Should we (and can we?) separate a director’s personal life from the films they create? Eloise Mönch confronts this problem in conjunction with the marred reputation of Woody Allen.
Famous for his distinct brand of self-conscious neuroticism, Woody Allen has directed an impressive forty-seven feature films throughout his career, grossing an estimated total of over $757 million along the way. Allen has amassed an impressive assembly of successful actors and actresses over these years, with the likes of internationally recognised actors and actresses such as Steve Carrell, Scarlett Johansson, and most recently Miley Cyrus all having fought tooth and nail to star in one of his films. His latest work, Café Society, is no different as the film, which premiered at Cannes film festival earlier this year, boasts the talents of mumblecore dynamic duo Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg.
Yet, despite his immense success, Woody Allen is also a man swarmed by controversy. Accused by his very own daughter of sexual abusing her when she was only seven years old, Allen’s unpleasant private life makes the appreciation of his work incredibly problematic. Currently married to a woman thirty-five years his junior (the adopted daughter of an ex-partner whom he helped to raise, no less) it’s safe to say that opinion remains divided on how far the media should continue to herald Allen and his work. He’s a provocative figure to say the least. Who else in the world of film can claim to be a definite neurotic, a debatable cinematic genius, and a suspected paedophile?
The nature of Allen’s seemingly abhorrent personal affairs often leads to the question of whether we as a society should endorse the work of a man, who no matter how brilliant, lies in the midst of so much questionable moral integrity?
In most of his films Allen’s protagonists are easy to pinpoint as the obsessive, yet oddly charming man hopelessly stuck in the middle of the action. In other words: thinly disguised versions of Allen himself. He even stars in many of his own productions, for instance Annie Hall, a romantic comedy where he acted alongside his ex-lover Dianne Keaton in a film clearly based on their relationship. Due to the often autobiographical nature of his films, by praising Allen’s work we are often guilty of simultaneously praising this convoluted self-image he so commonly includes within it.
Allen makes nonchalant references in many of his films to a need for therapy and psychoanalysis to solve a fragile mental state. And when you consider how Allen himself underwent therapy with a child psychologist as a result of the inappropriate behaviour he displayed towards his daughter, it certainly causes us to query whether it’s acceptable that we derive so much enjoyment from watching his tainted characters.
It is also Allen’s knack of presenting sexual misdemeanours through the rose-tinted glasses of passion that has made his screenplays so successful. Vicky Christina Barcelona, one of Allen’s biggest box-office hits, revolves around the story of two naïve girls getting seduced by a considerably older man whom they know absolutely nothing about. This being a Woody Allen film, he of course sleeps with both of them, sabotaging the potential domestic bliss of Vicky’s marriage to her husband, and pulling Christina into an unconventional relationship with him and his turbulent, suicidal ex-wife. Set amidst the beauteous landscape of Barcelona and with the undeniably suave Javier Barden playing this rapacious male, it is easy to get swept along with the tantalising lust of the film and not to acknowledge the predatory undertones that lie beneath.
Perhaps Allen is merely another example of the blasé nature that has developed around sexual abuse in the film and television industry. Or perhaps he represents something far more dangerous about the state of the media. Allen’s own son recently wrote an article attacking the press for how they refused to respond to his sister’s claims in the face of Allen’s formidable PR team, highlighting how the world of show business is more often than not happy to turn a blind eye to the misdemeanours of their favourite sons and daughters as long as they keep on making money.
Allen’s films are held up as iconic partly because of their tongue-in-cheek nature, almost as if audiences themselves are unwilling to take their darker connotations seriously because of the film’s comedic nature, likewise failing to acknowledge the potentially unsavory character of the man behind them. These implications are something we find especially easy to ignore, rather than actually confront, when we are immersed in the fantastical plot of films like Midnight in Paris.
The question we therefore need to ask ourselves is whether this could be a case of a man who is able to get away with crossing the line, simply because he has so much success in performances that tow that very line itself? It’s almost as if, as disturbing as it may seem, one of the primary reasons for Allen’s success is based around the fact that his films very much appear to allude to the troubling accusations made against his private life. With that being said, I’d suggest that the continued success of both Allen and countless other film-makers with equally dubious pasts, makes a rather sombre statement about both the film industry and audiences as a whole.