As Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen’s 49th film as a director, is released, the veteran director has found the media scrutiny that has followed him like a muddy corona is finally threatening to envelop him completely. For the first time, the film that forms the backdrop to these perpetual discussions is practically an irrelevance. As recent revelations across the arts in general, and Hollywood in particular, continue to make headlines and threaten previously respected careers, or swallow them whole, it would be odd if controversial figures like Allen weren’t once more caught up in the tectonic rumblings.
In the past, aided by the intense privacy with which he conducts himself, he’s almost floated serenely above the three-ring circus he leaves in his wake. However, as the times appear to be a-changin’ concerning the behaviour of some of Hollywood’s most powerful men, it appears that he is finally approaching a moment of reckoning. Where then, does leave his body of work?
Defenders of Allen’s work maintain that there must be a distinction between the art and the artist, as if his films stand alone and distinct from the man himself; his moral voice, his predilections, his passions, and peccadilloes. The argument goes that you can still very much appreciate the music of Wagner, the poetry of Ezra Pound or the paintings of Caravaggio, without this being tacit approbation of the more noxious aspects of these men. In cases such as these, it could be argued that being dead does wonders for the rehabilitation of one’s reputation. The works they left behind have stood as perpetual cultural monoliths for decades, sometimes centuries. The details of the lives of their creators have faded from memory, consigned to biographies that appeal to a specialised few.
Allen however is still, for the moment, very much alive, and with the internet allowing every aspect of someone’s life to be prodded, poked at, and speculated over in pointillist detail, he was never likely to escape a reckoning for ever. It’s partly due to this surfeit of available information that venerated, but more recently deceased filmmakers like Hitchcock, or Ingmar Bergman (one of Allen’s idols), are having their more unsavoury sides re-examined.
In Allen’s case, the distinction between art and artist holds no water, as rarely has a filmmaker worn their heart so firmly on their screen. They say write about what you know, and Allen’s best films are for the most part about the lives of neurotic Jewish intellectuals in New York. They’re scored by the jazz Allen adores, and they’re often a direct glimpse into the mind of the man himself. This self-examination has often been troubling should you know anything of Allen’s private life.
Since Manhattan, instantly iconic for its irresistible melding of the loving black-and-white rendering of the streets of New York and Gershwin’s soaring ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Allen’s proclivities for much younger women are apparent. Allen plays a 42-year-old writer dating a 17-year-old student (Mariel Hemingway). It’s difficult to watch the film without projecting his real-life circumstances into it. The plot device of a young woman in romantic entanglement with a much older man is common in much of his work. Similarly, during the family thanksgiving scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s now wife Soon-Yi Previn can be glimpsed as an extra. She was a young teenager at the time, and it sends a creepy shiver down the spine
Recently, in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement, numerous stars have publicly cried mea culpa for appearing in his recent films. Greta Gerwig, Jesse Eisenberg, Rebecca Hall, Colin Firth and Timothée Chalamet have all stated publicly that they demonstrated poor judgment. Hall and Chalamet are donating their fee from Allen’s next film A Rainy Day in New York, to the charities Time’s Up, RAINN and the LGBT Center of New York.
Of course, it’s easy to be cynical regarding the motives of the actors who are now expressing regret over working with Allen, or who are seeking to distance themselves from him. It’s perhaps easier to take such public declarations at face value in the case of Chalamet, a young man just starting out, who would have understandably leapt at the chance of working with such a big name. One suspects given his recent success he’s unlikely to be branded by any association with the director. It’s less easy to fathom in the case of Firth, a long-established leading man of considerable experience.
The main reason actors continue to work with Allen (and Polanski, and earlier, Hitchcock and others) is understandably one of pragmatism. Regardless of their reputations or crimes (alleged or proven), film stars of the highest calibre continued to clamour to star in these films. As recently as 2014 Cate Blanchett was climbing the podium at the Oscars to collect a statuette for her role in Blue Jasmine. It’s somewhat ironic given his reputation that Allen’s arguably the best male writer of female characters in the business, perhaps rivalled only by Pedro Almodóvar in contemporary cinema. The approval of the Academy is of course not necessarily any barometer of actual quality, but some twelve actresses have been nominated for an Oscar having appeared in Allen’s films; among them Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest (twice), Judy Davis, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz and Sally Hawkins.
Not only this, a career in film is a house built on shifting sands. Stars rise and fall with giddying speed, so it’s not surprising that even big names will take a pay check when it’s offered, even if they may have to hold their nose as they accept it. Of course, it may now turn out that association with Allen etc may have the reverse effect and tarnish a career in the eyes of a more unforgiving public. Hollywood is littered with the bones of careers torn to pieces by one bad decision, but it’s previously been the choice of film rather than director. The allegations against Allen have been public domain for quarter of a century so there is a sense of these actors being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Speak out against him now, and face accusations of hypocrisy for merely bending with a prevailing wind; say nothing and have it said that the silence is tantamount to complicity.
At this stage of his life and career, it’s unlikely the 82-year-old will face any threat to his liberty unless any new allegations appear. However, the damage to his reputation may finally prove irreparable. The first indication of this is that Wonder Wheel appears to be destined to sink like Atlantis. Where there was initially whispered talk of awards contention for Kate Winslet, the whole endeavour has been met with a critical shrug, and it’s entirely possible that A Rainy Day in New York may be shelved entirely.
It could be argued that his career had begun a terminal decline anyway. The success of Blue Jasmine looked increasingly like a surprisingly gorgeous aberration against outright duds like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, To Rome With Love, and Irrational Man, or throwaway fluff like Magic in the Moonlight and Café Society. Even Midnight in Paris is all concept and cameo, its substance gossamer-thin on scrutiny. What proves a thornier issue is what this means for his undisputed classics, and his place in the pantheon of cinematic greats.
The nuts and bolts question is: is it still okay to watch Woody Allen films? The utterly trite, banal answer is that it’s down to the moral standpoint of the viewer. Up until now I’ve mostly left personal opinion out of this, but as someone that counts themselves a fan of many of his films it’s somewhat cowardly to sit on the fence. I also count myself a feminist, therefore, where do I draw a line? It’s true that distasteful as his conduct undoubtedly was regarding his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, he did nothing illegal. He’s also never officially been charged in relation to the sexual assault allegations made by Dylan Farrow in 1992, although it appears to be the case that part of this decision was down to a desire to shield Farrow, then seven, from any further trauma.
However, the law is frequently, demonstrably an ass, particularly when it comes to its failure to protect the vulnerable, so to cite statute as a defence to back up my viewing choices is similarly wishy-washy. So, as great as I think Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Bullets Over Broadway are (I even have a huge soft-spot for Vicky Christina Barcelona), I think it’s time to swear off Woody Allen. Yes, even the ‘early, funny ones.’ Is this a case of jumping on a bandwagon or limp SJW handwringing? Possibly. However, now seems the perfect time to stick to my proclaimed convictions.
There are plenty of female filmmakers that could be championed instead. Ava DuVernay, Clio Barnard and Lynne Ramsay all have new films on release. Supporting new work by people like them seems a much better use of my time.