Publish and Be Damned
Woody Allen and the #MeToo mob
Under normal circumstances, the publication of the autobiography of one of America’s most legendary film directors would be a literary event on a par with the release of another Hilary Mantel or JK Rowling novel. One can only imagine the opportunities for press coverage, with high-profile launch parties either side of the Atlantic and the kind of book signing at Waterstone’s Piccadilly that leads to queues stretching down to Green Park. However, these are bizarre circumstances, even before the pandemic currently ravaging the world. A different sort of affliction has affected Woody Allen, who has become a hate figure for the #MeToo movement. Now that they have claimed their biggest scalp in the form of Harvey Weinstein, they are looking for new offenders, and Allen is by far the most conspicuous and unapologetic of the various wrongdoers who has, to date, avoided punishment.
It is now inevitable that, when Woody Allen dies, the obituaries will concentrate as much on his tempestuous personal life as the four Oscars that he received, or any of his considerable cinematic achievements. Being an intelligent and engaged man, Allen has wished to offer his own final testament, and so his book Apropos of Nothing simultaneously makes a case for his artistic worth and advances a defence for his personal life. However, matters went awry. The memoir was purchased by Hachette Book Group, and then, after a high-profile staff walkout in protest at its impending publication, its publication was cancelled. Hachette wrote in a statement that ‘at HBG, we take our responsibilities with authors seriously, and do not cancel books lightly’, but ‘we are committed to offering a stimulating, supportive and open work environment for all our staff’. After ‘extensive conversations’ with their staff, the book was cancelled, and the rights returned to Allen, with the remainder of a presumably substantial advance. The book was subsequently released by the independent publisher Arcade.
It is likely that Hachette’s decision not to publish Apropos of Nothing was equally driven by their relationship with Allen’s son Ronan Farrow as by their staff’s disaffection. Farrow’s book Catch and Kill was published by the Hachette imprint Little Brown in late 2019, and dealt with the fashion in which various high-profile celebrities had sought to hide abuse allegations against them. Most of the subjects of his book – Weinstein, Bill Cosby and the former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman – had already lost their livelihoods as a result of similar campaigns, but Allen’s career had continued, seemingly unaffected.
Farrow, outraged by this, announced his disappointment that his father’s memoir would be released by his own publisher, calling it ‘wildly professional in multiple obvious directions for Hachette to behave this way’, as well as displaying ‘a lack of ethics and compassion for victims of sexual abuse’. He demanded that Allen’s story be rigorously fact checked and ended by threatening Hachette, saying ‘a publisher that would conduct itself in this way is one I can’t work with in good conscience.’ It is therefore not wildly surprising that, faced with staff in a state of mutiny and one of their star authors publicly denouncing them, Hachette decided to take the (undoubtedly considerable) financial hit and cancel publication, even as their actions set an uneasy precedent.
Many other writers have not been impressed. The reaction of Stephen King was not atypical; acknowledging that ‘it was fucking tone-deaf of Hachette to want to publish Woody Allen’s book after publishing Ronan Farrow’s’, he then went on to criticise their actions, writing ‘The Hachette decision to drop the Woody Allen book makes me very uneasy. It’s not him; I don’t give a damn about Mr Allen. It’s who gets muzzled next that worries me… If you think he’s a paedophile, don’t buy the book. Don’t go to his movies. Don’t go listen to him play jazz at the Carlyle Hotel. Vote with your wallet … In America, that’s how we do it.’
For the uninitiated, the two major allegations against Allen are that, firstly, he abandoned his long-term partner Mia Farrow in favour of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, with whom he was having an affair while in a relationship with Farrow, and secondly that he molested Farrow’s adopted daughter Dylan, who he subsequently co-adopted himself in 1991. It was then alleged that the molestation had taken place in August 1992, shortly after Farrow discovered the existence of naked photographs of Soon-Yi in Allen’s possession in early 1992. The first allegation, which soon proved to be true, was the stuff of tabloid sensation for months, but the relationship between Allen and Soon-Yi proved a lasting one. They married in 1997, and live in New York with their two adopted children. While many would view Allen’s actions as unsavoury, he committed no crime, and his career continued without blemish. Well, mostly.
Believing Dylan Farrow became a badge of solidarity, whatever the factual accuracy of her claims
The allegations of his abuse of Dylan Farrow have, however, remained a constant stain on his life and work, despite his having never been charged with any crime after a lengthy and gruelling investigation. It was in late 2017, with the birth of the Time’s Up movement, that the storm finally broke for Allen. Dylan wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times asking why her estranged father had somehow been spared by the #MeToo revolution, and numerous actors, who had been only too happy to appear in Allen’s films, made a public show of denouncing him, even in some cases ostentatiously giving their fees for their work in his films to charity. (In Apropos of Nothing, Allen caustically remarked that they may have felt able to do this because he pays relatively low wages to his all-star casts, who normally sign up for the privilege of working with him rather than great financial reward.) Yet believing Dylan Farrow became a badge of solidarity, whatever the factual accuracy of her claims.
Others have taken more nuanced positions, such as Javier Bardem, the star of Vicky Christina Barcelona, who said ‘If the legal situation ever changes [regarding Allen], then I’d change my mind. But for now I don’t agree with the public lynching that he’s been receiving, and if Woody Allen called me to work with him again, I’d be there tomorrow morning. He’s a genius.’ Allen has since made another film in Europe, Rifkin’s Festival, and may have believed that the publication of Apropos of Nothing may have given him a chance to offer his side of the story to the court of public opinion. If so, he was to be disappointed. But then, the wide variety of allegations that he makes against Mia Farrow – including suggesting that she slept naked in the same bed as Ronan until he was 11, and that she persuaded him to undertake painful operations on his legs to increase his height – means that it was inevitable that the book’s very existence would reignite one of the grimmest of all celebrity battles.
Reviews of his memoir have been cautious. Most have acknowledged Allen’s skill as a writer, with particular praise for his evocation of his childhood, and his signature wit and self-deprecation are to be found in abundance. His references to women have, however, been criticised as tone-deaf – it was not, perhaps, the wisest idea in 2020 to refer to some of his younger conquests as ‘delectable bohemian little kumquats’, or to refer to his former muse Scarlett Johansson as ‘sexually radioactive’ – and his extended attack on Farrow, to say nothing of ‘the Appropriate Police’ and the actors who he condemns as two-faced and ungrateful, have maintained his position as The Great Satan for many in the publishing and film industries. The New York Post gave the book an especially damning review, calling it ‘the most tone-deaf, disgusting, bitter, self-pitying, horrifically un-put-downable memoirs since Mein Kampf.’ It has been a bestseller in America, perhaps proving the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but no British publisher has yet acquired it. The only current legal way to read it in this country is to purchase it as an ebook.
Whatever one’s views of Allen, his memoir and his situation, it is impossible not to feel that there are currently two groups of high-profile male celebrities whose careers appear to be over, with a subtle but crucial distinction between them. In the first camp are the likes of Weinstein, Cosby and R Kelly, who have either been convicted of crimes of sexual assault or are currently incarcerated and awaiting trial for them. And in the second are people like Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, Allen and Roman Polanski, whose ignominy has resulted in a presumption of guilt (or in Polanski’s case, further guilt) that has proved catastrophic to them on a professional level. It is no longer enough to be proved guilty (or innocent) in a court of law. Instead, if enough allegations are made, a critical mass of revulsion is reached and social judgement attained.
It is hard to feel much sympathy for most of these alleged perpetrators. Allen’s book is at its weakest and most strident when it attempts to portray him as the innocent victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by the vindictive Farrow. Even his greatest admirer might have to repress a moue of distaste for his description of how he was ‘ripe for the plucking’ when he began an affair with the 21-year old Soon-Yi. Polanski’s status as a fugitive from justice for his molestation of the 13-year old Samantha Gailey has dispelled any credibility that he may have had when refuting later accusations, and the consistency of the accusations against former cohorts Spacey and Singer makes it likely that both behaved in an exploitative and unsavoury fashion with vulnerable and naïve young men.
It was probably also a mistake for Spacey to release two strange Christmas videos, in character as Frank Underwood, when he appears to refer to the allegations against him. It may have been a bizarre coincidence that no fewer than three people who alleged sexual abuse by him all died in 2019, but resurrecting a character who orchestrated the murders of his enemies was a particularly strange means of commenting upon the serendipity of his situation.
Some might be pleased but others could describe this as mob justice, where the loudest and angriest voice is the one that is heard the most clearly
Yet whether one likes any of these men or not, the truth remains that we are in an unfortunate era in our society, where the death of Kirk Douglas can be greeted by the deafening, self-righteous sound of keyboard warriors attacking him for his alleged involvement in a decades-old assault on Natalie Wood, and where high-profile books can be cancelled because of the disgust of a publisher’s employees. Some might call this a new, more democratic age, where the actions of ‘great’ men can now be held to wider accountability, while others could describe it as a crude form of mob justice, where the loudest and angriest voice is the one that is heard the most clearly.
Apropos of Nothing may be the highest profile cultural artefact that has now been cancelled – although Polanski’s latest film, An Officer and a Spy, shows few signs of being released in English-speaking countries – but it will not be the last. Once we are released from our homes, and air our opinions in public once more, there will almost certainly be new offenders pilloried in social media and beyond, more livelihoods threatened and more outrage expressed, just as there will be more tone-deaf, self-serving responses and insincere statements of regret that stop carefully short of either admission or apology. This is the brave new world that we inhabit. One only wishes for a chronicler with the wit, humanity and observational skills of Allen in his heyday to make some sense of it, because this particular tale otherwise seems fated to rattle on indefinitely, full of sound and fury but signifying very little indeed.
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