The residents of the film world and beyond are currently shouting at one another in an indignant tone as lines are drawn and actors, pundits, and the general public decide to side either with Woody Allen or his estranged daughter Dylan Farrow over allegations that the former sexually assaulted the latter when she was seven. For a sampling of both sides of the argument I invite you to read Farrow’s open letter and Robert Weide’s defence of Allen. The situation has reached fever pitch and online discussions have reached the point where not having an opinion is seen as just as harmful as taking the wrong side.
I am not going to even attempt to touch on choosing a side in this matter. What I am going to talk about will probably seem trivial in the circumstances but after all this is an arts blog and not a place to debate who is or isn’t guilty of a crime. I hope that discussing this does not come across as ignoring the real issue at stake or seem offensive to anyone. The whole situation is a distressing one and certainly doesn’t need me weighing in and wielding an uninformed opinion. What I want to focus on is the very first sentence of Dylan Farrow’s open letter:
What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?
Farrow poses the question at the start and end of her letter in the hope that we will reconsider whether you can indeed have a favourite film if the director is indeed a sex offender. Frankly… I don’t know. What you are reading is not an opinion piece about separating a person from their work nor a passionate essay about the intrinsic link between and artist and their output. Instead I am genuinely asking what has been running through my head the past few days; can you hate an artist and still love their art?
If you read any number of comment threads tearing the reputation of Woody Allen apart then the answer is a simple “no”. For those who believe that Woody Allen sexually assaulted his infant daughter the very concept of a favourite Allen film is invalid and his entire body of work is never to be seen again. In reality Hollywood in particular has a long history of sidestepping an individual’s indecencies when their artistic merit is seen as substantially worthwhile.
Roman Polanski was a well-respected director in the 1960s and 70s and received Oscar nominations for the Mia Farrow starring Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and Chinatown in 1974. In February 1978 Polanski was to be found fleeing America having plead guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Surely his career was over at this point? A scandal of this magnitude and moral repulsiveness is not the sort of thing someone can come back from.
Three years later and Roman Polanski was nominated for his third Oscar for Best Director and since fleeing the US he has made a total of twelve films, won an Oscar, and worked with top draw actors such as Kate Winslet as little as three years ago. While Polanski is unable to ever work in Hollywood or risk inevitable arrest he continues his career as an acclaimed director. For the most part the world seems to be able to separate the man from his work and celebrate his undeniable skill as a director far apart from any acts committed in his past.
Roman Polanski is not alone in this category of artists who are vilified and celebrated in the same breath. Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s most applauded auteurs but only last year we were treated to two dramas about the directing giant. The first was the TV movie The Girl in which Hitchcock was portrayed as a predatory, vindictive, and downright abusive figure who we were encouraged to revile as much as we used to revere him. Mere months later, in the more light-hearted and fluffy cinematic release Hitchcock, Alfred is shown as a more loveable figure; one whose perversions are little more than some jolly voyeurism and nothing to get too upset about. Alfred Hitchcock films remain amongst the greatest films ever made. If he truly were a monster would this change a thing?
The Oscars are Hollywood’s biggest platform for celebrating the achievements of the English-speaking film community and it is at this ceremony that Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine could potentially win three awards next month. But if you cast your gaze further down the list of nominees you will notice that he is not the only celebrated artist with allegations sitting against their name. We have the actor questioned by police after allegedly assaulting his mother and sister, a director who was accused of groping his teenage transgender niece, and a second actor constantly surrounded by rumours of domestic assault. It doesn’t seem to matter what you are accused of, when the films you make are good enough then all is forgiven.
I myself am no different. When debating recently the various merits of Blue is the Warmest Colour the topic of the alleged mistreatment of actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux at the hands of the tyrannical director Abdellatif Kechiche arose and I found myself saying that no matter how cruelly the cast and crew were treated it didn’t take away from how beautiful the resulting film was. But was I right to say that?
Much as I want to separate the alleged actions of a film-maker from the films he makes, should I be doing this? When an artist makes a work of art in any medium they are putting a piece of themselves in it. The art is inherently linked to the artist so can you really praise one and prosecute the other? I have a confession to make: I have a great love for the films of Woody Allen but in light of the ongoing allegations I don’t know if that is OK any more.
I need answers, can you hate the artist and still love the art?