Unlearning Woody Allen
It’s a cop-out to say that the heart wants what it wants.
WOODY ALLEN deserves whatever is coming.
That would be true even if Dylan Farrow isn’t telling the truth about how he molested her when she was seven, as she has consistently and believably maintained. It would be true based on what we know for certain about his relationship with his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, with whom he began a sexual relationship at least as early as 1991, when she was 21 and had been functionally (if not legally) his adopted daughter for over a decade, and based on what we know about the lasting damage that did to Mia Farrow and her other children – one of whom, Ronan Farrow, is as responsible as anyone for the current cultural reckoning. It would be true based on Allen’s history of relationships with much younger women, including his implied dalliances with girls below the legal age of consent. And it would be true based on his stubborn refusal to seriously reckon with any of the allegations against him and the many disturbing portrayals of younger women throughout his films.
Much of Allen’s more recent work isn’t worth defending on its own merits, and for conscientious actors to work with him is increasingly untenable, which suggests dim prospects for the quality of anything he directs going forward. As of this writing, Greta Gerwig, Elliot Page, Mira Sorvino, Colin Firth, Timothée Chalamet, and a growing list of other performers have expressed regret over appearing in his films, and in some cases have pledged to donate their earnings. As A.O. Scott writes, no one needs to apologize for boycotting Allen, or for urging his banishment from the public scene.
But Allen’s best work, which includes several of the most influential films of the past few decades, can’t be easily erased. It’s not just that Allen in his prime was a brilliant director, though he was, or that he wrote memorably funny lines, though he did, or that he’s brought out career-defining performances from countless great actors and actresses, though he has. Allen’s influence runs deeper than that.
For a certain kind of person – highly educated, often living in New York, often Jewish – with certain values and tastes, Allen’s most clearly autobiographical films from the 1970s and 1980s define a lifestyle, a sensibility, and, most vexing, a script for adult relationships to follow. They are in the DNA of every significant romantic comedy of the past 40 years, and in the real lives both reflected and informed by those comedies. And for many non-observant American Jews, they form (along with Seinfeld reruns and Philip Roth novels, both topics for other essays) a kind of secular Talmud.
For some American men, the cultural role models are obvious – the athlete, the soldier, the action hero, the real estate tycoon. For others, maybe especially those of us who attended liberal arts colleges and live in trendy neighborhoods and eke out precarious creative class existences, a different set of archetypes is available. The men of critically acclaimed romantic comedies and sitcoms are our most popular fictional guides for how to behave around women. All of them owe a debt to Allen.
Maybe you are this second kind of man, or you’re friends with him, or you’ve dated him. As an archetype, he is funny and self-deprecating, intelligent and witty, neurotic and vulnerable, gentle and non-threatening, awkward and sexually frank. If he’s often rude or irritating or pretentious, he’s also genuinely interested in and engaged with women. Sometimes, the interest is motivated by kindness, empathy, and respect. Other times, it’s a mask for something more sinister.
Renouncing Woody Allen is painful for many of us not just because we enjoy his work, but because it feels like renouncing a part of ourselves. It also feels cheap, because there’s no point in renouncing him if we can’t also renounce the part of us that finds his characters relatable. We need to take a closer look at the films that taught us to be this way, and to consider what else they taught us.
MANHATTAN (1979) is a film with many virtues, from the stunning Gershwin-scored opening sequence, to the romantic encounter between Allen and Diane Keaton at the Museum of Natural History planetarium, to one of pop culture’s most eloquent defenses of Nazi-punching. It is also, not just incidentally but centrally, a film about a 42-year-old nebbishy intellectual, played by Allen, who attempts to solve his existential crisis by pursuing sex with a 17-year-old girl, Tracy, portrayed as both innocent and preternaturally wise by Mariel Hemingway.
As with many other details in Allen’s films from this period, this was based on a real relationship. When Allen was 42, he dated a 17-year-old named Stacey Nelkin (17 was and remains the legal age of consent in New York), who at least as recently as 2014 was still defending him. Nelkin, who at the time attended the competitive public magnet school Stuyvesant High (Tracy goes to the more elite private school Dalton), met Allen on the set of Annie Hall, where she was cast as the teenage object of the protagonist’s fantasies in a scene that was mercifully cut. Like Tracy, she accompanied Allen to Elaine’s and socialized with his older friends, and like Tracy, she wanted a more serious relationship than Allen was ultimately willing to offer. After ending things with her, he struck up an intimate written correspondence with a 13-year-old girl named Nancy Jo Sales, now a writer at Vanity Fair.
Watching Manhattan today, the most curious thing is not that Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, is dating a 17-year-old but that his worldly and sophisticated peers seem to have no issue with it. They think it’s funny but not disturbing, and when they meet Tracy they are charmed by her and encouraging of the relationship. It’s difficult to tell to what extent this is an accurate portrayal of how such a relationship would have been received in 1979 and to what extent this is Allen’s own self-justifying gloss.
One clue might come from Joan Didion’s withering review of Manhattan, and of the kind of people who would find it relatable, in the New York Review of Books. Didion hated the film and its pretentious, shallow characters, but she was more interested in how the relationship with Tracy reflected the older characters’ immaturity than in whether it raised serious ethical concerns:
In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, “class brains,” acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life. (The one exception is “Tracy,” the Mariel Hemingway part in Manhattan, another kind of adolescent fantasy. Tracy actually is a high-school senior, at the Dalton School, and has perfect skin, perfect wisdom, perfect sex, and no visible family. Tracy’s mother and father are covered in a single line: they are said to be in London, finding Tracy an apartment. When Tracy wants to go to JFK she calls a limo. Tracy put me in mind of an American-International Pictures executive who once advised me, by way of pointing out the absence of adult characters in AIP beach movies, that nobody ever paid $3 to see a parent.)
In 1980, Pauline Kael addressed the matter more succinctly, asking “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teen-agers as a quest for true values?”
More recently, in the context of the #MeToo movement, Ruth Franklin recounted for the New York Times Magazine how, at 16, she was made to endure the romantic overtures of her 32-year-old male mentor, who helped shape her career as a writer. He recommended she watch Manhattan, which she recalls as follows:
The parallels between our situation and this fable of romance between a divorced writer (Isaac) and a high school student (Tracy) couldn’t have been more obvious. But I was struck by the movie’s falseness. The script requires Tracy to be the ardent one, continually pressing Isaac for a commitment he won’t offer. (Indeed, midway through the film he dumps her, to his later regret, for a journalist closer to his age.) Yet Mariel Hemingway portrays Tracy as perfectly blank, her moonlike face virtually without expression, even in the most emotional scenes. The film is only about Isaac: his needs and desires. If Tracy is entertaining questions or doubts beneath the surface, we’re not privy to them.
Franklin writes that she rejected her mentor’s sexual advances, that he became resentful of her (later depicting her in a short story as “a spoiled, haughty Jewish-American princess who is the subject of crude sexual fantasies”), and that while she learned many useful things from him, she also spent much of her subsequent career haunted by self-doubt. Though she doesn’t regret the experience, she says, “I wish that he, as the adult in the room, had looked past his emotions to consider what would have been best for me, an impressionable teenager who admired him and craved his instruction and his approval, if not his affections. And I wish that my intellectual formation hadn’t had to be so inextricably entwined with a man’s assessment of my value.”
Manhattan also came up in a recent article in the Paris Review, in which Claire Dederer writes powerfully about grappling with the art of monstrous men. “I took the fucking of Soon-Yi as a terrible betrayal of me personally,” she writes, because she had so strongly identified with Allen. Upon re-watching Manhattan, Dederer hones in on the blankness of Tracy, how her character is written entirely to flatter and gratify Isaac’s self-image, to the point where she is reduced to a work of art worthy of his connoisseurship rather than a human being.
Like the great movie stars of old, she’s a face, as Isaac so famously states in his litany of reasons to go on living: “Groucho Marx and Willie Mays; those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne; the crabs at Sam Wo’s; uh, Tracy’s face.” (Watching the film for the first time in decades, I was struck by how much Isaac’s list sounded like a Facebook gratitude post.)
Allen/Isaac can get closer to that ideal world, a world that has forgotten its knowledge of death, by fucking Tracy. Because he’s Woody Allen – a great filmmaker – Tracy is allowed her say; she’s not a nitwit. “Your concerns are my concerns,” she says. “We have great sex.” This works out well for Isaac: he gets to hoover up her beautiful embodied simplicity and he’s absolved of guilt. The women in the film don’t have that advantage.
It should be acknowledged that Manhattan also includes striking depictions of adult women at the height of the women’s lib movement, including Diane Keaton as a smart, tough peer and foil for Isaac, and a cameo by Bella Abzug at an Equal Rights Amendment rally. Like all of Allen’s best work, Manhattan still works beautifully as a time capsule. But what’s being captured isn’t just what the New York of that era looked and felt like, or what New Yorkers of that era debated and kvetched about, but also what they permitted men like Allen to get away with.
LESS OBVIOUSLY TROUBLING than Manhattan and thus less critically re-examined is Allen’s most accessible, influential, and widely acclaimed film, the film that beat out Star Wars for Best Picture, 1977’s Annie Hall. Even Dederer calls it “the greatest comic film of the twentieth century […] To watch Annie Hall is to feel, for just a moment, that one belongs to humanity.” And, she adds, “I’m supposed to give it up just because Woody Allen misbehaved?”
Like many people I care about and relate to, I love this movie. I know much of it by heart and refer to it constantly. When I use a Bernie Sanders quote to bolster my case that the left should take Trump’s Russia scandal seriously, I think of Alvy Singer (Allen) producing the real Marshall McLuhan to silence a blowhard. Whenever I compare New York to Los Angeles, I remember Jeff Goldblum’s perfect one-liner “I forgot my mantra.” I’ve joked about “Dissentary” at Dissent Magazine parties. I have a Ben Shahn drawing on my bedroom wall, and I can’t write this paragraph without recalling Carol Kane’s line about how she loves being reduced to a cultural stereotype.
Annie Hall is autobiographical in its broad outlines; Allen would later say “It was a picture about me [...] My life, my thoughts, my ideas, my background.” Like Allen, Alvy grows up in the outer reaches of Brooklyn during World War II, he writes throwaway jokes for TV before succeeding in his own right as a stand-up comedian, he has two failed marriages (the first to a Jewish woman from a working-class background, played by Kane, like Allen’s real-life first wife, Harlene Rosen; the second to a richer, more high-society Jewish woman, like Allen’s real-life second wife Louise Lasser), and then he meets the title character. Diane Keaton’s life doesn’t track quite so closely with Annie Hall’s, as she grew up in Southern California rather than Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, but she shares Annie’s conservative WASP upbringing, nightclub singing gigs, and penchant for men’s clothing, among other things. The film was made in the aftermath of the real-life relationship between Allen and Keaton and is structured as an attempt to work through Woody’s/Alvy’s feelings about their breakup.
I’ve known the worst stories about Allen for years and rationalized my enjoyment of his movies, partly by insisting on separating art from artist (as if, with art this self-referential, the two can possibly be separated) and partly through my conviction that the relationship in Annie Hall is healthy, realistically depicted, and fair to both parties. Annie is no Tracy; she is a fully realized character, with a wide range of emotions and moods, a fleshed out back story, and complex, believable feelings about her relationship with Alvy. Moreover, Annie grows and changes. She begins the film as a naive, adoring Midwesterner in New York, goes through relatable good and bad experiences with Alvy, and emerges by the film’s end as someone with the confidence and worldliness to realize she’s moved beyond him, to reject his attempt to get back together, and, in a bittersweet coda that I’ve always regarded as the model of a mature reconciliation, to befriend him, just as Keaton befriended Allen.
“I realized what a terrific person she was and how much fun it was just knowing her,” Alvy says in the closing narration, which is about the best anyone can hope for after meeting an ex for lunch.
What have I learned from watching this movie again and again since middle school? Most of all, I’ve learned what a relationship is supposed to look like: two consenting adults meet cute, awkwardly banter, fall for each other, share happy memories together, fight over stupid things and make up, go on trips, meet each other’s friends and families… and then, more often than not, they outgrow each other, agree to part ways, backpedal for a time, and eventually settle into a stable friendship. I know, short of a happy marriage, this is as good as most relationships get.
But is that really what Annie Hall depicts? How could a predator who has pursued inappropriately young women and girls throughout his career with no apparent remorse have made a film that so many seemingly healthy, functioning adults find relatable, even hopeful? Only two years separate Annie Hall and Manhattan. Woody and Alvy and Isaac are all the same guy, the guy who could date Diane Keaton and Stacey Nelkin in succession.
And how old is Annie, anyway? If we assume she is meant to be Keaton, then we can pin the age gap between Annie and Alvy at 11 years, which seems about right. That makes Annie Hall, filmed in 1976, a movie about a man who is roughly 41 dating a woman who is roughly 30 – hardly an indecent gap, but a perhaps meaningful one.
It’s not just that Alvy is a decade older than Annie; he’s also better read, more established in his career, and a “real Jew” who’s spent his life in the city where a pretty shikse from Wisconsin is still getting her bearings, and he wields this authority over her. He condescends to her, pretending to make intelligent conversation while imagining what she looks like naked, pushing her to take college courses and then getting mad when she flirts with her professor, scolding her (rightly, but still) for reading the National Review, paying for her to go to therapy and then getting upset that it doesn’t improve their sex life. He blames a bad mood on her period. He encourages her to read books with the word “death” in the title. He discourages her from enjoying Los Angeles even though it makes her happier than New York. “And you know something?” Annie says after Alvy nails a stand-up performance for undergrads, “I think that I’m starting to get more of your references, too.” It’s an easy line to miss but it speaks volumes about how he treats her, as a vessel to be filled with his insights.
One of Allen’s more critical biographers, Marion Meade, claims this is all based on real experiences. “The end of Woody’s real affair with Keaton was protracted and painful,” she writes. “If he resented her therapist and teachers, she disliked his condescension, peccadilloes, and zombie moods [...] Woody continued to look back nostalgically on their romance, even though he treated her in a manner expressly designed to sabotage their romance.”
What I see more clearly as an adult than I saw as a teenager is that Annie grows but Alvy doesn’t. Annie is a stronger and more independent person at the end of the film than she was at the beginning and Alvy is still Alvy, the guy who could just as easily be Isaac pining after Tracy. We’re meant to feel good about this outcome, at least as good as it’s possible to feel about the existential joke that, according to Allen, is life.
But what was the point of their relationship? We never get Annie’s verdict, just Alvy’s smug assurance that he turned Annie into a woman who would voluntarily introduce another man to The Sorrow and the Pity. But as far as Alvy is concerned, relationships are “totally irrational and crazy and absurd... but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.” We know he’ll be okay, because he’s satisfied with how things worked out for Annie and he can always find new eggs.
EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER SEEN ANNIE HALL, you’ve seen its legacy. You’ve seen Harry mansplain relationships to Sally. You’ve seen the toxic relationship of neurotic Ross and ditzy Rachel held up as a romantic ideal worth rooting for and emulating. You’ve seen Ray (Alex Karpovsky) on Girls in his 30s dating a succession of women in their 20s, passing off his insecurity over a stalled career as some kind of wisdom. You’ve seen Louis CK, who openly worships Allen, monologue about the awkwardness of being a middle-aged man, and then you’ve read about what he subjects women to behind closed doors. You’ve seen Aziz Ansari as the performatively woke smartass comedian who “gets” women in hipster Brooklyn on Master of None, and very likely you’ve read about what his actual dating life is like.
If Allen’s legacy extends through decades of popular culture, it also extends to the consumers of that culture, and to what both men and women in certain social milieus expect of each other. Not everything we’ve gleaned is harmful, and it’s easy to see why the nerdy, sensitive male archetype appeals in a culture that tends to valorize alpha males and to devalue femininity. There are plenty of scenes in Annie Hall where Alvy is kind and compassionate, where the easy intimacy Allen and Keaton presumably shared translates to the screen. Their mid-date first kiss (the subject of a blatant homage in Good Will Hunting), the first time they say they love each other in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, the lobsters – these moments and others are as charming and romantic as any ever filmed, and they’ve no doubt informed my behavior and demeanor in the most romantic moments of my own life. Separating out Alvy’s tenderness from his self-absorption, his desire to nurture Annie from his impulse to condescend to her, his genuine intelligence from his know-it-all superiority, and figuring out how to emulate what he does right and reject what he does wrong is something I’ll probably always be working on. Certainly I’ve failed at it enough times to feel a little awkward passing judgment on Allen’s characters.
But it’s not clear Allen feels as conflicted about any of this as his many disciples might. It’s revealing to turn to some of his more significant later works, from the period when he was dating and frequently casting Mia Farrow and then in the aftermath of the Soon-Yi scandal, which dominated tabloids in the early 1990s. Films ranging from the excellent Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) or Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) to the vile Deconstructing Harry (1997) all deal with themes of moral transgression and guilt.
But guilt over what? Allen can depict adultery and he can depict murder, but he can’t depict what he’s actually accused of – rape, molestation, coercion, preying on the children of his partner. In Deconstructing Harry, he can stage a fight between a hysterical psychoanalyst (Kirstie Alley) and her passive-aggressive, sheepish husband (Allen) that seems informed by fights he had with Mia Farrow a few years earlier, except Harry stands accused of sleeping with his wife’s patient, not her daughter.
Eventually, he stopped starring in his own films, instead casting beautiful younger actors in European locales to revisit the same themes. Increasingly his films, whatever their aesthetic virtues, have become rote – he no longer has anything new or relevant to say about how people live, because he stopped pretending to care about other people around the time other people learned about Soon-Yi. Since then, critics have had to separate Allen from his art to continue admiring the latter, and at this point many are unwilling to do that.
Still, he does have his defenders, including Kate Winslet, who appears in his latest release, Wonder Wheel. “I think on some level Woody is a woman,” Winslet told the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2017. “I just think he’s very in touch with that side of himself. He understands the female characters he creates exceptionally well.” This has often been said in Allen’s defense, that he writes rich roles for women and offers the kind of thoughtful, nuanced depictions of relationships between men and women that are too rare in Hollywood movies.
Allen and Keaton are still friends. In September 2017, just a week before the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story, Allen appeared onstage at the American Film Institute to roast Keaton, who was there to receive a lifetime achievement award, before a delighted audience of fellow A-listers like Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon. Greeted by a standing ovation, he described her as “ruthlessly ambitious” and as having used him as a “stepping stone,” jokes that landed precisely because he meant them, because he has always had a knack for inverting the power dynamic between himself and the women whose careers he helped shape. As Mimi Kramer notes, he also took the opportunity to list “fellatrix” among Keaton’s accomplishments.
Even as many of these women are now abandoning Allen, Keaton stands by him. On January 29th, she tweeted “Woody Allen is my friend and I continue to believe him.” She also linked to a 1992 interview Allen gave on 60 Minutes in which he denied molesting Dylan Farrow (watch and draw your own conclusions).
I’m reminded of Leon Wieseltier, the long-time literary editor of the New Republic, whose new project was torpedoed last October following revelations from multiple former TNR staffers, including the aforementioned Ruth Franklin, that he sexually harassed women in the office over decades. Another former colleague, Michelle Cottle, wrote about how this was complicated by Wieseltier’s role as one of the few men at TNR to show any interest in women at all:
At the same time, many women longed to be in what one called “the sunlight” of Good Leon. Complicating matters, the owner of the magazine during my tenure, Martin Peretz, had a reputation as a scorching sexist (a tale for another day), and the magazine was seen as something of a boys’ club. Leon always presented himself as a champion of women, which in many cases he was...
This is what makes men like Wieseltier or Allen so insidious. Much of the male-dominated culture dismisses women entirely, but in doing so it leaves an opening for those men whose interests in women range from condescending to predatory to present themselves as sensitive. There is a sense of betrayal when men like this are exposed, and they make the task of any man attempting to be genuinely sensitive that much harder.
Events are unfolding quickly, but here are some predictions. Allen’s career is over; he will not make another significant film, and he will die a disgraced figure. Most younger audiences will never find his work relatable. Defending him will increasingly be seen as a reactionary stance. And even those of us who love his best films will find it harder and harder to watch them without wincing. But we shouldn’t be wincing at Allen. We should be wincing at ourselves, at all we’ve learned and all we’re only beginning to unlearn.
According to Allen, the culture and the women that men consume are the reasons to stay alive in a bleak and meaningless world. But there are ways to engage with both culture and with women – with people – without consuming them, and there is richer meaning to be found in this world, if we can learn to see beyond our neuroses. It’s a cop-out to say that the heart wants what it wants. We have to ask ourselves who taught the heart what it wants, and whether it’s capable of wanting something more.
Editor’s Note: This article was published in 2018, more than two years before actor Elliot Page publicly came out as trans. We have updated his name above to reflect this.