Dylan Farrow posted an open letter on writer Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog Saturday, detailing the sexual abuse she says she suffered at the hand of her adopted father, Woody Allen, 22 years ago. The decision to make these alleged details public was evidently brought on by the various honors Allen and his most recent film, Blue Jasmine, have earned or are up for, including the recent lifetime-achievement award at the Golden Globes. In his column in the paper, Kristof writes that Dylan “says that when she heard of the Golden Globe award being given to Allen she curled up in a ball on her bed, crying hysterically.” Kristof too believes that “the Golden Globes sided with Allen, in effect accusing Dylan either of lying or of not mattering.”
This view was shared, and expressed, by some at the time of the Golden Globes, including Mia Farrow, who tweeted: “A woman has publicly detailed Woody Allen’s molestation of her at age 7. Golden Globe tribute showed contempt for her & all abuse survivors.” But was that what the Hollywood Foreign Press Association was doing? Siding with Allen, as Kristof writes, or showing contempt for abuse survivors, as Mia believes? Or was Allen simply being honored for his work as an artist?
The answer, of course, must be the latter. Professional awards are given for professional achievements, and indeed the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Cecil B. DeMille Award does not include a humanitarian component. Although it’s valid to feel unsettled, even deeply so, by the accusations against Allen — especially upon reading Dylan’s chilling letter in which she describes: “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” — it’s essential to separate the art from the artist not only for philosophical reasons but also for practical ones. Firstly, we can’t know the truth. Allen was never prosecuted and has denied the allegations for decades. Moreover, though, is the fact that while some celebrity offenses are made public, it’s fair to assume many are not. Chances are good that if we delved into the private lives of every single artist whose work we admire, surely we’d find plenty not to like, and even to be disgusted by. It’s possible we’d never see a movie, look at a work of art, or read a book again.
To declare Allen unfit to receive an award for his art because of Dylan’s allegations is, furthermore, to issue judgment on Allen’s particular transgression as somehow worse than any other. There are plenty of examples of celebrities behaving deplorably that have been forgotten or forgiven. Back in the ’80s, Oscar winner Sean Penn took a baseball bat to the head of then wife Madonna. Oscar nominee Josh Brolin has a well-documented history of violence. Comedian Tim Allen (busted for cocaine) has gone on to have a successful career in children’s films. Presidential bestie Jay-Z once pleaded guilty to stabbing a guy over a bootleg album. Molesting a child is awful stuff. But so is beating your wife.
In 2003, after director Roman Polanski was nominated for an Oscar for The Pianist, Samantha Geimer, who was 13 when Polanski raped her in 1977, argued, “What he does for a living and how good he is at it have nothing to do with me or what he did to me,” and she makes an important point. When we watch a film, view art or read a book, we’re doing so to be entertained and enriched. We’re not doing it as a way to issue an endorsement of the human being whose work it is. Unless we’re going to analyze the character of every single artist before we decide whether or not to celebrate his or her contributions to the field — unless we plan to do background checks on those artists whose work we’d like to take in — we need to allow Allen the separation of his personal life from his professional.
Throughout his career, Allen has made more than 70 films. He has won four Oscars and received much deserved acclaim. It’s important to remember that sexual assault happens to girls and women every day, and that their perpetrators deserve our outrage. If Allen is one of them, he deserves that outrage too. But unless we plan to judge every artistic endeavor by the human decency of its creator, his body of work does not.