November 3, 2017
One of the most talked-about—if not beloved—characters in literature is Humbert Humbert, the long suffering protagonist of author Vladimir Nabokov’s signature work, Lolita. He’s a middle-aged man who feels the pressures of the world closing in on him, squeezing him dry of ambition, passion, even hope, until he meets the girl he’s convinced will cure him. Upon first sight of his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Humbert becomes obsessed. His fetish is visceral, emotional, and sexual. Only through her touch—given, taken, forced—can he feel “whole” again. He begs for it, pleads with her to help him, cowers when she resists, showers her with gifts, kindness, and his thwarted version of love, never stopping until she relents. Then he takes up the pursuit again, and again, and again. Humbert is drawn to be pitied, his pathetic insecurity cast as a relatable flaw. His devotion to what he sees as true and pure almost passes for charming. He is the fictional embodiment of Woody Allen.
As the media swarms around the stories of perfect-storm offenders like Harvey Weinstein, director James Toback, and photographer Terry Richardson—who have collectively harassed and assaulted at least hundreds of women over several decades—and the running tally of Hollywood predators that grows by the day, I can’t help but think of the men who have receded into the shadows, successfully veiling their history of abuse against women, and carrying on successful careers or legacies that are not merely tolerated, but universally celebrated.
Roman Polanski was charged with raping and drugging a 13-year-old girl, fled the country, and racked up four more sexual-assault accusations, including one by a woman who says he molested her when she was 10. Yet he continues to produce, direct, and receive lifetime achievement awards. Sean Connery will be remembered as James Bond, not as an admitted serial domestic abuser. Marlon Brando was accused of assaulting his co-star in Last Tango in Paris, which was confirmed by the director who orchestrated it, but his icon-of-Hollywood retrospectives tend to leave that fact out. There is video evidence of R. Kelly raping children—and many more allegations of his systemic abuse against young Black women—yet he remains an in-demand producer who has worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, and Jay Z, and is consistently given awards and celebratory praise.
Allen may be the most problematic forgotten monster of them all. He appears to be but a minnow in the sea of overgrown Hollywood pariahs, but what if he’s actually the great white shark that keeps getting away?
Humbert is a fictional character, created by Nabokov as a cautionary tale; an allegory of what can happen when a broken man sinks all of his needs into an unreliable and vulnerable target. Allen is a widely revered, four-time Academy Award–winning director famous for quipping, “The heart wants what it wants,” after marrying his stepdaughter. Allen collected eight Oscar nominations after he was very publicly accused of molesting his then-7-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow. The scandal—and the vicious custody battle that ensued—dominated headlines for nearly a year in 1992. He was never charged. In his next Oscar-nominated film, Mighty Aphrodite, Allen pursues 28-year-old Mira Sorvino, a prostitute who steals Allen’s 59-year-old heart.
Allen’s films are creepily self-autobiographical, seeming to glorify an obsession with much-younger women, pornography, and marital discord. In his upcoming untitled project, Allen romanticizes statutory rape in a very Nabokovian way. The film stars Elle Fanning as a 15-year-old (Fanning is 19) who seduces, then has a sex with middle-age Jude Law.
When people in Hollywood talk about Allen, they do so in hushed tones of awe and respect. “I’d love to make a Woody Allen film,” says just about every actor alive. Even when his past abuses are acknowledged, they are whispered about, cited a parenthetical asides that are deemed unfortunate, but not offensive enough to tarnish his reputation as a beloved artist.
Rapist! But, OMG, Blue Jasmine! Pervert! Isn’t Sean Penn simply fantastic in Sweet and Lowdown? Liar! Annie Hall is so classic.
We’ve heard this defense of art over artist ad nauseam, and it’s time to call bullshit. An artist who makes critically acclaimed cinema cannot be forgiven for failing at basic human decency.
To recap, here are the Woody Allen abuses that we know about: After filming Manhattan opposite then-17-year-old Mariel Hemingway, he stalked the actress for a year, trying to force her to come to Paris with him, going so far as to woo her parents. Her kiss with Allen in the film was her first in life. Of it she recalls, “He attacked me like I was a linebacker.”
Soon-Yi Previn was a teenager when Allen started taking nude photos of her. Allen’s partner at the time, and Previn’s adoptive mother, Mia Farrow, found out about the relationship when she discovered sexually explicit photos of her daughter at Allen’s apartment.
Dylan Farrow, legally adopted by both Mia Farrow and Allen, says she endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father—routinely putting his head in her naked lap and inhaling deeply, forcing her to lie in bed with him while he was nearly naked, stealing her away to an attic to dititally rape her. And after Farrow changed her name and moved away, Allen continued to send her letters admonishing her “lies” and begging for a reunion. In 2013, Farrow told Vanity Fair, “Nobody wants to think this legendary filmmaker is my worst nightmare. That’s what scares me, when I picture things chasing me or happening—I think it’s him after me. It’s hard to explain how terrifying that is.”
Allen consistently denies all of these accusations, and the public routinely lets him off the hook, proving for the umpteenth time why women so often choose not to report their abusers. When details of a celebrity father molesting his daughter makes headlines for more than a year, and the public chooses to embrace the abuser, what chance does a regular woman being harassed at work, hit at home, or raped on campus have for justice?
If the hundreds of accounts from victims coming forward this year teach us anything, it’s that women should be believed. These are not the types of stories you make up to blackmail someone powerful, or seek revenge for a broken family. These are tales of horror, memories that these women have lived with their entire lives.
In 2014, one month after Woody Allen was given the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, Dylan Farrow, then 28, published a powerful essay in the New York Times, which was the first time in her life that she gave her own account of Allen’s abuse. Her first paragraph points a finger at every adoring critic, film lover, and complacent member of Hollywood and the media, and reminds us that there is no expiration date on the trauma sexual abuse causes on its victims:
“What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: When I was 7 years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.”
We can't afford to merely feign casual disdain for the shy, awkward predator. That beloved goof is serial rapist Bill Cosby. That introvert is child abuser Kevin Spacey. That charming grandpa is handsy sexual assaulter George H.W. Bush. Make no mistake: A wolf in sheep's clothing is still a wolf. And that son of a bitch will rip your face right off.