Sunday, February 2, 2014

Woody Allen - Should We Judge Art by the Artist’s Personal Life?

First appeared on Blogcritics.

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Dylan & Mia Farrow
I want to start by saying that I am a father and have a daughter; I find the accusations against legendary film director Woody Allen by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow quite disturbing. In Ms. Farrow’s letter published in The New York Times, the young woman goes into gruesome details about the alleged abuse. Most everyone will find the letter’s contents upsetting; however, we must also state that Mr. Allen has long denied the claims of this abuse, and he has never been charged in regards to this situation.

You can read a good deal more about the case’s details and why the prosecutors in Connecticut did not bring charges against Mr. Allen, but there remains the element of doubt, yet we also must recognize that we need to use “alleged” here because nothing has been proven. Which gets us to the matter of art and the artist.

As long as I can remember, there has been a debate about whether we should judge a work of art by the artist who created it. For example, if William Shakespeare had been a convicted murderer, would that detract from his body of work? Should it matter to us at all what happens in an artist’s personal life? Does not the work in and of itself exist and therefore should please or displease us based on its own merits?

This reminds me of the movie star Rock Hudson. My mother loved Rock and was a great fan. She enjoyed all his movies, and when he started appearing on the TV series Dynasty she was thrilled, though she noted he looked “very thin and like he is not well.” We know now that Mr. Hudson had the AIDS virus, which he died from in 1985. When stories were published afterwards, it was claimed that he was gay and the star machine that operated in Hollywood conspired to keep that information from the public. I will never forget that Mom said, “I don’t care what they say; I still love his movies.”

I bring up this case because Mom was not judging Rock by anything he did behind closed doors. All that was important to her was the work Rock did, and that endured for her even after she learned the truth about him. In her mind the “work” mattered much more than the real life the actor lived when not on screen.

In Mr. Allen's case, what has caused all this to surface again since the event of alleged molestation occurred over 20 years ago? The answer is Mr. Allen’s lifetime achievement honor at this year’s Golden Globes, and there is also the matter of Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins, two actresses in his latest film Blue Jasmine, being nominated for an Academy Awards in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories and Mr. Allen for Best Screenplay. Since Mr. Allen is in the news once again, does that make him fair game for renewed accusations, and you may ask why hasn’t this happened sooner?

Mr. Allen has worked steadily since he and Mia Farrow broke up in 1992 due to her discovery of a romantic relationship with her adopted daughter Soon Yi Previn, who was 19 at the time. Shortly after this the accusations about Allen’s abuse of Dylan surfaced. We could question why Ms. Farrow has waited until now or why her mother did not press the issue continuously over the years. Of course, child abuse is such a horrendous matter, and also something a family may choose to keep private in respect to the child. We could imagine that Ms. Farrow (now 27 and married) found the courage to speak out when she saw Mr. Allen receiving accolades, and I respect her right to express herself and her outrage.

Still, I recently saw Blue Jasmine and it is an amazing film, mostly because of the performances by its nominated stars. Blanchett is so transparent, so totally believable in the role of a lifetime. Playing the disgraced wife of a former big Wall Street Bernie Madoff type (Alec Baldwin), Ms. Blanchett allows every emotion to register on screen as she slowly comes to grips with her dismantled former life of wealth and privilege. Moving in with her down and out sister (the equally amazing Hawkins) in San Francisco, she tries to reconstruct her life with less than satisfactory results.

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Allen directing Blanchett & Baldwin
The point is that Mr. Allen has created a fine work of art in Blue Jasmine. I enjoyed every moment of the film, and I marvel at his ability to cull such rich and resonant performances from his female (and male) stars. It is worth noting that when former muse Diane Keaton accepted his award at the Golden Globes, she mentioned how well Woody motivated and inspired the actresses in his films. Looking back on his movies we can remember many memorable female performances and know the truth of that statement (including Mia Farrow in Hannah and Her Sisters), but it could also have been the motivation for Dylan Farrow to speak out - to let the world know what they are seeing on screen has nothing to do with what happened to her so long ago.

So we do get back to the art and the artist. Roman Polanski, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway all come to mind here. Of course, there are many other artists and writers we could discuss, but think about these three men and their body of work. Do Mr. Polanski’s films not stand out as some of the finest made? Does not Pound’s poetry resound even now, so long after his death? And does not Hemingway‘s work as arguably the finest short story writer ever stand far above the disaster of the personal life he lived?

Polanski was accused of statutory rape, Pound of being a Nazi sympathizer, and Hemingway of being a misogynist and bully, but I have always tried to read or view a work of art in a vacuum. I suppose as human beings we are inevitably drawn into the nature of the person who created the thing we respect and admire. We look for hidden clues, meanings within meanings, to get at the person who crafted such fine work. We don’t just want to see the portrait; we want to see the hand of the person who held the paintbrush, warts and all.

We as modern Internet people are so addicted and affected by ready access to information. We want to know everything, sort of a 24-7 TMZ mentality, and it seems to be a social desire to take a fiction and make it reality TV. With so many TV series about celebrity lives, it is not all our fault. Imagine if Hemingway lived today - his reality TV series with four wives, three sons, assorted mistresses, carousing friends, and angry associates could make for something more juicy and infinitely more entertaining than Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I could just picture a grizzled Hemingway staring at the camera and telling the tale of his submarine and skirt chasing, those days in Paris with Fitzgerald, and how he ran with the bulls in Spain. I have to say that’s a show I would watch, but how would such a series affect the way we think about the work Hemingway created and left behind for generations to come?

Despite all the things that happen to writers, actors, directors, and other artists, we always have to come back to the work. Woody Allen didn’t become famous because he was just any guy from Brooklyn and had some stories to tell; his fame is based on his body of work. He had to create something larger than life, something that would be more than some conversation he once had in Brighton Beach. Allen was able to successfully and memorably translate real life experiences into reel life ones. To do this he had to have talent, pluck, and luck. Let’s not forget the talent part, and he also had to find people to believe in him and his vision. The rest, as they often say, is history - in this case cinematic history.

Woody Allen’s cinematic body of work is simply amazing. While there are some clunkers to be sure, what artist or writer doesn’t have those? Overall, Allen has left behind an impressive film legacy as a director that is right up there with Scorcese, Coppolla, Chaplin, Ford, and DeMille. Maybe there are people who do not like that, but they cannot erase all his films, just as they cannot delete all of Alex Rodriguez’s homers. We may not like the alleged way A-Rod came to hit all those dingers, but we cannot deny that they happened.

I want to share a story of a good friend who had extensive masonary work done on his patio, back porch, and pathway into the backyard. When I came to see it, I was astounded by the intricacies of the stonework, the beautiful design in the pathway, and the mosaics spreading out in designs across the porch. When I inquired about getting the mason to do work on my house, my friend sadly related that the man was arrested and charged with all sorts of crimes. He put his hands on his hips, stared at the yard, and said, “It’s such a shame, he did such good work.”

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Allen with young Dylan
I never forgot that story and never will. My friend still has those things in his yard and uses them daily while the man who crafted them languishes in jail. When I recently asked about how the mason is doing, my friend said, “I don’t know; I never think about it.” Of course, my friend was not a little girl whose life was changed forever by a man she thought she could trust. Maybe she never thought about Allen all those years either, and when she saw the Golden Globes she started thinking again and we end up getting that letter.

I know the situations are different, but in the end the mason’s stonework and Allen’s movies are enduring works of art. It is up to each person to decide whether to appreciate them or not. 

 Photo credits: Allen and Dylan Farrow-Wire Images; Daily News

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