midnight in Paris.”

Perhaps that’s why Allen’s intellectual alter-egos are so often drawn to the idealism of youth, epitomized by his 17-year-old girlfriend (Oscar-nominee Mariel Hemingway) in “Manhattan.” That 1979 landmark also happened to feature a vengeful ex (Meryl Streep) that eerily foreshadows the unfathomable (and, let’s face it, justifiable) rage of Allen’s real-life ex and former frequent collaborator, Mia Farrow. Her discovery that Allen was having an affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, was preceded by a string of roles Allen wrote for her, many of which were women whose husbands were cheating on them. One of her most emotionally shattering roles was in Allen’s vastly underrated 1988 drama, “Another Woman,” where Farrow embodied the subconscious of an aging writer (Gena Rowlands) as she awakens to the emptiness of her marriage.

It’s flat-out jaw-dropping to consider how Farrow managed to get through shooting 1992’s scorching masterpiece, “Husbands and Wives,” since she found out about Allen and Soon-Yi’s relationship during production. In the film, Allen and Farrow played a couple whose marriage was dissolving as Allen becomes drawn into an ill-advised relationship with an adoring student (Juliette Lewis), whose age was not all that far off from Soon-Yi’s. Though Allen ended his 1995 comedy “Mighty Aphrodite” with a redemptive finale where his character resumes his position as a loving father while a Greek chorus pointedly sings, “When You’re Smiling, The Whole World Smiles With You,” Allen’s 1997 follow-up to “Husbands,” the uncharacteristically profane “Deconstructing Harry,” proved to be far more convincing if rather hard to watch. Casting himself as a celebrated writer who consistently uses his life as the inspiration for his work, Allen is routinely confronted by enraged ex-wives (one of whom brandishes a pistol) undoubtedly inspired by Farrow, who allegedly sent Allen death threats in the aftermath of their break-up.

While Farrow considered Allen to be a father figure to her children, including the ones that weren’t biologically his own, this paternal persona turned out to be as fictional as the hunky archeologist who flickered at her from the screen in “Purple Rose.” Allen saw Soon-Yi not as his daughter but as a potential romantic prospect. Though they have reportedly gone on to have a happy marriage with adopted children, Allen’s initial courting of her is still widely viewed as unseemly. The director still denies that their affair was strange, a sign that Allen may be at least partially detached from reality. Yet in the case of Dylan’s allegations, it’s difficult to determine which side is rooted in fantasy. The authenticity of Dylan’s aguish and deep-seated wounds is inarguable. It’s clear that she’s the victim of abuse by either a pedophilic father or a manipulative mother or both. Farrow earned herself no points by recently hinting that she’s unsure whether her son, Ronan, is indeed Allen’s, thus admitting that she was lying under oath during her divorce trial back in the ’90s. Such behavior indicates that her need to hurt Allen trumps any sense of reason.

Despite the blatantly autobiographical nature of his films, Allen has repeatedly denied any parallels to his life, therefore enabling the work to speak for itself. Not since Alfred Hitchcock has a filmmaker been as popular, as revered, as prolific and as candidly soul-baring about his inner demons, which has resulted in a love-hate relationship with the public. Of course, Allen could care less about the public or accolades in general (he didn’t even bother to show up to the Oscars when “Annie Hall” was named Best Picture). He makes films because every fiber of his being compels him to do so, and that’s why he’ll always be one of my favorite filmmakers. Yet his status as a great artist has no bearing on whether he’s a good role model or even a good person. We’ll most likely never know if Allen is guilty or innocent. He’s already made two films about men who get away with murder in order to preserve their comfortable lives (“Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point”). What’s clear is that Allen is adept at grappling with his own failings through the guise of fantasy while still finding himself hopelessly trapped within them in reality.

As for the recent controversy fueled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of domestic disputes, someone involved is clearly due back on planet Earth. Precisely who is anyone’s guess.

Editor’s Note: My apologies for the longer-than-usual gap between articles. Some exciting developments in my professional life temporarily put my blog on hold, and I’ll be announcing the news next week. Indie Outlook is officially up-and-running again. Thank you for your patience.

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