Staring into the Abyss, Awaiting the Photographers and Press Agent
Of fallen idols and the culture of celebrity, Kathy Shaidle writes that "This topic has been the abiding preoccupation of my life." And the definitive intersection between the two themes is in the form of Woody Allen and his worshipful fans.
Allen has had multiple apogees in his career. The true peak of his career was the period in the late 1970s between the Oscar-winning Annie Hall and its quasi-sequel, the commercially highly successful Manhattan. His next film, Stardust Memories, effectively destroyed his reputation in America for many years, which had only begun to be salvaged in the late ‘80s with such winning films as Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, and the aforementioned Crimes and Misdemeanors.
In the Federalist this week, Stella Morabito explores the Nietzschean "God Complex: Why Hollywood Thinks Sex Crimes Are No Big Deal." Along the way, she describes, in chilling detail, how standing at another apex in his career, Woody Allen decided to leap into the abyss, and tossing his family in as well, in the process:
Today’s elitism and cult of celebrity are a deadly combination, a dangerously slippery Nietzschean slope. When massaged by adulation of the masses, the anointed are freer to adopt a proprietary attitude towards the lives of others. If you try to place checks on their power or insist on your own individual freedom, you become suspect and a threat. This is likely why the elites of our time push so hard for political correctness: to control what you may say, what you may do, and what you may think. Ultimately, this leads to dictating the personal relationships of everyone around them, adopting an attitude not unlike a high school queen bee.
Dictating Relationships Is What Little Gods Do
When Woody Allen decided that it was okay to indulge in a sexual relationship with his stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn, he revealed far more than his contempt for traditional sexual taboos. He was making the narcissistic point that he was above it all, kind of like the attitude of the Judah character in Allen’s anti-Dostoyevsky movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. (Judah had a hit man kill his girlfriend before she could tell his wife about their affair. Judah felt some guilt, but then worked through it, and went on to continue enjoying his elitist professional life in Manhattan.)
According to the feature written by Maureen Orth in Vanity Fair after the scandal broke in 1992, Mia Farrow “made the discovery of Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi when she found a stack of Polaroids taken by him of her daughter, her legs spread in full frontal nudity . . . each managed to contain both her daughter’s face and vagina.”
How could Woody Allen take such liberties with a stepdaughter while enjoying international fame and adulation? Playwright Leonard Gershe, though a friend of Mia Farrow’s, was able to explain this seemingly Nietzschean phenomenon flawlessly:Woody Allen is a chilling figure of power, a potentate of reel life who doesn’t seem to have to play by the rules. “This man is so exalted in the business—no one has the position he has. . . . I think when you get up into that stratosphere you no longer have to pay attention to the law of gravity. Regular morals, conscience, ethics—that’s for slobs like you and me.” The effect, says Gershe, “spills over into real life. He’s treated like a little god, and little gods don’t have to do what everybody else does.”
As the old cliché goes, “Pride Goeth Before the Fall.” But for many show business figures, their pride is compounded and reinforced by equally faulty media judgment. As I may have mentioned before, I’ll never forget, back when I was living in small town South Jersey, and read the Sunday New York Times each week to check in with the center of gravity of Capital-C Culture, the issue they devoted in February of 1991, between its cover and the actual story, to effectively craft an infomercial for both Woody Allen and Eric Lax, his hagiographer, who had a new, glowing biography of Woody due out later that year. Woody had just scored a big critical, and by those days rare commercial hit with his ode to Nietzsche, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and was about to head off to Hollywood to shoot one of the rare films he didn’t also direct, Scenes From a Mall, with his fellow ‘80s-era superstar Bette Midler. They would be directed by Paul Mazursky, and the screenplay was written by a fellow you may have heard of, called Roger L. Simon.
In the new issue of the Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz flashes back to that period, and in retrospect, how shamelessly the media whitewashed Woody’s existence:
His conduct was unspeakable—and when Walter Isaacson, then editor of Time, asked Allen about it, he replied, famously, “The heart wants what it wants.” He was 56 years old.
Really, what he was saying was this: I can because I can. Allen was an idol, perhaps the idol, of an entire class of his fellow New Yorkers, his fellow Jews, and his fellow skeptical liberals. There was almost nothing his admirers didn’t admire about him. They loved him because he was funny, because he wanted to produce serious art in the style of the great European filmmakers, and because he played jazz at a club every Monday night. They loved him for writing New Yorker stories, and they loved his relationship with Mia Farrow.
The year before the photos came out, Allen’s slavish biographer, Eric Lax, published a fulsome article in the New York Times Magazine about the wonders of Allen and Farrow’s coupledom, then 11 years in duration. It was “not a conventional union,” he said, pointing out that they lived in separate apartments across Central Park from one another. But, Lax wrote, in a rather striking passage, “Few married couples seem more married. They are constantly in touch with each other, and not many fathers spend as much time with their children as Allen does. He is there before they wake up in the morning, he sees them during the day and he helps put them to bed at night.”
Yes, Allen was even admired as a father. Later, when people accused him of pseudo-incest in his dalliances with Mia’s daughter Soon-Yi, his defenders would say he had barely known the girl, hadn’t spent any time with her, had had nothing to do with her. But that was not the impression Lax’s article, and other mythologizing portraits of prescandal Allen, gave off. No, the sense of this and other portraits-without-blemish was that Allen was practically perfect, a fully rounded human being with wit and gravitas, a moral sense, and deeply bourgeois values.
In retrospect, Allen’s response to the scandal was pitch perfect. He put his head down. He married Soon-Yi. He just kept working. He made movie after movie. What he had done was not exactly forgotten, but his unflagging industry eventually paid off with a reputational renaissance over the past decade. He was again becoming an idol—as was indicated by his decision to accept (though not in person) the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes in January. Big mistake, for that is what triggered the Farrow family’s wrath and has sunk his reputation yet again.
Given what we now know about Woody, elsewhere in the Federalist, David Harsanyi asks, "Can We Separate The Art And The Artist? In Woody Allen’s Case, It’s The Same Thing:"
His characters often argue for moral order, but they never quite seem convinced that it’s needed. His alter egos may be saddened or bemoan the fact that life is without purpose, but they act accordingly. This topic is most notably in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in which a character decides to murder an irritating mistress and move on with consequence or remorse. Woody Allen will never confess his sins by making his own "Unforgiven."
The least plausible aspect of his movies, though, is the casual way in which human beings move through their lives cheating, remarrying, and cheating again, with no emotional fallout. You don’t need to look further than “Hannah and her Sisters.” After characters contemplate some of most egregious acts of disloyalty against their own family, all ends without any residual problems that might pop up when folks dive into infidelity and divorce. When relationships do form in his films, they are unloving and unreal. The type of self-centeredness and vacuous concerns that dominate these relationships, ones that could only exist in an insulated world foreign to most decent adults. And his history of sexualization of children — jokingly, of course — has been with him an entire career. That doesn’t make him a pedophile any more than it does Nabokov. But considering the autobiographical nature of his work, it doesn’t dissuade you of the notion either.
Should we judge an artist’s work only by the quality of his art? Generally, yes. I don’t care much about how novelists or filmmakers or musicians live their lives. That doesn’t mean their lives don’t alter our perceptions. Pete Seeger was an apologist for Stalin. It matters. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a massive talent, overdosed on heroin as his three young children played a few blocks away. That changes how we think about him. Our perception doesn’t alter the quality of art, of course. But it certainly can alter our perception of it. Especially when the ugliness of the real world starts to feel a lot like the art.
As Allen explained in a more recent interview in Commonweal magazine, it was the desire to explore this sense of existential meaninglessness that inspired him to make Crimes and Misdemeanors: "Some people distort [the meaninglessness of the world] with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art... but nothing makes it meaningful.... [E]veryone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.... [O]ne can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren't. There is no justice..."
There is no justice. From Plato's sociopathic sophists to Friedrich Nietzsche's ambition to "sail right over our morality," this has been the conviction and the insight of the nihilist. These are Woody Allen's philosophical compatriots.
I should note, once again, that this doesn't mean he's a sexual predator. Nothing in the outlook of a nihilist necessarily implies that he will engage in immoral actions.
All that nihilism implies is the absence of a compelling reason not to do so.
"Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it," Bertolt Brecht was quoted as saying. God help us all if we get the world that Woody Allen desires.
Related: Fred Siegel's City Journal review of the 2012 book, American Nietzsche: a History of an Icon and His Ideas.
And at Vanity Fair, a blue on blue deconstruction of the Woodman: "10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sexual-Abuse Allegation."