When Woody Allen was 20, the writer Danny Simon taught him a few rules about comedy, the most important of which was this: always trust your own judgment, because external opinion is meaningless.
Allen recounts this tale in his recently published memoir, Apropos of Nothing. That this book exists at all is proof that he still adheres to that rule. These days, Allen’s name is mud, a fact made clear by the critics, who wrote their reviews with one hand while holding their noses with the other.The New York Times’ critic wrote: “Volunteering to review [this book], in our moral climate, is akin to volunteering for the 2021 Olympic javelin-catching team.” Another publication’s headline was: “I Read Woody Allen’s Memoir So You Don’t Have To.”
There are a thousand things one could discuss with Allen: his 70 years in comedy, his 55 years of making movies. But, at this point, there is really only one thing to discuss – and he knows it. “You can ask me anything,” he tells me down the phone from his home in (of course) Manhattan. So, even though our interview is supposed to be about his latest film, A Rainy Day in New York, we spend the hour talking about the scandal that has overshadowed his career for the past 25 years and, for many, obscured it. “I assume that for the rest of my life a large number of people will think I was a predator,” he says in his still distinctive Brooklyn accent (“pred-ah-tah”).
He also knows there is nothing he can do about it: “Anything I say sounds self-serving and defensive, so it’s best if I just go my way and work,” he says. He is 84 and Rainy Day is his 48th film. He has already finished his 49th and, if it were not for the coronavirus, he would be making his 50th this summer.
The broad outlines of the scandal are now better known than most of his films. In 1992, it emerged that, aged 57, he was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, then 21, the adopted daughter of his long-term partner, Mia Farrow. During the inevitably acrimonious breakup, Farrow accused him of sexually assaulting their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan. (Allen and Farrow also have an adopted son, Moses, then 14, and a biological son, Satchel, then four, now known as Ronan, the journalist. At this point, Farrow also had six older children of her own, including Soon-Yi.) According to contemporaneous news reports, as well as accusing Allen of molesting Dylan, Farrow testified that she thought Allen might be gay and abuse Satchel.
“I thought people would see it as laughable rubbish right away and from day one I never really took it seriously,” says Allen. “I mean, it’s like being confronted with a story that I murdered six people with a machine gun.” (A source close to the Farrow family now denies Farrow feared Allen was gay or would molest Satchel, adding: “We will not be responding to ad hominem attacks on Ms Farrow or her children to support Mr Allen’s book sales or attempts to rewrite history.”)
Back in the 90s, it was Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi that was considered the big scandal. But, in the past decade, since Dylan and Ronan have spoken out publicly against their father, and Soon-Yi and Moses have defended him, attention has focused on the molestation charge. In 2014, Dylan wrote in the New York Times: “Woody Allen is a living testament to the way society fails the survivors of sexual abuse and assault.”. In a 2016 article in the Hollywood Reporter, Ronan castigated the media for giving a free pass to Allen, just because he had never been convicted: “It is not an excuse for the press to silence victims, to never interrogate allegations.” (He did not reply to a request for comment.)
There is a much greater awareness today of the prevalence of sexual abuse than there was in 1992 and the public is increasingly fearful of being on the wrong side of history; to question any woman’s story is, in the eyes of many, to be a rape apologist.
So the old allegation against Allen has been accorded more power than it ever had, especially among a generation that was barely born in the 90s. He is now routinely named – by journalists, the Farrows and the public – alongside Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, both of whom are convicted of multiple offences, their crimes going back decades. I covered the Weinstein and Cosby cases, as well as many other stories about high-profile men either convicted or accused of sexual offences: Michael Jackson, R Kelly, Jimmy Savile, Jeffrey Epstein, Larry Nassar. All of them were accused of attacking multiple victims; their pattern of predatory behaviour spanned their lifetime. Allen was accused of one instance of molestation and not only was he not convicted, but he was never even charged; photos of him in court with Farrow are from their custody battle over their children, not from a criminal trial. Why doesn’t he sue when the New York Times calls him a “monster” alongside Epstein and Weinstein?
“It doesn’t pay to sue. Do I really want to be tabloid fodder for two years and go to court? And do I really care?” he says. Given that he lays out the allegation and ensuing drama in searing detail in his memoir, I would wager he cares quite a lot these days.
The book is one heck of a read. With its funny remembrances of his past jostling up against his palpably furious recollections of the fallout from his breakup with Farrow, it is like watching a double bill of Radio Days and Kramer vs Kramer. He insists the allegation is just “a small part of the story”, but it cuts across it like an angry wound: when he describes the events of 1992, you can feel his shock; when he describes the allegation’s recent resurgence, his frustration burns off the page. He writes about “well-meaning citizens, brimming with moral indignation, only too happy to nobly take a stand on an issue they had absolutely no knowledge of” while other outsiders “rushed to outdo one another in profiles of courage. By God, they were against child molestation and were not afraid to say it.”
In March, when Ronan objected to Hachette – which published his book, Catch and Kill – publishing Allen’s memoir, Hachette caved in. Actors who worked with Allen after the original scandal but before the change in public mood – including Mira Sorvino, Greta Gerwig, Colin Firth and Rebecca Hall – expressed their deepest remorse. Those who refuse to do so – such as Larry David, Diane Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda and Scarlett Johansson – are publicly shamed. In his memoir, Allen thanks those who defend him, writing: “I assure them it’s not something they will ever be embarrassed having done.”
I ask how he feels about the actors who denounce him. “It’s silly. The actors have no idea of the facts and they latch on to some self-serving, public, safe position. Who in the world is not against child molestation?” he says. “That’s how actors and actresses are, and [denouncing me] became the fashionable thing to do, like everybody suddenly eating kale.” External opinion is meaningless.
That said, Allen makes sure to include in his book an amusingly pointed story about Timothée Chalamet, who stars in Rainy Day: “Timothée afterward publicly stated he regretted working with me and was giving the money to charity. But he swore to my sister he needed to do that as he was up for an Oscar for Call Me By Your Name, and he and his agent felt he had a better chance of winning if he denounced me, so he did.” (Chalamet’s people did not return requests for a comment.)
“You can give people the testimony by those who worked in the house,” Allen says, referring to the Farrow children’s nanny, Monica Thompson, who gave two sworn affidavits saying Mia had tried to coax her into backing the molestation charge, then said Allen “was always the better parent and all the things Farrow is saying about him are not true”.
Allen continues: “You can give them the facts over and over. But the facts don’t matter. For some reason, emotionally, it’s important for them to buy into the story.”
These are the facts: after Farrow alleged that Allen – never accused of any impropriety before or since – molested Dylan in her house in Connecticut, doctors examined her and found no physical evidence of abuse. Allen was then investigated by the Yale New Haven hospital’s sexual abuse clinic and New York City’s Child Welfare Administration. The former concluded: “It is our expert opinion that Dylan was not sexually molested by Mr Allen.” The latter, after a 14-month investigation, wrote: “No credible evidence was found that the child named in this report has been abused or maltreated.”
I assume that for the rest of my life a large number of people will think I was a predator
Dr John Leventhal, who headed the Yale New Haven report, testified that Dylan’s statements had “a rehearsed quality” and hypothesised that “she was coached or influenced by her mother”. The judge in the custody trial, Justice Elliott Wilk, dismissed this, saying in his court ruling that “there is no credible evidence to support Mr Allen’s contention that Ms Farrow coached Dylan”, while, in a 2018 TV interview, Dylan firmly denied it, saying: “My mother has only encouraged me to tell the truth.”
But Leventhal’s theory was corroborated by Moses, also in 2018, when he wrote that Farrow “brainwashed” the children, adding: “I was forced to follow my mother’s script to prove my loyalty.”
Some, including sources close to the Farrows, have alleged that Leventhal never actually interviewed Dylan and suggested that Yale New Haven’s panel – which had handled more than 1,700 cases by 1992 – and their findings should not be relied on. But, according to reports, Dylan was interviewed nine times over six months by two social workers, Jennifer Sawyer and Julia Hamilton, who were part of the team. It is possible they were given this delicate job at least partly because they, unlike Leventhal, were female and Dylan was a seven-year-old girl. For discretionary reasons, Leventhal could not comment on the case.
Many will argue that, as a wealthy white man, Allen was protected by authorities (although Allen writes in his memoir that one doctor involved in the case believed the Connecticut police were antisemitic). But assuming guilt in a person who was never charged is a morally precarious position – and to do so about a case that has long been mired in misinformation and misunderstanding bulldozes through any concept of due process.
It is almost 30 years since Allen was first accused of molestation; by this point, almost everything people think they know about the case is wrong. One popular belief is that Allen had been in therapy for “inappropriate” feelings towards Dylan since she was a baby and it has been strongly implied that these feelings were sexual. “That’s a complete and total fabrication, like a space craft landing in New York,” says Allen.
Transcripts from the custody trial back him up. Dr Susan Coates, a child psychologist who treated Satchel and evaluated Dylan, described Allen and Dylan’s relationship as “inappropriately intense”, but denied it was in any way “romantic”.
“I did not see it as sexual, but I saw it as inappropriately intense because it excluded everybody else,” Coates said. In other words, Allen was not emotionally involved with Farrow’s older children, but instead focused on Dylan, who was the first child he had raised since she was a baby, because Farrow adopted her during their relationship. Dylan’s therapist, Dr Nancy Schultz, also said she believed that Allen did not sexually abuse Dylan, while Allen’s therapist of 21 years, Dr Kathryn Prescott, testified: “There has never been any suggestion that Mr Allen was suffering from a sexual perversion/deviant sexual behaviour.”
The only person who described Allen’s behaviour towards Dylan as “sexual” was Farrow, although even she said in the custody hearing: “Sexual is not the name I used at the time … It was relentless and overpowering.” Yet just a few months before the scandal broke, she endorsed Allen’s bid to co-adopt Dylan.
The other argument often cited against Allen is that the state prosecutor Frank Maco stated he had “probable cause” to charge Allen for child molestation, but would not do so because it would be too traumatic for Dylan. Less well remembered is Maco’s other public comment on the case: “To risk the wellbeing of a child where there is evidence which points to the existence of a reasonable doubt is nothing less than to sacrifice the child on an altar of public spectacle,” he said.
I called Maco this week to ask what he meant: “I would have had to put the child on the stand and the child would have had to relate what happened, and that child could not do that in any setting – an open court, a closed court – at that point. She just couldn’t,” he told me. Yet “probable cause” has stuck to Allen in a way “reasonable doubt” has not.
I’m angry at what’s been done to Dylan and Ronan … they’ve been raised to think the worst of me
Many cite Wilk’s custody ruling as proof that Allen did something wrong, even though it was not a criminal trial. There is no question the ruling is extremely personally damning about Allen (“Wilk hated me from the moment he set eyes on me,” Allen writes in his memoir). But Wilk’s main criticism was not Allen’s relationship with Dylan – which he described as “grossly inappropriate”, but added: “The evidence suggests that it is highly unlikely he could be prosecuted for sexual abuse” – but with Soon-Yi.
In my many years of debating the Allen case with friends and colleagues, it is usually at this point, when the issues around the original accusation become too byzantine to follow, that people pivot to Soon-Yi. A relationship with a 21-year-old woman is not the same as molesting a seven-year-old girl, but the conflation of the two scandals is understandable: this saga around Allen assumed biblical proportions and his affair with Soon-Yi was the original sin.
“People are very confused about this. They think Soon-Yi was my adopted daughter, that I lived with Mia [in the same apartment as Soon-Yi], that I was married to Mia – they have all kinds of crazy thoughts,” says Allen. Yet she was, undeniably, Allen’s partner’s daughter and he had known her since she was a child (although Wilk confirmed that Allen had almost no contact with her until 1990, when she was 20). Their affair was not a legal crime, but in the eyes of many it was – and is – a moral one. As Ronan pointed out on Twitter in 2012, when Allen married Soon-Yi, he turned his own children into his siblings-in-law.
At the time, Soon-Yi was treated as both the predator (“Soon-Yi does not exist,” said her adoptive father, André Previn) and the victim: in Wilk’s custody ruling, he says that Farrow called Allen “a child molester” in July 1992 – a month before the alleged incident with Dylan – with regard to his relationship with Soon-Yi, while also “defacing” photos of her daughter. Soon-Yi has long insisted that she was far from either. She is now 49 and has been with Allen for 28 years, married for 23, and raised two daughters, Bechet, 23, and Manzie, 20. Yet the longevity of their relationship, instead of proving its validity, has acted for many as a reminder of Allen’s original transgression. The same year Allen and Farrow were in court, Jerry Seinfeld, then 38, started seeing a 17-year-old, Shoshanna Lonstein. But no one still holds that against Seinfeld, because Lonstein is no longer his girlfriend and therefore has largely been forgotten.
Allen has long since tired of justifying what he sees as a normal long-term relationship – and this weariness has not helped him, as proved by his infamous response: “The heart wants what it wants,” in a 1997 interview. (“Few if anyone realised I was simply quoting Saul Bellow quoting Emily Dickinson, not actually describing a philosophy of my own,” he writes in Apropos of Nothing. And he is right: few realised that.) But, in 1992, he had more sympathy with people’s criticisms: “The first days [after the accusation of molestation], I thought: this is completely justifiable. I’ve turned up in an affair with another woman and that other woman is her daughter,” he said in an interview with the US news programme 60 Minutes.
Is there any part of him that thinks he brought all this on himself?
“No, and I’ll tell you why,” he replies, without hesitation. “I realised [the relationship with Soon-Yi] had dramatic impact and was not usual: one could make criticisms about the rectitude of it, the appropriateness of it; I understood all of that. But these false accusations that have hurt the psychological life of Ronan and Dylan; I don’t feel for one second that I brought that on myself.”
Allen can be, at best, naive and, at worst, obtuse. Reviewers of the memoir have gleefully pulled out the comments he makes about Scarlett Johansson and Léa Seydoux’s attractiveness, while ignoring his long paeans on the talents of Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Judy Davis and many more. He writes that he has “a reputation as someone obsessed with young women. I have used the May-December ploy as a comic and romantic theme a few times, just as I have used psychoanalysis or murder or Jewish jokes, but only as good material for plots and laughs.”
This is true, but you will never guess which of these plots features in Rainy Day (clue: it is not psychoanalysis or murder). So I ask, given that he knows what people think about him, did he not consider ditching the plotline about the middle-aged director (Liev Schreiber) lusting after a college student (Elle Fanning), or declining to make a joke in his memoir about Johansson’s pheromones?
The facts don’t matter. For some reason, emotionally, it’s important for them to buy into the story
“No, I never think about that for a second,” he says. “ It’s hard enough to get a good joke for the situation. That’s what you concern yourself with. The rest is of absolutely no importance.” In other words: Allen does not think he needs to tread carefully, because he has done nothing wrong.
In his memoir, Allen’s recollections of the allegation and its fallout seethe with sadness and occasional fury. But, in conversation, he speaks about the effect that all this has had on his life and career with measured calmness. I remark on his lack of anger. “From that perspective, I’m not angry. I’m angry that I was deprived of seeing my children grow up and I’m angry at what’s been done to Dylan and Ronan. I haven’t spoken a word to the children in over 25 years and they’ve been raised to think the worst of me. So sure, I was angry about that. But, professionally, I haven’t suffered at all,” he says.
This is demonstrably untrue. Aside from the actors who won’t work with him, Amazon Studios pulled out of a four-movie deal with him (one of those movies was Rainy Day) after Allen said in a 2018 interview: “I should be the poster boy for the #MeToo movement. I’ve worked with hundreds of actresses and not a single one has ever suggested any kind of impropriety at all.” This is true: Allen has an excellent record with female actors, always giving them equal pay. Despite being one of the most closely watched men in the business, there have never even been rumours of harassment. But Amazon claimed Allen’s comment “sabotaged” the project. Allen sued and he and Amazon settled last year, but, as a result, Rainy Day does not have a US distributor.
“This plays into my poetic fantasies to be an artist whose work isn’t seen in his own country and is forced, because of injustice, to have his public abroad. Henry Miller comes to mind. DH Lawrence. James Joyce. I see myself standing amongst them defiantly. It’s about at that point my wife wakes me up and says, You’re snoring,” he writes in Apropos of Nothing.
In the past decade, he has been cut out of documentaries and boycotted by film reviewers. He is considered too riddled with scandal even for the Clintons; Hillary’s presidential campaign returned his and Soon-Yi’s donation: “We couldn’t help wondering if another fifty-four hundred would have enabled her to carry Pennsylvania, Michigan or Ohio,” he writes in the book. External opinion, it turns out, does matter.
Allen is innocent: this is according to the law and the agencies that investigated him. Dylan and Ronan believe he is guilty. It is the latter view that has led some to lobby universities to drop him from film courses, exclude his movies from film festivals and talk about him as if he were a criminal. But this attitude is immoral unless it is proved he committed a crime – and, 28 years later, no one has been able to pin so much as a parking fine on him.
Many point to his movies as evidence of wrongdoing, but it is the height of intellectual laziness to conflate film plots about older men and twentysomething women with child molestation. A 21-year-old woman is not – and this, apparently, cannot be said enough with regard to Allen – a seven-year-old girl. It is extraordinary how many people argue otherwise, claiming to do so in the name of feminism. You may not like Allen’s movies – or his marriage – but people can be complicated, even unlikable, without being criminal.
There are signs that some people are starting to realise this, and to question some of the narratives around him. Despite the pandemic, the lack of a US release and having been disowned by its star and other cast and crew members, Rainy Day is Allen’s most successful film in years. Perhaps the public simply wearied of a story that has not changed in decades. Perhaps some took the time to read the facts.
Allen says several times during our conversation that he is completely fine: he can still make movies, even if they are not shown in his own country, and Bechet and Manzie are, he says, wholly untouched by the scandal, even though they are of the generation that thinks he is Satan. “They’re great, because this has always been a total non-issue in their lives. This is because none of us here make a big deal out of it and it has not impacted them in any negative way whatsoever,” he says, proudly.
Woody Allen: ‘There are traumas in life that weaken us. That’s what has happened to me’
This is in sharp contrast to how Moses has described his childhood in the Farrow household: “[Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi] was not nearly as devastating to our family as my mother’s insistence on making this betrayal the centre of all our lives from then on.” And this, I suspect, is what lies behind Allen’s outward insistence of fine-ness: he can’t voice whatever rage he feels, because he knows all too well it would hurt those closest to him. He has already lost one set of children to this mess – he does not want to lose another.
Once upon a time, he did think, he says, that everyone would eventually come to see the allegation as false. But he is beginning to accept that many probably won’t. It will, without question, be mentioned in the first paragraph of his obituary.
“That’s the way it is and all I can do is keep my nose to the grindstone and hope that people will come to their senses at some point. But if not, not,” he says. “There are many injustices in the world far worse than this. So you live with it.”
A Rainy Day in New York is available on various streaming platforms in the UK from 5 June