A few years back, I had a conversation with a friend who thought me somewhat backward for my unwillingness to go to a Roman Polanski movie. This was around the time that the notorious film director was being held in Switzerland for possible extradition to the United States, where he would finally be sentenced for his 1977 criminal conviction for child molestation. I consider Mr. Polanski to be reprehensible, and I refuse to put any money in his pocket by buying a ticket to one of his movies.
My friend agreed that Polanski was a bad guy, but he has a different perspective: “What do you know about the people who built your house, or who paved your roads? They might have been terrible people, too, but you don’t reject what they made just because the maker was a bad person.”
This conversation has come back to me in light of the open letter Dylan Farrow wrote in the New York Times, where she details her alleged sexual assault at the hands of her adopted father, Woody Allen (who was not prosecuted). Allen fired back with his own blistering rebuttal in the New York Times wherein he accuses Dylan of being brainwashed by Mia Farrow, her mother who has hated Allen since he ran off with Soon-Yi Previn, who is both Mia Farrow’s daughter and Dylan Farrow’s sister. It’s all a sordid mess, and the specifics would offend anyone with any sense of decency. I have no interest in recounting any of them here.
The only thing I’m interested in here is whether or not someone can still see a Woody Allen movie with a clear conscience.
This is not an academic exercise. Dylan Farrow named names, criticizing different movie stars for continuing to work with him. Allen recently won a Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award, and his latest movie has been nominated for three Oscars. But a musical based on his film “Bullets Over Broadway” is scheduled to open in New York in April, and ticket sales are well below expectations. Clearly, the public at large is as unsettled by Allen’s seediness as I am.
That’s not to say my friend’s argument is entirely without merit. However, the idea that filmmakers are no different from plumbers or other artisans is more persuasive when it is applied to people who have been dead for a very long time. Some of the great masterpieces of the past were produced by some really bad people, but the bad behavior has been forgotten, and the fruits of their labors are still here. History has a way of clearing the slate and allowing art to be appreciated on its own terms.
It would help, too, if Allen were making things that didn’t carry any moral weight; there’s no such thing as a “moral sidewalk” or a “moral paperweight.” But there are plenty of immoral stories, and Allen has told quite a few over the years. A large number of his films reveal the moral blindspots of the person who wrote them. For instance, in every Woody Allen film I can remember, sexual immorality, particularly adultery, is the centerpiece of the plot. The fiction itself is problematic, regardless of Allen’s real-life behavior.
But even if that weren’t the case, I find myself unable to separate the product from the producer when the producer is still very much with us. Perhaps in a couple of hundred years, that might change, and people won’t have to recall all this messiness when they watch a Woody Allen retrospective.
But for now, I’m not going to buy any tickets to anything with Woody Allen's and/or Roman Polanski’s names on them anytime soon.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.