23 March 2021
If you have access to HBO… or really, if you spend any time near a television or social media – you are surely aware of Allen vs. Farrow, a four-part documentary series that has once again brought the topic of Woody Allen and his relationship history into prime time.
When I created Reclining Standards, in January 2014, it was also a news item, with the awarding of a Life Achievement Golden Globe a point of particular contention.
At that time, I wrote a piece that focused on Allen’s work generally, as well as on Blue Jasmine, which had at that point just been released. I felt then – and still feel – that I haven’t enough information to make a judgment call on his culpability in specific real-life situations.
But I have very strong feelings about the undercurrents that have been part of his work since I first discovered it in the 1970s. So, I decided I’d write about that.
After watching the Allen vs. Farrow, I went back and re-read those pieces, which I’ve put together below – our first Reclining Standards reprint! I offer it because it’s timely, but also because frankly I’m pleased with what I said. And I still agree with it.
See what you think.
5 February 2014
Woody Allen’s tarnished personal reputation is again a topic in the news, reactivated when he won the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe award for “Lifetime Achievement.” I guess it’s the kind of over-arching honor that makes the public consider moral character along with the quality of work.
I won’t even try to summarize the Woody Allen story – it’s too complex, and has been covered in detail already. Besides, what do I know? About Allen, Mia Farrow and the rest – nothing more than I read, and I don’t feel comfortable drawing factual conclusions from reportage.
But I do know what I see in his movies, and for me, that’s enough.
Even in his early films, most of which I saw in my mid-teens, I sensed the implausibility of his sexual appeal. Who could believe that Diane Keaton, so young and hip, would fawn over him? The fact that Allen himself made jokes within the movie didn’t negate the problem.
In Manhattan, it really tipped over into creepiness. We’re asked to believe that Tracy (the gorgeous Mariel Hemingway, more than 25 years younger than Allen) is so enthralled with Isaac (Allen’s “character,” if that’s the word for such thinly-veiled autobiography) that she’d rather stay with him than go to London, a move that could make her career. Yes, he recognizes that she should leave him, and tells her so – but that doesn’t obviate Allen’s need to have audience think of him as the object of adoration. (Much later, I learned that the Isaac-Tracy relationship is based on an actual affair that Allen had with a high school student, which certainly didn’t lessen the ick factor.)
So I avoided Allen’s movies for a while – till his collaboration with Mia Farrow, which seemed more promising. She, too, was an odd love interest for Woody, but hey – Farrow herself had a long history with older men (Frank Sinatra, Andre Previn). More to the point, she seemed to bring out a new sweetness in Allen’s work. My favorites of his movies – Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days– date from this period, along with what many consider his best work, Crimes and Misdemeanors. I even fell for one of the weaker efforts, Alice – it’s a bit of a mess as a movie, but I thought the way he portrayed Farrow’s evolving character was so loving.
Then came Husbands and Wives. By the time I saw it, Allen and Farrow had split up – but even without the “True Hollywood Story” as background, it was appalling. Farrow, playing Judy Roth, is made out to be needy, whining, destructive – the embodiment of the kind of wife who drives away her long-suffering husband (guess who?). The entire movie is a series of self-indulgent musings on the toxicity of relationships, but the real low point involves Benno Schmidt, then just finishing his tenure as President of Yale. Schmidt, playing Farrow’s ex-husband, gives on-camera commentary about how awful she is. (I kept imaging Allen, whispering in my ear, “You see what a crazy bitch my wife is? Even the President of Yale thinks so!”) It was even worse imagining what Farrow must have been thinking during the process of making this movie. Did she have any sense how she would appear in the finished product? The whole thing made me queasy.
And so mostly I stayed away again. Much of the time, the decline of Allen’s work made it easy. (Was I really missing anything by passing up Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Melinda and Melinda?) Occasionally, something came along that was much praised, and I’d give him another chance. Most of the time, I was disappointed – these newer movies were pale imitations of earlier, better ones. (For me, Match Point is to Crimes and Misdemeanors as Godfather III is to II; and Midnight in Paris won’t do for anyone who has seen Purple Rose of Cairo.) But at least he seems, thank God, to have given up the notion that he himself is an appropriate leading man to decades-younger women. (Well, not quite given it up – he basically assigns a younger, more appealing actor as his doppelganger, e.g. Owen Wilson in Paris.)
Just a few weeks ago, my interest in Tennessee Williams led me to see Blue Jasmine. I was appalled, frankly, and wrote about it at the time:
17 January 2014
Am I right that there were three Oscar nominations for Blue Jasmine? One – Cate Blanchett for Best Actress – is absolutely deserved, and my money is on her to win. Not sure what to say about Sally Hawkins (Supporting Actress) – I thought she was fine but not really memorable, though I’m not sure what more she could have done. The script didn’t do her any favors.
Which brings me to my central point: Blue Jasmine for Best Screenplay? Really?? The theme of the movie at least sounds intriguing, and suggests that there will be something substantial at the core. (And I’ll grant you Blue Jasmine is an improvement on most of the stuff Woody Allen has done post 1980s. Well, on those I’ve seen, at least: after Husbands and Wives, I pretty much had to be dragged under protest to his movies.)
But the actual screenplay is a confused mash-up – based in part on Bernie Madoff, in part on A Streetcar Named Desire, and at the same time a bizarre road movie involving snazzy parts of New York (which of course, Allen knows well), and San Francisco (which he clearly doesn’t).
It’s the Streetcar reinterpretation that interests me most, in part because Allen so badly misunderstands the play. One example – in the backstory of Streetcar, we know that Stella fled the plantation where the sisters grew up; it was Blanche who remained behind to care for her relatives, as – one by one – they died off, and the family lost everything. (The play provides us with ample reasons to question Blanche’s truthfulness, especially when she has an opportunity to be self-promoting – but this appears to be undisputed.)
This is critically important to everything follows. It makes Blanche a fundamentally sympathetic figure, a person we understand to be nurturing and self-sacrificing in ways we don’t see very much during the action of the play. It also makes us understand that Stella, who superficially seems the pleasanter, more giving and less high-maintenance sister, is far more complicated and self-serving.
Their relationship – including this backstory – is a core to so much of Streetcar. For example, Stella’s motivation in allowing Blanche to live in her apartment isn’t purely altruism – she owes her, as Blanche continues to point out. More broadly, all of it is key to the emotionally tangled world, ambiguous world of Williams’ play.
There’s nothing ambiguous in Blue Jasmine. What we know about Jasmine herself is that she’s a gold-digger, motivated from her early adulthood to marry well and get out of the family home. In this, she’s certainly more Ruth Madoff than Blanche DuBois, and to my mind she’s an intensely unlikeable character. (That she comes off sympathetically at times is entirely due to Blanchett.)
More troubling, it’s only the latest in a parade of female characters that serve as icons of Allen’s mistrust of and contempt for women.
And now here we are – seven years later. I’ve seen none of the films (six, if I count correctly) that Allen has made since Blue Jasmine. I don’t imagine I will, though I will likely revisit some of the older ones I still have affection for.
By all means, draw your own conclusions. I’m not judging Allen guilty of personal transgressions. But I’ll let his movies speak for themselves – and they speak volumes.
I had several collegiate friends who adored Allen’s Manhattan. Thank you for so charmingly articulating my feelings of ick about it and many of his other works. I did really enjoy Purple Rose of Cairo as a kid (I’m a sucker for the fantastical), though it’s always hard to go back to art once you know some of the ugly truths of the artist.