The Endless Vilification of Woody Allen

In recent years, the complaints have grown louder, the concerns more strongly communicated, the rhetoric more heated. The vilification of filmmaker Woody Allen continues to escalate, despite the fact that roots of it have been out there for a long time, if anyone cared to look.

The biggest names among Hollywood liberals give him a free pass.

If we have been content for so long to give Allen a pass about the seedier aspects of his personal life — from arguably questionable behaviors he’s acknowledged to criminal allegations he has denied — what suddenly changed?

When the longtime writer-director arrived at the Cannes Film Festival in France earlier this month, he likely expected the warm welcome he typically receives there. Cannes couldn’t be more simpatico with an artist like Allen, who makes small, personal films in the auteur fashion Cannes judges adore. Just last year, Allen promoted “Irrational Man” at Cannes, essentially without controversy.

This time, it didn’t work out that way.

Allen, 80, was at the festival to promote his latest film, “Café Society,” which includes a sexual relationship between characters portrayed by Steve Carell, 53, and Kristen Stewart, 26. Had the original casting panned out, Carell’s character would have been played by Bruce Willis, who’s 61 — pushing the concept of a May-December romance to extreme limits. The film is scheduled to open in U.S. theaters in July.

Many Cannes reporters were quick to seize on Allen going to the older man/younger woman well once again, particularly given its parallels to the long history of the trope both in Allen’s films and in his personal life.

In 1979’s “Manhattan,” just one of many examples in which Allen’s films consistently pair an older man and a much younger woman, his 42-year-old character dates a 17-year-old played by Mariel Hemingway.

The May-December romance in “Manhattan” was reportedly inspired by Allen’s relationship with actor Stacey Nelkin, who has said she was 16 when she met Allen and began dating him when she was 17. He was 42. (In a 2014 interview, Allen denied Nelkin’s claim that she was underage when they began dating.)

But society has a tendency to look the other way when you're as unquestionably talented as Allen. The media paid little attention to years of rape allegations against Bill Cosby until comedian Hannibal Buress specifically noted them in 2014. Similarly, allegations from 1993 that Allen had sexually abused his preschool-age adopted daughter were largely ignored until the alleged victim, Dylan Farrow, wrote an open letter in 2014 to The New York Times.

Last week as the topic was brought up again at Cannes, Susan Sarandon told an interviewer she believes Allen "sexually assaulted a child, and I don't think that's right. I have nothing good to say about him."

Comedian Sarah Silverman was one of many celebrities who put out a tweet linking a recent essay by Ronan Farrow, Allen's son, who defended his sister and called out the media for not pressing Allen on the allegations. Silverman's tweet referred to Allen as her "comedy hero" while also referring to "our not wanting [the alleged abuse] to be true. But it is."

Allen's defenders would say that's making an unfair leap. They remind critics that the filmmaker has consistently denied sexually abusing Dylan Farrow, and that prosecutors and Allen's former partner, Mia Farrow, chose not to pursue charges against Allen. But Ronan Farrow has also referred a custody judge's ruling that called his father's behavior with Dylan "grossly inappropriate."

That all happened almost 23 years ago, in June 1993, and it came a year after the world learned of Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow. (Allen and Previn have now been married for 19 years.)

Media reports indicate that relationship began in the late 80s, and while the exact math remains a little fuzzy, Previn, born in 1970, would have been under 20 at the time. Allen first met her when she was 10.

In a 2015 interview with People, Allen said he had a "paternal" relationship with Previn when they began seeing each other romantically. He also claimed: "I never see any evidence of anything in my private life resonating in film."

Since 1993, the prolific Allen has directed 23 theatrically released films featuring a smorgasbord of well-known actors. Whatever they think of the controversies surrounding Allen, many of Hollywood's biggest stars unfailingly jump at the chance to work for a filmmaker who boasts four Oscars and 24 nominations, including a record 16 nominations for Best Original Screenplay.

A small sample: Charlize Theron, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Emma Stone, Julia Roberts, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Edward Norton, Jesse Eisenberg, and Natalie Portman.

We could list 50 other names you'd instantly recognize. They're some of Hollywood's most acclaimed and popular actors, and they've all worked for Allen over the 23 years since the director's personal scandals have unfolded.

You won't find any black actors in that list, and that's not just because it's a random sample. There's lots of lip service given in Hollywood to progressive causes, and diversity in particular: The #OscarsSoWhite movement played a huge role in last year's Academy Awards broadcast.

Regardless, Allen has pulled off a feat that seems almost mathematically impossible. He's directed 47 feature-length movies, many of which take place in contemporary New York City, and almost all of which feature expansive ensemble casts — while virtually never casting a black actor in anything larger than a bit part.

There's Hazelle Goodman (who played a prostitute) in "Deconstructing Harry," and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "Melinda and Melinda." And that's it. Hundreds of roles, two black actors. Yet the biggest names among Hollywood liberals give him a free pass.

Again, Allen has never been charged with any crime, and he's steadily denied acting inappropriately in his romantic relationships. When he was pressed at Cannes about why always returns to the storyline of a younger woman and older man, he claimed he had trouble hearing the question.

Meanwhile, in the two years since Buress brought allegations against Cosby into the limelight, the number of his accusers has grown exponentially, now numbering more than 50. Yet he still attracted large audiences to his comedy shows as more women came forward. He's currently facing a felony charge of aggravated indecent assault in a Pennsylvania court.

When the allegations against Cosby magnified, repeats of the long-beloved "The Cosby Show" disappeared from syndication. But Allen's films remain mainstays on television and streaming services, and Amazon Studios remains committed to its deal for an Amazon-exclusive TV series with Allen.

It's reminiscent of the situation with Roman Polanski, the French-born director of "Chinatown" who fled the United States in 1978 to avoid further jail time (he'd served 42 days) after pleading guilty to a felony charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl.

The charges against Polanski remain pending to this day, and he can't enter the United States at risk of being arrested and held to face charges. Regardless, the 82-year-old Polanski continued to make movies, attracting major stars including Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, and Jodie Foster.

Polanski even won the Academy Award for Directing in 2002 for "The Pianist." He received a standing ovation from most attendees at the ceremony, even though the outstanding charges kept him from being there. Ford accepted the award on the director's behalf.

It's hard to know at what point a popular artist's personal indiscretions, whether confirmed or alleged, factor into the public's willingness to ignore them. But fame and talent appear to be major factors.

Audiences might have loved Jeffrey Jones for his comedic turns in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Beetlejuice," but his no-contest plea to child pornography and soliciting a minor for pornographic photos brought his career as a prolific supporting character to an abrupt halt.

Stephen Collins, the lead of the long-running TV show "Seventh Heaven," on which he portrayed a minister, saw his career evaporate in 2014 after he was recorded admitting to sexual contact with minors in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Collins was never charged, but he hasn't had an acting credit since.

Ultimately, there's no simple litmus test for whether, or to what degree, audiences should consider the off-screen behaviors of artists when considering the art itself. From Hollywood's perspective, the main consideration appears to be whether the name still generates money and/or prestige.

In Allen's case, the box office receipts go up or down radically depending on the given film. For every "Magic in the Moonlight" or "Cassandra's Dream," there's a "Moonlight in Paris" or "Blue Jasmine" that catches fire with critics and audiences.

Hollywood isn't likely to part with a creator with that much cachet, especially given the low budgets of Allen's productions — his superstar actors work for scale, the lowest level of pay, just to be in one of his movies — regardless of how hard his detractors push back.

Last Modified: May 25, 2016, 7:35 pm

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