Monday, January 20, 2014

King Neurotic vs. the Ex From Hell: the never-ending saga of Woody and Mia (part 1 of two)

If celebrities are indeed “imaginary friends for adults,” then Woody Allen and Mia Farrow are the divorced couple we all know who can't stand each other — the partner who cheated wishes that the other one would just shut up, and the one who was cheated on won't stop complaining about how they were wronged.

Granted, this couple are very famous, and the issue that has now become paramount above all else is a very, very serious charge of sexual abuse of a child (raised again publicly by Ronan Farrow in a wildly over-publicized Tweet last Sunday night), but as an “ex-couple” Woody and Mia serve a specific same purpose for we who can't avoid their never-ending story in the media: they make us extremely glad we never had a relationship with either of 'em.

I don't need to run through the twists and turns of their long-stemmed saga; if you need a brief summation that takes care not to leave out a few of the sleazier details, then check out this Gawker piece. In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to see how the public perceives both individuals, and how they both have “behaved” in public. Their godawful break-up and its aftermath serve as sort of a litmus test for those who respond to it — people make judgments for or against either party based on their personal beliefs and relationship history.

The fans and foes for each party somewhat runs along gender lines, but I’ve talked to some men who find Woody’s private-life interactions distasteful and as a result signed off seeing his films. There are also women who wish Mia would just shut up about the relationship (my mother hasn’t liked her since the days when Mia stole Andre Previn away from Dory, but that’s another story — see below).

The story begins in earnest at the moment where Mia discovers the nude photos that Woody took of Soon-Yi. Sadly enough, this is the decisive moment in that young woman's life. She lost a mother and siblings and gained a husband at that very moment.

She was 19 when the incident took place, thus very much of legal age, but Woody was thought of in the Farrow family as “stepfather” to all of the children (Soon-Yi was adopted by Mia and Andre Previn). Thus, there was, depending on how you look at it, an unusual “redefinition” of family/romantic roles in Soon-Yi’s life, or a massive violation of trust.

I have always been a big fan of Woody Allen (full disclosure here), and a major component of his nebbish image was the fact that he would occasionally proclaim himself a “pervert”:

It also became clear back in the Seventies that Mr. Allen was a hebephile (someone attracted to adolescents). There is the line delivered by Tony Roberts in Annie Hall about “two teens,” and of course, there is the entirety of the Mariel Hemingway plotline in Manhattan (1979) (which actress Stacey Nelkin has maintained was about her – radio silence from Woody, which is par for the course).

So we have an artist who has made hay for years about the fact that he has “pervy” leanings.

[In watching this clip again, I realized that the final line... well, I won't say anything.] 

By the time he is deeply enmeshed in his relationship with Mia he makes the sublime Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), in which the Michael Caine character carries on an affair with his wife's sister behind his wife's back; Caine’s wife is played by Mia Farrow. Take that plot line, cross it with the Hemingway thread from Manhattan, and have you have l'affaire Soon-Yi.

The affair was something of a surprise to his fans, since very few people had kept track of the names of Farrow’s children, but it wasn’t a very big surprise, since he had already laid out his fascinations in the scripts of his films.

I am not arguing from the above that Mia should've seen it coming, but one of Woody's strong suits as a writer is that not much remains hidden – like his hero Ingmar Bergman (who spent the final years of his life writing screenplays in which he tried to confront his feelings of guilt about how he screwed over the women in his life — see Ullmann’s Faithless), Allen seems to be working out his emotions through his protagonists.

So Woody makes this improper decision and justifies it with the famous quote “the heart wants what it wants.” At the point that the Soon-Yi relationship becomes public, Allen loses many fans, who feel he is a “pedophile” who has committed “incest” with his stepdaughter (this People article indicates that Woody knew her from the time she was 10, but he wasn’t involved with the children actively until the three that were “his” came along).

He didn't discuss the matter publicly until the court case with Farrow over custody of the three children they had together (one biological, two adopted). During the trial loads and loads of dirty laundry was aired. Farrow publicly accused him of destroying her family, and then added on top of the Soon-Yi situation an entirely different, and far, far more serious, accusation – that he had sexually abused their adopted daughter Dylan.

This accusation has become the principal one, since it became apparent that Woody is planning to live for the rest of his life with Soon-Yi as his wife (deep, deep love or lifelong guilt? It’s not really our business). He volunteered that “In the end, the one thing I have been guilty of is falling in love with Mia Farrow's adult daughter at the end of our years together."

The charge of sex abuse changed the whole situation, since the focus was now on Woody as a parent. What was revealed in the trial indicated that he had been brusque and even violent with Satchel (now Ronan), whereas he doted on Dylan to an alarming degree. His lawyers contended this was merely a father being overly attentive to his daughter; Mia’s lawyers contended the child was undressed at various times, and later spoke to her mother about Woody in an alarming manner, as if he had been intimate with her.

Whatever the truth is, one thing’s certain: the public doesn’t know what is true and what is the creation of the tabloid press and interested parties. But that hasn’t stopped the speculation. My personal *favorite* slice of weird storytelling about the Woody-Mia relationship was the gonzo telefilm Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story 1995, directed by Karen Arthur.

In that film, we see the most lurid parts of the trial acted out, with the emphasis on Mia’s heartache. Patsy Kensit (who, curiously, played Mia’s daughter in The Great Gatsby) essays the role of Mia as a glamorous sort of nut, while Dennis Boutsikaris underplays Woody, to try to evoke the “man within.”

The film is an absolute crap-TV delight, because (as with many TV movies) it pretends to tell the real story while only reveling in the sleaziest details — and also making sure that Woody’s life is acted out as scenes from his films. Visuals and events from Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and other Woody movies are acted out, but with Kensit and Boutsikaris inserted as the real Allen and Farrow.

I will have more to say about this TV movie in the future, because there are many kitsch reasons to love it. But back to the actual case: The verdict on the sex-abuse charge was that the Connecticut State Attorney decided not to prosecute to spare Dylan having to testify in court (although it raised enough questions to decisively prevent Allen from being allowed to visit Dylan). 

A Los Angeles Times piece offered this summation: “Lawyers for Woody Allen said Monday that a former nanny who worked for Mia Farrow has testified she was pressured by the actress to support charges that the filmmaker molested their 7-year-old adopted daughter.

“The nanny, Monica Thompson, resigned from the Farrow household on Jan. 25 after being subpoenaed in the bitter custody battle between the actress and Allen. She told Allen’s lawyers in depositions that another baby-sitter and one of the couple’s other adopted children told her they had serious doubts about the molestation accusation.” 

A New York Times article published around the same time noted that “While a team of experts concluded that Dylan was not abused, the judge said he found the evidence inconclusive… ‘I am less certain, however, than is the Yale-New Haven team that the evidence proves conclusively that there was no sexual abuse,’ Justice Wilk wrote.”

The entire allegation resolves down to a “he said, she said” situation, in which the he is Woody — augmented by the two psychotherapists who treated Dylan — and the she is Dylan — augmented seminally by Mia, who chose to record a discussion about the alleged incident, and Farrow family members, most notably Ronan, who did not witness the alleged incident but brought it up as a factual event in his Golden Globes Tweet.

There is no one who wouldn’t feel sorry for Dylan, who seemingly was Woody’s “favorite” of his three children with Farrow (for good or ill) and whose alleged abuse was used as a “wedge” in a custody battle between her adoptive parents. She is the definite victim in this whole matter, but the questions remain: to what degree was her overly-attentive father a villain, or her mother an outraged and vengeful ex?

As noted above, Woody has included his neuroses, fears, and fetishes into his films — although he does shy away from sex scenes (as the coy massage scene in Match Point so grandly illustrated; he cuts away at the moment when other filmmakers would’ve “gone straight in” for the lovely-people-having-stylized-sex sequence).

There is no way to gauge his feelings for children from his films, because they rarely exist in Woody’s cinematic universe (except, notably, the youthful versions of himself). The interesting tone that he took in the late ’90s was regret over romantic decisions (the heart wants what it wants, but it apparently makes very bad choices sometimes…).

To supply just two examples, the heroes of Celebrity (1998) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999) suffer because they pick the wrong woman — in the case of the former, the Woody surrogate (Kenneth Branagh, doing a ridiculous Allen impression) suffers because he breaks with Judy Davis and becomes involved with Winona Ryder.

One of the more obscure items from that period confronts the old-man-chooses-younger-woman-over-steadfast-wife-his-own-age theme head on: Allen’s one-act play “Central Park West” (the avenue on which Farrow has lived for many, many decades, btw). That play was produced in 1995 as part of the show “Death-Defying Acts,” along with two shorter pieces by David Mamet and Elaine May.

The plot finds a middle-aged therapist (Debra Monk played the role to a fine turn off-B’way) fearing that her best friend (Linda Lavin, in the same production) is the reason her husband has left her. She eventually finds out that her husband is madly in love with a 21-year-old Barnard student.

I don’t have a copy of the play on-hand, but remember it containing a number of really nasty jokes made at the middle-aged husband’s expense — he is raked over the coals by his friends for his May-December passion. A review of the play in the Christian Science Monitor noted that the dialogue is Allen’s contribution was indeed very funny, but that the play “leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”

For the most blatant funhouse-mirror reflection of the real events, one need only look at Husbands and Wives (1992), the last Allen-Farrow collaboration. The film is definitely modeled after Scenes from a Marriage, but adds on a very irritating approximation of Cassavetes’ handheld camera style.

Three things in that film are noteworthy, if not downright revelatory, if one is trying to find “reflections” of real events in Allen’s life (and no, not a single one of them relates to a child — children really haven’t ever been on his radar):

— The rather transparent plotline in which Woody’s character befriends a college student (Juliette Lewis), with whom he is clearly smitten.

— The constant verbal jabs taken at Mia’s character for being overbearing. They don’t seem as much passive-aggressive on Woody’s part as openly aggressive. What did Mia think when she read the script?

— The conclusion to the Sydney Pollack/Judy Davis plotline, in which both characters realize they’d rather remain in a sexless but “comfortable” middle-aged marriage than be with others. This twist is one of Woody’s most touching and yet bleakest views of marriage. Could it be his dream of what it would’ve been like to stay with Mia?

The film certainly invites speculation on many levels because, of course, he was writing the damned thing while he was beginning his affair with Soon-Yi. What does this all amount to? Woody has proven throughout the years that if he’s obsessed with something — be it angst over death, guilt over romantic choices, repressed anger over “dominant” figures in his life, or an attraction to teenage girls — he can’t really hide it.

I will let him have the last word, in the only visual interview I know of where he openly addresses the sexual abuse allegations. This aired on 60 Minutes and in it he gives us the timeline of events.

He denies the allegation, noting that he has no inkling to be (no bones about it, he says the term) a child molester. He also allowed the camera people to get a shot of a crazed note written by Mia to him, and the famous “valentine with skewers” that she sent him:

In the second part of this piece I will discuss Farrow's past and her public image. The epilogue to this piece (with updates and links to later articles concerning the case written by people involved including Woody, Dylan, and Moses Farrow) is here.

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