Earlier this week, Ronan Farrow wrote an essay in The Hollywood Reporter challenging the media to talk about the charges of sexual abuse that his sister, Dylan, has leveled against their father, Woody Allen. Farrow pointed out uneven handling of the story and the fact that Allen is rarely asked about the charges (charges that Allen has made it clear he won’t talk about). The reemergence of this case in the public eye — along with the Cosby accusations, and the long-simmering story of Roman Polanski’s sexual assault — brings up questions about how we relate to the people who make art in our society. The problem itself isn’t new, but it does deserve to be reevaluated as sensibilities shift and evolve.
The questions Farrow poses are important and deserve a place in our cultural conversation. So we asked three writers — Steve Bramucci, Vince Mancini, and Jenni Miller — to discuss the issue — not in hopes of finding a solution, but simply because thinking about these issues is a better alternative than staying blind to them.
I read about all of those Hollywood power players asking for leniency for Roman Polanski on Filmdrunk, and I remember it registering highly on my “this is f*cked up” meter. Because the guy drugged a 13-year-old and had forcible sex. He also had multiple accusers. So why is Whoopi Goldberg going to bat for him? How does he get Martin Scorsese in his corner after that? Is it because of all the time that’s passed? Is it some vague notion of a “different era”? Or is it connected to his immense creative talent?
Of the questions posed above, the one that seems scariest to me is the last one. Because it’s weird to think that talent makes us more forgiving of people when it comes to sexual assault. Artistic brilliance doesn’t magically balance out horrible behavior. They don’t operate on the same plane; there’s no causality between the two. I mean, the idea that artists and visionaries should be forgiven for eccentricity is timeworn, but how far does that extend? The Cosby Show was something I adored as a kid, but it hasn’t been in my purview as an adult, so I haven’t been forced to confront the issue, not really. But I think Ronan Farrow’s essay brings up interesting points about Woody Allen. He’s basically saying, “Please don’t work with this man, please don’t watch his movies.” If we’re willing to assume that Farrow’s allegations are true, I tend to agree with that line of thought.
We all have to draw lines in the sand. For me, if a person is generally bad (cursing, berating others, destroying hotel rooms), I can still enjoy their artistic output. I might not want to hang out with them, but I can enjoy their work. But when someone goes full-sinister (sexual assault, child abuse, murder), I don’t want to support the stuff they make. Besides, the information I have makes the work less enjoyable. Vicky Cristina Barcelona just doesn’t play like fun, pansexual romp anymore when I’ve got the entire Farrow/Allen backstory in my head.
It’s tough. Enjoying the work of an artist who has done terrible things is a lot more complicated for me than, say, watching a white supremacist fight MMA or domestic abusers play football. I’ve always thought it was silly when people interpret wanting to see a person get punched in the face or tackled as some kind of tacit endorsement of their personal lives. How can I enjoy the gladiator match if one of them is a bad person!? It smacks of meaningless PR that doesn’t actually accomplish anything.
That said, art isn’t sports, and I do think our enjoyment of it is a lot more closely wrapped up in the personality of the artist. The root of it comes down to the question: Are we allowed to enjoy something a rapist/molester/murderer does when he’s not raping/molesting/murdering? And, I would argue, the answer to that depends on another question: Is the art — or, more broadly, work — an attempt to profit off of the criminal acts or an attempt to atone for them?
Put it this way: I’d feel gross buying O.J. Simpson’s tell-all book about the murders. I wouldn’t feel gross working on an O.J. Simpson project building houses for poor people (should that ever become an option). Very few people are all bad or all good, no matter how much we want to pretend it’s that way. If they’re trying to do good, let them. How many good works come out of guilt, or megalomania? At a certain point, questioning motives is self-defeating.
Of course, there’s a broad swath of grey area between exploitation and atonement, and most of Woody Allen’s work seems to fall somewhere in between. I do think it’s pretty weird that guy accused of molesting one ex-wife’s kid and marrying another makes so much art about older men dating younger women. It was 41-year-old Joaquin Phoenix and 27-year-old Emma Stone (who was playing a college student) in Irrational Man (my review) and 55-year-old Colin Firth and Emma Stone in Magic in the Moonlight (my review), just to name the last two.