The New Woody Allen Documentary Is A Nuanced Reckoning
HBO's Allen v. Farrow revisits the stories of Dylan and Mia Farrow, providing a deep deconstruction of a ’90s tabloid obsession.
Woody Allen’s 1992 split from actor Mia Farrow — and his romantic relationship with her then-21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn — became one of those monocultural ’90s scandals that the public consumed through tabloid osmosis.
The saga played out in blaring headlines on the covers of New York daily papers, in nightly newscasts, and on talk shows. The sexual abuse allegations that then-7-year-old Dylan Farrow made against Allen were not the main story; they were a subplot in the contentious breakup narrative.
People split into Team Allen or Team Farrow, treating the story like a “he said, she said” celebrity tournament. Mia — the scorned woman — had “coached” Dylan into making her allegations, Allen claimed, in an effort to attack him.
By 2014, after an adult Dylan renewed her allegations against Allen, the media barely paid attention. (The New York Times chose to publish her essay in columnist Nicholas Kristof’s blog rather than as a story in the actual paper.) Journalist Ronan Farrow (Dylan’s sibling) tweeted about her claims against Allen during a Golden Globes tribute that year, setting off something of a social media reckoning. But it wasn’t until #MeToo that actual consequences started taking place; some actors refused to work with him, and others later expressed regret at having done so. In 2018, Amazon canceled its contract with Allen.
Allen v. Farrow, the new, multi-part HBO documentary by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick dropping Sunday, joins a number of recent series critically revisiting the way ’90s media and the court system treated claims of sexual abuse. (Allen declined to participate in the series, and he denies any allegations of sexual abuse. On Sunday, Allen and Soon-Yi Previn released a statement calling the series a “hatchet job riddled with falsehoods.”). It’s a reclamation of the stories from Mia and Dylan, an examination of the court cases against Allen, and a reckoning with the gendered biases of the judiciary and media. This documentary, like other recent ones, doesn’t contextualize race in its critique of gender politics. Still, Allen v. Farrow is a nuanced example of what the revived genre can do.
The Allen/Farrow story is complex in part because it’s many stories in one: a celebrity tabloid tale, a personal melodrama, and a cultural morality play. The series’ four episodes effectively weave all these strands into a coherent indictment of Allen and the power he wielded.
The series reminds us of how Allen the writer-director-actor became a major New York celebrity, embodying the spirit of the city, through films like Manhattan and Annie Hall. It provides background on his fascination with teen girls, including interviews with a model he had a sexual relationship with when she was 16 and who inspired Mariel Hemingway’s role in Manhattan, where she plays a high school senior dating Allen’s 42-year-old character.
The documentary also covers Mia and Allen’s unconventional relationship and family (they never lived together or married), the birth of Satchel (now Ronan), and Mia’s adoption of Dylan and Moses Farrow in the ’80s.
Using intimate home videos and testimonies from family friends and household employees, Allen v. Farrow contextualizes the increasingly creepy interest that Allen took in Dylan. Babysitters and friends noticed his persistent attention to her (“Dylan was staring off into space, and Woody was in her lap,” one babysitter recalls); even a child psychiatrist in the building where the Farrows lived pointed out to Mia that his interactions with Dylan seemed inappropriate.
By 1991, Allen started counseling for his behavior with Dylan. It’s especially helpful to hear Farrow’s side, because it’s partly the story of a woman finding it hard to come to terms with the truth about a partner she loved. (In one of the most poignant scenes in the documentary, Mia apologizes to Dylan and asks if she’s angry at her for not seeing everything. No, Dylan replies, she’s thankful that she believed her.)
Mia was in her thirties, working as an actor in Allen’s movies, and the balance of power was very much on his side. Mia (and friend Carly Simon) point out how Allen chipped away at her self-esteem, weaponizing her age against her to remind her of her diminished value in the industry.
In January 1992, Mia found nude pictures Allen took of Previn in his home, and even then she was confused about what to do. When she showed the pictures to Allen’s therapist, Mia claims, he stared at them lasciviously and proclaimed, “It’s not a therapist’s job to moralize.” In telephone calls she taped between her and Allen, she sounds hopeful for a reconciliation.
It was in August, during one of Allen’s visits with Dylan, that he went missing for 20 minutes with her. Dylan claims he had taken her up to an attic and sexually assaulted her in a way that went beyond his usual infringement of her boundaries. “Do not move,” she says he told her. “I have to do this. If you stay still, then we can go to Paris.”
Finally, Mia taped Dylan’s recountings of what happened and contacted authorities. When Dylan’s allegations were about to leak, Allen went public with his affair with Previn, claiming they were in love. That chronology — of the relationship with Previn leaking before the sexual assault allegations — is what purposely turned the coverage into a tabloid affair story. “WOODY LOVES MIA’S DAUGHTER,” blared the papers. And from then on, Allen’s team of publicists and lawyers owned the narrative.
The series doesn’t just provide the personal stories behind the headlines, but it also reexamines the court cases against Allen — in Connecticut, where Farrow had a residence, and in New York — and how he presented them in the media.
A Yale New Haven Hospital investigation, ordered by the prosecutor, got hijacked by Allen. He staged a press conference to announce he’d been acquitted after somehow getting the reports, which said Dylan sounded rehearsed, before the attorney.
In fact, according to the film, social workers had interviewed Dylan nine times, which went against normal operating procedure for child sexual abuse even at the time. As she recalls: If she had been consistent in her story, they’d say she was “coached,” and if she had made changes, they’d say she was “inconsistent.” Allen, for his part, refused a polygraph. The Connecticut prosecutor believed there was probable cause but chose not to pursue it so as not to retraumatize Dylan. In New York, a social worker who interviewed Dylan said he believed her and was fired. (Reportedly, child welfare authorities faced pressure from then-mayor David Dinkins to wrap up the case.)
During the custody case in New York, Allen’s lawyers introduced the concept of “parental alienation” — coined without any actual evidence — about women weaponizing sexual assault allegations against their husbands in custody cases. Allen had powerful publicists and lawyers parroting his talking points.
Even with the media stacked on Allen’s side, the custody judge ruled against him and wondered whether he should ever be allowed visitation rights again. (Dylan herself chose never to see him again.) Yet, until the case’s resurgence during the #MeToo movement, the public had viewed Mia as an angry ex-partner, and Dylan as a “coached” child.
As this new wave of docu-series attempts to revisit tabloid moralizing and critique the way the media frames stories of women celebrities, they can’t help but reproduce some of the same problems with ’90s and aughts media cultures. It’s not an accident, for instance, that it took the Framing Britney Spears documentary to get Justin Timberlake to apologize to Janet Jackson.
And in making its case against Allen and depicting Dylan and Mia’s perspective, Allen v. Farrow lacks nuance in the representation of Moses. In a 2018 blog post, Moses, who is now a therapist, claimed that Mia had emotionally and physically abused him. His account evokes many of the stories of celebrities’ adoptive children, specifically stories of transracial adoptions.
In the docuseries, the white siblings discount and dismiss Moses’s claims of abuse and ableism. (Farrow herself has also denied the allegations.) In some ways, the docuseries’ stance is understandable because it has to deal with (and convincingly falsifies) Moses’s defense of his father regarding Dylan. But many things can be true at once.
The way the documentary flattens Moses’s claims about his own trauma by recasting it as part of the family’s rupture over Dylan’s story — and the battle between Allen and Mia — is emblematic of the ’90s media: Race is still seen as secondary to gender, particularly regarding whose innocence deserves protection.
Still, Allen v. Farrow is an overdue reckoning with Mia and Dylan’s story and the mores of an entire cultural moment. Like the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland, which starkly placed his survivors’ perspectives in the foreground, it forces us to confront uncomfortable truths. As it connects the dots, methodically and gruesomely, you’ll never see Allen the same way again.●