Woody Allen: Trial By Media

3 Feb

The publication in the New York Times yesterday of “An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow” has whipped newspaper editors into a minor frenzy, prompting stories with titles like:
‘He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me’: Woody Allen’s daughter Dylan breaks silence on alleged abuse in shocking open letter (Daily Mail);
Woody Allen sex abuse claim renewed (BBC);
Dylan Farrow details allegations of child sex abuse against Woody Allen(The Guardian) etc etc.

The Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow abuse allegations are not new, but the public statements and repeated quotes are certainly biased against Allen, in circumstances that almost certainly will never be resolved. Right now, here in the UK, we are living in the era of Operation Yewtree, where just about every male performer over the age of 65 is under suspicion of committing sexual abuse crimes against women or children or both.

The danger with allegations being made public before a trial, is that these media personalities are not anonymous in any way. With that lack of anonymity, and appraisal based purely on the facts becomes potentially skewed (even with the best efforts to get a neutral jury). If the allegations are proved false, the stigma around the individuals does not fade away. I still find it wrong that in allegations of abuse the accuser (let’s not use the term victim yet, because that word conjures up a predisposition towards guilt and innocence between the parties) can remain anonymous, while the accused’s name and personal details is made a matter of public record. How often have you heard it said that ‘there’s no smoke without fire?’

I fully support the idea of victims of abuse coming forward and making public statements and being forthright about their experiences. There is great strength to be found in being able to unbottle the emotional turmoil, and to stand up against someone who has hurt you – whether it be emotional, mental, physical or sexual abuse. But it is also very easy for those reading and listening to make snap judgements – far too easy to cast judgement on the lies perpetrated by one side or the other (for it is very seldom that an abuser will admit their actions).

Our laws are weighed such that you are innocent until proven guilty. This should mean that in all the instances of alleged abuse (whether it be Woody Allen, Rolf Harris, Freddie Starr, William Roache or the man next door) an investigation needs to be allowed to be conducted, information gathered, supporting evidence provided and facts assessed by lawyers and the police. Then the process takes the investigation forward to the courts and a trial conducted and assessed. My suspicion is that even in instances where an accuser is proven to be a liar (and it does happen), the accused remains tainted by a supposition of guilt.

UK libel laws offer a certain amount of protection for accused, providing they have the sense and the financial clout to go down the path of securing injunctions preventing information being made public. But it is still far too easy to make a claim about someone without having to provide any substance to support the statements.

If Woody Allen did abuse Dylan Farrow, as Dylan and her mother Mia allege, then it is only right that he is brought to account for his actions and punished accordingly. Once Allen is deceased, any allegation made about him will need no more evidence than a simple statement saying he did something. You can’t libel the dead, and without being able to provide his own evidence, every claim – both true and false – will be taken for granted.

But it is also important to note that Allen was investigated at the time the allegations first surfaced, and subsequently assessments would have been carried out when he and his wife Soon-Yi adopted their two children. The investigation cast doubt on the veracity of Dylan’s statement, pointed out inconsistencies and the judge dropped the trial because Dylan was too fragile a witness to give evidence.

Maureen Orth wrote a damning indictment of Woody Allen during the time the original abuse allegations were made in the November 1992 issue of Vanity Fair, around the time Allen was shooting Manhattan Murder Mystery in New York, with old friend and former lover Diane Keaton standing in for the now estranged Mia Farrow.  The piece details the specific claims about Allen’s behaviour, and engages the slanging match between the Farrow and Allen camps trading on each families’ dirty laundry to further the arguments for/against believing the abuse claims. Soon-Yi is painted as an intellectually retarded woman, the daughter of a prostitute who was repeatedly abused physically and mentally before being adopted by Farrow. The piece also follows that journalistic privilege of citing anonymous sources, meaning that much of the evidence is impossible to properly asses with regard to bias.

The description of Mia’s adverse reaction to anti-depressants is something I can all too readily identify with, as my own experiences with A-D medication were harrowing enough to ensure I never want to try them again. I’m also only too aware that true statements can be easily rebutted by the opposite side in a dispute, that fictions can be created and believed (much to the dismay of the innocent parties), and that providing evidence for events isn’t always that easy to find, or to pinpoint in terms of times.

And as for the statement by one of the household staff: “How could she have cared for a baby in the evening? How could she have cared for all the children? … I think I would have noticed if she were drinking or taking pills.” Both pills and alcohol usage can be hidden and downplayed. Partners might know something, but friends and other contacts are easier to deceive. I’ve seen that scenario played out several times in my own experiences and friends.

On a personal level – which ultimately is how every one of us that encounters this story respond to it – I find it hard to make a firm judgement. Most of us don’t have the luxury of having read all of the witness statements, supporting evidence and tit-for-tat correspondence between both sides.

In the November 2013 of Vanity Fair (some 21 years later), Orth returned to the Farrow/Allen story with another accusatory piece detailing the lengths to which the Farrow family has attempted to excise all memory of Allen. Mia Farrow also throws in the explosive revelation that Woody’s only biological son – Ronan Farrow – might not be his at all, but Frank Sinatra’s. And looking at pictures, its a pretty convincing statement. A DNA test would of course quickly resolve any doubt – and would perhaps help the Farrow family completely excommunicate Allen from their lives if he was proven to have no biological connection. Dylan is also given the space to voice her side of the story for the first time (yesterday’s statement isn’t strictly her first public comment, as some sources have claimed).

Updating readers on the lives of Farrow’s children, it is clear that (regardless of whether the allegations are true or not) the situation between Farrow and Allen made life very difficult and had a knock-on psychological effect on all concerned. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but I would hazard a guess that the train of lovers and children involved in both Farrow and Allen’s lives, did not leave a particularly stable environment and some sort of emotional impact and upset would have been experienced during Farrow and Allen’s break-up.  Orth also posits the characters in Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine as representations of Farrow and others involved in the 1992 scandal.

Orth herself would appear to have a particular interest in stories concerning child molestation, with a number of pieces on Michael Jackson and paedophile priest Paul Shanley.

Robert B Weide, producer and director of a recent 2 part documentary weighed in in a feature article on 27 January in response to the increasing comments from the Farrow camp. He makes his connections to Allen clear, including access to the man for hours of interviews over a two year period, and also Allen’s request for him not to write anything. Essentially the piece serves to balance the articles by Orth in Vanity Fair, detailing the history surrounding the abuse case in some depth. Like Orth, he attempts to balance his piece as objectively as possible, albeit with an evident leaning towards the Allen side (just as Orth leans towards Farrow).

He rather clinically outlines the Soon-Yi/Allen relationship as Allen may have viewed it. He also details Allen’s rebuttals of the abuse claims with regards Dylan, and importantly explains clearly the questions that surround the original investigation.

One very valid observation made is about Farrow’s support of other celebrity abusers that aren’t Woody Allen – which seem at odds with her (understandable if the allegations are true) stance. Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi is certainly unconventional and to most minds distasteful (albeit not illegal), but for anyone who frequents the Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle television programmes these are disturbingly mundane. Morally, Allen shouldn’t have been cheating on Farrow, but Farrow’s claims that Ronan may be Sinatra’s son confirms that she herself was not exclusive with Allen during their relationship.

Sinatra himself has earned a reputation for abuse of women (including Farrow) in the years since his death, and allegations of him being photographed raping a sleeping Marilyn Monroe (among others) have been published. Farrow has also publicly supported Roman Polanski – a man who has admitted sleeping with a 13 year old girl in the 1970s –  giving evidence at his trial against Vanity Fair in 2005. This moral inconsistency is questionable at least.

It is also made clear in Weide’s piece that Farrow has had to grant permission for clips of her in Allen’s films to be used for various film industry ceremonies lately. Farrow could have declined – and would certainly have put her anti-Allen stance in a stronger position.

The Farrows are everywhere just now it seems, and any observer is duty-bound to raise questions of timing and publicity. Ronan was featured in today’s Observer, about his own career ahead of the launch of his own show on MSNBC in the US on 24 February.

A week later, the 86th Academy Awards will air on 2 March. Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is up for several awards, including Cate Blanchett for Best Actress, Sally Hawkins for Best Supporting Actress, and Allen himself for Best Original Screenplay.

The entire affair is unpleasant – and those voicing an opinion on it are being vilified by Allen or Farrow supporters respectively. The very real issue of a child’s potential abuse is complicated by a media war. One wants to put faith in a justice system, and for all abuse claims to be taken seriously. But just because someone makes an accusation, it doesn’t make it true. And it is up to courts and juries to make the final assessment based on the full evidence provided. And the information currently available in public is enough to make some sort of casual judgement, but not enough to make a fully informed one, one way or the other. Supposedly the time permitted to make a claim has elapsed in the US, which seemingly means that allegations are able to be made without having to be supported in court (rather unlike the Operation Yewtree cases here in the UK).

It may seem distasteful to some, but I shan’t stop watching and enjoying Allen movies because of the accusations resurfacing. And enjoying Allen’s work doesn’t make me an apologist for his alleged personal actions, any more than it makes Eastender‘s fans apologists for Dirty Den actor Leslie Grantham being a convicted murderer. And I certainly don’t blame Dylan Farrow either. She is most certainly a victim, either of abhorrent sexual abuse or of indelible emotional and psychological manipulation.

Allen continues to deny the accusations.



4 Responses to “Woody Allen: Trial By Media”

  1. E.C July 3, 2014 at 12:45 am #

    “Our laws are weighed such that you are innocent until proven guilty. This should mean that in all the instances of alleged abuse (whether it be Woody Allen, Rolf Harris…”…wondering if you’d like to update this, Robert…?

    • avalard July 3, 2014 at 9:58 am #

      Not particularly. The point stands as it was made at the time and the article is date stamped. Out of the list of names I gave only one has been found guilty in trial.
      I have a separate piece to follow more specifically about Rolf.

  2. Jamie February 7, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    Excellent piece. One small complaint, you refer to Roman Polanski “sleeping with a thirteen year old girl”. This should be raping a thirteen year old girl.

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